When Words Fail: Phil Elverum Navigates Life After Death

Music Features Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum
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When Words Fail: Phil Elverum Navigates Life After Death

“Death is real.” It’s a phrase Phil Elverum, who performs under the name Mount Eerie (and, earlier, The Microphones) scatters like ashes throughout his gripping new album, A Crow Looked at Me. These words do not exist for superficial shock value; death is something Elverum has dealt with firsthand, and he lives with its aftermath every day.

Elverum’s wife, artist and illustrator Geneviève Castrée, died nine months ago after a brief and painful battle with pancreatic cancer. The stage-four diagnosis came suddenly, just four months after the birth of the couple’s baby daughter, with Castrée, who was experiencing mild abdominal pain at the time, visiting the doctor for a routine postpartum checkup. Elverum eventually launched a GoFundMe campaign last June to help with medical bills, but Castrée succumbed to her disease only weeks later. “It’s all very sad and surreal. So much is left unfinished for her. She was a firehose of brilliant ideas that never turned off. We loved her and everything is weird now,” her husband wrote at the time.

Grappling with the unspeakable loss, Elverum sat down in his wife’s studio, where he wrote and recorded A Crow Looked At Me. It’s an 11-song window into his despair and bewilderment, made plain from the start on opener “Real Death,” which states for the record that ”[death is] not for singing about” nor “for making into art.” Even with that stark admission, Elverum continues to process his pain against spare acoustic arrangement.

Crow articulates more than just a one-sided sadness. Traveling through an entire spectrum of bereavement, Elverum is mystified at how someone can exist and then be irrevocably gone; he refuses to associate Castrée’s ashes with her personhood, instead choosing to think of her when he sees the sunset. He wonders if a pair of ravens he saw in 2015 portended Castrée’s death. He hunts for meaning in such seemingly insignificant encounters prior to and after her departure but, ultimately, finds none. All he can do, in response to this profoundly devastating thing, is continue to exist and write what he knows.

Below, Elverum speaks to Paste over the phone about losing Castrée, talking to his daughter about her mother and why he can no longer stand to be “the hub of sorrow.”

Paste: I was deeply moved by Jayson Greene’s profile of you in Pitchfork. He doesn’t mention his personal tragedy, but I’m guessing you were aware of it before you met?
Phil Elverum: I read his story before. I knew who he was ‘cause he worked at Pitchfork and reviewed some of my records. I have a publicist, you know. He pointed out Jayson’s New York Times op-ed piece about his daughter dying. He told me, “I’m seeing if Jayson Greene will write about your record, Phil. I don’t know if he’s the perfect person or the least perfect person.” And I didn’t either. I mean, this record is so unique. We had a lot of discussions about how to even talk about it. Or at what angle to take with … Advertising it, really. So it turned out that Jayson was the perfect person, and we really bonded. We’re friends now.

Paste: This is a very different record. At the risk of asking you anything that you’ve already been asked, I was struck by its opener where you make a point of separating art and death. How do you reconcile the fact that death, in the end, has been processed in the form of art? Do you feel the need to reconcile it?
Elverum: I think it was like a thesis. [Laughs.] I still actually don’t feel like I expressed it totally. The difference between [art’s idea of] death and real death. The difference between the idea of a thing and then like actually being in it. And how wrong it is to use art. And music and poetry can sometimes be a mask or a blur on top of reality. Even now, I’m having a hard time articulating this thing.

It’s ambitious to even open my mouth about it. But yeah, it’s not for making into art. That’s why I say it’s not for singing about. This thing had happened to me. This impulse that I felt in myself to be like, “What will I say to the world about this? What will I make out of this?” And then immediately feeling like that was so gross. Just that prospect at all was impossible. Like, why would I? How could I convey this? How could I convey the reality of it? Once you’re talking about it, the mirrored-echoed version of the thing perverts it, or something.

I mean, it is weird. ‘Cause part of the work that I’m doing these days [is] getting ready for tours, stuffing records, shipping out orders, getting the merch together. It’s like, the capitalist. [Laughs.] Capitalism is part of the realities of the other part of my job, which is releasing records. So that’s weird to factor in. I am commodifying my grief, to put it really bluntly.

I accept it. And I try not to think about it. [Laughs.] There’s a conflict there. Is it okay? Is it okay for me to be doing well because of this tragic record? Is it okay for me to like have a smile on my face ‘cause people are saying nice things to me? What does it all mean?

Paste: Well, artists create what they know, to use the old adage. And also, you did create a very stunning record that expresses a feeling in a voice that only you possess. If that offers you any solace.
Elverum: I think you’re right. I mean, I think that’s true. I just can’t turn off the part me that asks that question over and over.

Paste: That’s also only natural. In perusing your Twitter, I saw a tweet that you said that you recently watched the movie Jackie. That was an interesting choice.
Elverum: Yeah. I haven’t been able to watch movies in my life for a while. Partially, like when Geneviève was sick. They just seemed irrelevant. No movie seemed interesting to me. And then having a baby—now my time is so precious. Whenever my daughter is asleep. Wasting two hours on just sitting there staring seems like… [Laughs.] I could get so much done in that two hours.

But yeah, Jackie. I just was reading reviews of it or just like I kept seeing it and I was like, why … Why do I want to watch this movie? And my friends like, “Phil. It’s about someone dealing with, in the days after their spouse died. Of course you want to watch it.” It’s about that exact thing. Those same questions you’re always asking about navigating just period. And they are not many movies about that.

