For two decades, Phil Elverum has been one of the most adored and enigmatic figures in DIY music, recording fuzzily intimate folk-pop songs from his seaside outpost of Anacortes, Washington, 100 miles north of Seattle.
He rose to prominence as the frontman for the Olympia band the Microphones, whose 2001 album The Glow Pt. 2 is considered an indie classic. The group disbanded in 2003, and Elverum has largely recorded under the name Mount Eerie ever since.
Last month, he released the eighth Mount Eerie album, A Crow Looked at Me. Across 11 tracks and 41 minutes, Elverum plainspokenly processes the death of his wife, the artist Geneviève Castrée, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer last July. Elverum wrote and recorded the songs at home just a few months after Castrée’s death, often squeezing in sessions while the couple’s toddler was playing at a family friend’s house.
The songs on A Crow Looked at Me are sparsely arranged—often just Elverum’s voice, acoustic guitar, simple percussion, and some home-recorded hiss—and steadfastly devastating, a stream-of-consciousness collage of final breaths, motherless children, fading memories, and ashes in a jar. Someday, people will consider this album when they argue about the saddest works of art ever made.
MERCURY: It’s been several months since you wrote these songs, and now the general public is finally hearing them and you’re talking about them with people. How has that felt?
PHIL ELVERUM: Yesterday I did four or five interviews on the phone in a row. All day I was on the phone talking about it. And I felt kind of mentally drained afterwards. But also, I don’t have a therapist. I don’t go to any grief support groups or anything. But I feel like I do. I’m treating you and all these other journalists that I talk to you as my therapists.
I’m not a qualified grief counselor!
But it works! It really works. That’s how I felt yesterday at the end of the day of talking about it. And not talking about it superficially, because the interviews have been so good and everyone has been so surprisingly compassionate and kind of deep. Usually with a PR campaign for an album, this thing happens where it gets winnowed down into repeating these rote phrases. And that hasn’t happened with this.
After Geneviève died, did anyone tell you “talking about it helps”?
No, nobody told me to do that. I did have a therapist. Geneviève and I had a therapist that we saw through her sickness, and then I saw her two times after Geneviève died. I had two sort of counseling sessions where we talked about grief. And then she died abruptly, the therapist. She had a heart attack and died. And she would’ve been the person that would’ve told me one way or the other, but... I don’t have her anymore. I don’t think she said anything about this.
The reason I ask is because I’m intrigued by your decision to be so frank and open about this whole experience, which I think is not how many people—especially those in the public eye—would handle it. Why do you think you chose the path you’ve taken?
I don’t know. Following the muse, I guess, is the closest answer. It does feel crazy and it does feel like a 180-degree turn from how I was, more or less. It feels risky. It definitely feels intuitively scary as an artistic statement and a social stance. Maybe that’s the appeal, actually—that it seems so fucked up.
I was going to say, the simple act of making art for public consumption means taking on the risk of hearing what people think and say. And the stakes seem particularly high here.
I think that I had a thought that I was starting to write some stuff and wasn’t sure where I was going to draw the line, but it seemed pointless to go halfway or to open up partially. It seemed like, “What do I gain by [showing] restraint?” I couldn’t think of anything.
Did you ever find your brain trying to talk yourself out of writing these songs?
No, it felt very good. Once it started flowing I just wanted to keep it flowing. I was obsessed with it. I would run up the stairs into the room whenever somebody would come get my daughter. I would just run to it. I’d skip meals, and be thinking about it all the time. It felt very good.
How about releasing them?
At first I was unsure about that, because the part that felt good wasn’t the public part. It was just the doing. The making of it felt good. “Do I need to take it beyond just making it? Maybe I can make these songs just for me.” But ultimately I decided to release it because I liked it a lot. I was proud of it.
Are there any lines or verses or songs that are harder than the rest of it?
The parts where I talk about her last day and the details of being in the room the day that she died. Those are the parts that I kind of regret having to sing over and over, because I want to forget them. Those are the parts that kind of haunt me. I have to mentally revisit it as I’m singing them.
Are you choosing not to perform any of them?
Nope. The plan is just to play the album. And I have a couple of new songs, too, written within the past couple of weeks.
Are the new songs about the same topic as A Crow Looked at Me?
They’re about this. They’re about me. They’re good. I’m really excited to have these new songs, for sure. I don’t know what will become of them, but yeah... they’re further down the path that this album started on. So whatever the direction is, I’m still on it.
I suspect that this album will get more attention than anything else you’ve ever done. How does that feel to you?
Uhh... It feels okay. I’ve been talking this other album I made—The Glow Pt. 2—for a long time... to the point where it stops feeling good in a way, because I was 23 when I made it. And I personally feel like I have surpassed that 10 times over, that thing that is the consensus. So in a way I’m happy, if this does replace that as the thing... I don’t know, it’s weird to talk about it. Because I just want to stay in the present moment. I’m just focused on what I’m working on next, honestly. That may be a cliché but it’s true. I don’t want to be known for anything in particular, other than a living and vitally relevant artist.