Angel Olsen: "The Future Is Listening"

The singer writes about finding community in unexpected places.

Welcome to NYLON's Election Diaries, a new series of political op-eds. Leading up to the 2020 Presidential Election, we're asking some of our favorite voices in music, fashion, and pop culture to write down their thoughts leading up to this monumental day, including their hopes, fears, and everything in-between. Up first, Angel Olsen gets abstract about the future.

I don’t remember when it was that they came — or why. I drew the bath one morning this summer and they were everywhere, going in and out of the tiny cracks in the subway tile. I looked at the window, I looked at the floor, I wondered about the leaves in my gutters.

Ants.

The ants have since moved on. But during their brief stay I remember having a vivid dream about them taking over my life. In my dream these ants were now colonizing my entire home. I remember feeling excited for them, ready to learn and share the space, willing to make myself small. I woke up feeling rested, happy. I know it’s difficult to believe but somehow in this dream I had been on their side —

In reality I would prefer that these ants, however welcome, would respect those personal places: my bathroom, my kitchen, my bed.

Those sacred spaces that we all need to protect from outsiders.

I keep thinking if there were only a way to tell them, “Hey, over here is a good spot! Plenty of water, plenty of food, right outside the house. Everyone's happy!” Or “It’s cool that you’re in the bathtub now, but I’m going to need it later, so if we could figure out some sort of schedule, happy to oblige..." I woke up and spent the day learning about ants and how they live, how they work together, and what they are telling us about ourselves, simply through the example of how they live on the earth.

Baths.

The earliest written information about herbal bathing dates somewhere back to 1500 B.C.E. Assyrians and Hebrews, Babylonians, and Ancient Egyptians widely applied themselves to the practice of herbal bathing for medicinal and hygienic purposes.

I have to admit I’ve never been someone to take the time out of my evening for a long, indulgent bath.

The truth of the matter is that I wouldn’t have noticed the ants, I wouldn’t have been taking a bath, if it hadn’t been for you.

You came into my home and you regularly took the time for yourself, to wait for the water to run, to read, to pause, to bathe. You bought epsom salts, you liberated herbs and tinctures.

We displayed our oils and perfumes and candles and incense on tables next to each other. We combined smells and concoctions. We were lovers of potions, words, dreams, songs. Now, here I was, with these ants, dreaming that they had taken over my entire life.

Wreckage.

I have spent so much time articulating my troubles, making songs of them, creating mantras in order to almost reflect a way to the other side of heartbreak. However sonically dramatic, however clever the phrase

— For me —

it has been like some lifelong experiment to try and find a language for those small things that hold us together and also potentially wreck us.

To find a place for wreckage, to be aware of it, to embrace it, to laugh at it, to let that thing be what it was, and to learn to become separate. A kind of grief-exercise.

A death obsession, for the sake of new life that follows when it comes to great loss.

Laurie Anderson once said, “I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

In my deepest sorrow, I have also learned to embrace my deepest love. It’s been worth it to lose, you see. To keep losing has been an incredible gift in my life. I don’t ask for it, it just happens. Losing will always happen, it's the most natural cycle of life. The more I have made myself aware of that, the more hilarious my life has become.

Shelter.

Recently I had a photo shoot scheduled for the promotion of my new record, Whole New Mess. I put on a big-shouldered suit jacket and tossed my hair up, painted my face with eyeliner; I packed hairspray, face wipes, concealer, a hand mirror, and some alternative clothing in two bags and drove to the park where we were meeting.

It happened to be a very hot July day during this photo shoot, and though I had prepared for the part of it all

— I have to tell you —

it was the last thing I wanted to be doing with my life, during a breakup, during a pandemic, during a revolution.

Here I was trying to make myself look interesting, while trusting someone I barely knew to capture anything relevant about me during this time.

It was uncomfortable not because I hadn’t done this before. But because it is always uncomfortable to trust anyone, let alone someone with a camera.

Here we both were, posing, sighing,

posing, sighing, looking away, looking at the camera, looking up to the sky, the heat making me look how I felt; tired, old, older, squinting at the sun.

And then we stopped because a young woman about my age walked up to us and interrupted to ask if we had seen her partner.

We froze. Camera down. The photographer and her assistant looked at each other and me. We stopped.

The stranger then fell to her knees in the grass and started to cry. We listened without interruption as she told us how she was worried her partner had committed suicide.

Then she said she wanted to jump off the bridge and how she was likely to, had he not disappeared first.

Suddenly I could hear it. It was small, and in fact I don’t know if it was sound I was hearing. It was more of a kind of memory-hearing, somewhat dreamlike.

I think that what I heard was very real, and it struck me deeply because I recognized it in myself. I always have to try and listen to it. It gets lost so easily this sound...

And yet it is always present, it is always with you... a strange, tiny voice... the kind you have when you are still a child.

And the voice was saying to me, to us, in the park, on the oppressively hot July day, during a pandemic, and the breakup, and the things you left behind, when the world was moving on and adapting without acknowledging the wreckage, and leaving us with ourselves, the way it always does,

In a moment

revolutionary,

Looking at us with wide, direct, horror

It said:

“My own body is no longer a safe place for shelter.”

Community.

It’s difficult to summarize a feeling.

These moments that happened when I was heartbroken, speechless, sleep-deprived... They were also days of being open and seeing, listening because I was finally able to hear it, and sleepless because I was too excited about all the beauty I had been seeing hearing and experiencing, that I simply couldn’t sleep on it.

The park day is just one of many days that reminded me how some losses are laughable and some are not. It was a grounding, necessary moment for me.

When we learn to protect a stranger, even from harming themselves, when we can view that experience as part of our own healing, then we can begin to have community and shelter with one another. Anything in our community, in the nation, in the world, anything that doesn’t make time for that is violence against others and against ourselves.

I arrived, dressed for a photo shoot but I left realizing something that I am especially trying to keep in mind at this moment — the exercise of being present, no matter what you've planned to show up for — this is something to practice at all times. And while you are busy fulfilling your errands, plans, dreams, know this: There is always something more to be seen if you choose to notice and engage with the world.

Angel Olsen's new album Whole New Mess is out now.