Phil Elverum laughs often. On a Friday afternoon phone call from one coast to another, we make jokes about Donald Trump and tinfoil hats, about interviewers interrogating musicians about their influences, and about how he keeps a gong around simply because it looks pretty. He tells me stories about eccentric family members and his lack of marketing acumen with the ease and candor of someone who's simply happy to be having a conversation about music, art, or anything at all.
"I'm actually not fussy," he confesses with a soft chuckle around the halfway point of our chat. "I enjoy getting into it and talking about anything, really. It feels good."
We are, now and again, discussing A Crow Looked at Me, the new 11-song, self-made album that he's about to release under the name he's been using for the last 14 years, Mount Eerie. Elverum wrote and recorded A Crow Looked at Me late last summer, following the death of his wife and longtime collaborator and creative foil, Geneviève, last July.
In 2015, a few months after the birth of the couple's only child, doctors diagnosed her with pancreatic cancer. For years, the pair's shared life had been a whirlwind of creativity, of painting and recording and writing and reading. After her diagnosis, it became, as Elverum puts it, a whirlwind of looking for remedies and trying to understand and raising their daughter. Elverum decided he may be done with music altogether, though it was the way he'd related to the larger world from his longtime home in tiny Anacortes, Washington, since he was a kid.
In part, that's what makes A Crow Looked at Me so stirring: Released just more than six months after Geneviève's death, it is an unmitigated and unflinching examination of grief and an unapologetic statement of anxiety for the future. It asks the hardest questions many of us will ever face and quietly, resolutely admits that there may be no satisfactory answer. For some, it will be a work of great recognition and understanding, a transmission from someone who has stared into the same broken mirror and come back to talk about it; for others, it is a necessary lesson in empathy, a chance to understand pain that seems beyond our relatively innocent imagination.
I spoke to Elverum from his longtime home in Anacortes, Washington on what he described as a classic Pacific Northwest day—"a flat gray sky, not with actual rain, but it could happen any minute." We began by talking about the exotic allure of the most isolated places in that corner of the country and, further north, in Canada. Much later, we returned to the same topic and how, in a world that can sometimes feel like it's falling apart before our eyes, there's always a way out.
Noisey: You're in Anacortes today, which is where you grew up and where you've been for most of your life. Why are you so drawn to stay there?
Phil Elverum: I don't know, exactly. My family has been here for a lot of generations, so that feels special, but only theoretically. On a day-to-day emotional level, it doesn't factor in so much. But it's the way that the world makes sense to me. I am planning on moving. It is getting too busy here for my taste. I prefer a more rural existence, so I'm moving [to an island] further out.
When you were a child in Anacortes, did you go through that inevitable phase of wanting to leave town?
Not in the way it was for every single other person in my high school. All of their ambitions were about getting out of town. Growing up here, the consensus—and maybe it's like that almost everywhere—was people think that where they are growing up is the worst place ever, so boring. Everyone couldn't wait to move. But I never felt that extreme about it. I knew I was going to move, because I wanted to, but I knew I would return.
You made music and art from such a young age, and that's, in some way, a method for building your own universe, where anything can happen. Do you think that made Anacortes more interesting for you?
That's exactly it. I remember feeling that way in high school. Hearing my classmates talk about, "Oh, it's so boring. Nothing ever happens," I just couldn't identify with that, because my friends and I were so busy with our cool projects like putting on shows, playing in bands, making tapes, recording, constantly doing crazy stuff, creating our own excitement. That's why it didn't seem boring here. It made me realize that it I could do that anywhere. Location doesn't matter so much.
Do you know where Dawson City is? That was one of the places Geneviève were going to move. We thought about it a lot. We were definitely drawn toward hyper-extreme remoteness. We only stayed in Anacortes because we couldn't decide which of the crazy extreme remote places we wanted to move to. Probably, we would have gotten there and realized that the fantasy is different than the reality, but we were both drawn to wanting to try. Once we had a baby, we recognized that that's not a good thing to do to a kid.
