Phil Elverum talks latest album and the pitfalls of navigating death
“Death is real” is the first phrase that introduces Phil Elverum’s A Crow Looked at Me. What makes this album different from the rest of his work is the realness and pragmatic candidness in the face of death after having experienced it first-hand.
Elverum is a renowned musician from Anacortes, Wash., who performs under the moniker Mount Eerie. He was previously the frontman and producer for the coveted lo-fi band, The Microphones. The band reached mass acclaim with dreary and introspective music that explores themes of nature and solitude with fuzz-laden guitars and echoey reverb.
Mount Eerie’s most recent album, A Crow Looked At Me, is Elverum’s most raw and personal work yet—and rightfully so. It was released this past March, and recounts memories and feelings of grief after the passing of his wife Geneviève Castrée, a native of Loretteville, Que. Castrée died of pancreatic cancer last July.
What Elverum is best at describing is his literal and emotional environment. This is prominent in previous Mount Eerie and The Microphones work, where he contemplates his place in nature, the world and the universe. But in his new project, Elverum attempted to eliminate artistic symbolism and metaphors to construct an album that is undoubtedly a raw and honest chronicle of the aftermath of his wife’s passing. In it, he explores the grieving process that follows death and the experience of raising a daughter without her mother.
References to space, time and nature are all still prominent throughout the album—noting the passage of time since Castrée’s passing, recounting significant spaces in Elverum’s town and house that stir memories. The most significant is the event that inspired the album’s name: a crow following him and his daughter on a hike.
Elements of symbolism were not intentional. Still, the album contains poetic allusions to crows, and Elverum is aware of this. “I tried hard to eliminate symbolism, but I didn’t succeed 100 per cent,” Elverum said. He said he feels there is a mysterious, poetic beauty to being followed around the forest by a crow, indulging in the romantic and melancholic idea that it could be an embodiment of his dead wife. He wasn’t trying to make a statement—his goal was to present himself accurately as an artist and let people glimpse what death actually looks like. “Poetry, art, metaphor; these things felt stupid and self-indulgent in the context of Geneviève dying,” he said. “They seemed like small potatoes.”
However, Elverum is aware that his older work contemplated existential questions about death and one’s place in the universe. “I maybe was mostly trying to say, ‘Death is real’ to myself,” Elverum said. “[I wanted] to correct all my past years of songs where I am exploring the idea of death without really having a sense of the human experience of it.”
When writing the songs for his latest project, Elverum intended the album to be a personal documentation of experiencing death first-hand rather than art itself.
“When these songs started taking form, I had no intention of releasing them,” Elverum said. “I was just expressing myself in the way I had done for 20 years previously, refining feelings and ideas into song shapes. I was doing it only for me.”
It’s this personal stream-of-consciousness brand of lyricism that has defined Elverum’s new album, with subtler and softer guitar work instead of the fuzz and reverb-heavy noise elements in his previous work with The Microphones. “[A] limited palette of instruments is consistent for the whole album,” Elverum said about the album’s production. “Janky electric guitar, complicated piano chords, weird slow drum machine, loud sparse bass, unobtrusive music that lets the singing communicate.”
Elverum said it felt good to have an outlet to examine this experience of loss. “I was just burrowing into the experience and trying to document it,” he said. “The experience itself was, of course, extremely difficult, like the worst thing ever, but the documentation of it and the songs were not. They were joy.”
Though A Crow Looked At Me is a deeply personal work, it opens up the topic of death in an forthright way, emphasizing the importance of being true to oneself and living life to the fullest. “We’re all going to die and nobody knows when,” he said. “So fear, hesitation and restraint seem like big wastes to me now.”
Mount Eerie is currently touring the United States and Canada. He will be performing during the POP Montreal festival at the Ukrainian Federation Hall on Sept. 17.
Graphic by Zeze Le Lin