In advance of Okkervil River's American Songbook debut next month (February 3), bandleader and singer-songwriter Will Sheff discusses his influences, his evolution as a musician, and his dream of traveling by hovercraft.
Eileen Willis: You've been referred to as a "literary" songwriter. Do you feel that's accurate? What does it mean to you?
Will Sheff: I was always the little kid with his nose in a book, and I think I've always had a fixation on words and what they can do. When I started writing songs, I hoped I could kind of smuggle some of the richness and depth of literary language and characterization into rock music and that would be what made me unique and sort of justified my existence. Over time, though, I've come to realize that I should have had it the other way around. Songwriting is actually the ancestor of literature, and it doesn't need literature infused into it to make it more noble. I actually can't think of any art form more vital, primal, and universal than songwriting. So these days I occasionally chafe at being called a "literary" writer because I feel like being called a songwriter is a nice enough thing to be called.
EW: Who would you consider influences, both in terms of overall sound and in terms of lyrics?
WS: One of the songwriters I admire the most is Joni Mitchell. I think that her late-1970s work, especially on albums like Hejira, represents the pinnacle of modern Western songwriting. I'm also very influenced by contemporaries of hers like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, all the "singer-songwriter" titans probably anyone else would mention, too. When I was in high school, I was tremendously influenced by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band. He was the first artist who made me think of music as a form of magic. A.P. Carter from the Carter Family has always been a big influence in terms of the feelings a song can give you that you can't really describe—that hair-standing-up-on-your-neck thing. And Nina Simone has always seemed almost godlike to me, her vision of what being a performing artist is. She's less known as a writer, but she put her own stamp on even the silliest covers she ever tried and created this kind of postmodern song form that's halfway between a cover and an original. I've tried to play with that approach a fair amount over the years and have sometimes gotten into trouble for it.
I want the songs I write now to feel organic and have a kind of mystery and a quality where they just feel "right," in the same way that a sunset or a tree or a snowy hill just feels "right" when you look at it—beyond good or bad. A lot of the time that means letting go of my impulse to try to impress people and instead working from a place that's more intuitive, kind of asking the song what it wants to be.
EW: How would you say your songwriting has changed or evolved over the years, both in terms of process and in terms of final result?
WS: I used to try to craft a song for maximum impact and it was almost a deliberate thing. I wanted the listener to feel sort of bowled over. These days that's what I try to avoid. I want the songs I write now to feel organic and have a kind of mystery and a quality where they just feel "right," in the same way that a sunset or a tree or a snowy hill just feels "right" when you look at it—beyond good or bad. A lot of the time that means letting go of my impulse to try to impress people and instead working from a place that's more intuitive, kind of asking the song what it wants to be.
EW: Can you talk a little bit about your choice of instrument (12-string guitar) and how you came to it?
WS: I grew up an odd, isolated oldest child in a rural village of about 350 people, so I didn't have the same musical or cultural influences I would have had if I had, say, grown up in the suburbs with a cool older brother. Punk rock was just something I read about in Mad magazine and I wasn't even sure what it sounded like. So the music that I gravitated towards was all over the place and not especially teenage. I liked my parents' ’70s records and I liked Irish music for some reason (I think maybe because it sounded good when I looked out my window), and I had these friends who liked ’60s jazz and who liked Indian classical. So I had a sort of atypical mix of music around me. I also was lucky enough to randomly discover Big Star, Nick Drake, and Lou Reed around 15, so I wasn't a complete dork. But I think when it came to music I just always liked acoustic stuff, and when I started Okkervil River we were acoustic-based and just sort of proceeded from there.
As far as the 12-string guitar, I partially made Away because I went back to my hometown and saw this weird 1969 Fender Shenandoah 12-string in a consignment shop and it really called out to me. The owners told me that it was the favorite guitar of this old guy who had lived in town his whole life and his son didn't know how to play and didn't know what to do with it. I couldn't tell if I was crazy for wanting this guitar so I rationalized the expense by telling myself, "If I buy this, I have to write an album on it."