For you and Geneviève, what was the allure of that remoteness? Was it the chance to create your own world to an even greater extent, to build something almost from scratch?
Totally. At least, that's the fantasy: If you put yourself on a desert island with your drawing equipment, you can just do nothing but draw. It's like the cliché of people wanting to go to prison so they can read all their books.
I have this great aunt I grew up with, my mom's aunt from Anacortes. She settled in this crazy place that I mention on my record, called Haida Gwaii. It used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands, out in the North Pacific off the coast of northern British Columbia. It's really raw, really remote, really inaccessible. In the 60s, my great aunt and her husband settled there and built a driftwood cabin and basically had this Swiss Family Robinson existence and wrote books. She was always in my head as this romantic idea, but also they really did it.
When Geneviève and I would fantasize about that, we were informed by this family member of mine just as proof it is possible to do it. There's the idea of going there and being in love with your person and being satisfied by just a few things. You have your person with you and you do your projects and send them in the mail on the mail boat back to the rest of the world.
You've had a studio to yourself in Anacortes for years now, but you made this record at home, with very little equipment. Does that make the prospect of moving somewhere even smaller seem more manageable now, knowing that you can still work that way?
It was a real breakthrough to make this record and realize that I don't need anything. I don't need this big stuff. If I wanted to make big, bombastic, distorted, echo-y, trippy music, the atmospheric stuff, a studio is nice. But it's nice to know that it's not necessary.
What gear from the studio would you keep, though?
I have this very large gong I got a few years ago, so I'm keeping that not because I want to use it a lot in the future but just because it's nice to have around. It looks beautiful. But if you're asking about what kind of music I might make in the future, I really don't know. I feel like I might never make music again, honestly. I probably will, because of habit and momentum. I keep on doing it, but I don't have any big ambitions about music now. I feel highly questioning about the function and importance of music.
When I first heard a song from this album and the news that it was coming out in March, I was surprised. It felt fast, at least faster than most people might expect. Were you surprised by how quickly after Geneviève's death you started recording?
It is really fast after she died, and I thought a lot about that. Is it indecent to reenter the world like this? Is it wrong of me to do it this way? But I also felt really pushed. I called all the pressing plants for vinyl to figure out which one could make it the fastest. I just wanted to get it out as fast as possible, because I knew the feelings were prickly and raw and fresh. I wanted to package them up and get them out of me and get them away. But now they're not away. Now I'm going to talk about them and sing them as I go on tour.
I definitely was in a period of thinking that maybe I'm not making music again. For the last couple years, I felt that way. And then Geneviève died last July. It was almost instant that it started changing in my mind, my openness to the idea. After she died I went on this trip with our daughter up to that place, Haida Gwaii, those islands in B.C. I was just driving and riding on the ferry in these remote places, alone with my thoughts and my fussy kid. I was just chewing on these ideas and processing it all, and it started coming out in the form of more refined words that were going into my notebook. It started to feel less crude to express myself in that way.
"They're not away," you said of the songs and thoughts. How much did you contemplate the circumstances for releasing this record and perhaps doing it in a way where you don't have to talk about these songs so much?
A lot. My initial stance was to just not do anything—just manufacture the record and quietly put them for sale on my website. But then, as the record was getting finished, I felt too proud of it to do that, honestly. I felt like it was good. I felt like I wanted people to hear it, as many as possible. As an artist, maybe my ego got the better of me. I just felt proud of this thing in a weird way. I made the decision to get a publicist, but we talked about it a lot, about what the proper approach would be. We're being way more selective, and everyone has been so intelligent and understanding. It's not the usual press campaign.
You mentioned the idea of just putting the songs out, not drawing attention to it or yourself. Having gone the other route, though, do you worry about folks who will be cynical or negative about these songs, simply because that's their presence on the Internet?
