Shop talk

Ryan Walsh interviews Will Sheff about Okkervil River
By RYAN WALSH  |  September 18, 2007

VIDEO: Ryan Walsh interviews Will Sheff

Will Sheff is a songwriter’s songwriter — an artist whose ear for a hook is bolstered by his keen eye for telling details, and whose passion for pop is grounded in an appreciation for the poetry of language. Like Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, Sheff has honed his talents as part of a band, the Austin-based Okkervil River, rather than as a solo artist. On Okkervil’s new The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar), Sheff’s literate storytelling is buoyed by everything from rootsy pedal steel to orchestral flourishes provided by strings and brass octet. But his art is more about striking the right emotional chord than about achieving perfect pitch — he places himself in the shoes of troubled characters like the parent who sneaks a peek at her daughter’s diary in “Savanna Smiles” and the poet John Berryman (né John Allyn Smith) in “John Allyn Smith Sails,” which morphs into the classic folk song “Sloop John B” as the album comes to a close. So when Sheff, who brings Okkervil River to the Middle East downstairs this Tuesday, stepped out on his own back in July to perform a series of solo shows in the month leading up to the release of The Stage Names, we asked the singer-songwriter who opened the July 13 show at the Brattle Theatre — Ryan Walsh of the local indie-rock band Hallelujah the Hills — to sit down with him.

—  Matt Ashare, Music Editor

One of my favorite Okkervil songs is “Maine Island Lovers,” from Down the River of Golden Dreams [Jagjaguwar; 2003]. Is there a story behind the story of the two lovers whose infidelities come to light in the song?
I was just thinking about people that I knew, and it’s a good example of a song where the characters kind of dictated what ends up happening. It may sound disingenuous, but sometimes the characters really can do that.

I know what you mean: you feel like you’re in charge of the kernel or the spark of a song, and then the song takes over. But when you try to explain that, you don’t want to come off as saying “I’m this vessel.” . . .
Yeah, because that sounds pretentious. But, in my favorite songs, that’s the actual experience — you feel like you’re a radio antenna. I’ve written certain songs where I’ve felt like I was just a calculating guy, you know, like “Ah, I’m gonna write a song, it’s gonna do this and this and this,” and there’s no radio-antenna effect. But my favorite ones are the ones where I feel like I don’t fully know what they’re about — like if you add up all the sum of its parts and you listen to me talk about it for an hour, there’d still be a mystery to it.

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