Phil Elverum On Life, Death, And Meaninglessness

The Mount Eerie singer-songwriter discusses his new album, ‘A Crow Looked at Me’

A Crow Looked at Me, the new album from Phil Elverum as Mount Eerie, is not like any album he has ever made, nor is it like any album you have heard. Writing about it in any normal critical sense can feel futile. What more is there to say about a record that begins with the statement, “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not”? Just witnessing those words feels like more than you are owed.

Over the last two decades, Elverum has built an expansive, self-sufficient world of sound from his remote corner of the Pacific Northwest — first as The Microphones, part of Olympia’s K Records community in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and later as Mount Eerie, recording and releasing through his own P.W. Elverum & Sun label. These years of experimental work feel like a lifelong journey seeking clarity in the noise of the world.

Elverum's new album describes, in painful detail that is both blunt and precise, the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée — a talented artist and musician, and the mother of their daughter, who is now just over 2 years old. Castrée was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer shortly after their daughter was born, and she died last July. He recorded the album in the room where she died, using her instruments to play simple, functional chords. Each song is explicitly time-stamped as part of an unwelcome timeline that begins the day she dies: “Our daughter is one-and-a-half / You have been dead 11 days.”

It's tempting to say that this album is very hard to listen to, but actually, the fucked-up thing is that it isn’t. It’s beautiful. Elverum sings in raw, unambiguous, gut-wrenching poetry, even as he rejects the possibility of any of this being art. The mind reels imagining what it is like to relinquish something like this to the world.

I spoke to Elverum on the phone earlier this month, from his home in Anacortes, Washington. I was pretty sure he would decline my interview request, but he didn't. "I'm pretty open," he said when he picked up. "You don't have to worry."

[This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.]

MTV News: One of the first things you hear on the album is, “When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb.” Throughout, there is a lot of looking at things that seem like they might be symbols or messages, followed by this whiplash. It almost sounds like embarrassment for wanting so badly for something to be a sign when it’s just a thing.

Phil Elverum: That’s a big part of the experience, and of the songs. For me, looking at the songs that I used to make, before this, I was more deeply a symbol-user. The older songs are a lot about looking at the world around me and finding meaning in these things that are just things. Light is hitting the mountain in a beautiful way. Is that just the light of the sun in space hitting this rock and snow on earth? Just stuff? The physical world itself — it doesn’t care. It just is. And so when someone close to you dies, the line is shifted really drastically about what is meaningful and what isn’t.

This record is just me trying to be — well, I wasn’t even trying. It’s just where my head is now ... Gosh, I don’t know how to formulate this sentence. I guess I haven’t thought about it enough to know where I stand. I want things to be meaningful. The fly that is buzzing around, on the album, in the room where she died — I want that to be a symbol, but I know it’s not. Like you’re saying, you’re embarrassed about it. It’s this complicated back-and-forth about knowing that you are thirsty for meaning, but …

It's almost a kind of clarity, but then everything is just one thing or the other. It's not profound.

Elverum: Yeah, it’s a shitty clarity. It’s not poetic. And so that’s what I meant [by] “All poetry is dumb.” Profound thoughts and profound experiences get revealed to be tricks that we play on ourselves, and poetry gets revealed to be just, like, some dumb words that somebody put in an interesting order. All the books on my shelves, when I would go to them to look for help with my anguish, they all just seemed so crass. They didn’t get it. Those books don’t understand. Nobody understands. [Laughs.] The universe, nobody understands my agony, or my questioning, and it’s this shift in what in the world around us could possibly be meaningful or helpful. It’s like a closing-down of openness. I became less receptive to help and inspiration.

But then there are moments that do feel real — like on the song “Ravens,” where you see two ravens in the sunset and “knew these birds were omens.” You know they mean something, but as to what …

Elverum: I haven’t really thought about that aspect of this record, this theme of the back-and-forth between meaninglessness and meaning. And I’m not really settled on either side of that line. I know that I’m creating the meaning, probably out of desperation or a feeling of being lost in the universe. But then other times, yeah, it’s like a clarity that is nihilistic.

Your music has always lived in the world as it is, very honestly. There’s a specificness of place, but I never felt it as a literal homage, so much as a clear sense of your place in the world. But then what happens when suddenly the world around you just sucks?

