Beyond Grief: How Mount Eerie Made an Album About His Wife’s Death

Phil Elverum holds his daughter. Allyson Foster

The documentation of loss and grief in music is seldom truly intimate. The most popular songs traffic in broad platitudes of loneliness, vague enough to connect with whatever a listener is going through. But when a grieving artist has built their whole universe around real names and places, around going inward to examine the philosophies that drive us, there isn’t much else for them to do but reflect on that loss.

For over 20 years, singer/songwriter, producer and author Phil Elverum has built a universe around such intimacies. From 1996 to 2003 he recorded as The Microphones, only changing the project’s name to Mount Eerie in 2003 after releasing the final Microphones album of the same name.

That same year, he married a Quebecois artist named Geneviève Castrée, and the two lived together at their house in Anacortes, Wash., a small town on Puget Sound where Elverum’s family had lived for six or seven generations.

Geneviève died in that house last July of pancreatic cancer, which was discovered during a normal postpartum check-up after she felt light abdominal pain following the birth of their only daughter. Elverum, who had turned the lyrical and thematic focus of Mount Eerie inward as they built their life together, suddenly found himself opening up just to reckon with the challenges of being a single parent. He launched a crowdfunding campaign, had friends and family helping out constantly, and was no longer able to keep the kingdom that they had built with their daughter private.

“She died at home with me and her parents holding her, hopefully having reached some last-minute peace,” Elverum shared in a statement. “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.”

Two months after she passed, Elverum began what would become A Crow Looked At Me, a hyper-intimate portrait of loss and emptiness that holds a mirror to his present realities with equal helpings of beauty and discomfort. Recorded in the room where Geneviève died and using many of her instruments, Elverum documented his feelings of emptiness in the shell of her vacated space.

Crow captures Elverum’s understanding Geneviève’s passing through the sweet metaphor of swimming proposed by his daughter and his perception of the grocery store as a canyon of loss and otherness. In another song, the ravens and the crow are omens, reminding Elverum of the plans he’d made with Geneviève to move their family out on one of the islands in the Sound. One month after she died, he took his then-five-month-old daughter out camping on Haida Gwaii island, where they spread Geneviève’s ashes and Elverum confessed to another reporter that he shit his pants, likening it to some sort of exorcism.

That reporter, Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene, underwent a harrowing personal loss of his own last fall, losing his 2-year-old daughter Greta after a piece of falling masonry hit her on the head. And though he never explicitly mentions Greta in his time with Elverum, the fact that he wrote about what it’s like to lose a child for The New York Times put him in a headspace to meet Elverum’s loss with considerable empathy. Spending two days with Elverum and his daughter at their Anacortes home led Greene to craft a piercingly honest and detail-rich narrative about grieving by looking loss in the eyes, and the futility of trying to plan what comes next.

Now, ahead of Crow‘s release and a tour around the country, Elverum realizes that what he’s made cannot be undone, telling me it’s on his permanent record. We talked over the phone about Elverum’s artistic inspirations behind Crow, from the vast body of work that Geneviève left and the poem she had taped to her drawing desk, to a ’90s Sub Pop band called Eric’s Trip.

We also talked about Elverum’s present state of reckoning with reality, which includes him functioning as a sort of archivist for Geneviève’s work, and his admission that he may never make music again, along with his acceptance of the vulgarity associated with forcing the reverence of a person’s memory on people who didn’t know her.

Thanks for opening yourself and your process, which I imagine isn’t easy. If at any point in our conversation you’re uncomfortable or don’t feel like answering me just let me know, alright?

Yeah, yeah, thank you. I haven’t hit any point where I am uncomfortable yet [laughs], in any of this stuff, in talking about the music or talking about it. I feel like I’m pretty open.

Your music’s always been about finding the magic in the everyday, the wonder in the mundane. And everything I’ve read so far, between your own liner notes, your timeline of Geneviève’s passing and your raising your daughter you’ve been willing to look all of that in the eye. You told Jayson Greene something about how Geneviève wasn’t a bullshitter, that she was not afraid to be brassy and get in people’s face, to hold the mirror right up to something. Are you doing that consciously with Crow, and honoring that energy of hers through the process?

Yeah, it did cross my mind. It’s a component, for sure. But it’s honestly not pre-meditated, any of this. It’s naturally happening this way, but when I ask myself, “God, is it O.K. to do this, to just say everything, to let the world into not only my house, but the shittiness of my house right now?” [Laughs] Yeah, it is inspired by her in some way. But it’s complicated, if I can keep talking about it. Before I met her, when I first started making music, when I was like a teenager, my favorite band was Eric’s Trip, this band from Eastern Canada that was on Sub-Pop, and all their side projects.

“[I]n many ways this new album is a return to that first stance of being like, ‘Well, I’m not trying to make any big statements, but here’s my life, whatever it means to you.'”

