Elephant Micah: Vague Tidings | [Western Vinyl; Friday, Apr. 9]
Durham’s Hillandale Golf Course is dotted with pine and dogwood trees. Though a little less buttoned-up than some courses, it’s still a place people go to play golf—manicured, with shocks of bright green grass—so I was surprised when Joseph O’Connell suggested we meet there to talk. O’Connell, who performs as underground folk act Elephant Micah, was on the cusp of a new release. Vague Tidings, out April 9 on Western Vinyl, is a starry panorama of unease and the Alaskan wilderness.
As it turned out, O’Connell, had no agenda in mind—he’d just passed the place many times, he said, and always wondered what the course and snack stand were like. (At the campy snack stand, an empty coffeepot to one side and a fridge full of Miller Lites to the other, he politely surveyed his options and then ordered water.)
O’Connell, 39, has played as Elephant Micah since the turn of the millennium, with a fluid sound that splits the difference between Arthur Russell and Will Oldham (a frequent collaborator). The band name doesn’t come out of the blue: When his brother Matthew was little, O’Connell says, he had a childhood friend who chose the name Elephant Micah for himself.
“He would talk about his friend Elephant Micah in terms that just made it clear that this kid was really imaginative,” O’Connell says. “He was willing to just go with this persona.”
The latest Elephant Micah album dials it back to 2006, when O’Connell—then 24 and a fledgling musician—traveled to Alaska for a memorable, multi-week tour. Crammed into an RV with several other musicians, the DIY tour sprawled between health food stores, libraries, and campsites.
It was a formative few weeks under the northern lights, but by the end of it, O’Connell began to experience a deep, nervy unease about the dangerous allure of Western mythos and conquest. As if sensing his misgivings, on one of the last nights of the tour a large bear ominously blundered into his campsite at Hatcher Pass and refused to leave.
“It was touch-and-go for a while because the tactics that we tried to scare it away from our campsite didn’t really work,” O’Connell recalls. “We all crowded together and tried to look like one organism and held the tent above our heads. We were shaking it, trying to make ourselves look like something that’s scarier than a bear.”
In broad strokes, that anecdote emulates much of what the Elephant Micah project is about. Over the past 21 years, the band’s sound has roved among traditional, plainspoken folk, gleaming, elegant folk-rock, and electronic frisson. It doesn’t chart a linear arc: each album is a “one-off experiment,” O’Connell says, which allows him to become musically absorbed in whatever he’s trying to embody—an idea, region, or single organism.
“The way that I’ve produced records is, I tend to be thinking about distinct genres for each project,” he says. “I get a distinct set of reference points for the instrumentation and sound.”
This absorption may not have been successful with the bear (it stalked the campers on their hike out), but over the years, it has proved an endearing trademark of O’Connell’s work. In previous songs, he has sung a daylight saving dirge from the perspective of vultures, tracked the transatlantic passage of a hometown rower, and told the story of Quakers, painters, and a trailer burnt down during a meth bust.
One fixation, the late Reverend Wendell Hansen—a minister who traveled throughout Indiana with an evangelical birds act—became the subject of his 2010 lo-fi conceptual album, Elephant Micah Plays the Bible Birds, appearing again in 2015 on the album, Where in the Woods, as the song “Demise of the Bible Birds.” If these characters feel born from a sort of midwestern Flannery O’Connor-esque fever dream, you’d not be far off. O’Connell—who grew up on the Indiana-Kentucky border, also known as Kentuckiana—has a longstanding fascination with outsider art and “redneck mysticism,” as he told Aquarium Drunkard in a 2015 interview.
His albums, each a distinct organism, reflect that curious pull toward the fringe and forgotten.
When O’Connell got back from Alaska in the summer of 2006, he sifted through a roll of camera film and began writing. He’d come home wanting, as he explains in the liner notes of the new album, to write a song that, “instead of celebrating progress, was broadly anxious about where it was leading.”
He wrote that song, and the others, on two out-of-tune pianos between Indianapolis and Louisville, though the songs would go on to sit untouched for a decade and a half. In the intervening years, O’Connell enrolled as a folklore graduate student at the University of Oregon and went on to do research for the Oregon Folklife Network—a career that acts in tandem with much of his music—before moving to Durham in 2015.
Previous iterations of Elephant Micah have explored traditional folk with clean, spare guitar lines; others have leaned into cloudy, shifting sound waves, as with 2018’s Genericana, a gorgeous experiment in collapsing the boundaries of time and sound. On that album, aided by an analog synth built by his brother, Matt, called the Mutant, O’Connell’s songs swarmed with static, ruminative possibility. You could feel it like your own body: The first song on the album, “Surf A,” sputters out with something like an industrial heartbeat.
That swarming sensation holds true on Vague Tidings’ eight tracks, with immersive whirlpools of sound. The Mutant does not feature on this new album, but O’Connell did experiment by restringing his guitar like a banjo, in a nod to the traditional music he experienced in Alaska.
To make the album, O’Connell recruited a cohort of Triangle musicians that he felt a kinship with: Libby Rodenbough (Mipso), Matt Douglas (The Mountain Goats), and his brother, Matthew O’Connell. In the summer of 2019, the four gathered in Douglas’s converted utility shed to record; the album was then mastered by Heba Kedry, a prominent mastering engineer who has worked with buzzy artists like Björk and Cate Le Bon.
Now, Kedry can claim having worked with O’Connell, who, though not exactly buzzy, is a true DIY artist—one who has patiently sought new musical ground with his satiny voice and dark, plainspoken stories. His Wikipedia page is spare but describes Elephant Micah as a “cult favorite”; in the same vein, Pop Matters called him a “best-kept secret.” With this new album, those descriptions feel truer than ever.
“The more it sinks in that the planet is at risk, and that we belong to nature rather than vice versa, the more relevant these songs feel to me,” O’Connell wrote in the liner notes, reflecting on his decision to bring the songs into 2021.
The past several years have seen a surge in musicians concerned with climate grief, including Blake Mills, Weyes Blood, and The Weather Station.
Vague Tidings, with its concern for the planet and ominous titular glance toward the future, seems an obvious entry into that canon. Its songs chart a brooding course through manifest destiny, historical wrong turns, and the relentless consumption of the natural world.
But when I ask him whether Vague Tidings is a climate change album, he pauses.
“I feel like it’s kind of the lens through which I’m thinking about these songs, in retrospect,” he says. “But I think that when I wrote them it was a more abstract impulse and a more abstract discomfort with the whole variety of ways that humans intervene in the world.”
This makes sense: Elephant Micah’s music has always seemed to skew more observational than didactic. On the clever first track, “Return to the Abandoned Observatory,” he mourns a disappearing natural world as if it’s the last call at the bar: “Take one more sip / From the little dipper / Before they close this place down.”
“I think we tend to imagine the western states as a kind of testing ground for American ruggedness and independence,” he writes in the liner notes. “These are things I try to examine or question in songs. And oftentimes, in a folklife project, I’m interviewing people who are also putting their spin on those ideals.”
When I ask about his work as a folklorist, O’Connell says that it’s a term that he holds onto “pretty loosely” because there’s a kind of “implicit romanticism” in it, adding, “examining my own romanticism is definitely part of this record, too.”
In Vague Tidings, character sketches of cowboys, gold prospecting, and broad vistas fuse into collective unease about American iconography—what we have chosen to seize onto, and what we have chosen to omit.
Existential worry about the future is threaded throughout Elephant Micah’s extensive body of work, but equal concern is found looking in the rearview mirror and recognizing the stories that we tell about ourselves. In that woozy mirror, they fall quietly behind.
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