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Songs We Love: Okkervil River, 'Okkervil River R.I.P.'

"I just want to make stuff that feels humble and natural and 'right' and comes from somewhere other than just my brain," says Will Sheff of Okkervil River. (Courtesy of the artist)closemore
"I just want to make stuff that feels humble and natural and 'right' and comes from somewhere other than just my brain," says Will Sheff of Okkervil River. (Courtesy of the artist)

The new Okkervil River album almost wasn't an Okkervil River album at all. That's how the band's lead singer and songwriter, Will Sheff, explains it. "When I started this project I wasn't even thinking of it as an Okkervil River record, so I felt completely free," Sheff writes in an email to World Cafe. "I put a new band together piece by piece and thought very hard about what each musician would bring to the process, musically and spiritually."

The new album, Away, due later this year, was written during a period that Sheff says was "a kind of confusing time of transition in my personal and professional life." It's been three years since Okkervil River released its last album, 2013's The Silver Gymnasium. Since then, Sheff says, he "lost some connections in a music industry that was visibly falling apart. Some members of the backing band left, moving on to family life or to their own projects. I spent a good deal of time in hospice sitting with my grandfather [T. Holmes "Bud" Moore], who was my idol, while he died. Eventually, I realized I was kind of 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."

Away (ATO Records 2016). (Courtesy of the artist)
Away (ATO Records 2016). (Courtesy of the artist)

"Okkervil River R.I.P." is a gorgeous — albeit melancholy — song about soul-searching, finding the strength one needs to carry on in the face of adversity and finding solace in the ones we love. The song begins with a warm, soft and contemplative acoustic guitar riff, à la Joni Mitchell's "Morning Morgantown," and picks up the tempo midway through its almost seven-minute ride of reflection, storytelling and metaphor. There's an ingenious reference to the R&B vocal group Force MDs: Sheff connects the early deaths of three members of the group to his grandfather's passing. Sheff also sings about both a "big chance coming" and a "bad chance coming," suggesting that even in heartbreak one can find hope.

As the song's title suggests, making Away involved the metaphorical "killing" of the Okkervil River project. World Cafe went in depth with Sheff about his process in creating the new album and what it was like to start over.

In what studio did you record Away, and what part did that play in the songs?

As I've gotten older, my gratitude for the role music has played in my life has deepened. And I feel like I've become more discerning about what it is that makes my favorite albums — the ones that have been the most consistently useful for me over the longest span of time — stand out above albums I merely like. Honest songwriting is a huge part of it, but I also just love hearing devoted musicians who are masters of their craft, all of them listening and feeling something together. And I love the gorgeous recording tools and machines, from the peak of the hi-fi era, that were so loved and lingered over that they started to develop a soul of their own...

An engineer friend, Phil Palazzolo, told me about a kind of little best-kept-secret studio in Long Island called Sabella. The owner, Jim Sabella, has this obsessively-maintained collection of mics and outboard gear from the legendary CBS 30th Street Studio, along with the old Neve console owned by the famous producer Phil Ramone.

We worked quickly, and many of the tracks that ended up on the record represented only the first or second time we'd played that song. The most important thing was for the songs to come out naturally and [to] maintain a feeling of joy in playing. I wanted to take the best songs I could write, give them to the best band I could, stand in front of quality recording gear they don't make anymore and let the music happen without getting in the way.

Who played on the album?

My first intuition was to avoid players from a rock background. The guitarist is a guy named Will Graefe, with whom I was familiar through his band Star Rover — they do these modern deconstructions of early 20th-century old-time ballads along with more avant-garde, jazzier stuff. I knew I wanted upright bass on the record, and I got another younger jazz player named Noah Garabedian. For the two songs with electric bass I got Benjamin Lazar Davis, who's in this great collective called Cuddle Magic and has also done a lot of Afrobeat-style stuff as well as working with Joan as Police Woman.

That was the core live band, along with Cully Symington on drums, who is one of the only previous Okkervil River members involved — a brilliant drummer and a real cheerleader for me to make this record when I was kind of at a low point. We tried to play in an open way to make room for the orchestral arrangements, which were written with Nathan Thatcher and performed by yMusic.

I also added other players: Marissa Nadler and Jesse Marchant singing harmonies; Jared Samuel, who plays with Yoko Ono as well as fronting his own great band the Invisible Familiars, on electric piano; Jose Galeano from the Latin funk and cumbia band Grupo Fantasma on congas; Mick Rossi, who plays with Philip Glass and Paul Simon ... The only other previous Okkervil River person was Jonathan Meiburg, who added vocals. He's my old original partner from really early in Okkervil River and my closest thing to a musical soulmate.

It's a bit ironic that "killing" Okkervil River has given you new life. What have you learned in your rebirth?

I had an epiphany around the time I was writing, which is that I really believe it's an artist's job to create beauty around them — to make beautiful things that can be useful to people. I'm defining beauty broadly, because beauty can be ugly or scary or violent, or even kind of silly and fun. But music has this chance to be an actual form of magic that can change your mood or change your mind or even save your life.

I've been up and down in my career, and I've spent time worrying about it, and I've spent time pretending I don't care but secretly caring and not being able to stop worrying about what I'm supposed to do in the music business or what I'm supposed to not do, or how I'm supposed to keep going ... Now I think I have to try every day to remember to let all that go and just do what feels right, and not try to please or impress anybody but to just fully embody, as much as possible, the job of being a person who makes pretty things.

What are a few things that you "killed off"?

In a way, this record is about killing things off (or maybe allowing a part of myself to be killed off), but the experience of it wasn't aggressive ... It was like starting in an empty room, and then thinking very carefully about everything from my previous life I wanted to bring back into the room. That list turned out to be tiny, and it didn't include the previous band that made up Okkervil River. I want to make very clear that I love them and think the world of their musicianship and who they are as people ... I think I didn't like the way I personally was, and it was like one of those situations where the only way you can change is by moving to a new town. I'm trying to correct mistakes I made before and do it right.

With the music, I'm not as interested in rock 'n' roll as I used to be, and I don't really think of this as rock. That was a really fun thing to do when I was in my 20s and catharsis was a really important goal for me, and I feel like catharsis is still important, but there's something else that seems like it's more powerful to me now ... As for my own writing, I've been trying and wanting forever to kill off cleverness or any kind of emotional dishonesty and just write from intuition. I just want to make stuff that feels humble and natural and "right" and comes from somewhere other than just my brain.

Away comes out Sept. 9 on ATO Records.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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