From Demo to Record with Will Sheff of Okkervil River

The narrative surrounding the release of Away, the latest record from Will Sheff and Okkervil River, reads like a page from the singer-songwriter playbook. Sheff, confronted by personal loss and musical uncertainty, escapes to a Catskills cabin, where he writes and demos a dozen new songs before nailing final cuts in a three day studio stint with a fresh crop of collaborators.

The album is easily the most compelling work Sheff has put out in years, already having earned favorable comparison to Nick Drake and Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison. Away captures everything the indie press has adored about Okkervil over the years: the wistful lyricism and imagery, the rich songcraft and Sheff's bellowing croon.

Indeed, with this album — and the seven that came before it — most of the press around Okkervil focuses through a tight "singer-songwriter" lens that examines Sheff's lyrics, allusions and outlooks. And while he is undeniably one of the best poets of his class, Sheff's ear for arrangement and instrumentation has been as vital to Okkervil's output as any lyrical turn.

We recently had the chance to chat with Sheff as he grabbed a coffee at a tour stop in North Carolina. We talked about his process of turning songs into records, how that process has changed, and how his approach to songwriting has evolved because of it. We even snuck in a Steely Dan reference.

Okkervil River

A lot of interviews you’ve done for this release talk about the songwriting process through the narrative of holing up in the woods to write. I’m curious about the next page of the story. How does an Okkervil River song get from that first composition to that final record? When do you start considering things like instrumentation and arrangement?

In the past, I would be writing for a specific record, and I would think about it being a little bit about phonics. So I would contact the guys in the band and send them demos and plans and references and all of that. [Away] wasn’t like that because I wasn’t even necessarily conceiving this as a proper Okkervil River record. It was purely a recording session. We didn't even know if it was going to be turned into anything at first.

With this record, I was able to contact people one by one. Band members who I'd never played with, who I picked because of sounds I always wanted to have or because I really liked their playing. I’d been wanting to do a recording session that was very heavily based around acoustic instrumentation rather than guitar pedals and computers. I really wanted to hear hands on the strings. I like the muscular quality of people interacting with wood and wire. I think that’s why I went with jazz-based [players].

I really wanted to hear hands on the strings. I like the muscular quality of people interacting with wood and wire."

I had Will [Graefe], this amazing finger-style guitarist — very conversant with the American folk music tradition of picking — who now plays in the band. And I had Cully, our old drummer, who's very solid rhythmically. I had also bought this 12-string guitar in Lebanon, New Hampshire that I really wanted to use. So that was the core, and it was simply just the question of, “What am I feeling?”

I find that if you’re not being too self-conscious and you just ask yourself what you want, the answer tends to come pretty quickly. I base everything around pleasure and what instruments would be pleasing. The end goal is to make something as beautiful as possible and for that beauty to have a certain purity to it. I really didn’t want the sounds to be achieved by technology. Using pedals for a backward, nonlinear, reverb-type thing, for instance. I wanted it to be created by hand.

I talked to Nathan Thatcher a lot about how I didn’t want the orchestration to sell the emotions. I didn’t want it to be like I hit a high note and the strings come in. I wanted the orchestration to be beautiful in its own right, to have its own sort of sophistication. To not be just a highlighter going over what happens to be there.

Where’d you guys do the recording? What studio were you in?

There’s a studio in Long Island called The Sabella Studio. They bought a lot of gear that producer Phil Ramone had in his private studio. He had the board that Double Fantasy was tracked on. Some of Aja was recorded on that exact [Neve] 8068 console.

Doesn't get much more studio mythic than Aja, right?

Yeah, there was a time -- and I don’t want to sound super “rockist” or anything -- when records sounded good because you had the Wrecking Crew playing the backing tracks. You had really good songs, and you had really good studios that had the finest German engineering. These incredible microphones and these incredible consoles and all of this stuff in post-war England and Germany really raised the creation of these recording machines to its apex.

The studios were profitable and the music industry was profitable enough to create and support the infrastructure and industry at that time. There was an imperative to build the best of the best.

Yeah, and you know, there’s something very magical about going into a place that exquisite but not overworking your performance. I didn’t necessarily want to make some kind of meticulous HiFi record, either. It doesn’t really sound like a Steely Dan record with perfect tonal separation. I just wanted it to be beautiful and friendly and work with a comforting sound.

