We arrive at his house, parking on some gravel in the back. It is a split-level, cozy little place, painted blue. It’s dark inside, and everything feels somewhere between charming and old. His daughter’s toys are strewn about, including a keyboard with a microphone and hilarious guitar-bending presets that I spend a little too long playing with. Elverum says she recently shoved the microphone directly into the keys, emitting a hair-raising sound that looped while she turned and glared at him—“just treating me to this gnarly harsh-noise set,” he laughs. “I was a very proud father in that moment.” There is a huge pink kitchen, and just next to it, a toy chainsaw. “I bought her the chainsaw to balance out the pink kitchen,” he says.
We sit for a moment in his living room, in front of the unlit wood stove. He tells me about a spontaneous trip he took with his daughter one month after Geneviève died: “I was like, ‘I’m going to grieve! Throw some rope in the car, an axe, a tarp, and a baby! Let’s go!’” They went to Haida Gwaii, a far-flung archipelago some 500 miles northwest of Anacortes. There, Elverum found himself at the fringes of society, camping with a five-month-old. He soon came down with food poisoning. And then he threw his back out.
“The bottom moment was when I shit my pants,” he says. “I’m lying on the ground writhing, and my daughter is just climbing on me—she was helpful, actually, she was a really good sport. I had to throw away my pants because they were like shat through—it was good I brought the diaper stuff.” We both can’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
“It was so clear it was beyond this physical illness,” he says, looking back on the trip. “Some demon was escaping me, or something. I’m not proud of it, but I probably put myself in that extreme situation for some emotional, functional reason.” Haida Gwaii was also where they threw Geneviève’s ashes into the ocean.
All around us, Elverum’s books line the living room, stacked in neat rows and spilling in piles. They are mute testimony to a lifetime of diverging intellectual pursuits: Knut Hamsun’s bleak 19th century naturalist landmark Hunger leaps out at me, as does a complete illustrated history of the Garbage Pail Kids.
“I’ve accumulated all of these books over the course of my life,” Elverum muses. “But as soon as Geneviève got sick and we entered into that world together, it was like a switch was flipped. It all seemed so dumb and empty.” The opening lines of A Crow Looked at Me address this new vacuum in his life: “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.”
The sickness cast a similar pall on Geneviève’s creative urges. “When she lived, our house was very much taken over by both of our projects all the time,” Elverum says. “Neither of us had real jobs, so we just stayed up late and spread our crazy art things all over the place. But when she got sick, it all seemed so shallow all of a sudden. She didn’t care so much about her previously sacred practice of drawing all those hours. Music and art was very far from our minds for the past couple years. It still is. This new album is barely music. It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.”
He takes me up to Geneviève’s studio on the second floor. There is a drawing table, about elbow height, covered with small books and cards. Her work is scattered everywhere. Unlike Elverum, who takes great care in the making of things, their production and their presentation, Geneviève was consumed by the act of creation and often didn’t care about what state her art ended up in. He is eager to finally correct this imbalance and plans to publish his late wife’s works in a book. “It actually feels good to come up here and work on this stuff because it feels like hanging out with her,” he says.
He shows me a deck of hand-drawn Tarot cards, one of the last things Geneviève worked on. The lines on each of the compact drawings are almost insanely detailed; they radiate intensity and vibrancy of mind. “Geneviève was really wrapped up in those questions—the meaning of it,” he says, glancing down at the cards. “But the answer is that cancer is meaningless and random; that’s how cancer works. At the same time she was going through it, she had a grandmother who was going through cancer treatment, who was a lifelong smoker, who was still smoking during cancer, and who beat it. And she was 90.”
He flips through a few things on her desk, and I spot a list of names crawling down the side of a notebook page in cramped, clear, fastidiously neat handwriting. Many of the names are crossed out. “She made a zine about her health that was the equivalent of an email update,” Elverum explains. “I don’t know what this list is for, but I’m keeping it because I feel like I might figure it out someday.”
He opens up another notebook, words and pictures reaching into every corner of the small pages like kudzu. Even in this personal diary, detailing a random few days of an Australian tour back in 2008, the ink feels pressed into paper with almost mortal urgency, each line tattooed. “Every page is a finished work of art,” Elverum says, his voice quiet but full. “She would just crank this stuff out and then nobody would ever see it.”
