Will Sheff Goes It Alone on New Album ‘Nothing Special’

“Stories can become so powerful that they take over your life.”

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 14:  Lead singer of the band Okkerville River, Will Sheff performs at Stubbs with...
Earl Gibson III/WireImage/Getty Images
Adam Nayman
Singer Songwriter

“I totally forgot that you were about to call me,” said Will Sheff over what sounds like a highway whipping by at high speed. The 46-year-old singer is currently touring his new solo album Nothing Special, and he’s conducting our interview from the passenger seat. “We’re on the early morning part of the drive where we toss stories back and forth about Frank Sinatra and Randy Newman and Devo and Mick Jagger,” he explained while switching to headphones. Suddenly he’s coming through loud and clear. “It’s the rock and roll anecdote part of the van ride,” Sheff said. “I am in my rock n’ roll anecdotage.”

Rock n’ roll anecdotes — annotated, apocryphal, and somewhere in between — were a big part of the songwriting style Sheff perfected as the co-founder and frontman of the Austin-based indie band Okkervil River, a shifting musical collective whose mostly terrific discography dates back to 1998. Initially lo-fi and highbrow in the thoughtfully scrawny tradition of Elliott Smith or the Magnetic Fields the group toughened and broadened their sound in their mid-2000s incarnation, which featured a raw guitar attack (most strikingly on the gory, horrifying breakthrough single “For Real”) and the spare, furious drumming of Travis Nelsen, who became Sheff’s closest and most mercurial collaborator. Buoyed by a pre-poptimist, Pitchfork-centric blogosphere whose scribes were equipped to follow (and gobble up) Sheff’s bread crumb trails of musical and literary allusions, Okkervil River achieved an impressive level of critical and commercial success while always remaining a bit too thorny and thoughtful for Next Big Thing status.

Which is just how Sheff, with his semi-forbidding hipster-intellectual mien, seemed to want it (the first time I saw him onstage in Toronto, he was wearing a Maya Deren t-shirt). A frail, bookish-looking English major, Sheff was drawn to songs about marginal or iconoclastic artists like Tim Hardin, the Oregonian folkie whose fatal heroin addiction partially inspired 2005’s tender, blistering song cycle Black Sheep Boy (a few years later, Sheff won a Grammy for producing and writing liner notes for a comeback record by the legendarily eccentric Roky Erickson). On the harrowing Black Sheep Boy dirge “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” the protagonist’s demons summon themselves in the wee hours, promising succor, vengeance, and triumph if only the artist in their thrall will submit and shoot up, an invitation to oblivion: “Come back and we’ll take them all on/come back to your life on the lam/come back to your old black sheep man/I am waiting on hoof and on hand… calmly waiting to make you my lamb.”

At his best, Sheff combined a music historian’s reverence with a healthy sense of subversion. Case in point would be a heady, melodic charmer like “Plus Ones” from 2007’s showbiz-themed The Stage Names, with its gleefully tweaked references to hit singles past and present, each gifted an additional, disfiguring integer (“the 51st way to leave your lover…I can’t listen baby, about the fourth time you were a lady”). The song’s numerological conceit wasn’t just ingenious; it was a statement of intent, jokey one-upmanship as a form of homage. On another Stage Names track, the rollicking DIY ode “Unless It’s Kicks,” Sheff self-deprecatingly pegged himself and his crew as “mid-level band.” It was a line that not only handed ammunition to critics slowly tiring of the singer’s intricate lyrical pirouettes, but loaded and aimed the gun as well. “Will Sheff should stop worrying about what a star he is, or isn't, or doesn't want to be,” snarked an unconvinced Robert Christgau the next year in The Village Voice Consumer Guide. “Normal obscurity is within his means, I swear it.”

“I am in my rock n’ roll anecdotage.”

Fifteen years later, following both the spiritual and official demise of Okkervil River (including a glistening, premature musical kiss-off wryly entitled “Okkervil River R.I.P.”,) there’s a sense in which Sheff seems to have internalized and transcended such chiding advice. Nothing Special, which came out in October, is the first album he’s released under his own name as — to borrow the title of another caustic, cautionary Okkervil River tune — a classic, ’70s-style “Singer Songwriter.” It also contains some of the most relaxed and beautiful music of his career. It’s made up of textured, slow-building ballads that ebb and swell without ever really rocking out; the sonic palette is pastel-technicolor keyboards all the way. Back in Okkervil River’s glory days, Sheff used to sing every other song like he was spitting poison out of his lungs, but now his voice merges with the swirling soundscapes. “The punk rock, please-kill-me, I want-my-music-to-hurt-people thing…I started to see it as very adolescent,” he said. “It was very male, and also maybe very white and suburban.” When I asked him if that means in another life he could have been Fred Durst, he laughed, and added quickly that he’s not disavowing the bleakness of Okkervil River’s back catalog. “I’m proud of what I expressed,” he said. “But I don’t want to carry it around.”