Named after the Sonic Youth song?

They are named after the Sonic Youth song, yeah, they’re amazing. But their songs and just the interplay of all the different members of the band were painfully intimate. You could just tell, “Oh, these two people are in a relationship. Oh, they’re talking about this other person in their town. Oh, this song has the name of the date that they met, and the place.”

As a listener it felt just too intimate in a really interesting way [laughs], and I felt…that’s where I was when I started writing songs, aspiring to this sort of hyper-intimate, no restraint type of thing. Then I made all these albums that were kind of like that, where I’m saying the name of the person that I’m talking about and really going for it, and then, after I met Geneviève, it seemed too special to share with the world. It was our thing. And a lot of that was her, that was her temperament as well. Basically all the Mount Eerie albums shifted.

To be more inwardly focused, to turn that energy back in?

Yeah, more philosophical. So in many ways this new album, A Crow Looked At Me, is a return to that first stance of being like, “Well, I’m not trying to make any big statements, but here’s my life, whatever it means to you.” [Laughs]

There’s something magical that happens when you hold the mirror to yourself and share yourself with people at this level in the, well, “business” is a profane word, but in the game that you’re in. You’re going around and putting your story out there into the world unfiltered. You’re holding other people’s gaze or reflection back onto you. Has it become easier to live in that space now? What is the reflection you’re seeing cast back onto you about this work?

Well, nothing’s really changed, actually. Yesterday, for example, that big Pitchfork profile came out. I was reading it, and he’s describing re-heating leftovers, giving my daughter a bath, running the laundry up the stairs, and I’m literally doing those same things as I’m reading the article, in the same place.

So it was a very strange…it didn’t add up. It didn’t add up that I was reading about my…it was exactly like you say, holding the mirror up. But it hasn’t changed anything, the attention, the fact that this album is out. I’m still in the house where the death happened, where I’m single-parenting, where the songs were made. But I think that I’ll have a better sense of some shift once I go on tour, once I leave my small town and confront the fact that other people are out there paying attention to this thing I made.

A portrait of Phil taken by his late wife, Geneviève. Geneviève Elverum

There’s humor that you’re starting this tour on April 1 in your hometown, too, you’ve gotta admit. There’s some cosmic wink happening.

[Laughs] It’s just a coincidence, but yeah.

Well, Jayson also had his own story of loss that he decided to share publicly. When his daughter passed he wrote that really touching New York Times piece, also naked and transparent, about having a child die.

Yeah, it was really incredible.

There’s something to be pulled out, that doesn’t need to explicitly be uttered in both that piece and his time with you about the wisdom in routine when working to heal or mourn or keep things moving.

I guess so, yeah, it’s not a choice, though. I’m not holding on to that routine; I don’t have a choice. I don’t get to make many choices in my life as a single parent.

How does the fact that you still live in the town where you grew up help you out, though? I know you keep community milk for your daughter in the freezer, but you also tell that story of being in the supermarket and feeling like it’s a chasm you’re trapped in. How has it helped or hurt to reckon with the support of your friends and family, to be both self-sufficient about your own work but also have this community surround you?

It’s helped a lot. We have a very excellent support network here that’s been…yeah, that album wouldn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist without these people’s help [laughs]. The only way I was able to write any songs or record anything was that people were taking my daughter for little chunks of time, so…that’s just my dumb album. There’s also just life. Right now, for example, my mom just took her to the pool, so that’s why I’m able to talk to you. Every single thing that I do has to be coordinated like a week in advance.

“I don’t care that much about music…is that cool to say in an interview about my album?”

When we first had a baby and not cancer, we were definitely protective of our bubble, we were very much like, “we’re gonna do this together.” That was our vibe, creating this very special little kingdom of three people. And then Geneviève got diagnosed and started chemo, and immediately we didn’t care about that bubble anymore. We just needed help, out of necessity, and I still am like that. Every time anyone just hints, “Hey, maybe I can watch your daughter for a little bit,” I’m like, “YES, when’s good, can you come over right now?!” [Laughs]

Are you open to letting that help into your creative process at all, too? This is of course a solitary document, and I know it’s meant to be as you recorded it on mostly her own instruments in the room where she died, but when you talk about the enormity of being a touring musician and a single father, are you open to expanding the people you let in the creative fold?

Yeah, sure. I mean, I don’t know, I don’t know if I’ll ever make music again, honestly. But yeah, I’m open to all possibilities. Every tour is different. Sometimes I’ll get a band together and sometimes it’s just me. I do like playing music with other people. It didn’t make sense for these songs, of course, because they’re so personal. I thought about it, I thought about getting a live band together for these songs, but it just seems wrong in a way. Who knows what the future holds.

Are you still thinking about leaving Anacortes and moving out to an island?

Yeah, that’s still the plan.

Would you still be able to make music out there?

