Recent thoughts on the perpetual “I” of such much of my writing, experienced as “the inside as a folding of the outside”, are ricocheting (once again) off Phil Elverum.
I really like what he has to say here in an interview for The Atlantic about addressing an abstract “you” of his album Now Only alongside an abstracted “I”.
Spencer Kornhaber: The first lines on Now Only are, “I sing to you / I sing to you, Geneviève.” They seem to imply that you’re not singing to the wider world. Why was it important to start there?
Phil Elverum: Maybe it’s because I noticed all these songs have a “you” in them. And then I started thinking about who that is, and how she doesn’t exist — or does she? That big mystery is the thesis of the record, the question I’m poking at.
I don’t have anything to say to the wider world right now, and when I do it doesn’t feel great. It doesn’t feel great to be too meta or self-referential. There are parts on the record where I am talking about the absurdity of the bigger picture of my life, about playing these songs in public. But that’s not the core of what I’m trying to get at with this body of work. It’s more of an internal thing.
Kornhaber: Those moments do stick out. Like when you’re talking about singing your “death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs” at a music festival where Skrillex is playing. Was that as absurd an experience as it sounds?
Elverum: Oh, of course. It even feels absurd to be writing or singing a song at all — in the context of actual death, being alive feels absurd. So the Skrillex moment just becomes a joke. Not a bad joke. It is good to be alive. The universe is chaotic and meaningless, and it’s good to laugh about it. That’s my stance on life, actually. Some people go through life grinding their teeth, suffering and banging their head against the wall. I’m glad that’s not the reaction that occurs in me.
Kornhaber: What did you learn from the reception of the last album?
Elverum: It was actually pretty reaffirming. I lived with Geneviève for 13 years, and before meeting her I used to be pretty open and write songs about whatever specific turmoil I was going through. But when I met her, I felt like, “No, this is different, this is too special to share with the world.” I couldn’t sing about it. We lived in this bubble of privacy. And we were very careful.
When she died, for whatever reason, that bubble popped. And I felt compelled to open up totally to the world again. It was scary to make that leap. Before playing the songs for anyone, I had literal nightmares where I’d be on stage and then somebody would come up on stage and punch me. Because they just didn’t want to hear these songs, because it was too scary for them or something.
The opposite has been the case. People are relating in a way that is so open and human. So the thing I learned from the album was that everyone is much kinder and more mature than I expected. It’s easy to have a bleak view of humanity and people’s intelligence and compassion, but opening up about this stuff improved my feeling about being alive.