Prior to writing Away, the forthcoming record from his band Okkervil River, Will Sheff was at a personal and creative crossroads. Okkervil River had essentially disbanded, with members moving on to other projects or to raise families. Sheff's grandfather, a jazz musician and Sheff's personal hero, had become gravely ill.
Sheff spent much of his time at his grandfather's bedside as he lay dying in hospice in New Hampshire, where Sheff grew up. Following his passing, Sheff retreated to a friend's empty house in the Catskills and began writing, with no clear idea what he was writing, exactly. He simply let himself go to see what might happen.
"Eventually, I realized I was writing a death story for a part of my life that had, buried inside of it, a path I could follow that might let me go somewhere new," Sheff wrote in a statement about the album, which is due out on September 9.
Away doesn't much sound like an Okkervil River album, at least on the surface. In place of his old backing band, Sheff enlisted a collection of avant-garde and jazz players, plus guests such as Marissa Nadler, the contemporary classical ensemble yMusic, and his old Okkervil River and Shearwater bandmate Jonathan Meiburg. In place of OR's signature indie romp is a more delicate, contemplative and ethereal sound. Sheff indeed found a new path in the woods of the Catskills. It is sometimes serenely gorgeous and sometimes haunting.
Okkervil River play the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge on Sunday, July 17. Ahead of that show, and one day before Sheff's 40th birthday, Seven Days spoke with the songwriter by phone.
SEVEN DAYS: Unless Wikipedia is lying to me, which it never does, happy birthday!
WILL SHEFF: Oh, yeah! It's tomorrow. I appreciate that.
SD: And it's a big one. Forty, right?
WS: It is. I've been thinking about that. I've been so busy working that I haven't planned anything for my birthday, really. And I feel worried about it. My 40th birthday is a really good opportunity for me to set myself off on the next 10 years of my life in a way that really makes sense. I'm excited to turn 40. It's like cracking open the next chapter of my life. So I started planning little things — like, one teeny little thing a day that I want to do. It will be a week of my birthday, instead of one big day. So I appreciate getting a birthday wish from a stranger!
SD: So, weird coincidence: I turned 38 recently. And the day before was the first time I listened to "Okkervil River R.I.P.," from the new album. And there's a line about being a couple of days away from turning 38 and you're a horrible sight. Gotta say, that one hit close to home.
WS: That's funny. I'm glad I was able to give you that little moment.
SD: Speaking of the new record, it's a new direction for you and Okkervil River. What inspired the shift?
WS: I think the crucial part of all of this is that I wasn't setting out to make an Okkervil River record. In fact, I wasn't even sure if I was making a record. It's funny, I wrote this little statement about the record, and I was trying to explain where I was at emotionally, kind of having a little emotional breakdown. And everybody kind of makes it sound like ... I don't know. It's weird. The point is, I was in a place where I was doing a lot of writing in an unguarded way. And I really liked it, so I thought I would see, as an exercise for myself, if I could write a whole record. So that was my whole goal: Write, write, write.
SD: But then you enlisted a bunch of avant-garde jazz players.
WS: Well, I thought, I have a great drummer. And when you have a great drummer, you can do any kind of music in the world. And not necessarily the things you'd associate with having a strong drummer, like funk. You can apply that to the most subtle, simple things and elevate it way more than in a situation where you're noticing the drumming.
So I had a vision in my mind of doing a more acoustically based record and working with jazz people and [not thinking] in a usual rock way. I wasn't sure I'd even do anything with it. But in two days we recorded about 12 songs, and everything was pretty much done and ready to go. And I walked away from it like, That was fun. I don't really know what that was, but it was cool.
And over time, these songs that I'd recorded became the most important things to me in my life. And they contained inside of them some kind of future for me. I had actually brought a thing into the world, even though I was the only person who knew about it besides the musicians. And that thing became something that wanted to help me. Then I started thinking about releasing the record. And I started contacting friends about adding arrangements and little vocals. And along the way I thought, You know, this is Okkervil River.
SD: Even though it was just you and Cully Symington from the last incarnation of the band?
WS: So much of my life with Okkervil River as it went on was ruled by wondering what people thought. What should I do? What do people want to hear? Maybe I should give them what they want to hear. Maybe I should give them the opposite thing and defy expectations. But when you do that, you're still a slave to expectations. Your No. 1 goal as an artist is to truly listen to your own heart and instincts. That's not to say you should ignore people and make art just for yourself. Because art just for yourself is kind of sterile.
But the paradox is that if you try to make people happy, you actually won't make them happy, because they'll feel like you're pandering to them. So the way to try to make people happy is to make yourself happy, and people will respond to the reality and truth of what you're doing, and that makes them happy. So I thought that this was gonna be Okkervil River the new way that I move forward. Because everything else around me seemed like a dead end.
SD: You mentioned writing in a more unguarded way. You've never been one to write confessionally, and you're not really doing it here. But it does seem to come from a more raw place. Were you consciously trying to tap into that?
WS: Trying is probably the wrong word. I wasn't really trying anything when I wrote these songs. And I think that's the distinction. I think I maybe spent a lot of time trying in my life. Trying to get money. Trying to get respect. Trying to show people that I was smart and trying to get noticed. Trying to not get kicked out of my apartment. And I think that so much of this record was about not trying. Just fully doing the thing that felt like the right thing to do. And it felt very natural to me. Like, as soon as you get around one bend in the road, you see the place to go. And you go there and see the next place.
I just really wasn't worried about what other people wanted me to do, or even what I wanted to do. It was just about What is the thing? It felt really intuitive that way.
SD: That sounds refreshing.
WS: I wasn't mediating between the thing that I wrote and the thing that I sang. And that was a refreshing thing, because my worst danger is getting too lost in my brain. When I'm at my worst, I'm approaching things too much through my brain. When I'm at my best, I'm approaching things through my body or through my heart.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Do Less"