Elverum: I always have tried — well, not always, but maybe in the last decade — to not create too romantic or unrealistic a picture of my idea of where I live. It has been an ongoing effort to just be real and create a full, accurate picture of what life is. And I do live in a beautiful place, but also, you know, it’s part of the real world, and cars drive around, and military jets circle overhead, and there’s a refinery. On this album, there’s lots of songs where I’m in the forest, in the beautiful parts of the world, but it just doesn’t come out as seeming romantic or beautiful because it’s in the context of this emotional turmoil. [In the past,] it’s been an ongoing effort to not be romantic about nature, but I always failed. For whatever reason, I can’t help it, it just comes out. I’m celebrating the beautiful nature over and over, even though I don’t want to keep doing that.

Then there’s a line on “Forest Fire” where you say: “I reject nature, I do not agree.”

Elverum: Well, yeah. I do reject nature. Also, I mean, I don’t like to use the word “nature,” if I’m being idealistic about it. The philosophical point that I was trying to make is that even just thinking of nature as this thing that is defined outside of something that is “not nature” — that’s a problem to me. It’s better to look at it in a more nuanced way, where what is natural and non-human is integrated into our lives. Like, there’s mold in my refrigerator right now; there’s weird things living in my body. It’s just interwoven. But anyway, when I say “I reject nature,” I’m not talking about that exactly. I’m more talking about rejecting … like, when I step outside of myself and look at the fact that Geneviève died, I can acknowledge that that is nature doing what it does. Death is natural, and it happens early for some people. I acknowledge that, and in the next sentence, reject it, because it just sucks. It hurts. I can at the same time acknowledge it as true, and then have my protest against it.

Your music has always made me sad. That’s not a new thing. But at the same time, I always got this sense of a love of being alive — or rather, I guess, it’s about being alive, so implicitly there’s this reverence towards it.

Elverum: The new album is maybe a grudging acceptance of being alive. Ah, damn it, I survived. Well, I’m alive now. I’m not … pumped about being alive. But I don’t think about suicide ever. I have a kid. I think that’s just an automatic shut-off of that idea. In fact, I just instantly went into the necessities of parenting, and I think it’s been very good for grief. Because it’s a reality check, I guess. I have very real tasks that need immediate attention all the time.

The album feels very chronologically arranged, pointedly so. Are the songs all in order of when they were written?

Elverum: They are chronological in how they take place, but I didn’t exactly write them in that order. I kind of think of them all coming out at the same time, really, because I wrote some things in my notebook over the course of the year that Geneviève was sick, and was absorbed with that and parenting, and driving to the hospital all the time. I didn’t write songs or do anything creative during that time, I was just keeping the house together. I did occasionally write some little blurbs — not songs, exactly, but just things, in my notebook, that then I would forget about for months.

She died in July, and a couple months after she died — I don’t know why I started doing it, but I just did — I started sitting down with paper and pencil and making those blurbs into songs. They all came out really fast. I would take a chunk from this one, and a chunk from another one, and it was like a project of organization. “Real Death,” the first song, probably contains some scraps from the earliest blurbs. And “Seaweed,” the next one — I was walking with my daughter on my back in a backpack, we were hiking. And a song just came into my head, and I spoke it into my phone because I was hiking, so the earliest version is me just kind of panting and speaking slowly.

When did you start to think you'd want to release these songs?

Elverum: Maybe about halfway through writing. I’ve never made an album like this, I’ve never written the songs first. I’ve always just gone into the studio and done a lot of experimentation with sounds, and let the songs slowly take shape in the studio, writing lyrics as I go. But this one, I wrote all the songs first on paper, and then practiced them, and got tight — like, I knew how many times I was going to play that chord before going to that chord. I’d never done it that way. Once I got the songs together and knew what order they would be in, I just admitted to myself that I was going to release them. I felt … proud of them. Which was strange to feel.

It seems like such a difficult and almost frightening balance, to negotiate making this public and doing all the things you’re supposed to do for an album.

Elverum: It feels very weird. I’m conflicted about it, but I’m doing it, and I just made the decision to do it the same way I’ve always done it. And it does feel kind of crass to be talking to journalists and making a promotional tweet about it. [Laughs.] All the mechanical, commercial details. But at the same time, I feel like it’s good, and I feel like there’s something in it that other people might benefit from, hopefully. Or enjoy it, at least. “Enjoy” is a strange word, but I mean it. I think it’s valid to put it out. I don’t know, a lot of my hesitation comes from: Am I doing it right? Am I allowed to do it this way? But I think the answer that a therapist would tell me is that I can do whatever I want. There’s not a right or wrong way to do this.