I ask him if he shows his daughter these things. “Sure,” he says. What does she know of her mom? “It’s a weird thing,” he muses. “She’s on the cusp of a shift in understanding. Right now, her mom is just like this person she knows that she happens to never see. But I feel like any day now, she’s going to be like, ‘But wait, where is she? Why is she not here?’” He clears his throat a little, shifting his eyes down to the table: “I should show you something else Geneviève made.”
He opens a folder to reveal a series of drawings that clearly depict Geneviève, Elverum, and their daughter. The Geneviève character’s hair has not been colored in; it is still white. There are empty speech balloons above the character’s heads. He says this was his wife’s version of a children’s book. In it, a mother is trapped in a bubble, finding herself unable to take her daughter to the park. He lingers for a beat on a panel showing the mother, downcast, sitting alone while the father and daughter toddle away. At the end of the book, the bubble pops.
“This was Geneviève’s aspirational book about when the bad shit was all gonna go away, and then they were going to go eat ice cream together,” Elverum says, describing the last page of the book; it is also unfinished.
As he shows this to me, it feels indecent for my eyes to be lighting on it. I am standing inches from him. The ceiling feels suddenly very close. The silence feels thickened, like it’s curdling. He pushes through it, pointing to the Metallica T-shirt the Geneviève character is wearing. “That was real,” he says. “It was her special chemo shirt. One day she just said, ‘Phil, buy me a Metallica …And Justice for All shirt on eBay,’ and I instantly did. It was her thing to be the young person in the chemo room, drinking her crazy carrot juice and being so charming to all the nurses.” As he talks, he pages through a journal, and a note in bright orange leaps out at me: “MORE CARROTS=LESS CHEMO.”
Her last days were consumed by alternative therapies, by cosmic ideas—as she stayed up late, struggling to breathe, she wrote down “Reasons to Live” in one of her journals, her laptop open to an astrologer on YouTube, or a Tarot reading. Meanwhile, Elverum was downstairs cooking or making phone calls to insurance companies. There is no resentment in his voice as he recounts these times, but a touch of ruefulness, the way a disaster can make a wreck of a home. “That’s what the bubble book was about—she knew that she was shut off from us and the people that she loved,” he says. “But in her mind, she was doing it for the big win: to stay alive.”
He tells me how she only acknowledged that she was not going to recover the night before she died: “She couldn’t even really talk then, but she texted me while I was sitting right next to her. I think she of course knew subconsciously, for a long time, but she just wasn’t willing to talk about it. She was superstitious, so she felt like she didn’t want anyone to jinx her. She just didn’t want to hear people talking about death. And that’s why she didn’t do any of the stuff that dying parents might do, maybe write a letter or make a video for the kid; none of that.”
About an hour after she died, Elverum went downstairs, sat down calmly at his computer, and began composing a message to the listserv of friends and family that they used to keep everyone updated on Geneviève’s health. It was a simple note, letting everyone know she had passed, but he found himself compulsively documenting the final moments in a way that was “just so overly graphic and unnecessary,” he recalls. “I think I wanted to remember everything about it, but the irony is I didn’t need to write it down, because it was tattooed on my brain.”
Talking in Geneviève’s studio, we have dug ourselves somewhere too scorched and we can both sense it. We go downstairs, make tea, and stand farther apart from each other for a minute in the kitchen, taking in the silence. This time, it feels like the gradual slackening of a muscle. I sip my tea, even though it’s too hot. I say we can take a break.
“It’s only the part about the last day that is seared into my head,” he says. “It’s on the album, though. I wanna get it out of me; I want the exorcism to happen. If talking about it or singing about it can accomplish that, I don’t know. I feel proud of this thing that I’ve made, which is also perverse—there’s a built-in conflict, which I don’t know how to navigate.
“My default mode right now is to throw open the doors and windows. I don’t know where to draw the line. Even just having you here, upstairs, showing you Geneviève’s journals: Is that over a line? But that’s how the songs are written, too: ‘Here’s everything. Look in here. Look at me. Death is real.’”