- 01 Sep 20
Cult songwriter Phil Elverum discusses the return of his early 2000s Microphones project and reflects on how death, divorce and an unlikely intersection with Hollywood impacted on the record.
In July 2018 readers of Vanity Fair were introduced to songwriter Phil Elverum, described by the magazine as “ an indie musician who records and performs under the name Mount Eerie”. The context was his relationship with, and subsequent marriage to, actress Michelle Williams, that month’s cover star.
Two years later, Elverum’s short-lived status as an individual adjacent to the a-list is over. He and Williams divorced after 12 months. And then Elverum and four year-old daughter Agathe moved out of Williams’s Brooklyn townhouse back to their home, and spiritual wellspring, of Anacortes, Washington.
What has any of that do to with Elverum’s new album, his first project in 17 years to be released under his old band name of The Microphones? Well nothing and everything. Microphones in 2020, a gorgeously spiralling and elongated single track clocking in at 44 minutes (to be split over two sides on vinyl), is on its surface a mediation on time, youth and the joys and tragedy of nostalgia.
But Elverum is incapable of doing anything other than writing from the heart and the gut. And both have gone through the wringer across the past several years. In July 2016 his first wife, illustrator and musician Geneviève Castrée, died of pancreatic cancer. Their daughter was just 17-months old.
Because this is America the illness extracted a financial as well as emotional toll, with the family required to open a GoFundMe page to defray medical bills. Later, Elverum met Williams, whom she described to Vanity Fair as her first true love since the late Heath Ledger.
“The trauma and mess of the last five or so years of my life…they contribute to this song in the way that it is about impermanence and uncertainty,” Elverum tells Hot Press one quiet July morning from his home in Anacortes.
“The true state of things, I say over and over in the song, is that there is no footing. I have a clearer idea of what that feels like now than I did five years ago, although it has been a theme of mine for a while.”
Still, at another level, Microphones in 2020 is entirely unrelated to these comparatively recent upheavals in the singer’s life. The direct impetus for the piece was a “reunion” concert by his old project 12 months ago. Elverum has since 2003 performed and released music as Mount Eerie. Both incarnations are just him, more or less. And yet, to his bemusement, people have been asking him for years to put The Microphones “back together”.
“I don’t think about the name at all ever,” he says. “I wish my project didn’t have to have a name. At the same time I just don’t want to use ‘Phil Elverum’….The amount of significance that gets attached to different names is a little bit frustrating to me.”
He addresses the strong feelings fans have for his earlier alias on the new composition. The lyrics locate Elverum in his 20s, trying to make sense of himself, the world, his life in music. It’s powerful stuff, whether you are of similar vintage to the 42 year-old or a younger person grappling with the gradual realisation that the life you have built for yourself is fleeting and, in a way, doomed.
“I wish there was a word other than nostalgia,” he says. “Because nostalgia implies a fondness for the past, which I have for some parts. It’s not just that. It’s the complication of looking back at these previous versions of oneself and recognising all are still present.”
The idea that permanence and impermanence are one and the same is perhaps challenging to get your head around. Yet the message is couched in the most sublime music, which builds from an ambient lull to a catharsis forged from guitars and the seismic momentum of Elverum’s singing.
With the world emerging tentatively from the stillness of lockdown, the LP certainly arrives at a timely moment. “I started working on it last May . So it began in another time and another world,” he says. “But maybe it’s well suited to a more slow and contemplative time.”
I tell him that many in Europe will have registered a double-take upon reading that he and his late wife had to begin a crowdfunding campaign to pay for her cancer treatment. Rest assured it felt bizarre to them too.
“It really is getting weirder and weirder every day,” he says. “This is supposed to be a United States. But it’s not really united.”
His home of Anacortes has been likened to something from Twin Peaks. A 90 minute drive north of Seattle, it abuts the forested interior of Washington State and lies close to the Canadian border and Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, with its double-decker buses and pictures of the Queen.
“The country I live in is fucked, he says. “I’m fortunate to live in a corner that’s been fine. My daughter and I can go to the forest or the beach. Most of the people around here are onboard with looking out for each other, wearing masks. My actual experience of the lockdown has been fine. I wish there was school, I wish there was childcare. As a single parent it’s pretty hardcore.”
Elverum’s writing is often described as Lynchian. He appreciates why it may seem to outsiders that his music is rooted in the psychosphere of the Pacific North West. “Sometimes it is overt,” he says. “I am making an effort to talk about certain places. A lot of it though is more subtle than that.”
One surprise in Microphones in 2020 is the part where Elverum, listing some of the artists he listened to in the Nineties, namechecks Sinead O’Connor and The Cranberries.
“I feel they are a pop band,” he says of The Cranberries. “I don’t know where they track culturally. I always saw them as a successful pop band. And I liked them anyway.”
Microphones in 2020 is out now. The vinyl edition can be ordered here.