Yeah, I’m not worried about that, you can make music anywhere. But I don’t care that much about music…is that cool to say in an interview about my album? [Laughs] 

Of course it is, you’re a father!

Well, not only that, I think even before I was a father, I have never really designed my life around the production of music. The name of my studio before I had a building for it was just called “Nowhere,” I would always put “Recorded Nowhere” on a lot of my albums because I have a set-up that I move around wherever and use whatever. I don’t have any special gear. I’m into the way of making music with what you have at the moment, rather than just being distracted by the sacredness of it. I’m more fascinated with the ideas than the lifestyle.

Speaking of ideas, I was reading about some of the people who inspired you throughout this process earlier. This Karl Ove Knausgård guy struck me as interesting because he talked about making a Faustian bargain by exposing the intimacies of his past and writing this autobiography that was so telling and so revelatory. Do you feel that way? Are you making a bargain or doing something you can’t undo?

I think it might be too early to say, because I haven’t gone into the world with it yet, so I don’t know what the repercussions will be. But I do feel that I’ve done something I can’t undo. I can’t take it back, this is on my permanent record now, and in some ways, I’m always gonna be publicly known as that musician/artist guy who’s wife died.

Do you want to be?

I don’t know if I want to be, actually, I want to outrun it. I want to not be associated with death or cancer, I don’t want that life. But that’s the life I have [laughs] and I guess I’m not helping my goal by making this album about it. On the other hand, it’s the only way I know how to get through it, to just drill into it and process it rather than running away from it.

What about Geneviève’s work around your house that people may not have seen—the unfinished children’s book, the tarot deck… do you have plans to present these in any way that does her memory justice?

Yeah, big time. That’s a major project I’m working on. I feel so strongly about it, there’s so much, there’s so much work, and it’s a big project of organization. But yeah, going through her studio.

“[T]o kind of pressure the rest of the world into that reverence, there’s something uncomfortable about that I recognize. There’s something sort of indecent about it.”

You’re her archivist.

Yeah, really. And making scans and working on a book—her publisher is Drawn and Quarterly, this great comics publisher from Montreal, and I’m working with them on some book projects. It’s gonna take a while, but it’s gonna be good. Maybe some art shows, and maybe even tribute shows? I don’t know.

I guess I feel like I love her so much, obviously, and I love her work so much, but sometimes…this is a fucked-up thing to say, I guess, but sometimes when somebody’s loved one dies and they spend the rest of their life, years at least, arranging commemorative tribute events and stuff, it makes sense for that person who lost their loved one because they love them, but to kind of pressure the rest of the world into that reverence, there’s something uncomfortable about that I recognize. There’s something sort of indecent about it.

It also must tie back to the fact that you said you and her and your daughter had your own kingdom, and turning those works inward toward each other meant you were part of the same community, a community of three. It sounds like you’re concerned about profaning the work by releasing it out of that community, maybe.

I do, I do wanna release it out. I’m just saying I don’t wanna release it out and then arrange a tribute show every year or every couple of months for the rest of my life, because at a certain point it seems pathetic to me. [Laughs]

Well, you have this history of releasing your own work in so many non-traditional ways, and the interdisciplinary way that your brain works should be embraced now, whatever that looks like.

I think I can do a nice job of making a nice thing, it’s more of how long do I hold on to that commemorative feeling? I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking it. There’s a show coming up next week, my friend Laurie, she’s a cellist and was a friend of Geneviève’s. She’s doing a show in Seattle that I’m really into, and it’s the first of probably a few commemorative shows for Geneviève that I hope people go to, but it’s like…yeah, that’s kind of what I’m talking about here, it’s a subtle thing. It’s hard to know how heavy to get with my advertising about it, to force people to love this person as much as I did, which is impossible, but yeah.

The cover of A Crow Looked At Me features the Joanne Kyger poem, “Night Palace.” P.W. Elverum & Suns

Well, if you present her work, be it along your work or not, you don’t really need to contextualize it that much, putting something out there is sometimes enough. This Kyger poem on the cover is super beautiful, but what does it say to you that we might not take from it?

Well, I don’t actually know. I don’t actually feel a concrete way about it. For me, it’s more the significance of [the fact that] it was important to Geneviève. That poem was tacked above her drawing desk for years, and it was the only poem, the only words tacked above her desk, just part of her brain for many years. And I never really focused on it until after she died and I was cleaning her studio out. I just read the poem, and this was after I had made most of the album already, it was just exactly the perfect, relevant umbrella to put these songs under.

Joanne Kyger was a very important poet to Geneviève, and they were friends. She talks about the past that keeps on happening ahead of you. So this strange shifting of time that comes around death and remembering a person and living in the shell of this person’s vacated space…I think that Joanne’s poem just perfectly sums up the strange, unique situation of loss and memory in just a few words.

Beyond Grief: How Mount Eerie Made an Album About His Wife’s Death