Phil Elverum on community, creativity, and solitude

In a world where media so often smooths over rough edges, Phil Elverum, frontman of Mount Eerie, and formerly, The Microphones, stands out as an artist who confronts grief, nature, and the realities of the human experience with unflinching honesty through his music. Notably, Elverum is also an Anacortes native, who has now lived on Orcas for the past five years. His writing process, experience in the music industry as an independent producer, and coming of age in the Puget Sound all set him apart as one of the most grounded, intentional figures in the indie music scene today.

For the past several years, Elverum has been in the writing and recording process of Mount Eerie’s eleventh studio album. Elverum says his recording process “…used to be about a year pretty consistently…but then I had a kid and I had to get more efficient with my flow, because I have so little time…it made me do less. The songs became simpler.” But this album is an exception; “for this one, I didn’t want to [have a release deadline.] I just want to make stuff and let it grow on its own pace. And it’s possible it’s gotten a little too big because of that.”

Elverum’s best-selling record to date is A Crow Looked at Me (2017), a deeply personal account of his grief following the death of his wife. His upcoming work departs from that theme: “…there’s more ambiguity, more metaphor and poetry to it, rather than…trying to have zero poetry, just the names and dates and straight diary, basically…[it] didn’t feel like fruitful anymore. So, I wanted to get back into what song and poetry can be. Which is a little more mysterious, I think.”

One distinctive trademark of Elverum’s music is the natural symbols, which are used both as metaphor and as imagery in stories. Often these symbols invoke a uniquely northwestern image of fog, wind, rain, the sea, and sometimes specifically named landmarks such as Fidalgo Island’s Mount Erie. However, Elverum actually attempts to avoid the imagery in his work “because it happens so insistently. Naturally, it’s become a little bit ‘Oh my God, do I have another song about wind?’…I don’t want to fall into the hole of singing mystical songs about nature just as decoration…but I end up using those terms because the vocabulary of the natural world just makes the most sense to me.”

Ironically, the place Elverum credits as one of his creative touchstones is I-5.  “Most of the songs I’ve written have come to me while I’m driving. When I lived in Anacortes, I noticed that it was often when I was driving back and forth to Olympia. For some reason, so many songs came together right at the really stinky pulp mill in Everett. I think it was a certain length of time after leaving Anacortes, when I would be driving alone for long enough and my mind was settled, and then the idea just came up. I think of that spot as the source of all my songs weirdly.”

Elverum has been involved in the music scene since he released his first album at age 18. 27 years later, he describes the Internet as being the biggest change he has observed in the music industry: “[when] I started in high school, there was no Internet, really. It was just really slow webpages. The way people consume music now is completely different, with streaming and not really paying artists.” Elverum’s beginnings in music were in a time where “you make something, and then you sell it to people. Pretty straightforward. But now you get a video game to sponsor you to put your product in the game, but on a drink that comes with a shoe. I don’t even know. It’s so abstract now.”

In his upbringing in Anacortes, Elverum found a community that further highlights the distance between his beginnings in music and the landscape of the music industry today. “…little communities of like-minded artists are pretty crucial. I think maybe they exist online now…maybe they don’t. Maybe when the community is something as vast as TikTok or Instagram or whatever, it’s infinite. And it doesn’t feel like a community. It feels just like an ocean.”

Elverum said that the community he found allowed him to enjoy the small town of Anacortes more, and not feel trapped there. “I had small group of good friends, and we had fun doing our weird projects together. And that was enough for me to feel like ‘Yes, it’s smallish here, but you create your own fun wherever you are.’”

When Elverum graduated from Anacortes High School, he attended Evergreen State College. He found that his natural love for experimentation when it came to recording music and “mak[ing] a world by layering sounds and by doing things in different ways” was not reflected in his music studies there. “I took a recording class there and was taught this whole other approach to recording which was basically don’t experiment. Drums should sound like this, guitar should sound like this, vocals should sound like this. It was very dead. And so, I dropped that class and actually dropped out of Evergreen, because I knew that wasn’t my purpose in life.”

Elverum believes that there are things he needed to leave Anacortes to experience. “I think these places like Anacortes and Orcas are magical, wonderful places to live, and essential to leave, and then maybe come back. I think some people leave and come back, but it’s so crucial…to leave for perspective of the world.” After living in Olympia, Elverum returned to Anacortes in search of “more open space and emptiness” and eventually moved to Orcas when “Anacortes started to feel too crazy.”

On Orcas, Elverum finds an uninterrupted life in which to create his art. “I really like quiet, and I actually am not that reliant on community as an artist. I tend to do work best when people leave me alone. You can do here.” The slow pace of island life seems to agree with him, and agree with his artistic process. “I have a more spacious life here and give myself more time to just kind of let ideas develop. It’s nice.”