Catharsis comes in many forms, and there is an unmistakable sense of letting go on Nothing Special, which features several songs inspired — or haunted — by Nelsen, who passed away in 2020 from undisclosed causes. “Smooth sailing kids, not a thought in their heads,” begins the lilting, piano-driven reminiscence “In the Thick of It,” which gazes at a pair of ambitious, twenty-something musicians from a reflective, melancholy distance: rich in tactile details (a hand broken by slamming into a piano) and suffused with a thick atmosphere of mourning, it’s the closest the record gets to vintage Okkervil River, particularly in the way it prods and punctures certain romantic, destructive impulses. “Stories can become so powerful that they take over your life,” Sheff said. “Travis and I both had these rock n’ roll myths that we’d fallen for, and it was really difficult for us to replace them.”

“We need a myth,” Sheff sang on 2011’s clanging, chaotic I Am Very Far — an album dominated for long stretches by Nelsen’s percussion. The unspoken but urgent message of Nothing Special is that myths, especially at their most compelling, can be dangerous: the trick is to learn from them without giving yourself over completely. “When you’re trying to be Dylan in Don’t Look Back, or the Replacements, or Little Richard, there’s no letting up from it. Health and sanity and not dying young start to seem boring. There’s no vision of taking care of yourself that’s not just, like, your boring dad,” he said. “As you get older, you need to find something else that’s still potent — that’s creatively, spiritually powerful. For some people, the vision of dying young is romantic; you’re under the spell of a certain fantasy. But when you experience it, there’s nothing romantic about those squandered opportunities.”

The moderation Sheff speaks of is reflected in Nothing Special’s title, with its sardonic hint of mediocrity, or, as per Christgau’s phrase, “normal obscurity.” The self-deprecation is real, but it also belies a benevolent, affirmative everyday metaphysics. “Those two words are very complex,” Sheff said. “It’s two words with opposite meanings placed next to one another. On the album cover, I put them in different colors; you can look at it as ‘nothing special’ or ‘nothing’ and ‘special’ side by side. People say that if everything is special, nothing is, but I’d say ‘maybe everything is special.’ I’m a big believer in not looking at things separate from their context.” With this in mind, the slightly New Agey sentiment of a song like the stately, shimmering “Holy Man” is contextualized by a darker-hued predecessor like “So Come Back, I Am Waiting. Both are ultimately about the ecstasy of surrender to something larger. “I’m still interested in darkness,” said Sheff. “Holy Man’ is sort of tragic… it’s about a lost soul who finds fulfillment by giving over his will to someone else.”

When Nothing Special came out last month, the one nugget that stood out during Sheff’s press rounds was his observation that touring the record would probably put him in the red instead of boosting his proceeds — a byproduct in part of performing without the Okkervil River name, but also an illustration of the rapidly receding margins of his industry. For an established — and, all in-joking aside, upper-mid-level— indie star like Sheff to take an L while playing faithfully to die-hard fans is a depressing state of affairs, and I asked him if, whether for these reasons or any others, he could imagine confining himself to the studio going forward, eschewing the introverted charisma of his live shows in favor of becoming his generation’s equivalent of Steely Dan.

“I was an uncoordinated and sickly kid,” said Sheff, who suffered from epiglottis as an infant and nearly died as a result (a brush with death immortalized in 2018’s gorgeous “Famous Tracheotomies,” with its empathetic roll call of fellow surgical patients-slash-artists including Dylan Thomas and Ray Davies). “I have a weird relationship with being a body, and I think it holds me back in a strange way from being the performer I wish I could be. But I do think I’m a good performer in spite of that,” he said. “What I’m always looking for in performance is to lose myself for a moment. It’s like taking your kids to the beach, and they run off somewhere safe, and you get to sit down without them…your mind runs away somewhere.”

“When you’re performing,” he continued, “you can empty yourself and be in the moment, while the music flows through you. It’s the hardest thing to do, but ten percent of the time I achieve it, and it’s why I do it, other than because I have to to promote the record. When the band is amazing and the audience is receptive, they’re like one organism. Everybody forgets for a second that they have student debt or a surgery or a fight with their mom or that they want everyone to like them. Everyone forgets themselves, and they belong. That’s what I’m looking for from it. I’m never going to not want that.”

Adam Nayman is a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and the author of books on Showgirls, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.