Phil Elverum has used music to share his story of grief after losing his wife of 13 years to cancer. Elverum is an indie musician from Anacortes who performs under the name Mount Eerie. His wife, Geneviève Castrée was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer four months after giving birth to her first child. She passed away the following year, in 2016.
In the wake of Castrée’s death, Elverum wrote the emotionally candid album A Crow Looked At Me which directly addressed the loss and grief he was experiencing. Ahead of KEXP’s Music Heals: Beyond Cancer event, Sound & Vision host and producer Emily Fox talked with Elverum about tackling grief in his music, performing these harrowing songs in front of festival crowds, and reflects on the art and void left by his late wife.
KEXP: Geneviève Castrée was a musician, cartoonist, and illustrator. Can you describe who she was as an artist for those that might not be familiar with her work?
Phil Elverum: She was kind of an alien – self-described alien. Hard to describe, but yeah, like you said, she was all those things. She was a young punk from the suburbs of Montreal. She got into cartooning very early and just was sort of savant at it and made these weird little zines. I met her when she lived in Victoria and I lived in Anacortes and we came together very quickly. We lived together for 13 years. She also made music and we would tour together, although mostly she was... I say she's an alien because she did all of her work in French. She really identified with being French-Canadian, even though she lived in this part of the world that is not very French-speaking – historically or currently. I'd go on tour with her and she would sing these songs in French to people that didn't understand what she was saying. She would publish these comics in French and give them to people that couldn't read them. But they were so beautiful, and the music as well, that something transcended.
We mentioned that she's a cartoonist, she would do these graphic novels and she actually was working on one leading up to her passing. Can you talk about her book called 'A Bubble?'
When she first got diagnosed with cancer and we had this new baby, it was so earthshaking that both of us... both of us had lived this like hyper-creative life. Our house was just a work zone. And we were both obsessed with our creative endeavors. But when she got cancer, all of a sudden, all of that obsession felt misguided and meaningless. It was hard to know what was significant about that creative pursuit. And so for most of her cancer treatments, she wasn't concerned about creativity at all. She pushed it away and thought health was more important and like, I don't know, survival and the realities. But towards the end, creativity forced itself back in and she started working on this book that she wanted to make for a daughter. It's a simple little like kid's board book about a mom being trapped in a bubble. It's autobiographical. It's pretty heartbreaking. It's about a mom being trapped in a bubble of her own fear and trauma. I think it was Geneviève's experience of having cancer and not being able to participate in this little new family life that was going on in the same house.
Can you describe just what her personality was outside of all of her creative endeavors? Who was she as a person?
She was extreme [laughs]. She was extremely happy and extremely sad. She wasn't in the middle about anything. She was very black and white, if that makes any sense. So very joyful, singing and dancing around and silly. And then when she would get dark, she'd get so dark. And very kind of childlike and extremely cute. She'd make this – I mean, as a person, but also her work she made was extremely cute. Even though she was maybe making a book about war crimes or something, like a book about landmines and just horrible things. The characters looked so cute. She just couldn't shake it. And her music as well. A lot of her music was heavy and dark, but also delightful. It's hard to sum her up. In fact, I'm working on a book, like a monograph of her work, right now. That's one of my jobs is to write the biographical preface. I am struggling with trying to describe her, summarize her because she was so singular.
Geneviève Castrée had a big impact on the arts community around her. You were based in Anacortes for a while. An artist, Black Belt, Eagle Scout, who we've had on KEXP, also kind of grew up around Anacrotes and said that Geneviève was a mentor to her and actually inspired part of Black Belt Eagle Scout's most recent full-length album. You also wrote an album following the death of your wife ann the album was called A Crow Looked at Me. Throughout the album, you're kind of ticking down the time since your wife's death. You hear it in the song "Ravens", "Toothbrush / Trash," and "My Chasm." What was it like to process her death through music for you personally?
It felt like an automatic process. It felt like something that was just coming out of me. Like I had no choice in the matter. In fact, it felt perverse to be doing it in a lot of ways because it felt small. Writing my songs felt small in the face of the realities of what was actually happening around me. But it also, in hindsight, I know that it was therapeutic and it was my way of just habitually refining this chaotic, real lived experience into something that resembled meaning. I was creating meaning for myself out of this mess of life. But that wasn't the intention. It was merely just trying to get whatever this chatter in my mind was out of my mind, onto paper and hone it into something that might make more sense or be useful in a way.
It was your way of kind of processing the grief, though, it sounds?
It was. But it wasn't like I sat down and I was like, "I'm going to process my grief now. Here's my guitar. Here's my pencil." It was more just like I was mumbling to myself all the time. From when I woke up to when I went to sleep all day for like a year. And this is what came out.
Your song "My Chasm" stuck out to me when I was listening to your record. In it, you sing about wanting to talk about your late wife but feeling like people might not want to hear about it or they might feel uncomfortable when you talk about her. Or being in a public place like a grocery store and just seeing people's eyes look at you, knowing the backstory, knowing your loss. You know that they feel uncomfortable, you're feeling uncomfortable. You're seeing this eye contact. Now this has been a few years since your wife's passing, when thinking about other people that are going through this, that have lost someone to cancer and that are grieving, thinking back to this moment that you captured in the song, what is your advice to other folks out there? Do we talk about the loved one that we've lost? When we get those moments of that strange eye contact, how do you react? What is your advice to people?