Okkervil River - "Judey on the Street"

I think you definitely achieved that. On "Judey on the Street," for example, the instrumentation is really deep and well conceived, yet seems very organic and just like an extension of a dude in the woods with a guitar.

We played that song no more than twice, and I feel like that’s part of the reason it sounds fresh. I wrote it during the end of the process for the record when I already had a lot of songs that I really loved. I think there’s a little bit more happiness than introspection in that song. It was this two day song writing meditation where I was just sort of constantly walking back and forth between the laptop that I was demoing and recording on and the woods or the fireplace or the kitchen, and slowly putting it together line by line.

I read that Black Sheep Boy was recorded in a shed on ADAT, which is surprising because it still sounds amazing. How has home recording or the accessibility of recording technology impacted your composition or process?

The reason the Black Sheep Boy recording sounds so good is because Brian Beattie, the engineer and co-producer, is truly a recording genius. He doesn’t get caught up in the conventional doctrine of what gear you’re supposed to use. He knows the quality of every single piece of gear that he has, and he knows how to pair it with these instruments to put together these very elegantly simple and organic puzzles of sounds that hearken back to warm and rich analog despite being a digital creation.

It’s almost like working with a modeling kit. You make the complete little house right there, and then all you have to do is make the bigger version."

As far as digital technology and home recording goes, I was led a little astray when I first started using Pro Tools. I got caught up in the playlist system that allows you to play like fifteen mediocre guitar solos and cobble them together to make one good guitar solo. The other thing that people tend to do with Pro Tools when there’s no track limitation is pile a million instruments on the session that they don’t necessarily feel that strongly about before carving it all away later. It ends up being kind of cowardly. They’re unwilling to feel it out, play it, and make it sound nice in the moment.

Digital recording has been tremendously helpful to me, as I demo while I write these days. I don’t know that I could have written a song like "Judey on the Street" in my apartment in 2004 because I might have been weirded out by the fact that I would be playing the same chords for seven minutes. I had the understanding from the beginning with [“Judey on the Street”] that there was going to be a certain groove background to it. Once I could prove that the groove worked in a demo setting, I was off to the races as far as writing that song. It’s almost like working with a modeling kit. You make the complete little house right there, and then all you have to do is make the bigger version.

Will Sheff playing live in 2008

And if the model fits together and stands, the record will too. Well, I’m not going to keep you for too much longer, but I did want to ask you about that Martin -- I think it's maybe a 00-18 -- I've seen you with over the years. What's the story with that guitar?

When I first started Okkervil, I had this really shitty Seagull with really bad high action that had a Dean Markley soundhole pickup in it. Before I flew into Europe for the tour in 2003, Jonathan Meiburg (who was an Okkervil member at the time) was like “Dude, you can’t bring this on eight weeks of tour! You need to get a better guitar, and my friend Erin Schmitt is willing to sell you this Martin'...” You could say he had an instrumental intervention.

It’s actually not as old as it looks. It’s an OM and it’s from 1990 or 1989 and didn’t play that well when I got it. It just wasn’t tempered. I put that thing on tour through a lot of very trashy, very young and drunken years. A lot of falling off of kick drums, falling off of stages and smashing into cymbals -- things like that.

Typical Okkervil River show, right.

Yeah, it got very aggressively hand-aged because I was just a road dog at that point, touring eight months out of the year using only that guitar. It got really weathered and turned into this beautiful sounding guitar. It records really well, [which is] common with those small body guitars. It’s a testament to how much playing an instrument again and again puts a soul into it.

It’s a testament to how much playing an instrument again and again puts a soul into it."

I’ve also come to really love my 12 string, which is a 1969 Fender Shenandoah. They aren’t really considered to be connoisseur guitars. They actually have these bolted-on electric necks with hockey stick scroll neck heads, but it’s a fun guitar to play. There was a man that owned it who lived in Lebanon, New Hampshire and had played it all his life. It was his favorite guitar, and his sons consigned it when he died. You can tell that somebody’s really poured a lot of feelings into this guitar.

Away is available now from ATO Records.

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