In my mind, Phil Elverum is a man who needs no introduction.
I met Phil probably in 1997. I would have been four or five and he, a teenager, was recording music in K Records’ Dub Narcotic Studio, which, as it happened, was across the hall from my artist mother’s studio. As I was scurrying around the building’s dusty halls and trying to make shoes out of construction paper, Phil was recording atmospheric songs on a 16-track about landscape and longing.
In 2001, Phil released The Glow, Pt. 2, under the moniker The Microphones; when the record was reissued by K Records in 2008, Pitchfork called it Elverum’s “crowning achievement.” The sounds and images of that album, as well as those of Elverum’s more recent work — released under the name Mt. Eerie — seem to always be appearing as influences in indie rock, bedroom pop, or whatever we’re calling lo-fi, philosophically-minded music.
At the end of 2014, Phil and his wife, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, had a baby. Only months later, Geneviève was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer; she died on July 9, 2016. During the fall, Phil recorded an album called A Crow Looked at Me of stripped-down, grief-stricken songs. That album is out today on the label Phil runs, P.W. Elverum & Sun.
CYPRESS MARRS: At the very beginning of the song “My Chasm,” you sing about bringing up Geneviève in conversation: “I am a container of stories about you, and I bring you up repeatedly uninvited to. Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?”
PHIL ELVERUM: I think that song is a good starting point, too; it’s the 5th or 6th song on the album, but I’m going to play it first at shows. It’s a good introduction: it opens the door to this weird, dark thing that I’m doing.
I remember writing it after coming back from dinner at a friend’s house. I talk about her and about the difficulties and the positive things very loosely, freely. That’s what this album is — it’s me saying all the heavy stuff with no regard for other people’s sensitivity or unwillingness. It is confrontational. I don’t want to be like a little bratty teenager about it, but I do feel like there is something valuable in looking at this.
I know that your family has lived Anacortes, Washington for several generations, and you have lived there most of your life and now have a kid there. Did Geneviève’s illness, and then her death, change your sense of the town, of your family?
It’s changed it for sure, but in complicated ways. I’m planning on moving. But it’s not because of my family; if anything, it’s deepened my connection with my family. I want to move mostly because I want to start over. I want to have anonymity in a new life. I don’t want to be an echo of this trauma. I know I probably can’t run away from it, but there are triggers everywhere here for me.
I’ve always felt fortunate, to have deeper roots here: it’s unusual in the western United States for people to feel that way. And I still feel that connection, but Anacortes is changing a lot. It’s getting more crowded, like everywhere, and kind of gross — developments and stuff. The vibe in town.
Like building out, condos and stuff?
Yeah, things are getting built out. A few years ago, a piece of property needed to have the zoning changed so that they could build a big box store on it. There was a movement of townspeople flooding the city council meetings to capacity and reading speeches. I got involved with that. We stopped it, or postponed it at least, but that’s the general direction.
It’s weird to complain about, because it’s still more idyllic than most places. But having a daughter I feel like I have to become more hardcore-idealistic to create the best, most pleasant, healthy, peaceful, natural type of life that we can.
In what moments did you find time to write and record A Crow Looked at Me? On the album, your voice is gentle and your instrumentation sparse; is it so quiet because your daughter was sleeping in the other room while you were recording?
Yeah, sometimes. Some of the tracks were recorded with her sleeping 10 feet away; I had to play the guitar really quietly. I wrote the songs when she was sleeping at night, but we have a regular weekly cycle of people who take care of her for a few hours, a few days a week — the recording was mostly done in those times, in these very compressed, little, quick windows. I just didn’t have time to think about making an atmosphere. It was like, “let’s get the chords down, let’s play the guitar one time — one time’s good enough.”
Do you sing to your daughter? Do you does she like listening to you?
Yeah, I sing around her. She sings to me way more than I sing to her. She’s extremely musical. She’s a blabbermouth, and she sings originals — improvised originals on the theme of “the wheels on the bus go round and round.” But, all her own lyrics. But she likes it when I sing, and participate with her. She’s maybe not old enough to hate it, but I think that’s inevitable. I think it’s pretty natural for kids to be like DAAAAD!
At various points on the album, you make reference to the refinery that is across the bay from where you live. Could you describe like what it looks like?
When I was growing up, I used to imagine that it was a huge city out there. It’s actually two refineries right next to each other. There’s a lot of illuminated towers with smoke or steam coming out of them all the time, and big tanks, and giant boats. It’s huge industrial operation that is always visible across the water, in addition to all the beautiful islands and mountains.
I used to think of the refineries as a sort of an important reality check in a beautiful place, to not get too lost in the romance of an idealized vision. We do live in the modern-day, use gas for our cars, participate in this global reality. Being forced to look at the refineries felt necessary; I don’t feel that way anymore.
They’re not ugly. They’re kind of pretty — lights shining and some smoke, steam rising — Geneviève made a lot of art about them actually. They are just there. I’m fine with moving. That sounds nice to me, to not live next to some big oil refineries.
Also, we’re underneath the practice flight zone of a nearby naval air station, so there are always these loud military jets — a reminder that we are living in this mega-state that is at war all the time. Mostly it feels awful. Mostly it feels like being curb-stomped. It’s going to get worse too. They got more jets and are expanding the runway. I feel like running away.
In a lot of your older songs, you make these philosophical distinctions between the self and the other, emptiness, nature — has your understanding of these ideas changed?
I used to be focused on these more subtle philosophical distinctions, and then Geneviève was very sick — it felt like the world was ending. I felt like: why was I so wrapped up in that? Why did I make so many albums about these details? What a luxury that was, to be able to concern my self with that.
