Phil Elverum, who performs as Mount Eerie, has a new album — "Now Only" — and is scheduled to perform March 31 during Fisherman’s Village Music Festival in Everett.
When Phil Elverum began writing songs for last year’s arrestingly somber “A Crow Looked at Me,” he wasn’t sure he’d ever play them for anyone. Uncloaked by metaphor, the blunt account of the trauma of unexpectedly losing his wife, artist Geneviève Castrée, to pancreatic cancer shortly after the birth of their daughter was painfully vivid; as diaristic as it was artistic, recalling her last breaths or the devastation in mundane tasks like throwing out her underwear.
It wasn’t without hesitation, but the bare-all approach led to an outpouring of critical acclaim for the solitary Anacortes songwriter who has described himself as “particularly self-enclosed.”
“I felt like I didn’t want to waste any more time with hesitation in any way, whether it was artistic or just enjoying my time … [or] living more deeply,” Elverum, who performs as Mount Eerie, said of the direct lyrics. “A weird side effect of being in close proximity to death is an urgency. I still have that urgency, I still feel that way, and part of that urgency is not softening the blow, not doing things halfway.”
That the heaping praise — from everyone from The New York Times to endearing rap goof Danny Brown — was tied to his devastating loss “felt strange and absurd.” It’s one of the topics Elverum, who performs Saturday (March 31) in Everett during Fisherman’s Village Music Festival, explores on this month’s more contemplative follow-up “Now Only.” As the initial trauma of Castrée’s death in 2016 dissipated, the experimental folk musician began grappling with mortality and legacy, and how to preserve her memory for their daughter, who’s now 3 years old. Though the arrangements are still vulnerably sparse, the wider thematic scope led to fewer but more sprawling songs (like haunting 11-minute rumination “Distortion”), which needed more time to develop than the shorter slices-of-grieving-life from “A Crow.”
The title track takes listeners from the hospital waiting room through a surreal Arizona festival scene after Elverum played his “death songs for a bunch of young people on drugs,” eventually arriving at the uneasiness that comes along with the healing process.
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“Even noticing that ‘Oh, I’m breaking down in tears less frequently’ — of course I don’t want to always be blubbering on the floor,” Elverum says. “But at the same time there’s this sadness, too — ‘Am I healing?’ I don’t want to be healing because in some ways that’s like I’m further away from the time that Geneviève was alive.”
Prior to the release of “A Crow,” Elverum hadn’t performed in two years, having taken time off while the couple had their child. Sharing recordings of the songs with family and friends — the people who “went through it all with Geneviève and I” — and getting their warm feedback gave him the courage to overcome his trepidation over playing them live. The first few shows were as “terrifying” as he expected, but audiences were “so kind and attentive” that he was able to overcome it and tour on the album significantly.
Aside from a smattering of West Coast dates this month followed by a short Japan run, Elverum doesn’t plan to tour this record as hard. The “Now Only” songs were “part of the same stream” that fed “A Crow” and Elverum played many of them on the road last year. “I don’t want to return to places and sing the same songs a second time,” he says. “I guess people do that all the time … but there’s something perverse about coming back to sing these songs to me.”
Instead he’ll take time to “live and be a parent” in the quiet town that his family’s called home for seven generations. Though down the road he plans to leave for a more remote location in the San Juan Islands, just like he and Castrée talked about after she got sick.
“Both Geneviève and I developed that dream together of leaving. It was sort of aspirational, that she was going to heal and we would leave and make a new life elsewhere that was new and healthy,” he says. “She didn’t live, but I kept the dream for myself.”
Fisherman’s Village Music Festival. Friday, March 30 through Sunday, April 1; various locations in downtown Everett; $15-$30 single day, $55 three-day pass, thefishermansvillage.com