Geneviève Castrée was a cartoonist and poet who worked primarily with the Montreal-based L’Oie de Cravan and Drawn & Quarterly publishers. She was also a talented musician in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, where she moved after marrying Phil Elverum of The Microphones and Mount Eerie fame. It is also where she recorded under the name Woelv and then Ô PAON. After a fifteen-year career, and not long after the birth of her and Elverumís only child, Geneviève Castrée was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away in July 2016, and eight and a half months later, Elverum released A Crow Looked At Me.
All eleven tracks on Crow are about Castrée, and the lyrics make quite clear the intensity and depth of his grief. Listening to the album is extremely difficult. It is full of the painful surprises that Elverum himself encountered (“A week after you died a package with your name on it came. / And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret. / And collapsed there on the front steps I wailed”), and it paints an honest and, to anyone who has experienced the death of someone close, relatable picture of tragedy.
Normally when you go to a show, you expect to be entertained and to leave feeling blown away and happy. Given the context of the album and tour, I had no expectations of the sort. I was ready for an emotionally devastating night. Not only that, but the mere fact that Elverum was playing in Montreal mattered, given his marriage to Castrée and her connections with Montreal, so I imagined that this show in particular would be rather hard for him. Combine this with the fact that the venue, the Ukrainian Federation Hall in the Mile End, was stuffy and poorly ventilated and thus hot and muggy, I felt rather uncomfortable in the leadup to Elverum beginning his set.
When Elverum walked on, he briefly spoke about his connection to Montreal (confirming that this would be a difficult show for him), then about Castrée and the songs he was going to play. Nobody made a noise as he spoke, nor as he began playing. After the first song (an unreleased one which left me wondering if he had made up any lyrics on the spot), he launched into playing the entirety of A Crow Looked At Me. Listening to the album is one thing. Seeing it performed is an entirely different one. Instead of just hearing Elverum’s anecdotes, you see him relive the entire experience. Watching the grimaces on his face as he sang about Castrée was heartbreaking. It almost made me wish that he wasnít performing, that he wasnít rewinding the tape to watch the mental image of his wife dying over and over again, but this was part of his healing process. He writes songs about Castrée and sings them in order to solidify his sorrow externally.
Despite the heaviness of the occasion, there were brief moments of levity. During one song, he recounted the time he had partied with Skrillex and Father John Misty during a music festival in Arizona full of “young kids on drugs,” and at one point he stopped to talk about how many sweaters he packed for Montrealís supposedly cooler climate. And it truly was incredible to see an artist that I deeply respect and love, someone who has become a fixture in the indie scene after putting out more than two decades worth of fantastic material, perform. What’s more, the Ukrainian Federation Hall was actually an ideal venue for the occasion. Having seen Stars of the Lid there, I had a feeling that the location was well-suited for intimate shows, and this reinforced that fact, with the small space and creakiness of the seats adding to the confessional air of Elverum’s songs.
Every member of the audience was transfixed by Elverum. Many people were in tears, and many struggled to figure out exactly what to do after each song: do they clap enthusiastically to show their appreciation or do they clap reservedly to show respect to the dead? After the last song ended, everyone gave him a standing ovation. As I filed out of the venue, feeling depressed and yet oddly satisfied, I realized that I had witnessed a truly special event. Before the last song, Elverum had said that he would probably never play those songs here in Montreal again. It was too painful for him. And, honestly, who can blame him? Montreal is a personal place to him because of Geneviève Castrée. To hope that he does this kind of show again is offensive. This show only happened because of tragedy. It happened because, as Elverum sings on the opening line of A Crow Looked At Me, death is real.