I used to have all these songs about Buddhist ideas of the fleetingness of life and emptiness, but then the lived experience of those things — it just hurts too badly, the actual experience is too brutal. What’s the lesson I’m supposed to be learning here? It feels like brutality and nothing else.
Was there a moment when that shift happened?
It was when Geneviève got diagnosed with cancer. It was pretty quick. It wasn’t one moment, but it was a series of medical appointments that…No, wait. It was a moment. I remember the doctor’s office; it was in Seattle. The doctor looked at the scans with us and told us conclusively. That was the moment where everything shifted.
Do you remember that appointment?
Oh, yeah. We had our baby with us, and realized afterwards that by bringing this cute baby to an appointment where the doctor had to do his already super hard job of telling a person that they have an advanced inoperable tumor that is going to kill them, was pushing his job into the impossible. It sucks what those doctors have to do, the social aspect to their work, confronting people, talking about death.
Our daughter started crying, so I had to walk out in the middle of it and bounce her up and down the hall. All the nurses knew what was happening. We were this tragedy walking around. Our daughter was really bad at being in the car, so driving home she was screaming. It was all very bad. I think Geneviève called family on the phone to give them the update. Everyone knew that we were maybe going to get this bad news.
In so many ways the song “I Can’t Believe You Actually Died” is a really great Phil song. But in the first song on A Crow Looked at Me, you say: “death is not for singing about.” I heard that as Phil attacking past Phil — “you fucking idiot.”
Yeah, exactly. “I Can’t Believe You Actually Died” is too goofy. I don’t feel goofy or playful about death, really, I guess, also don’t feel too sanctimonious about it or anything. I’m fine joking around about it, but I won’t play that song. I don’t feel that way about Geneviève dying.
I was really struck by the moment in “Toothbrush/Trash” where you sing about how the still photographs of Geneviève on the fridge have replaced the sounds of her singing on the stairs. I’m curious about whether writing and recording these songs and now playing them publicly has shaped or transformed your memory of her, or your memory of those first months after she died?
I think that is the natural flow of time, the way our minds work, the way history is made. It is a process of erasing most things, and then the randomly-selected details that don’t get erased are what we all remember. In this context it sucks, because I want to remember the full holistic picture of her. I want to remember all of the insignificant details. I think the word I used in the song is un-treasured — “the quiet, un-treasured, in-between time.” There are things that I don’t know I remember, but I do. I have the impulse to try and hold on to as much as possible, but I think that that’s futile, really. Time moves on, and we all die. Everything gets thrown away.
There are points on the record where you make like what seem like pretty explicit literary or artistic allusions. I’m thinking of you singing about the painting Soria Moria, and the line “and the fly buzzing around the room, could that possibly be you too? I let it go, out the window” which sounded a lot like Emily Dickinson to me.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
There’s this poem — “I heard a fly buzz in the room when I died.” The window is opened…
No, wow, that was accidental. I should read that.Well, you’re probably right, there are — definitely that painting. I can’t think of overt references besides that.
I thought you were pulling this image out of Dickinson and repurposing it, using someone else’s image to think about this intensely personal moment, thinking about your life through this lineage of poets, musicians, and artists, and placing your own experience into this larger context.
There are other references, actually — I get explicit about them in this essay blurb thing I wrote that comes with the LP. There are a couple of Gary Snyder references and the cover of the album is me holding a poem by Joanne Kyger. I think that to answer your question, that’s essentially what making an album is — taking these personal experiences, putting them into the artistic river that is flowing, and making them part of the record. I’m used to doing things that way. I don’t know if I feel okay about doing that with these experiences. But I’m doing it anyway.
I think that’s it. Is there anything else I should have asked you? Or that you wish people where asking you?
No, those were great questions. This is maybe my fourth interview for the album. It’s still very fresh. In the past I’ve noticed that I quickly settle in to the same way of thinking and talking about an album. It’s like what we were saying about how memories get whittled down and selected. That hasn’t happened so far with this album, and I really don’t want it to. I haven’t been thinking very much about what I will say in the interviews. I’m not preparing at all. I want it to be a vital and living thing that I’m engaging with still.
Right. Saying what a song means keeps it from also meaning or feeling other ways.
Yeah. It feels weird to be doing PR about this album at all, let alone releasing it. I am doing it because I feel proud of the songs, actually. I feel conflicted about that pride because it’s all so raw and kind of shitty. But artistically, I feel good about it, and I do want to share it with the world — not to make people feel sad, or be confrontational about making people confront their own mortality. I end up spiraling into these disclaimers because I feel conflicted about the whole project, but maybe I should stop doing that and own it.
Many of the write-ups about the singles you’ve released boil down to: “get ready to be really sad when this album comes out.” And it is a very sad album, but I had the sense that it is more true than it is sad. You’re asking to be seen, and there’s something that’s so powerful in that. And maybe for me — since I’ve met you, and Geneviève, and your daughter — it’s a little bit different. But I feel like the album forces one to have empathy for a stranger. And I think that’s so important right now.
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re very right. That’s why I’m putting this album out; it’s not to make people sad. You’re right, there’s sadness there, but that’s not what the point of it is. That’s why I didn’t call the album “Death is Real” which was the working title for so long. I didn’t want it to be that. I wanted it to be about the subtle love and the mystical aspects, too.
I got the feeling that it was your most political record. There are all these terrible things that are happening on a national or international scale, that are maybe not separate from the pain that you’re singing about; it isn’t apart from the problem of oil, of endless war, and of healthcare.
I think about that a lot and wonder what the connection is. I read the news all the time, hear the radio, look at Twitter — see what’s going on in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m on this iceberg, floating somewhere else, with my own apocalypse, and I am not participating in that, but I think that’s not true; I think I am participating in some weird deeper way. I haven’t quite figured that part out yet.