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A young mom dies. Her husband writes an album. And their child asks, Where’s mama?

Couresty of Phil Elverum
Phil Elverum and daughter

Phil Elverum, aka Mount Eerie, wrote an album about his grief after the death of his wife. This is his story.

I'm a musician, and my wife was also a musician and artist.

We live in Anacortes. We had a baby in early 2015, and then four months later, my wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that was advanced and inoperable.

She had cancer for 13 months and died last July 9. And then I made a record about it.

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.

When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb

when I walk into the room where you were.

When she got diagnosed, everything changed of course, but specifically music and art, which had previously been the center of everything.

All of a sudden it seemed like, why were we so wrapped up in that? It's so ephemeral and useless in the face of something legitimately devastating like this.

I'm a single parent now. I have this 2 year old; she was one and a half when Genevieve died. So yeah, the idea of focusing on music, or let alone any of my interests, like taking care of myself — my interests were the bottom of the totem pole for a long time as a caregiver when Genevieve was sick, and then after she died, as just a parent.  

The songs came out in a kind of flood. Over the course of four or five weeks of writing, just sitting there every night after I'd put my daughter to sleep, I'd go into the room and sit down and organize these thoughts. And they're pretty straight up, diary-style documentaries: This happened, then this happened, then we went here, then we went there, and then it was this date.

I finally took out the upstairs bathroom garbage,

that was sitting there forgotten since you were here.

Wanting just to stay with us, just to stay living.

When I was making these songs, I wasn't sure if anyone was ever going to hear it besides me. I was making it for myself and that's true. I have said that before about earlier albums, maybe kind of disingenuously, but I really mean it. I was making these songs to get this stuff out of me.

I do recognize that there's an aspect of what I'm doing that could be seen as exploitative of this trauma. But I kind of feel like the universe messed with me, and I'm going to get back at it.

So I do feel conflicted. But I'm proud of this as a work of art. And it's my job. And also, I'm interested in selling records because I want to make money for my daughter's future, to put it bluntly. 

I can't get the image out of my head of when I held you right there and watched you die.

I recorded this album in the room where Genevieve died. A little morbid, maybe. But that's the spare room, and that's where the hospital bed got set up. It's also where art projects happen. And that's what I did.

I didn't want the room to feel haunted, and I wanted to inhabit it. I think maybe inhabitation is the antidote for ghosts.

I wanted to live in there and make new life and positivity in that room where I had vivid memories of her final day. I didn't want those final days to be sealed up and define that room or define the house.

My daughter and I go in there every morning. We still walk across from her bedroom across the hall, and she usually sings and dances around. Her toys are in there, and since she saw Prince sing “Purple Rain” on YouTube, she goes up to the mic and starts singing “Purple Rain,” because she knows that's what you're supposed to do into a microphone. That's what microphones are for.

We weren't public about the personal details in our life. We were very much keeping it close, keeping a bubble of privacy because it felt too special to let strangers in, let alone make a super confessional album about it.

But then she died, and she wasn't around anymore to protest. And there was a shift in me that felt like I didn't care about privacy anymore. If anything, I felt like going polar opposite and just opening up all the way. Telling everything felt good. So she might not be into it, honestly. But I'm doing it. I'm telling the world that I love her really loud.

Our daughter is one and a half. You've been dead 11 days.

My daughter is right on the cusp of asking, Where is mama? She has asked that a couple of times, but then she lets it go, so I don't know how I'm going to navigate that for the rest of our lives.

She's going to be the messenger about this concept to kids who probably haven't had that conversation. So that's a weird role for my daughter. But that's the reality of the social situation we find ourselves in.

I am also a death's head walking around. I am a messenger of the shortness of life and the fleetingness of things. When people see me around, they have this pitiful, devastated look on their face. I didn't want that role. I just wanted to go to the grocery store and buy a cheese. 

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012