Paste: You started writing this record so soon after Geneviève passed away. What do you think it was that compelled you to sit down and write?
Elverum: I’m not sure. I can’t remember what started it all. It. I don’t think there was a moment. I do know that part of my feeling was that I wanted to get it out. Like, get it recorded and written, and out. I felt rushed. I wanted to do it while it still felt sharp and vivid in me.

The harsh light was falling on things. Made things clear in a way that I wanted to capture. It was unique. I’ve never seen things in that way before. You have a sense that clarity is going to evaporate, ‘cause it always does.

Paste: You’ve been so open—especially to relative strangers like me—about what you’ve gone through. To what extent have people come to you with their own stories of loss?
Elverum: A lot, actually.

Paste: Has that been shitty? Or has it been helpful?
Elverum: Well, at first it was super-helpful. At first it was like, the most helpful thing and surprising. People [were] writing [letters and emails] to me, and it just felt like a breakthrough actually to connect with people with similar stories. It felt therapeutic to realize I wasn’t alone. But now it feels overwhelming. “Shitty” is strong, but maybe shitty. Like, I probably got four emails yesterday. And I don’t know how many will come in today, but I find myself scanning the stories. These people’s, like, tragic stories. That’s the shitiness. Like, I’m being shitty. Because I can’t take it anymore. I can’t be the hub of sorrow. I’m asking for it, but I’m not the right person to be a public healer, or whatever.

I reach out. I ask for help. I tell my story. That’s what this album is actually is me telling my story and so I don’t feel like it’s right to not be available to other people but … It’s just a question of, of quantity. Before Geneviève died, we had a GoFundMe campaign. Like, we only did it like a month before she died.

Part of going public in that way triggered that same stuff. There was another person who didn’t know us, who wasn’t a fan of my music or anything like that. She was just a stranger who had seen the GoFundMe cause she was also running a GoFundMe campaign for her husband. Our campaign was very successful, and she wrote to me like, “How did you do this? We’ve only raised $3,000. What’s your secret? Please give us some advice.” I felt so bad. To be like, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m more popular than you.

Paste: I just read an article about that exact thing in Esquire. In order to raise money for sick friends and family, people need to turn their stories into something resembling a brand. It’s almost competitive.
Elverum: That seems like a good article. I mean, it factors into healthcare reform and making survival depend on this online popularity contest. It’s so brutal.

Paste: Yes. To pivot back to the album itself, in the song “Swims,” you discuss your daughter asking “if momma swims,” and then you reply, “Yes she does. It’s probably all she does.” What do you say when your daughter asks where her mother is? How will this experience affect what you tell her about the afterlife? Have any of your own beliefs changed?
Elverum: So far when she’s asked [where momma is], I said, “momma’s not here.” ‘Cause my daughter like, “Where [did] Grandma go? Where’s that dog? Where’s your hat?” Like, it’s annoying. She’s always asking where everything is. Even if it’s right in front of her. That’s the mode that she stuck in right now. So yeah, Momma is one of the things she asks about, so it’s not heavy. I’m just saying “She’s not here.” In the same way that I say Grandma’s not here right now. She’s at home.

But she hasn’t yet asked, “But wait, why? Why is she not here? Where is she? How long is she going to be not here?” Maybe she won’t ever. My intuition tells me to just say she died. That’s how this works. Things die. Animals die. [Talking to daughter] “You know how like, talk about how the orca ate the salmon and we eat the salmon too? Like that.”

It’s pretty harsh, and also I think a lot about now I’m going to have to put my daughter in the position where she has had the conversation about death early. Maybe the other kids on the playground that she interacts with, they won’t have had that conversation at home. And so, my daughter is now this emissary for this concept that she’s going to have to be the confrontational dark presence on the playground. [Laughs.]

Paste: When your daughter gets older, what do you want to tell her about her mom?
Elverum: I haven’t thought about it, honestly. I still feel like maybe I’m resistant to narrowing it down. I still am set on this lofty goal of wanting to convey her whole person. Like she was a rich and complicated person. I know it’s futile. But I’m trying to like remember her and convey her in her entirety.

Maybe I should be writing more stuff down. [But] other people are going to be telling her this, too. Everyone else who knew Geneviève has a lot to say about how special of a person she was. And so yeah, my daughter’s going to be getting that from all over the place. I also feel like I don’t want to be too heavy-handed or spooky about it. Even Geneviève, when she was sick, talked about not wanting to be this looming ghost-mom presence. She didn’t make any videos. Or write any letters for our daughter. Because she felt like it would be a burden. And I agree, kind of. Even though it feels harsh. So harsh that there’s nothing for our daughter. No direct message. She’s just gone.

Paste: It almost feels like throughout A Crow Looked at Me, you’d like to have learned something from this deeply altering experience, but keep coming up empty. And then you ultimately decide to be at peace with its meaninglessness. There’s just waking up every day and trying to get through it—whether that’s the next hour, or the next 24 hours, or the next week, and so on. Surviving.
Elverum: Yeah. I think it’s just habitual. I am trying to figure out what did I learn from this. But yeah. In this, there is merely just … I survived. I am alive now. That’s just a fact. Like, I’ll probably be alive tomorrow, but it’s not guaranteed. Nothing is.