Q&A: Will Sheff Finds Emotional Truth, Gets Nostalgic about Childhood on Okkervil River’s Silver Gymnasium

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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In the label bio you used a metaphor for how you make sense of the familiar with the unexpected with finding an action figure in the woods with New Hampshire and the 80s, where neither is meaningful without the other.

That was an emotional image for the record. And I talked about that image on a daily basis when I was making the record. It’s somewhat related to the pull between culture and nature or New Hampshire and the 1980s. And it even extends to the way we recorded the record. So every time we’d put a synthesizer on we would go, “Oh, now we have to put a banjo on.” Every time we’d put something more synthetic on, we’d put something that was aggressively organic on and that’s applying the dirt to the action figure.

With growing up in such a small town your reality must have been pretty unique with how you saw things.

Yeah. It was a unique childhood and that wasn’t clear to me at first because it was all I knew. I grew up in this really remote and isolated place and I knew that New York existed and knew that Paris existed. Most of what I knew was the 200-300 people that were in my school and this very human-side dimension to things. Not a lot of people have that experience of childhood. But at the same time peoples’ emotional landscape are similar whether they’re from the city or suburb or country or wherever – kids cycle through the same feelings. So I wanted to talk about the specificity of my experience in a way that might be illuminating but that hopefully reached for something more general to anyone’s experience.

For awhile you romanticized the town after leaving. Why do you think it’s easy to add additional or fictitious memories after you’re out of that environment?

I have romanticized a bit and there are certain painful aspects of the town that are alluded to in the record, that I didn’t make very explicit when I was talking about it because there’s some painful memories associated with people who still live in the town and I didn’t want to drag people’s pain out publicly like that. Not everything is sweetness in life and not always pleasant in my town but I didn’t want to expose some of the more painful aspects of that because of some of the people.

I think everyone fictionalizes all of their experiences on some level. When you’re thinking about memory, whether you’re talking about the stories you tell yourself or stories you tell other people, you exaggerate certain details and downplay others. Slowly over the course of retelling, your memories become fictionalized. But one thing that becomes clear is the emotional proof of what you were experiencing during that. I wanted to make sure I brought the emotional truth of what I was writing about to the forefront. I’m not a big fan of completely, exactly accurate writing. What I try to do is something that feels like it’s true. Sometimes what’s true involves some manipulation to get the emotional truth out.

What was the easiest and toughest song to write?

I think “Stay Young” might have been the easiest one to write. I had “Stay Young” rattling around in my head for a long time before I actually wrote it. I had the way the chorus worked, had the sentiment of the song and every now and then I would wake up and stick on a little part. As far as the hardest one to write I’m not sure if any of them were all that hard to write. Usually I think of a song as being hard to write kind of a bad sign. Not that there aren’t songs I’m proud of that took a lot of work to get into a finished form, but usually if it’s a struggle it’s not worth it. I guess in a sense “Black Nemo” was, only because that song took a long time to write. Not necessarily that I labored over it a long time, but more in the sense that I would pick it up and work on it a little and come back to it six months later and work on it a little bit more. That song took a little more difficulty to get the lyrics where I wanted them to be. But I think there was a point where I saw it from a different angle and once that happened the lyrics came really quickly. Sometimes that happens with a song where you keep turning it over, you put down and come back to it and very slowly it starts telling you what it wants to be.

What song really surprised you in writing or brought out memories you forgot?

I wouldn’t say it surprised me but I was very pleased with “Down Down the Deep River.” It said something I’ve always wanted to say my entire songwriting career and had never realized that I wanted to say. And it said it really clearly and yet also expansively. It hit so hard on the head of what I was trying to say.

In what ways do you hope people connect with the songs?

On a direct, friend/friendship kind of basis. I’m trying to talk to the listener as a friend. I’m trying to be friendly and open in the way that I’m writing and not pull any punches and I hope they’re songs to listen to if you’re driving down the road. I hope they’re helpful songs to listen to when you’re feeling unhappy. I hope they’re fun songs to watch us play. I hope they’re useful in some way.


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