Phil Elverum has to take a moment to pause our interview. "I have to put on Pee-wee's Playhouse, give me a second," he says as he attempts to distract his young daughter. The thirty-nine-year-old musician is calling from his home in Anacortes, Washington, and, parental duties aside, he sounds in good spirits. We talk about our shared love for the Canadian singer Julie Doiron and he cracks witticisms about the lack of humor in his recent career. His music has received a massive amount of attention this year, though not for reasons anyone would want. As the creative force behind The Microphones and Mount Eerie, he has released primordial folk music for two decades, including several modern indie-folk classics like 2001's The Glow Pt 2.
Last year, Elverum's life changed when his wife, the artist Geneviève Castrée, was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Despite a worldwide outpouring of emotional and financial support, she died after a short battle. To cope, Elverum released A Crow Looked at Me in January, a stark, heartbreaking examination of his loss. Ahead of his Thursday night performance at Fletcher Opera Theater, we talked about the recent eclipse and how his grieving process has evolved.
INDY: What did you think of the eclipse?
PHIL ELVERUM: I could talk for probably half an hour about my feelings on the subject. I was actually taking a ferry during the peak. I have a bunch of friends who drove out to Oregon and did the whole thing. I think we were at eighty-five percent eclipse here in Anacortes. I was surprised to discover that I didn't care. It seems like the sort of thing I would be into. [laughs]
I think the universe is incredible. I think the sun coming up every day is so crazy. It's an idealistic stance to take, but I think there is this thing that happens where people start to obsess about freak events in nature, like an albino tree or a white deer. They look at it as a way of appreciating nature, but in reality, it is a way of separating yourself from the vastness of nature. I think there is value in the ability to stand in your yard at night and look at the stars. To look at the quote unquote boring version of the universe, and realize, Oh wait, that's actual infinite space, and really internalize that. Without an eclipse.
You achieved relative indie success in the early 2000s with The Glow Pt 2 and released a lot of records over the next fifteen years that were successful on a small independent level. How does it feel to be back in the spotlight, and do you worry that people are paying attention to the attention and not the music?
I try not to think about it too much. I'm just going with it. It's nice that it is connecting with people even though it's fucked up. It's a fucked up thing I made. I'm not engaged with the roller coaster of attention. It sounds like a cliché that a music person would say, but it's very true. I know some things are popular and some aren't. But for me, it is always whatever I'm working on at that very moment that is the best thing in the entire universe. I think it's best to push out those thoughts about how it will be heard.
What did you aim for with the songwriting on Crow? Do you feel differently about the songs than you did in January when the record came out?
Some of them I can't play anymore because they are too raw. I'm not in that same state anymore that I was when I wrote them. Time has passed and I'm still grieving, but the way I'm grieving is changing. I have a lot of new songs, maybe near an album's worth, some of which I'm playing.
I wanted the songs on Crow to be pretty, though. I wanted them to be beautiful sounding. But also direct and honest. I didn't think of them as artwork in the same way I've looked at records for the past twenty years. I also don't always make records with such a limited instrument palette. Arise Therefore by Will Oldham's Palace project was an inspiration in that regard.
Have you noticed a new audience of fans who relate and talk to you because they have suffered tragedy in their own lives?
Since January, it happens at almost every show. It's really intense. I also get a lot of letters and emails with people's horrible stories and difficult situations. I've become this magnet for that, which is... very hard. But yeah, I asked for it. I don't want to be inauthentic and shallow. It's all such legitimately heavy stuff. That's what's crazy about this. When Geneviève got cancer and died, it felt like this was the only time this had ever happened in the universe. And of course, that wasn't true. Death is universal but no one really talks about it very much. Now that I've started talking about it, it's like this flood of stories. Because death is everywhere, it's just beneath a veil.
What other creative projects are you working on right now?
I'm working on a lot of publishing projects involving my wife's artwork. She has three poetry books and at least three art books. I'm going through her archives. Every time I can get someone to watch my daughter, I run to my recording room and work on whatever I'm doing.