Like trolls? Honestly, I haven't thought about it that much, maybe naively. I know that we live in those times, but I've been hoping that people are decent enough to recognize… It's stupid of me, I realize as I say it. I've been reading these articles about trolling and Trump and the reality of our situation, socially. Nobody is exempt. If anything, I'm more vulnerable now because I'm putting my difficult circumstances out there. I'm like a flag, like bait for those types of maniacs.
Speaking of Trump, "Crow," the last song on Real Death, came out on an ACLU benefit compilation in January. It was perhaps the first song I heard that addressed his election in such a personal, poignant way. Why did you feel the need to do that here?
It wasn't going to be on my record. My record was finished in October sometime—the songwriting, at least. It was going to be ten songs, and it was going to end with "Soria Moria." But then the election happened, and it felt like, "Oh, the world that we live in is not the world that just was." It was a big shift outside of my household. I had already felt like my album was about a huge shift in the universe, but just within my household. Geneviève dying was a border between two completely different universes. The election also felt that way outside the house. If it didn't acknowledge that shift, it would be irrelevant in some way.
"Crow" details such a specific scene, where you and your daughter are hiking through the woods on this gray November day. And then you see this crow. What did it mean to you?
We were on this walk, just the two of us. It was almost winter. The seasons felt very different from the seasons that exist on the album. I was thinking about my daughter and the election and the feeling that truly the world was ending. The apocalypse, fascism rising: Every insane thing was coming true. We live next to this air force base, so there are these really loud military jets all the time. They were circling low. It just felt oppressive, like a curb stomp just to wake up every morning. The world felt fucked up and oppressive and apocalyptic, in both a geopolitical and personal sense. But I was walking, and we had this magical, quiet, transcendent moment. I wanted that to be the point of this record. I didn't want the point to be confronting people about mortality. It's that as well, but I wanted the punctuation mark to be this other aspect, which is that Geneviève is still among us in a way. I'm not a spiritual person. I know she's dead, and she's gone. But there's still a sort of magic. A crow did look at us. A crow was following us around in the woods. It felt too spooky and special to ignore.
Before Geneviève died in July, the political situation seemed more hopeful, at least. We were nominating a woman for president, after all. Did you two talk about that? Did she find hope in that?
Before she got sick, she was very engaged—compulsively reading and listening to the news, wrapped up in the minutiae. But when she got sick, she didn't focus on it. In fact, she kind of blamed her earlier engagement. She blamed cancer on that. She couldn't accept the fact that there is no explanation for cancer. It's not something she did. She just was compulsively finding ways to blame her past activities, so she disowned a lot of her earlier traits. Among those was her engagement with the news and negativity in any form. She got wrapped up in positive thinking, but a too extreme way, too rainbow-y or too unicorn-y. It was difficult to live with this person being transformed. The campaign wasn't really part of her world. She knew what was going on, but it was small potatoes. She was just trying to live.
At this point, how do you balance that personal grief with political grief, or anxiety for your daughter and yourself with anxiety for the rest of the world?
I consume the news daily. I'm not avoiding it. But I'm also not riding the waves of emotion like some of my friends that are engaged in a way where it affects how they're doing that day. Maybe it's just the effect of being a single parent to a two-year-old: I can't afford to get wrapped up in stuff. I have to do the work of being a parent. But I feel blank and terrified about the future. I think that's maybe part of why I want to move further away from the United States. This island is technically a part of the United States, but it doesn't feel that way. I want to create a life that is just healthy and peaceful—an enclave, really, of retreat. It's not helpful for the big picture. It's totally selfish to run away like that. And you can't run away from these problems. They're global.
Before Geneviève got sick, I was very much on the side of thinking it was irresponsible or too selfish to run away or to go into too hippy of an existence. But then she got sick and died, and I felt like the proximity of our own death is so close, so much closer than we know. I don't want to waste any more time banging my head against a brick wall. I also recognize the cowardliness in the surrender, because, yeah, assholes will take power and ruin the world quicker. But I have this two-year-old daughter, and I want her life to be as peaceful and healthy as possible.
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