"On some level it's kind of exposing, having people ask me questions about those subjects, but the part that worries me more is that the record feels really close to me. The more I get asked these particular questions about my relationship, or my grandfather, or the trajectory of my band…I'm worried that it all just becomes a story. It stops being something I feel and just starts being something I say."
For the past fifteen minutes I've been drilling Will Sheff, lead singer and frontman behind indie-rock act Okkervil River, about his new album Away. Away is Okkervil's eighth record, and the band's most personal album in an extremely personal discography. It was written during a period of extreme transition for Sheff. Over the last two years the singer saw his backing band dissolve, his relationship fall apart, and the slow death of his grandfather, who Sheff had considered an idol.
To deal with the personal and professional struggle, Sheff spent months in the Catskills, taking up residence in an empty house that belonged to a friend and getting some much-needed space. There the singer consumed massive amounts of hallucinogens and began questioning his next steps. He penned Away's lyrics as a form of therapy and has described the record as a death story for his former life. The album digs deep into Sheff's story, and through the writer's brilliant lyrics there isn't a lot left on the table. I'm sure if I listened to Away closely enough the answers to my interview questions are all there, but that's not how interviews work."I'm grateful people want to talk at all," explains Sheff. "But what I'm trying to get at is a feeling. I want to share that feeling, and talking about it isn't always the best way."
Over the course of our conversation, Sheff considers his answers carefully. He takes long pauses then rambles. As he talks I can't tell if he's thinking really hard, he's stoned, or if he's just tired after playing an excellent set at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival. He checks in to make sure that I understand. He's really adamant that he's being understood. You can read our conversation below.
Noisey: You wrote your own press release for the new album Away, where you documented the personal struggles that were happening when you wrote the record. In the release you mentioned relationship issues, how most members of Okkervil River had left the band, and the death of your grandfather. The interviews you've done for Away have talked a lot about those subjects. Is it difficult sharing that information with strangers?
Will Sheff: I mean, it feels weird. When we were getting ready to release the record my manager, who's a really good friend, suggested that we skip hiring a writer to write a bio. He said I should just write a page saying what the record was for me. It seemed like the simplest, best, thing to do. It felt honest. When I wrote it, I wasn't trying to make anything pretty. I was trying to make it really simple. It's the same way I approached writing the record. I wanted to get what was inside of my head out. What's kind of funny is that…it was all very true, and unmediated. I guess there is a sense of putting yourself out into the world with something like that.
They used to have this theory that memories are stored in your brain, and you could just trigger them at will. But that's not true. Every time we pull up a memory we are re-synthesizing that memory. We're reenacting it with our mind. Every time you do it, it becomes a little less real. It becomes more abstract. Less like a thing you remember and more like a story you tell. That worries me. That being straight and honest will become just another script. I don't want to lose how real this album or those feelings are to me. I'm afraid of it all becoming a story.
Do you get the same feeling about playing the same songs over and over or repeatedly traveling to the same cities?
I was having a conversation with our drummer about what makes a good show and what makes a bad show. I've come to the conclusion that at base it's the audience, if the audience is good then you're going to play a good show, but if the club sucks then the audience will suck too. If they can't see, if somebody treats them badly. The audience shows up to have a good time and all that can happen is that can be taken away from them by various things. You have to connect to something bigger. It's like Lee's Palace. [The venue Okkervil River were playing that night] The funny thing about this place is that it's kind of a dump, but it's really a good place to play. It's a fun room. There is something about it. So there is something that isn't accounted for in my math. When something has soul, I guess? That makes all the difference. It has to have soul. It needs to feel real and that's hard to do if you're just repeating the same things over and over. Capturing a moment can be hard.
Away has been a critical success, but the material on the album draws from personal turmoil. I've been a fan of your work for a long time, but what drew me to the band was your more melancholy songs. What is it like having your success linked up to your struggle?
I don't think of my work as melancholy. There is an artist like Morrissey. That's what people like about him. It's music for people to feel sad to. But I feel like the type of sadness you get out of Morrissey is this romantic, clove cigarette, sadness. I hope what I manage to do in my work is try and help people with sadness. I want to help people in general.
There are different ways to do that. Sometimes it can be as simple as writing a really catchy melody, or something you could dance to. I wasn't given that skill set. I wasn't gifted with the ability to write a killer part jam but…I try and help people with working through things. I'm always thinking about stuff in songs. People get uncomfortable with thinking about things that are scary, so they'll immediately contextualize it sad. But if we can really look at those things, maybe we can find something else there. My music can acknowledge that something is scary or difficult, but once we've said that, what else is there to say? What's left? I hope that what I do allows other people to process.
You've talked about how creating this album was therapy for you. You also just mentioned how you hope your work helps people. Where do those ideas link up for you?
There is a really close relationship between therapy and helping other people. God, today I'm talking a lot about brain science and I'm worried about sounding ignorant…but there is this study I read about how when you do nice things for people it's associated with positive changes in your brain. It reduces inflammation. When you do nice things for people you feel good, and you'll notice if you've done any charity work or just tried to help people out, that those are the days you feel less depressed. It's about connection.
I think how this relates to me…I had a pretty heavy experience the other day. I was pacing around on this property. I had taken a really large amount of mushrooms and I was talking through shit to myself. Elaborately. I started recording it on my phone so that I could listen back to it. I was saying that I'm a musician. I'm not a doctor. I'm not a teacher. I'm not helping people escape from burning buildings. I play songs and get interviewed. You know what I mean? I asked: am I just a leech? Am I contributing anything?
I feel like I'm gifted at what I do, but I'm not always sure what it adds up to. I had those moments where I realized that it's my job in society to make things pretty. I need to make things pretty nice. There are a million roles for people. There have always been millions of roles for people, even when you look at tribal societies. There were people who got the food. There were people who prepared it. And then there were people who told stories. They explained things and helped people understand. That's my role. That's what I'm supposed to do. That makes life less shitty and painful. Maybe it's all just a rationalization, but it's the way I feel better about how fucking little I contribute to society.
When you're writing who are you writing for?
I think I'm writing for God.
What does that mean?
I don't know. It's some combination of an imaginary audience that doesn't exist and a celestial presence. Music has felt like a really divine presence in my life. It rescued me from being a kid getting picked on and feeling not special. It rescued me from having to have a day job. It rescued me from having to give up my dreams. I'm writing to music and to nature. I'm trying really hard to write to that. I'm trying to write as honestly as I can. I want to be honest without anything in the way.
For a long time, your record Black Sheep Boy had been considered the pinnacle of your career. A lot of press is now saying how Away might top it. How does that feel?
I think about Black Sheep Boy, and I think it did a really good job with that record. I'm proud of it. You don't often get to make something that means a lot to people personally, let alone get to do that on more than one time. It's an honour. I'm really grateful. I'm grateful I get to do this at all.
Graham Isador is on Twitter - @presgang
Photos by Stephen McGill.