Not sure whether his band was alive or dead, and not sure which he even wanted, Will Sheff found himself writing songs last year simply to push through a swirl of intense, often dark emotions.
Sheff felt like he was returning to the past, to 1998, when he started Okkervil River as a ramshackle folk-rock band in Austin, Texas. Or returning even earlier, to his childhood, when music opened up a bigger world for an introverted kid who couldn’t see well. Amidst a period of personal and professional turbulence, he started writing, loose and improvisationally, with no aim or goal in mind.
“I was just like an animal reacting to his environment. I literally was in a time when I was unsettled and not even living in my home and kind of licking my wounds a little bit in seclusion,” he says. “At the same time, art and making art and making music has always been such a part of my life, this really friendly presence in my life and a really reassuring presence from when I was a little kid all the way up to the point where music rescued me from a life I didn’t feel at home in and gave me a job. So music has been this hand on my shoulder forever and I was really using music to try to heal myself somehow.”
In doing so, Sheff reconnected with something very immediate about his relationship to music, something more basic about expression and creativity, something that felt more tangible and powerful to him than the sort of overarching concept or theme that has typically formed the core of an Okkervil River record.
“I wasn’t really thinking about whether this was going to be an attempt to put food on the table or an attempt to get people to like me. I was just thinking about addressing my immediate level of pain and anxiety,” he says.
Sheff’s work on that new batch of songs coincided with the 10-year anniversary of Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy album, the band’s creative breakthrough that received a deluxe reissue and accompanying tour centered on live performances of the album in full.
“Black Sheep Boy was a similar time in my life. I was broke and going through a tumultuous relationship situation and looking to maybe give up on music,” he says. “I was attempting Black Sheep Boy as sort of my last shot, so there was a sense of freedom there. And I felt like I’d gone around in a spiral, in the same spot, but one groove over.”
The parallels between 2005 and 2015 fascinated Sheff.
“I remember doing interviews saying I feel like I’m at the same point in my life, but I wasn’t telling anybody that I have a whole new record, because I didn’t even know what it was,” he says. “I’m not sure if the audience realized this, but when we were doing the Black Sheep Boy shows, playing those songs in that order, that was like us saying goodbye to each other and to that decade of our lives and to that version of what Okkervil River used to mean.”
After the full band tours, Sheff played a series of solo shows on the West Coast, performing the Black Sheep Boy material on his own, to close out that year of retrospection.
“For me symbolically, that was about stripping it down to nothing, back down to just me,” he says. “Little did anybody realize I had another record that I was slowly deciding was going to be an Okkervil River record. I realized that I’m the last man standing of the band that started in 1998 that I wrote all the songs for and I felt like I was taking it back to its infancy again. I felt like I was spiritually mapping a path for myself by taking things back down to just me and starting over.”
The fundamental realization for Sheff became that Okkervil River didn’t mean any one thing. The band didn’t have to have the old rules, or any rules. What he calls the “thrashy, spazzy, sprinting energy” of rock ‘n’ roll could always provide an emotional catharsis, but now he was looking for something beyond that.
“I felt like I was trying to be faithful to something I was no longer enthusiastic about, but at a certain point I realized that Okkervil River didn’t have to be anything. I started to realize there are other forms of music that can go deeper and give you something more important,” he says. “This new material took so much of my interest in rhythm and my interest in musicianship and my interest in folk music and my interest in non-rock ‘n’ roll forms of music.”
Among a disparate slate of influences—among them the Incredible String Band, Alice Coltrane, Van Morrison and D’Angelo—Sheff saw a new path for Okkervil River and his new songs. Away, released Sept. 9 on ATO, is Okkervil River’s eighth full-length album, but one recorded with an entirely new backing band, musicians Sheff picked precisely because they didn’t have the same rock ‘n’ roll backgrounds. The arrangements and overall sound of Away are completely different than anything Sheff has recorded before with any bandmates and the record begins, fittingly, with a song called “Okkervil River R.I.P.”
“In the past, I used to really think hard about ‘this is the sound I’m going for, this is the thing that I want.’ I tried to make a conscious effort not to do that on this record,” he says. “The appeal of getting people who come out of jazz or avant-garde backgrounds is that I can trust them. I can trust-fall into their playing and know that their brains aren’t going to go into a standard rock ‘n’ roll place. So then we can just throw the line further and further and further out into deeper water and get something more unique and special.”
In many respects, Away succeeds because it gave Sheff the opportunity to reach out and write songs that he wouldn’t have been able when working within the context of a particular theme or concept for an album. Sheff’s songs are both more personal and more experimental than before.
“Comes Indiana Through the Smoke” is a song written in tribute to his grandfather and the ship he served on during World War II. Sheff spent a good deal of emotionally overwhelming time sitting in hospice with his grandfather, who was his idol.
“I was writing that song and I didn’t know what it was. It was a shape in the mist and suddenly it came to me that it was like a ship,” Sheff says. “When you really, really love something that’s bigger than you, you can write a song about it. An obvious example is a national anthem, but you can write a song for your car, or your school, or you can write a song for a ship. I wanted to do something like that for the USS Indiana because it meant so much to my grandfather.
“Having this responsibility of being the senior aviator on an aircraft carrier caused him to grow up. It was this thing that he kept coming back to, not that he was overly patriotic or a war-like guy. He was a really radiant, peaceful soul and very generous. In a way he was like that ship. He was this big, larger than life thing that you could depend on.”
“Days Spent Floating (in the Halfbetween)” came from an experiment he’d long considered. Sheff wrote down the first sentence that popped in head every morning for a month, only recording it as an afterthought and ultimately flubbing some lyrics on the only vocal take he attempted.
“It’s something I’d wanted to do for a really long time and because it was this weird, unsettled time, it felt very real because I wasn’t going through the motions,” he says.
From the writing to the recording, the entire process of creating Away felt freeing, says Sheff, happy and reinvigorated to have worked against the grain and calling the album the favorite he’s ever recorded. Six of the nine songs stretch longer than six minutes, the result of less planning and more believing in the moment.
“In the past with Okkervil River records, I would have things worked out to the nth degree before I went into the studio and it was just a matter of executing the blueprint,” he says. “Everything else to me feels like a carefully constructed thing, and this wasn’t constructed. It feels like it’s just something I pulled intact out of my subconscious as opposed to a ship in the bottle I carefully made over months.”