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Mount Eerie

Beyond Words

Jul 18, 2017 Mount Eerie Photography by Geneviève Elverum Bookmark and Share

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Phil Elverum opens A Crow Looked at Me with a clarification. The death of his wife, visual artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, should not be reduced to the inspiration for a set of songs. Nor is it a learning experience, a clarifying opportunity to understand what’s really important in life. “Death is real/Someone’s there and then they’re not,” he sings over solitary electric guitar strums on album-opener “Real Death.” “And it’s not for singing about/It’s not for making into art.” Deaththe real thingisn’t beautiful or poetic. It’s just pure, unmitigated loss. But if they aren’t art, how do we classify these songs?

“I do try and turn it into art, though,” Elverum admits. “That’s what it is. I can’t negotiate my way out of that reality. So I guess that line in that song is more about the difference between the idea of a thing and the actual lived experience of it. I have a lot of songs about death in my back catalog. It has been a thing that I’ve thought about plenty. But then my wife died, so now it feels like, ‘What was I thinking with all that other stuff? How could I presume to know that I could even talk on these subjects?’ It’s such a different thing. It should almost be a different word. It’s not a thing that can be translated into transcendent, beautiful creativity, poetry, or art. But then I tried to put it in that world with this record, I guess. Or I tried to encapsulate the non-artistic everydayness of it all.”

It’s that everydaynessthe unrelenting in-the-moment reflections of someone in a profound state of griefthat makes Elverum’s examination of death so different from any other. There are no platitudes about how death teaches us to value life or helps us to better perceive what’s really important. There’s no trite gratitude over having had the experience of knowing the departed or hopes of seeing that person again in some future reunion. Instead, he sings directly into his wife’s absence, explaining to her what has transpired since she died.

After taking a few months to collect his thoughts and write down his observations, Elverum began recording the album in his home in Anacortes, Washingtonin the room where he watched Geneviève die of pancreatic cancer in July of 2016. They had shared their lives for 13 years at that point, having met after she introduced herself by sending him a package of her books while he lived in an isolated cabin in Norway. When he got back to Washington, everything was new. He rechristened his recording project as Mount Eerie, and the two would sometimes record and perform together, with Geneviève also continuing to record as Woelv and Ô PAON. They were nearly inseparable.

With her gone, he set out to document his feelings of loss, recording night after night as their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter slept in the next room. He writes about collapsing on the porch after receiving a school backpack in the mail that his wife had purchased for their daughter a week before she died. He apologizes to her for giving her clothes away, and confesses that he can’t get the image of her dying face out of his mind. By the end, he switches perspective and addresses their daughter, wondering what it will be like for her to grow up without a mother. Most devastatingly, on “Ravens” he writes about seeing the two birds that served as the omen from which the album draws its name.

“She was already fully doing chemo in the house, so it wasn’t like I needed to be warned about anything,” he recalls. “But it was more that the birds were flying in the direction of this island where we both wanted to move. We had this property on this island that was a goal for her survival. We were picturing this new life that we were going to make. These two birds were flying out towards that direction at sunset, and it was two and not three, because we have a daughter. That was the omen part to me, like, ‘Does that mean that she’s going to die and only the two of us are going to move out there?’”

These songs mark a clear line in his career as a songwriter, Elverum says, so much so that he doesn’t have much interest in revisiting the music from his past. Even so, he worries about playing the songs from A Crow Looked at Me every night on tour, not knowing just how they’ll affect him. And even though Elverum doesn’t see

Genevieve’s death as serving any purpose, he admits that his songwriting has provided a sense of catharsis to him, helping him to clarify his thoughts and externalize his feelings during his bleakest moments.
“I think the potential of songwriting is broader than I had thought of before,” he admits. “I put these songs in a different category completely from all of the other songs I’ve written, because they’re just a different thing. It shouldn’t be a Mount Eerie album, really. It should have its own name and be off in its own universe. It’s a different type of song. So now that’s something I know music can do, as well.

Even so, the clarification that opens the album remains largely true. Even if Elverum ended up channeling his grief into a work of art, the catharsis of the creative process has proven wholly insufficient in addressing the profound void that is now in his life. Writing and recording the songs was therapeutic, he says, and the process provided him a perspective on his pain that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. But it has not given him a safe place to retreat from the despair and loss. It has not granted him any relief from the profound loss that is at the center of his daily existence. At least not yet.

“I’m still pretty much in it,” he says. “I’m in grief still right now. So when I sing those songs to myself or hear them, yeah, it doesn’t feel like a distance. People say that about griefthat it’s not a thing you get over. You don’t get over the death of this person. It’s just that this is what life is like now, and it will be this way. Maybe it gets less sharp, but it’s not a process that has an end to it. I’ve heard that and I agree with it.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Spring 2017 Issue (April/May/June 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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