Okkervil River's Will Sheff Is Focused On Rebirth Okkervil River, as fans once knew it, is no longer — but its frontman says he sees the transition as "a free moment." Sheff spoke with Kelly McEvers about the band's new album, Away.
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Will Sheff Isn't 'Singing About Death' — He's Singing About Rebirth

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Will Sheff Isn't 'Singing About Death' — He's Singing About Rebirth

Will Sheff Isn't 'Singing About Death' — He's Singing About Rebirth

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

If it hasn't happened to you already, it will - the fork in the road, the midlife crisis, that moment when you decide to make a change. That's what musician Will Sheff did recently. Many of his bandmates in the indie group Okkervil River were moving on to other things. The rock 'n' roll lifestyle was wearing on him. And his beloved grandfather died. So Will Sheff holed himself up in a little room in the Catskills and just started writing - stream-of-consciousness lyrics, not much editing or worrying about what it all means. Just get it down on tape, preserve the moment, sort through the emotions and hopefully come out on the other side a little wiser.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKKERVIL RIVER R.I.P.")

WILL SHEFF: (Singing) Hey, my little baby, pointing at the sky's amazing in the lake now. All of this sensation and no space on Earth to place it where it's safe now.

MCEVERS: The resulting Okkervil River album is called "Away." Will Sheff joins me now from Boston. Welcome.

SHEFF: Thanks a lot, Kelly. It's awesome to be here.

MCEVERS: Yeah. So there is no getting around the title of the first track on this album. It's "Okkervil River R.I.P." And in the video, you're actually singing from inside a coffin. So I think your fans probably got the message, like, this band as we've known it is dead and gone. Am I right?

SHEFF: Well, yeah, sort of. When I was working on this record, I wasn't even sure it was a record. I was in a place where I was sort of, like, feeling very psychologically vulnerable. I'd had a lot of upheaval in my life, personal and professional. And I was sort of just writing as a form of therapy. But it just sort of lined up with this period of a lot of things in my life, including my band. I couldn't see them moving forward the way that they were.

So I just called up other musicians and thought maybe I'll just try something else. I had always wanted to work with players that weren't coming right out of a straight up rock 'n' roll tradition. So I got in touch with a jazz upright bassist, a guitarist who does a lot of, like, fingerstyle American folk music. And I walked away from those two days in the studio. And I thought, this is maybe the best thing I've ever done.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKKERVIL RIVER R.I.P.")

SHEFF: (Singing) I'll wear a white suit and black sunglasses to the last mass now. OK.

MCEVERS: I want to talk about that first song again, though. I mean, it does - you are in a coffin in that video. And you're talking about people who've gone before us.

SHEFF: Yeah.

MCEVERS: But then the last verse is like all the air is glittering. I went and hit the skating rink alone now. I watched the kids all skim across the ice. They look so nice. It was so cold out. It almost is like some sort of, like, death and rebirth kind of thing?

SHEFF: Yeah. I mean, it's funny, when I was writing this record, it was just like my invisible friend that nobody else knew existed. It felt like this beautiful golden cloud. And then when I listened back to the songs to figure out which ones to put on the record, I was like I sound really sad.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

SHEFF: And I'm constantly singing about death.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

SHEFF: And I didn't even know that until...

MCEVERS: Wow.

SHEFF: ...I listened back.

MCEVERS: Huh.

SHEFF: I don't think I'm really singing about death. I think the album's really interested in rebirth. I think of it as very positive. That moment when you recognize that things in your life are dead or have, like, outlived their relevancy, it's a free moment. It's like a really, really scary moment. But it's a free moment because suddenly you've got the opportunity to go on to the next thing that you've got to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKKERVIL RIVER R.I.P.")

SHEFF: (Singing) It was a big waste, brother, such a big waste. Yeah, I know. They had some great songs. It must have been a great time so long ago.

MCEVERS: You were talking about some of the things that were kind of going wrong for you leading up to this album.

SHEFF: Yeah.

MCEVERS: What else was going on in your life?

SHEFF: I also had spent a lot of time in the presence of death because I was going to spend a lot of time with my grandfather, who was in hospice.

MCEVERS: And you wrote about your grandfather...

SHEFF: Yeah.

MCEVERS: ...In the song "Comes Indiana Through The Smoke." And Indiana is referring to the battleship that he served on...

SHEFF: That's right.

MCEVERS: ...In World War II, right?

SHEFF: Yeah. You know, he was my absolute hero. He was a larger-than-life man named Thomas Holmes Bud Moore, who had kind of come from completely nothing, become the - this headmaster of the New Hampton School in New Hampton, N.H., who was almost this, like, patriarch of the entire region. And he was a jazz trumpet player, and...

MCEVERS: Wow.

SHEFF: ...Just a really incredibly positive, you know, force for good in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMES INDIANA THROUGH THE SMOKE")

SHEFF: (Singing) But you were bigger than life. You were giant. You were Earth-sized. And now you're mostly just your mind and your dim eyes and your fractured spine. And you're sailing to the great unknown, but you've got to go alone there.

He had asked me on his deathbed if I would help him edit his memoirs. He had broken his spine and he couldn't move anything below his neck. And I spent a lot of time around him. That was a really profound thing.

All of those things kind of hit at the same time. And I found myself up in the woods, where every day I would just cook and go for a walk and write some and go outside and meditate and write some more and take hallucinogenic drugs and write some more.

Yeah, all I did was think about what music had been for me, which is this thing that started out as, like, the most exciting thing in the world and then turned into a way to pay for my apartment, which was a miracle when that happened. And then slowly over time, turned into, like, a person, like, a presence in the room with its hand on my shoulder, helping me get over things that were really, really hard and difficult. And it felt very spiritual to just be devoted fully to that, like some kind of weird monk of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF OKKERVIL SONG, "JUDEY ON A STREET")

MCEVERS: The reviews for this album so far have been amazing.

SHEFF: I've been very lucky in that way, yeah.

MCEVERS: Yeah. A lot of writers are saying it's one of the best albums of the year, comparing you to Van Morrison, Nick Drake. Are you surprised?

SHEFF: I don't know.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

SHEFF: There's something very different about this record for me. Usually by this point in the cycle, I hate the record. All I can think about is the things I wish I'd done differently.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

SHEFF: And with this record, it's not like every little filigree is executed with the utmost perfection, or something. It's not about that. It's like it's alive. I have, like, a relationship with it. And I'm so grateful for that.

MCEVERS: That is Will Sheff. He has led the band Okkervil River for the last 18 years. The latest is called "Away." Thank you very much.

SHEFF: No, thank you, Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUDEY ON A STREET")

SHEFF: (Singing) Hey, the record goes like.

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