Phil Elverum on Six of His Songs
Note: This article is a companion piece to Brandon Stosuy’s
interview with Phil Elverum, also in this issue.
I chose a handful of songs from Elverum’s oeuvre and asked him to write about them. I tried coming up with a mixed bag. He selected one, “Through the Trees,” from Wind’s Poem.
1. “I Want Wind to Blow,” The Glow Pt. 2
I don’t remember what got me thinking about storms as a metaphor for emotional turmoil, but there were a bunch of songs on this theme. This one I remember writing, discovering the guitar line, sitting on the guest bed in my friend Mirah’s parents’ house outside Philadelphia in the fall of 2000 in the middle of a long tour. Life at home was confusing and stagnant and so “I want wind to blow.…” means “I want crazy events to happen to me. I’m tired of gray. Give me black or white.” Also, my hometown, Anacortes, is more exposed and more windy on its island than the basin holding Olympia, where I lived at the time. I missed home.
2. “The Dead of Night,” Dawn
This was during cabin time in Norway. I was just thinking about that term, “the dead of night,” and how Halloweeny it is. Also, I had some strange experiences waking up in the middle of those twenty-hour-long arctic nights and being confused and walking around the black cabin room. The song is about the idea of holding on to the memory of that mysterious black void while in the middle of the bright day. Yin-yang or whatever.
3. “Domesticated Dog,” Black Wooden Ceiling Opening
Riding in a rented minivan across Montana with Calvin Johnson and his mom in September 2006. It came out of nowhere. Perhaps the “sleeping giant” in the last verse came from those reclining-human-like Montana hills.
4. “Lost Wisdom,” Lost Wisdom (and, in different form, on Wind’s Poem)
Driving through northeast Oregon and Idaho alone in the middle of the night, thinking about what that Burzum song title could mean, without really even knowing the Burzum song at all. Thinking about how depressing it is that all we learn in our lives is lost and misunderstood by posterity no matter what. Also how even within our lives we quickly forget important lessons learned. Obliviousness v. clarity, repeatedly. I wrote it while driving in the dark, and the pages in my notebook were mostly illegible the next morning.
5. Mount Eerie Pts. 6 & 7
These four songs (unofficially called “Known World,” “Unknown World,” “Blue Light on the Floor,” and “Mount Eerie Revealed”) are also mostly about obliviousness v. clarity. This is a recurring concern of mine. Getting older, being more mellow, less romantic and extreme, having a home instead of being a vagabond character. Also, still focusing on the idea of “Mount Eerie” as a looming, invisible presence. The night sky above the house where content people obliviously live normal lives, and the relationship between the two, the large mystery and the everyday.
This is a vague, broad description, but it’s four songs.
6. “Moon Sequel,” Dawn
Also from cabin time in Norway. Pretty much just obsessing over old wounds and getting emo about it, alone. A little embarrassing.
7. “Through the Trees,” Wind’s Poem
My friend Nick Krgovich came down from Vancouver, and we attempted to replicate David Lynch sound-track synth music, specifically “Polish Poem” from Inland Empire. Pretty straightforward. “From up on the hill I can see the lights of town through the trees” is the line that holds the song together. It’s very specific to the hill I lived on and how it felt to be above town like that, watching the lives of people below and feeling different. Also, where is the source of wind? You’d look for it up on the hill, right?
8. “Don’t Smoke,” Don’t Smoke/Get Off the Internet 7” and Black Wooden Ceiling Opening
For a while there in 2006 I was feeling compelled to tell people what to do in my songs. It can be disorienting to have so much attention pointed at you. I started to feel like I should push myself to be more confrontational and pragmatic with the attention I had; to make some actual difference in the world around me. It was starting to seem absurd, the contradiction of all the young people around me at shows on tour who are vegan and radical and eat healthy food and everything, but then smoking so many cigarettes still. It seemed like a very basic thing to point out. “If you care about creating a better world, which you apparently do, start small and close. Be healthy. Don’t do the obviously unhealthy thing. Don’t give them your money either.” Maybe it’s not really apparent in the song, but I was hoping to phrase it in such a way that smoking was just used as an example of one of many obviously dumb things we all do. These are complicated parts of human psychology. I eventually felt like I should stay out of everyone’s business. People are complex. I went back to only singing about my own experience.