Indiana’s Joe O’Connell didn’t see the Northern Lights when he went to Alaska—after all, it was summertime, bright out all day and night. But the celestial event still makes an appearance on Vague Tidings, his latest lp under the long running Elephant Micah banner. Inspired by his DIY journey to the 49th state 15 years ago, the album arrives full of O’Connell’s hallmarks as a songwriter: gorgeous, aching melodies, folkloric vision, and lyrics that explore relationships between humans and wilderness. On the album’s best song, the fiddle-led “Eastern Callers,” he explores Alaskan paranoia, evoking xenophobic tales of foreign visitors “from the East,” gathering to conceive under the Aurora Borealis. Elsewhere, O’Connell and his collaborators visit abandoned observatories, mountain tops, and glaciers, grafting jazz touches and avant-garde harmonies to traditional folk foundations. It’s a more acoustic centered than Genericana, but no less ambitious in scope, songs for the land, about the land, and sometimes, songs that give voice to the land. O’Connell joined us for a conversation about the trip that inspired the album, his attraction to mythic sonic spaces, and escaping from a black bear at Hatcher Pass. | j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard: In 2006, you received an offer to play in Alaska. What brought you out there?
Elephant Micah: Well, calling it an offer, that might be a little bit formal. [Laughs] I had met a musician who had been living in Louisville. He was a younger person who carried around a banjo around town and had this huge repertoire of old songs that he sang. He knew a lot of traditional music and that completely fascinated me. I thought that was really mysterious. I had never really met anybody my own age who was interested in that stuff, or at least not as a singer, and so my curiosity really peaked, and we hung out a little bit when he was in Louisville. His name is Jason Overby, and he grew up in Palmer, Alaska. I was curious about what his life was like and how he’d learned all this music; I think he was interested in my music for kind of the opposite reasons. I think he was interested in my music because it was quirky and personal, and I was interested in his music because it was old—it felt communal. So we kind of set up an exchange. He moved back to Palmer but we stayed in touch touch over email, and he said “Okay, I want to bring some of these musicians that I met in the lower 48, and take them around and show them some of my home state, you know, and we can play gigs. Basically: I’ll show you what our life is like here.” It was such an amazing proposition.
AD: You toured in an RV with other musicians, people who’d come and go. What was the group like?
Elephant Micah: It was a real eclectic. So, there was Jason and his girlfriend. There was another songwriter from Louisville, who had lived in Louisville, named Will Garrison. There was a group of, it was either three or four women who played kind of like, I mean I would call it like anti-folk type music, or maybe like punk folk, and their group name was brilliant, they called themselves Titty. Then occasionally Jason’s younger sisters would tag along, or we’d go and stay with his dad, or we would go and stay with his uncle, you know, we were in maybe seven or eight different towns in Alaska. We had some gigs but a lot of the time we were just kicking around, and camping, and so it was kind of a funny combination of being sort of like a tourist versus a band on tour.
AD: How long were you in Alaska?
Elephant Micah: It wasn’t too long. I think maybe two or three weeks.
AD: But it clearly left a big mark on you. The songs on Vague Tidings have roots that stretch back to that trip, but in terms of the project, they were finished more recently?
Elephant Micah: It’s sort of material that took shape as songs years ago and took shape as an album more recently.
AD: What drew you back to this set of songs?
Elephant Micah: Well, I never really stopped playing them. There are songs that are on this record that I would play live from time to time. I think, in some ways, making records seems to tap in on this kind of parallel that’s a separate track from the rest of my musical life. I make records much more slowly than I make songs. But the songs still spoke to me, and maybe spoke to me in some new ways, especially because when I was making those songs, I was reaching for a lot of themes that have to do with, you know, encountering the natural world, and sort of some of the problems of being like a tourist of nature, and I think those are more in the public, some of those topics are more in our public consciousness now that we’re thinking about and attempting to intervene in what’s happening in the environment now.
AD: In 2006, things were already dire, but we didn’t talk about them with the same intensity that we do now. It’s impossible to talk about Alaska without touching on the idea of Westward expansion, which is baked into the cultural imagination of Americans. There’s a sweeping, romantic element to that kind of trip, especially when you’re young. How did revisiting that time play out in the songs?
Elephant Micah: I think the songs really came out of a discomfort with that side of my own experience. They’re very wrapped up in the experience of going to a place to do things that felt raw and authentic and close to nature. I think I was both very into that, but also very aware that there were some aspects of that that I wanted to examine and think critically about. I got a little bit of exposure to the part of Alaska that’s driven by natural resource industries. We hung out with at least one person who had been sort of a worker in the oil and gas industry. I think I got really interested in what it means to go to these edge places and to take things from them, or to profit from them, but to still kind of like set them apart from the world that you live in. I think I recognized that I was doing a version of that in the sense that oh I wanted to go to Alaska and like make money, and I felt like I was doing this kind of weird, postmodern prospecting by bringing my music there and asking people to like pay me.
AD: The song “Pipe Diversions” gets into that. I’m fascinated by your tendency to anthropomorphize things in your songs. Like in “Eastern Callers,” where it’s like you’re talking to the aurora borealis. It pushes your songs into uncanny territory. Unsettling, but in a positive way.
Elephant Micah: That makes me think of the genre of fable, and the different ways allegories are conveyed through giving things, or animals, personalities. I think that maybe that’s just poetically appealing to me—it feels like it brings the song into this kind of mythic reality instead of a literal reality.
AD: Did you keep a diary on the trip, or make notes that you referred back to when you were working on these?
Elephant Micah: Oh, like the reporter thing. No, I don’t think I did. Just the lyrics—and they’re all kind of like abstract. The things that I took away were not very concrete; they were impressions, or memories, or images, or imaginings. It’s funny because I linked the songs very directly to that experience, but there’s not a very literal correlation. I did take a lot of photos and I looked at those for the first time in over a decade. It was like a really clunky, early digital camera. It was probably old, even for the time.
AD: Assembling this album, did you feel like you were collaborating with your younger self in some ways?
Elephant Micah: Yeah, definitely. It definitely felt like it was two different creative moments. One where the songs took shape and then one where the album took shape. One of the main ways that I wanted to influence how [that album] sounded was to kind of open up the process to more people. My brother Matt has played with me a lot over the past, and so to get some people in the room who weren’t either one of us, that was exciting. Getting Matt Douglas involved, and Libby Rodenbough, and ultimately, Eric Hall, who mixed it and wound up playing some additional parts. Iit felt like there was a bit more spontaneity, a bit more kind of back and forth with other players that I think really makes it a better record than if I had just made it myself.
AD: While in Alaska, you saw a bear. How close are we talking? Was it a, “hey look, there’s a bear” situation or more of a…
Elephant Micah: It was a “we gotta get out of here situation.” [Laughs] We tried a variety of tactics to scare it off. The most entertaining one was for all of us to huddle together in one mass and to whip the tent up above our heads so that it looked like a giant tent monster. That didn’t work.
AD: Wow. Well, have you been back to Alaska since?
Elephant Micah: No.
AD: Do you want to go back?
Elephant Micah: If I talk about it enough, maybe somebody will invite me back. [Laughs]
AD: You’d be down?
Elephant Micah: Oh yeah.