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Okkervil River

“What’s this street here? ‘Martin Street’? What if I walk right out that door, how do I get there?” It’s easy to imagine Okkervil River’s front man Will Sheff with a palm over the receiver, stood before a bemused local as their dampened murmurs filter down the phoneline. Not long passes until he returns to the call. “I’m just trying to get food before all the restaurants close,” he explains. Imprisoned by an apparently infinite media-cycle, Sheff’s time-out from the world appears an especially precious opportunity.

Incidentally, in approaching the band’s latest album I Am Very Far, Sheff would embark upon an extended stint of isolation. According to the front man, a clean slate was in order – as well as a return to his hometown of New Hampshire. “I just wanted to feel like I was new and I was starting again for the first time and that I had just never done anything before. Being back in New Hampshire, where I’m from, enabled me to feel that way. I felt like this is where it all began and it’s where I’m going to be and where I’m going to stay while I’m writing – and in a certain sense, it’s where I have sort of stayed mentally or spiritually when I’m at a deeper part of myself.”

Naturally, Sheff’s New Hampshire upbringing would play a pivotal role in shaping the musician’s endeavours today. “I think more specifically, being in a place like that, where nature plays an intensely controlling role in your day-to-day comfort – in the way that you feel, the way that the air feels on your skin, the temperature in the air, the way that the sun shines through the trees – that kind of has an effect on your soul. That kind of makes you soul happen to come out a certain way. I think you can’t help but be shaped by the place that you come from,” he declares. “That’s not just true of me, that can be true of anybody. In my particular case, I grew up on the grounds of a private boarding school, with kind of a Dead-Poet’s-Society vibe and I think that had a big effect on who I turned out to be in a lot of ways – from the way that I craft to the way that I think.”

In sewing the seeds of Okkervil River’s sixth studio album, Sheff would learn to draw upon his creativity in a more instinctual manner. He would ultimately find comfort in throwing caution to the wind. “I want to write intuitively, always, from now on. I never want to use my brain anymore. I just want to completely write from an intuitive, cutting-thought-out-of-the-entire-process place,” he affirms. “I just felt like there was something that got really tangled and too cerebral and too brainy. It was starting to happen in my writing where I was starting to become on the verge of danger of it and it did not make me happy. So I just wanted to feel like I was coming from a more organic band, a natural place.”

Furthermore, Sheff prescribes an anything-goes-approach to music. There’s no cardinal sin when it comes to song craft. “I don’t think there’s anything to avoid. Go ahead and use the worst synthesiser, go ahead and make a whole record of flugelhorn. I don’t believe in purism. I think that purism is for people with no brain. I don’t think it’s interesting, I think it’s stupid. As a musician, I don’t feel like there’s anything to avoid.”

Well, perhaps there are some things Sheff would dodge if given the opportunity. When asked if life on the road is of an appealing nature, his answer arrives instantaneously. “No! It’s not something that appeals to me at all,” he stresses, a chuckle in tow. A few more serious objections follow. “I hate it. I hate it! I don’t like being on the road. I just want to play music. I just want to write and I don’t want to deal with being on the road at all. I hate it.”

Sheff’s emphatic stance sparks an honest diatribe, the front man frustrated by a realm of endless distractions. “I dunno, man. I’m just sick of spending all this time promoting and promoting – blah, blah, blah – this and that. You get into writing because you want to try to write and then suddenly you’re spending all your fucking time in hotels and airports. You like, have some idea and you’re like ‘Geez, I wish I could fucking write a song right now, because I’ve got this great idea for a song, but I can’t, because I’m completely locked up in some stupid situation that has nothing to do with being a songwriter!’”

A wealth of gratitude exists alongside Sheff’s vexation, however. “I’m lucky. I’m a lucky guy, because I get to do this for a living and that’s great,” he relents. “I’m really, incredibly happy and grateful for it, but sometimes I just look at it and go ‘Jesus Christ, do these people even want me to write songs? Because they have a weird way of showing they want me to write songs!’ “

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