By Safiya Hopfe
This article originally appeared in BeatRoute BC’s March issue. Now Only is out now.
CALGARY – Having made music since 1996, beginning with an ethereally grimy studio project known as The Microphones and later going solo as Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum has moved through phases of creation and left his mark as both songwriter and producer. When 2016 saw the shocking cancer diagnosis and eventual passing of his wife Geneviève, he was forced to confront tragedy both personally and creatively. What resulted was the acclaimed existential masterpiece A Crow Looked At Me, a record that unpacks grief’s weighted layers with poignant vulnerability.
Continuing in the noticeably different direction that catastrophe sparked two years ago, Elverum has returned with Now Only, a six-track follow-up he describes as even more personally detailed.
“I’m kind of burrowing into it, into the details, more details, not of death but of the life around it,” he says. “The first album was like, death is real, and that’s it, and I’m stabbing you with that fact, and it’s blunt and heavy, but the truth is that it’s not that simple. The echoes that come after a blunt realization like that are so interesting, and heavy, and sorrow and love and joy and residual things, and thinking about the memories – who is she to me now? And what is this house I’m living in with her stuff still?”
He describes it as an internal project, a fact innate to all that he works on musically considering his tendency toward creative solitude. The difference is that, since experiencing directly one of the greatest human challenges – death itself – his projects have become more lyrical than ever. As a matter of fact, lyrics never used to matter to him all that much.
“I don’t even think of it as a music project anymore, with the last two albums,” he explains. “It’s a writing project. Before, for the previous decades of making this stuff, it was very much a studio project. I mean, that’s why it was called The Microphones at first, cause that was my world, exploring in the studio and making worlds out of it.”
Trauma has a way of reshaping worlds, and Elverum’s is no exception. For years, he and his wife lived as two artists in a perpetual workspace.
“When she got diagnosed with this absurd cancer, for no reason, it just felt like, what’s the point of being so obsessed with art in this way? What good does it do?” He continues, “Art felt like decoration. It felt ephemeral and like frosting. And if I was going to make something, I wanted to just tell the truth with no decoration. And that’s what I tried to do.”
It began in notebooks – scribbles that he realized long after the fact were destined to be songs. And then it all came out at once.
“It felt so good to be doing this familiar work of twisting ideas and honing them into a song shape,” he says. “It felt good, mentally.”
When asked what success in artistry means to him, Elverum highlights honesty and authenticity. Although this has always been the case, emotional turmoil has brought its importance to the forefront. “It’s always been a priority, but it’s amplified now.” There is no question that he has embraced intimacy and transparency in his art since grappling with tragedy and facing it with a creative eye. He and others describe Now Only as the most achingly honest response to his wife’s death yet.
Elverum demonstrates the power of adversity in generating rebirth, creatively and otherwise. One thing is for sure: he hasn’t finished making us cry. Not yet.
Mount Eerie plays Central United Church as part of Sled Island on June 20 (Calgary).Central United Church, Mount Eerie, Now Only, Sled Island