Well, I don't know if I have advice as much as just a shared observation. I felt like I was welcomed into this fellowship of people and people that had shared this experience and can relate to this transformation. And it's a permanent transformation. That thing with the grocery store and the eye contact and me bringing her up, it's still like that. It's years later, but it's still like that. I bring her up all the time and that changes social dynamic in whatever room. Not in a bad way, necessarily. But it's just this thing. I now carry around this humongous black balloon that I can plop onto the floor and I'm going to keep plopping it onto the floor because it's part of my life and it's part of reality. I believe that everyone should be able to look at the whole spectrum of things. Our cultural mode of avoiding it is not good. I don't want to sign up for that. But yeah, advice for other people that are sharing, I don't know, just like observe it and stay with it. And it's weird, huh? [laughs] That's how I would relate.
So the first line on your album, A Crow Looked at Me, you open it with the lines, "Death is real. Someone's there and then they're not. And it's not for singing about. It's not for making into art." Yet you still made art. Through this death, you made this album and this album also got a lot of press. It was covered by NPR, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, New York Times and many more outlets. What was it like to realize that you were almost getting national press for just this really intimate, grieving moment?
It was super weird, but also I guess not that surprising because I knew that the story of our circumstances was – this is going to sound crass– but I knew there was like a salaciousness to it. It was like it popped. It's easy to communicate the heaviness of it in like one press line. That sounds really dark and nihilistic about the way that culture works, but I experienced it and it is true. People enjoyed hearing about the... It almost like at the shows I played of these songs, too, I felt like I was doing this perverse thing of going onstage to reenact this traumatic event that I had experienced for people to gawk at. And I don't say that like I'm blaming anyone because I know that there's a lot of positive healing and coming together that happens through that and that it was necessary and good and healing. But also, there's this element of, I don't know, impropriety that I think we all probably felt and powered through. So it was weird that it was as successful as it was. And also, I just went with it because I knew it was positive for me and everyone else, too.
Yeah, because a year after you dropped this album, you put out another album called Now Only. And the title track on that record talks about you getting flown out to play these festivals and you play these songs about death in front of people. All these festivalgoers goers that are on drugs and that feels a little weird. It seems like you're still kind of processing this weirdness at these festivals and then the song goes on and it almost seems like you're starting to feel numb by playing these songs in front of these audiences. There's a line that says, "As my grief becomes calcified, frozen in stories, and these songs I keep singing, numbing it down, the unsingable real memories of you and the fail eruptions of sobbing." After a while, starting to play these festivals and bigger crowds, what did that feel like to be playing these songs over and over again? Was it helpful or was it numbing?
I have never felt numbed about the actual grief. The numbing and talk about in that song is more just the feeling that happens with any song that I've written. The raw moment of creation when you first write the song and then you sing it 20 times or 100 times and you stop emoting that exact thing each time you sing hit. But no, in terms of the actual experience of grief and memory of Geneviève, that hasn't been numbed down and playing these songs, I had to stop. I'm done playing those songs. I don't want to stay in that state anymore.
It was weird to get flown to play in front of different crowds. So I wrote those songs and I spelled out that experience because I wanted to create a more complete picture of the truth and of reality. As grief evolves and as time passes, it just gets more complex and more layers on top of it. And it's all part of it and it's all real. So, yeah, I felt like it was necessary to say you're in a hospital and you're like weeping and then next thing you know, Skrillex is there. And that's also part of the experience. Nothing is sacred.
So it's now been, I believe, about three and a half years now since your wife Geneviève Castrée passed away from pancreatic cancer. So does that mean your daughter now is five years old. What is your daughter's understanding of her mother? How do you explain to a child this idea of death and cancer? What are her thoughts about her mother and just her being able to process all this as a young child?
Yeah, that's a good question. I think she's got it's an evolving and complicated understanding of it because it's basically been her whole life that, you know, she probably doesn't have any actual organic memories of Geneviève being present because she was one and a half when Geneviève died. So yeah, Geneviève has existed as this person that all the people in her life used to know and loved and pictures of her are around and anecdotes come up. I've never like avoided talking about her. And also at the same time I've been careful to not talk about her in this overbearing, heavy-handed way. And that was what Genevieve wanted. The rare times that she would let us talk about the reality that she might die. She did say like, "I don't want to be a ghost mom. I don't want to be remembered in this overbearing, heavy way." I've tried to just hold it lightly and keep Genevieve present as an idea and some of her things around the house, her artwork and her things and let my daughter come to it on her own terms as she's ready.
I think about Geneviève's artwork. Again, this idea that she wrote this kind of graphic novel called A Bubble around the time that she was passing away or she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This idea that this mother is spending time with a child in this bubble that I'm sure she felt like she was in. Do you share these books and artwork with your daughter?
Yeah, we have that book on the shelf and we read it occasionally. But again, it's not like, "Okay, sit down. We're gonna light a candle and read this very important book." It's more like, "Oh, let's read that book that Geneviève made! Look, there's you! That's what you used to look like." So it's not weighted in a scary way. But again, what other kid has had that experience? Is this really a kid's book? I think it's maybe a book for grown-ups. It's a board book. It's 16 pages long and there's just a few words. It's in the format of a kid's book, for sure. But it's kind of about huge things.
You're back in Washington now. You're living on Orcas Island. What's next for you and your family and music for you?
Just living as simply as possible. Just trying to be simple and sane. Lots of music projects. I feel like I'm the same person as I was when I was 16 years old, making zines and making up songs and recording them. I'm fortunate that I still get to spend my days doing that.
Unpacking the many works of the talented cartoonist, illustrator, and musician, who passed from pancreatic cancer in 2016
Mount Eerie's 2017 album, A Crow Looked at Me, was a stunning and devastating document of loss. On Now Only, Phil Elverum attempts to move on with his life while recognizing the grief that is still -- and will likely always be -- with him.