I honestly am unsure whether or not I “enjoyed” listening to the album. I don’t know the word for the feeling. But it did feel extraordinarily helpful. I remember that when my mom died, I was seeking some sort of life lesson or enlightenment. But that didn’t really happen. I felt the opposite of enlightened. And sometimes art about death concludes with some statement that makes sense, and I didn’t get that from your album, which was kind of … nice?

Elverum: One thing I’ve heard that makes sense to me about grief is that there’s this conception that it’s a thing that you process, and then you’re done processing it. But really it’s not a thing that has an end, it’s just what life is like now. You are living with this now, probably forever. I’m going to miss her forever. You’re going to miss your mom forever. And there’s no finality to it. I don’t want to wrap up my anguish — because also I don’t want to wrap up the positive memories that I have with Geneviève. Making the record, diving deep into these feelings and writing down and organizing all of the thoughts and details, it felt good. It felt like hanging out with her, really. She was dead, but going into that room where I had my recording set up and my pencil and paper, it felt like going back — just a little bit — to hang out with her. Because I was focusing so hard on her.

Was the last song on the album, “Crow” — where the “you” you sing to shifts from Geneviève to your daughter (“Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you? / Smoldering and fascist with no mother”) — the last song that you wrote?

Elverum: Yeah. In fact, it wasn’t going to be on the album. The album was done after 10 songs. Everything was pretty much finished. And then the election happened. We were on a hike, and that happened, the thing in that song — a crow was following us around, squawking at us. It felt very spooky. And it did feel like I did want to acknowledge … fascism. I didn’t want the album to come out and be naive to what was happening in our world. So I needed to get that on there.

Did you feel different at the end than you did at the beginning?

Elverum: Oh yeah. I felt healed, partially. And I feel more healed now, as time passes. Everything feels less sharp. I burst into tears less frequently.

What does your average day look like?

Elverum: Well, some days I have help with my daughter. Basically all of my time is geared around looking forward to the next break I get from her. I really love her! But I very much look forward to the times when she is at somebody else’s house, so I can catch up on all of the other work, or take a shower, or cook food. When she’s with me, we have our routine. We go to the post office, and the bookstore, and the record store, visit our friends and play in the yard and all over the house. She’s two and one month, and very smart, so we just talk and sing to each other all day. Make food, clean up food. It’s just an endless cycle of wiping up food and making more food.

What do you guys talk about?

Elverum: She speaks a lot, but it’s a lot of repetition. She hasn’t asked “Where did Mama go?” yet, but I feel that that is any day now. I don’t know, I’m bracing myself for … I don’t really know how to talk about it with her, but I’ll try to just respond naturally. There are pictures of Geneviève up around the house; she knows who that is, but I don’t think she has a living memory of her, really. She more knows who that is in the same way she knows who Santa is — a picture of a person that exists in the world but you’ve never actually seen.

She was one and a half when Geneviève died. Even in the last few months, she wasn’t interacting that much, because she was so absorbed in her healing and meditation and visualization exercises, or away at appointments, and even when she was here, she couldn’t breathe very well, so it was more like this echo of Geneviève that lived in the house with us. That was the hardest part, I think, of the whole thing. That she was kind of transformed. Gone before she actually died.

I experienced that with my mom. She also had cancer. It was actually very hard for me to be around, because I felt disturbed by the whole thing, even though I didn’t want to be.

Elverum: Right, and then you feel guilty for having that feeling. It sucks. Echoes of difficulty on top of each other. When did your mom die?

Almost nine years ago. She had breast cancer. And sometimes I would just freak out having to help her go to the bathroom because I never knew how to do that.

Elverum: It’s really intense — the animal realities of the body dying. Nurses, and people who just do that as a job, are just so incredible, so amazing. To handle the fluids and the nastiness, all day, every day.

I would also find myself acting in ways I didn’t really recognize, that almost felt corny or something. It was really disorienting … I’m sorry to be telling you all this stuff.

Elverum: It’s OK!

Well, one thing that really sticks in my head is the day that she died. And then when the people came to pick up her body, I was the last one in the room to see her when they came and zipped her in a bag. There is zero poetry in someone being zipped in a bag.

Elverum: Did you see it?

