Speaking with Okkervil River‘s Will Sheff is to get the impression that he’s seen it all. Maybe it is just his band’s longevity — the formerly Austin-based project released their first music 20 years ago — and being an indie rock workhorse through a decade, the aughts, that was particularly kind to his musical stylings. Or maybe it’s because of the decade that immediately followed when the record industry shifted in a way that was particularly difficult for small and medium-sized independent artists. At this point, Sheff has charted and toured the world, he’s appeared on network TV and Coachella, and he’s had to endure a rebuild mode when the indie bubble popped and many of his bandmates needed to move on with their lives.
That last bit was the storyline surrounding Okkervil’s 2016 effort Away, but just two years later, Sheff is back with In The Rainbow Rain, an album that sounds big and bold and full of the sort of freedom that only comes from standing on the edge of a proverbial cliff. “I feel like I was in a doctor’s waiting room with fluorescent light, and was waiting for so long I didn’t know if the doctor would ever show up,” Sheff told me by phone from Atlanta between bites of barbeque. “So, I drew a door on the wall and walked through it and was transported to a rainforest that extended for miles and miles and miles.”
These last two albums of choosing his own destiny find a balance between keeping true to the integrity of the project and pursuing the sounds and ideas that interest him at the moment. There’s less trumpet than on Okkervil River’s early albums, but still plenty of the razor-sharp lyricism and the inviting melodies that have always been present. Even as Sheff becomes an elder statesman in the indie rock world, he’s also blessed with a creative peak that never seems to end. And, as he expresses repeatedly during our conversation, he’s basking in the fun of it all and not taking for granted the pleasure that comes with playing music with your friends. A line that he sang in 2005 now sounds truer than ever: “I’m doing what I really like, and getting paid for it.”
Below, check out a brand new Okkervil River video for the album standout “Love Somebody,” along with our discussion about the video’s subject matter of mental health and keeping things fresh after nine studio albums.
Usually when I talk to artists, it’s in advance of their album, and they are feeling anxious about the release. You’re now a few weeks after the release of your new album, In The Rainbow Rain. How does that feel?
It feels good! What I imagine most artists say to you, if they are being honest, is that time before an album release can psychologically be the lowest point that you feel in years. You finish this thing that you’re proud of, but by that point, you’ve usually lost all perspective. No matter how good you think it is, you don’t know if that comes across to anyone else. And even if you know that it is objectively good, that doesn’t matter because there is this narrative that is going to happen that you won’t be able to control.
That knowledge that things are going to happen outside your control is so terrifying because in this age of the music industry shrinking and withering, the stakes feel so high. It’s kind of an illusion, because in reality the odds are stacked so highly against any artist succeeding. And you have this illusion that if you do the perfect TV appearance or the perfect interview or the perfect video, then you are going to make a difference and tilt things in your favor. But what you are really doing is beating yourself up because you didn’t work harder.
The stakes might have to do with whether or not you’ll be able to make another album. So, I think most artists before an album comes out are a pile of nerves. Once the album comes out, though, you sort of realize that all of that was wildly exaggerated in the mind. Or maybe not exaggerated, since I think that everything I’m saying is somewhat accurate, but it’s sort of realizing that’s just life and we live in the real world and the real world is where the music came from in the first place and the real world is who the music is for. So, you return to the real world, and it’s a relief.