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Phil Elvrum's Long Hard Winter

The first thing Phil Elvrum sings is: "I had my hopes of how I would be after living in exile." To the accompaniment of a lone acoustic guitar, he dolefully murmurs a confession: "I even wrote scenes where I re-emerged boldly/ Bearded, alive, with Eskimo eyes/ New baby on my back."

It's a vivid image from a stunning song: "Great Ghosts," a stark, beautiful beginning to Elvrum's latest outing under the name The Microphones. The record's called Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st, and 22nd, 2003 (K), and the fact that it's a live album is just the start of the story. Yes, it was recorded live, on the above dates, but it's a collection of entirely new material from Elvrum, songs that'll never appear on any other record of his. These songs were, he explains, so specific to that time that he could never go back to them again. The reason being in that first line from that first song, which becomes incredibly weighty when you hear what Elvrum was up to through the Northern winter of 2002/2003.

"I did a tour of Europe that had an open end, and I just ended it in Norway. I planned in advance to quote-unquote 'move' there, without really knowing anyone, just because it seemed like an intense thing to do," says the American songsmith.

Norway held appeal because that's where his ancestors — the Elverum family — hailed from. "When I left I was saying 'Goodbye, goodbye everybody! I'll never see you again! I'm gonna find a wife, and have a family there, this is it, bye!' It was sort of half-jokingly, but when I went there I had no plans of coming back, even though I probably knew in the back of my mind that I wouldn't feel at home there. But I sort of had this fantasy that I would get there and it would just click, like this-is-where-I-belong."

Elvrum lived through the winter in a vacation cabin located two hours north of Bodo, well inside the Arctic Circle. It was a summer cabin in an area of summer cabins, which in winter became deserted, blanketed in beautiful snow and completely devoid of human life. And it was old-fashioned roughing-it. "I didn't have electricity or running water, so I had to spend a lot of time every day gathering wood," he says. "And there wasn't much daylight. I read books when it was dark, by candlelight, and just sort of did chores, and talked to myself. I wrote some songs, but not really that many. Kind of a lot, as a whole, but it wasn't something that I worked on every day. I just sort of went crazy, I guess."

These six months were broken, however, by a two-week tour of Japan, as documented on the Live in Japan… album — meaning Elvrum's evocations of ghosts in his mind, dreams cultivated in exile, punching the snow, and his "wilderness time" give the songs added resonance. These sentiments are so specific that Elvrum decided to release a live recording for the first time, an idea on which he's normally not keen.

"I have sort of a collection of shows, but I normally never like listening to them, because I like the idea that a performance is just there, for that moment, and after the show it's gone forever," he offers. "But, that tour of Japan was kind of a special one, because I had been living for months in northern Norway, in this crazy cabin out in the middle of nowhere. So I hadn't really seen anybody, and I wrote all these new songs, and went to Japan, and it was sort of like the first time I had played any of these songs, and the first time I had been around any other humans for a long time. And, so, the shows were sort of extra tense, and that's why I chose to release them.

"The tour was totally weird, really surreal," he continues. "Going from a place where there were no humans to, y'know, Tokyo, it was just the most intense contrast. It almost felt like the whole trip to Japan was a dream, because afterwards I flew back to my cabin in Norway, and the two weeks suddenly seemed so weird that they couldn't have really happened."

At the end of a long, isolated, haunted winter in northern Norway, Elvrum was almost relieved when the owners of the cabin wanted him to start moving on out. The ice had cracked, the snows were thawing, and the flowers were starting to bud, all signs that it was time to prepare the cabin for its peak usage period during the perpetual sunlight of the Arctic summer. Feeling that making it through a whole winter was a symbolic enough victory, Elvrum returned to the United States, willing to admit that Norway was not his unquestionable spiritual home. After all that time inside his own mind, he also admits it was good to assimilate back into American society.

"Afterwards, in May, when I went back to the States, I went to New York City, and it just felt so good," he enthuses. "I'm not normally a city person, at all. I'm usually pretty crowded and overwhelmed in cities. But being in New York at that time just felt amazing, because I was able to watch people walk down the street, and it seemed so exciting to me."

Elvrum isn't a town-mouse, because he grew up in Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, a dot off the northwestern-most coast of Washington, right on the Canadian border. On so many of his albums as The Microphones, his songs are filled with this geography; from the "Ocean" of 2000's Window, to the "Storm" of 2002's singles-compile Song Islands, to, most obviously, 2003's Mount Eerie, a concept record about man finding his place in the world by confronting the extremities of nature (no less!), its imagery inspired by Mt. Erie, the towering peak that dominates Fidalgo Island.

Yet, try and extract anything tangible out of Elvrum about the influence of this landscape on his songs, and he can't find what you're looking for. "It's true, I do feel pretty enamored of this place where I live," he says. "It's so beautiful here, and I feel like it's my home, and I know that it must have a large role in my music. But I just don't know what it is." — Anthony Carew [Tuesday, September 7, 2004]           

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