Yeah, and then since I was the only one in the room, the people looked to me as though I should give some sort of gesture. And I remember that I blew a kiss in her direction, or the direction of the bag, which is something I would never do. And in the midst of everything I just thought, Oh my god, what was that? I think about that a lot, and I don’t know what to make of it other than, that was fucked up and weird.

Elverum: That sums up the experience. Fucked up and weird. I definitely relate. That’s the thing that is seared into my mind, the last day. And I want to forget it, actually. It’s not beautiful. Not the version of her I wanted to hang on to. I’m, like, actively trying to … In the first day, my sister came and the first thing she wanted to do was take out everything cancer-related in the house. All the books about healing and the special diet foods and whatever — remove it. And also all the pictures of Geneviève when she started looking skeletal. And I know that I’m trying to erase part of my brain right now, but I’m fine with it. I want to remember the living, healthy, juicy version of her.

Allyson Foster

Mount Eerie

I read Geneviève’s graphic novel, Susceptible, and the poem that began that book was by Joanne Kyger, who also wrote the poem that is on your album art. Can you tell me about that? [Ed. note: Last week, two days before A Crow’s release, Kyger died of lung cancer at age 82.]

Elverum: The poem that is on the album cover was a piece of paper pinned above Geneviève’s drawing desk for years. I read it but I never focused on it. And then when I was cleaning out her studio, I focused on it and it just was, like, exactly the record I had just made. Joanne was one of her favorite writers and a friend of hers, so I wrote to Joanne and asked if I could use it. It just seemed too perfect. And it wasn’t like she had tons of stuff she had pinned up above her desk; it was the only poem there. It was very meaningful.

Did she put it there before she was sick?

Elverum: Years before. And I don’t know what it was in that poem particularly that struck her, but it’s just very much about this — about dying and being remembered, and what ways we keep existing after we die.

I know that you are into haiku poetry, and I have seen a few on your Twitter. I have a book of Zen poetry and haiku that splits the poems into two categories: enlightenment poems, and then death poems. Which seems kind of fitting, to separate them. And in Japanese and Chinese poetry, death poetry was almost a genre unto itself. I wondered if you had any experience with that style of writing.

Elverum: I have a book of Japanese death poetry, and I opened it up once after Geneviève died, looking for some book that would work with me, but so far none of them really does. I don’t remember what about those poems didn’t particularly work for me. I think in general, when I’ve gone to the Zen poetry and Japanese and Chinese poetry that I have on my shelves, it’s a viewpoint that seems a little too harsh for how tender I still feel. Before she died, before she was sick, I loved that stuff. I was exactly on the same page — like, it’s important to talk about how short life is and how a flower petal falls in the mud and how pretty people grow up and turn wrinkly and they die. [Laughs.] But now, reading that stuff, it feels … not sensitive enough, or not nuanced enough, to accommodate the actual pain of living it.

You think, How could those writers be so at peace?

Elverum: Or they just didn’t know. The person who writes a poem like that either has some kind of emotional disconnect situation, or hasn’t experienced it personally. Or maybe there is some level of enlightenment or nirvana that you get to where it truly doesn’t hurt anymore. I guess that’s probably the point, that you meditate enough and transcend enough that emotional turmoil slides off you more easily than for unenlightened people like me.

Or maybe that’s why they lived alone. It’s probably easier that way, just living on a mountain.

Elverum: It’s really romantic! I love all those mountain hermit poems, the image of that life. I signed up for that. I love those things. But at the same time, I know how fake it is. It’s a romance. Those guys would probably be taking lots of selfies now on their very popular Instagram about how great of a hermit they are. [Laughs.]

Yeah, they would definitely have a YouTube channel with millions of views on their meditation tutorials. Can I ask … do you have any conception of the afterlife?

Elverum: No, I don’t. I don’t believe in anything. And I think this has made me believe even less in anything. I don’t know. I mean, I probably wouldn’t kill a spider now, I’d probably try to scoop it up in a cup and put it outside, but not for any reason other than I don’t need to take other lives recklessly. But other than that, I don’t believe in … anything. Anything, anything. Like, even the word “belief.” When she first got diagnosed, we sent out an email to friends and family, and I couldn’t resist putting in there, as a closing statement: “There is no god. Sincerely, Phil.” But I felt like this was like a living fact. How could there possibly be some benevolent force in the universe if this is happening?