As the leader of Austin-based folk-rock act Okkervil River, Will Sheff writes clever, concise pop songs with a sharp eye for lyrical detail. The group's latest LP, I Am Very Far, is a departure from the concept-heavy nature of its previous three releases and finds Sheff in the producer's chair for the first time. The album has a giddy, unhinged quality; it's the work of a songwriter throwing a lot of ideas at the wall to see what sticks. We caught up with Sheff in advance of Okkervil River's September 19 show at The Granada.
The Pitch: Your songs on previous records often come from the point of view of specific characters. Does it come more naturally to write as a character or to write from a more abstract, personal point of view, as on I Am Very Far?
Sheff: I guess they're two different things. I Am Very Far is this sort of weird, subjective, omniscient thing, or something like that. I think of the songs on I Am Very Far as narrated by a bunch of protagonists all put into a blender or an omniscient narrator who is in some way broken apart. It's a hard thing to try to explain because the process of writing the record was a really intuitive thing for me, whereas in the past, I'd develop a really specific idea of who these people were, where they lived, how old they were, what their family backgrounds might have been like. On I Am Very Far, that's a kind of exploded thing.
I Am Very Far includes a number of B-sides that you've released already. The Stage Names and Black Sheep Boy both had their own appendices. It seems like you go into your sessions well prepared with more songs than you'll be able to use. What's your method for paring down songs to make a cohesive record?
I make decisions about assembling records based on what songs seem to go together, not necessarily based on which ones end up being my favorites. I loved "Mermaid" from the I Am Very Far sessions, but when I put it on there, it seemed to drag the whole album into a very dark and sad kind of place, a little too much for me. I also had a straightforward pop song I really liked that I almost put near the front, and though it worked really well, it felt like it didn't have much to say to the rest of the songs on the record. In the end, I settled on which kinds of songs seemed to communicate with each other.
You wrote the bulk of this album in your home state of New Hampshire.
I went to New Hampshire because it was the site of my very earliest memories. And when I was writing songs for this record, I wanted to feel new in some way. I wanted to feel like I had been reborn or that feeling you get when you're really little and you don't fully understand everything that you're seeing happen around you and you have an awareness of being new, and it feels like the other world is closer to the surface than it is when you're older. Going back to New Hampshire helped to trigger that kind of feeling.
You produced this album yourself.
I felt like it was an important step in my development to get to a place where there was nobody to say no. Often this is a bad thing, but I had never really been there before. There was always a producer saying no or a budget saying no or a time frame saying no, and I never felt as free as I hoped to feel. I wanted to get in a position where I could walk all the way out into a very weird place and there would be nobody on the shore yelling, Come back!, and maybe I could get a little lost and disoriented.
Your songwriting is often described as being very literate. Have you ever entertained the idea of writing anything other than songs?
I've always written prose and poetry, that kind of thing. I was writing that long before I wrote songs, actually — since I was little. I've published some stuff here and there. I used to work as a music and film critic in Austin, and I published a fictional piece in McSweeney's a year or so ago, and I'd like to do more of that, but honestly, it's just a case of needing the time to do all that stuff. I have my hands full with music and touring and all that, though I've become a little obsessed more recently with figuring out a way to find more time so I can do more work. I just want to work and work until I'm dead.
One of your first singles was called "Kansas City." Is there any specific significance to that, or was it just a sort of idealized anywhere town in the Midwest that fit the context of the song?
I've always loved the folk tradition, where people would completely steal each other's songs and rewrite them and abdicate credit on their own work and steal someone else's and create all these wildly different versions of these common songs that everyone knew and sort of belonged to everyone. I think that resulted in some really strange and beautiful writing that'll probably endure forever. One of those songs is "Kansas City." There are blues versions and country versions and R&B versions, all variations of a sad and lost (or cocky and swaggering) kind of a breakup song. I wanted to write a new version that sort of put my own stamp on the same idea and idioms, kind of based on some stuff that was in the song that was also happening to me at the time and I could kind of relate to.