(photo: Jeff Miller)
Words by Erin Lyndal Martin
From now until the start of Noise Pop, we’ll be profiling some of our favorite artists playing the festival this year.
Phil Elverum comes to Noise Pop after his world was rocked in 2016, and issuing a world-rocking album in response. Through unimaginable loss and critical praise, he still feels really, really lucky.
Throughout most of Mount Eerie’s albums, noise and hush bask in a peaceful coexistence. For instance, Mount Eerie released two albums in 2012, Ocean Roar and Clear Moon. While the former was much louder — a splintering, metal-tinged oblation — the latter included more delicate acoustic work.
It’s not surprising that symbiosis is omnipresent in Mount Eerie’s work. Phil Elverum, the man behind the project (and formerly Microphones), says his music is centered on self-exploration. It seems natural that Elverum’s music can hold even the seeming dualities that a self can hold.
But Elverum’s world was not only shaken in 2016. The foundation of Elverum’s world shifted when wife Geneviève Elverum died of pancreatic cancer shortly after the couple welcomed a daughter. Faced with the exhaustion of her illness, the weight of his grief, and his new role as a single parent, how could Elverum make an album like any he’d made before? He wasn’t sure if he could make an album at all, but he made A Crow Looked at Me. The instrumentation and vocals are stark and sparse, forcing the listener to confront what Elverum himself is confronting.
A Crow Looked at Me is also a gorgeous document, and it’s garnered a lot of media praise. But Elverum would be the last to know that. “I know that I was selling more records because I had to re-press them and do that work. Then I was playing these bigger shows and selling more records. I knew that that was happening, but most of the year was spent being a single parent and cooking pasta and worrying about school.”
For Elverum, it has always been essential to keep a buffer between making music and dealing with its reception. Early into his musical career, he lived in Olympia, WA, “in this bubble of hippie punks where nobody had a TV or a computer or a cell phone.” Everyone was so immersed in their creative work that a certain level of disconnect was necessary. “I would go on tour and play these house shows. I would notice that more people came to the house shows, but that’s it. I didn’t know about anything that was happening on the internet or magazines or anything like that. I still more or less am that way. Whenever I get acknowledgement, it’s disorienting.”
Elverum admits that he never consciously chose to have a career in music. “It’s just happened on its own. I feel lucky that it happened. I never pursued it as a career or took it for granted that it was going to continue to work.” Elverum enjoys a lot of behind-the-scenes work like designing album artwork and pressing vinyl records himself. “I naturally have an in doing the business part of it, too. That part is fun to me. When you called, I was designing the download cards that will go in the LP. I like all the mechanics of making these things happen and releasing them and selling them. The capitalism around it,” he jokes.
“I know that I was selling more records…but most of the year was spent being a single parent and cooking pasta and worrying about school.”
Elverum’s commitment to doing what feels genuine extends to his live performances. While the size and nature of his touring band naturally affect what the audience hears, the age of Elverum’s songs does too, and you’d best not expect any covers. “It’s important to me to be authentic. So that means that I can only really play songs that are mine and that I fully believe in and feel. Which means that songs that are more than two years old I can’t really play. Or it feels horrible. It feels like a betrayal or like I’m lying to do it. I can still sing the really raw songs after Geneviève died. I still can sing those even though I’m not in the moment anymore. I can’t sing a 15-year-old song about somebody I don’t care about anymore.”
Lately, Elverum has been feeling very lucky to play the intimate venues in which he’s been performing songs from A Crow Looked at Me. He’s also been performing songs from his new album, Now Only, out March 16. Mount Eerie’s live shows have spanned a huge range, but lately A Crow Looked At Me has afforded Elverum a comfortable intimacy. “There have been periods where it’s really loud and it’s atmospheric, big, lots of musicians. Lately it’s just been about the work and communications. It’s just me and a guitar. For that type of show, I’ve been spoiled at being able to book cathedral-type venues, comfortable with seats, no opening band, so it’s just really focused. I mean, can you imagine getting that much attention for that thing you made up? Every time it happens, it feels like, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’”
Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer whose music journalism has appeared in Salon, Bandcamp, The Week, No Depression, and elsewhere.