Down Time: Angel Olsen on Turning to History and Surrealism

Down Time: Angel Olsen on Turning to History and Surrealism
Photo:Cameron McCool

Down Time is a Jezebel series in which we ask our favorite artists and authors what art, books, and activities they’re turning to in this moment of isolation and uncertainty. Musician Angel Olsen spoke to Jezebel about returning to favorite books and seeking historical perspective.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When I was 17 I spent a good chunk of my time studying women surrealists out of my own interest. I’ve collected several books on Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. That whole circle of women, people just kind of ignored them. [People] talk about Frida Kahlo a lot but it feels like there are a lot of women artists in that genre who were overlooked. I have a bunch of books on them, some of which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet; Carrington: A Life by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, The Lives of Lee Miller by Antony Penrose, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, I’ve had that one for probably a decade. I’m really looking forward to diving back into that time because I didn’t know that it would be [a] sort of opening. It was like I read one book and then just kept reading about [them] and it’s affected my life, the way I think about characters, the way that I write.

Then there’s this other book that I’ve been picking up and putting down and I think it’s pretty relevant right now, A Little History of the World. It’s been available for a long time, but it’s separated into very concise chapters about history as we know it. It’s like your grandfather is reading to you before bed. It’s really smart and it gives you a bigger perspective on everything that feels like it’s affecting us for the first time. As it turns out, we weren’t always people who had a cure for everything.

I feel like this is a time to be reflective and grateful for the small things in our lives. I think it’s also a really powerful moment that we’re all in, everybody in the world is thinking about the same thing. Energetically, when has that happened? When was the last time that that happened? We’re so far advanced [from] how we were in 1918, but now it’s this time where a lot is revealed about how corrupt the government is and how it’s always been that way. The tests for the coronavirus [in Asheville] are, I think, $250 if you don’t have insurance. That test should be free for the sake of everyone. And why should that be free? Let’s go back to the beginning of free health care.

Right now, I’m just trying to grab different things to inspire me. But it’s hard to be inspired. It’s hard to want to write anything with what’s going on right now. When I write music, it goes in a cycle. By the time I’m in the festival season of a record, I’m writing new songs again—I’m not going to write songs in the first two months of touring a record. But I’ll go through periods where I’m just watching films or I’m just reading about one particular artist or I obsess over a specific style of guitar playing. I don’t want to do anything else but little exercises that improve my brain, you know? These little things, obsessing over different exercises, [is] a way to get my mind to think differently. Sometimes you need to do something that has nothing to do with writing itself to create those doors and to create those changes.

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