EW: What advice would you give to the teenage version of yourself, either about the music business or life in general?
WS: Any kind of advice I'd give my teenage musician self would be cynical—like going back in time and giving yourself a racing form. I found my own weird path, and I don't think I'd be in the same place I am now if I hadn't been allowed to do that. I think the advice I'd be more interested in giving teenage me would be to pay more attention to my friends and try to put myself in their shoes and listen when they were talking to me and to just generally be less self-absorbed.
EW: Which musicians or albums do you find yourself listening to the most right now?
WS: Curtis Mayfield has been a big one for me these last few weeks. There's something about his tone—he's very socially committed and resolute, but he's not a scold. He just tries to make this beautiful music that makes people feel strong and proud and tells them to just keep going and to feel good about themselves and not stop pushing. He says a lot of stuff that needs to be said and he says it in the best way you can say it, where everyone feels included and no one feels overwhelmed and there's always a beautiful melody and groove to hold on to. It's like background music for the work of being a good person. It just feels to me like the best music for this moment.
EW: And who are the artists you find yourself coming back to again and again at different points in your life?
WS: Big Star—I'm never tired of them. Nina Simone is always someone I have to check in on before I make an album—it's like checking for your keys, wallet, and phone before you walk out the door. And David Bowie is eternal for me, just a perfect model of what you can be as an artist, a public figure, and a human being.
I think there's kind of a fight for the soul of the human race going on right now and artists have a pivotal role to play in that because we help shape people's consciences. We really need art that's real right now, that tells the truth and is deeply rooted and disciplined and gives people strength and that can't be tuned out.
EW: What are you optimistic about right now in terms of the current state of music or the world in general? What are you pessimistic about?
WS: I'll always be optimistic about there being good new artists as long as there are new people being born. There's always going to be someone amazing who comes along. What worries me is that there's less support for really original, unique, envelope-pushing artists these days. There's so little money to go around, and streaming services tend to reward pop earworms and not beautiful weirdos, and music journalism has so suffocatingly dovetailed with the music industry that it's almost like all the best-of lists are being dictated to writers by publicists. So I think that it would be really hard to be the new Nina Simone or the new Robin Williamson.
All signs point to the United States and the Earth being headed for very dark times. Historically, when things get dark the art either gets very real and vivid and beautiful or it slides into fluffy escapism. We've already gorged ourselves on escapism so hopefully we're due for the real stuff soon. I think there's kind of a fight for the soul of the human race going on right now and artists have a pivotal role to play in that because we help shape people's consciences. We really need art that's real right now, that tells the truth and is deeply rooted and disciplined and gives people strength and that can't be tuned out. It's kind of fashionable in my circle these days to take umbrage at the idea that "art is going to get good under Trump," but I don't see what's so offensive about the idea of wishing for good art.
EW: When you were a kid, did you imagine you'd be living the life—professionally or otherwise—you have today? What elements of your life have been a surprise?
WS: When I was a kid I thought I'd be tooling down elevated skyways on a hovercraft, so I probably wouldn't have been the best person to consult on all that. I will say that it was rare to even hear the state that I lived in even mentioned on the news, so I kind of wasn't expecting much, and I'm not sure if I was fully aware my idols were real people. Being a musician didn't feel like a real job a flesh-and-blood person could realistically have. The people I knew were schoolteachers or they drove the plough or they worked at the ball bearing factory, and the people on TV or on the radio seemed like they inhabited a separate dimension. I never ever dreamed I would meet Lou Reed and he would have nice things to say to me about my work, or that one day Don Henley would be really angry with me for changing some of the words to one of his songs. Never. However, I did have this weird feeling that I was supposed to be an artist. It was like something that a voice had whispered into my ear at some point, and I was almost afraid to speak it aloud it to anyone. Most of the crises in my early life came from periods where I'd try to ignore that voice because it felt crazy or deluded. So I think young me would be thrilled that I actually got to do it, and he wouldn't even mind that the hovercraft took longer than he thought.
Eileen Willis is the Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.