Joseph O’Connell knows the process of finding a story and turning it into his own piece of art.
Better known by his musical moniker Elephant Micah, the 33-year-old Indiana native has been turning out folk and Americana tunes for more than a decade. He’s released 11 albums in 14 years, featuring songs made up of lyrics that weave his own life in with the mythology of characters he has discovered through his touring, his work as a professional folklorist or simply paying attention to the news of the day.
O’Connell’s do-it-yourself approach to his music has kept him on a relatively low profile in the music scene, but his work has been praised by some of the biggest names in indie music today, including Angel Olsen, Mike Taylor (a.k.a. Hiss Golden Messenger) and Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy).
But next month, O’Connell takes a new step in his musical career, releasing his 12th album, Where in Our Woods. It’s the first time he’s release an album on a well-established record label – the Austin, TX-based indie label Western Vinyl, which has released albums from musicians like J. Tillman of Father John Misty, Nat Baldwin and Dirty Projectors. And this month marks the first time O’Connell is supporting an album with a proper tour since 2010.
Where in Our Woods features eight tracks of minimalist composing, utilizing an acoustic guitar, stripped-down drums, a pump organ, a baritone ukulele and a toy recorder. It also features the background vocals of Oldham, who volunteered his unique voice for the project.
But the real star of Where in Our Woods are O’Connell’s lyrics and his song craft. The song “Albino Animals” interweaves three disparate stories he found while perusing a copy of his local newspaper a few years ago – an albino deer shot by a hunter, a rower with local ties who experienced a tragedy in the Atlantic Ocean and a husband and wife duo who were released from federal meth manufacturing charges on a technicality. There’s also the songs “Rare Beliefs” and “Demise of the Bible Birds” that tell the story of Wendell Hansen, an Indiana native who trained birds to demonstrate Bible verses and morals.
O’Connell and Elephant Micah make a rare concert appearance in Philadelphia tonight. We caught up with him by phone from his new home in Raleigh, NC, where he talked about his songwriting process, the new album and the art of the ballad.
Fly Magazine: When did Where in Our Woods start to take shape?
Joseph O’Connell: Quite a while back. I went through a very prolific time period for writing songs – maybe around the mid-2000s. That was a huge part of my life – writing songs. I have a lot of material that I still like a lot, and I think it’s successful. There are a few projects and groups of songs that I was working on around then that I’m still planning on making into albums and present as albums. So there’s a huge lag – partly because I wrote this huge volume of stuff and partly because my life has revolved less around music since then. It’s taken years to bring these projects to fruition, step-by-step think about the arrangements for the songs and finally create the kinds of recordings I want to make of them. On the one hand, maybe I’ve been a little bit picky, but on the other hand a little more patient of how I put together recordings. An album like this really reflects a pretty long-term cycle of working with the songs. That’s kind of different with stuff I’ve done in the past, but I’m really happy with the result of that process and learning to take my time a little bit more and pay attention to the details of how I’m arranging and recording the songs.
FM: What made you decide to work with a larger label this time and go to Western Vinyl?
JO: The last record that I made of new recordings – Louder than Thou – was something that I released myself. I call my label Product of Palmyra, named after a town in Indiana near where I grew up. So that was a completely D.I.Y. project. It was a lot of work to act as the label, the publicist and kind of fill all these roles. I like working that way. I like to be involved in the process at every step and have direct communication with the people who are listening to the music and buying the music. But working with Western Vinyl, this is my first opportunity to work with a label that is a little bit better established and well distributed. It’s still a really small label that’s basically run by one person. Brian from Western Vinyl is basically pursuing it out of a passion for doing it and the music. I was interested in it as a way to get the music out there, and I really like what Western Vinyl does. They do great work, and they’ve put out some records that are some of my favorites. For me, they had the combination of being able to offer a little bit more proactive help but also still having a lot of artistic integrity. I wanted to get the music out to more people, but I wanted to be working with people whose aesthetic I appreciated.
FM: How much did Will Oldham help you on this album?
JO: I feel like Will’s been more in the role of an empathizer or a spirit guide. We had a lot of conversations and exchanges. He’s been a great resource as far as somebody who’s been making records in this world. He’s had an amazing career and an influence as an artist. To be able to dialogue with him about the arc of what he’s done and where he’s at now and the kind of decisions he’s making now, that’s been so helpful to me at a personal level of being able to see how he’s navigated being an artist who’s pretty committed to wanting to do things his way. Around the time when I was working on Where in Our Woods is when he was self-releasing an album, so it was cool to get to talk to him about why he was doing that and the direction he thought he would be going in the future and how he was dealing with all the same questions I was trying to answer for myself about how and whether to make music. Finding ways to feel like you’re communicating something vital and challenging, but also finding ways to get to an audience that isn‘t about shaving away all of the rough edges or simplifying the ideas. For my music, I appreciate a lot of ambiguity, and a lot of music marketing seems driven by simplifying or stereotyping the meaning of the work or the person making it. That would kind of defeat the purpose for me – it wouldn’t be fun.
FM: If you’re going to have a mentor, Will Oldham would be one of the best ones to have.
JO: Definitely. I’ve been listening to his music for as long as I’ve been making music. I had an old worn-out cassette tape that somebody gave me in the mid-’90s of the Lost Blues and Other Songs album. That was on heavy rotation for me the whole time I was starting to figure out how to write songs and record music. That was a great model because it was home-recorded sounding and had an accessible feel. It felt like people playing together in a room and was a reachable aesthetic. And it had a D.I.Y. or punk ethic to it, but it was also combined with an interesting and a quieter sounding style of music that included country and Americana. Those are all things I wanted to incorporate or what I was playing in other contexts anyway.
FM: Did you ever get to meet Wendell Hansen, the Bible Bird Man of Indiana?
JO: No, that was really only a faint rumor in my mind. When I first started trying to tour, we went to the East Coast and someone in Rhode Island told us about him because she had heard that we were from Indiana. She got really excited and wanted to tell us all about this guy in Indiana that she was obsessed with. Apparently, she had gotten her hands on a video of Hansen’s Bible Birds. That was the first I heard of him. He seemed like an obvious candidate for some songs to be woven around. Long after that, I also realized that Garrison Keillor has a character in his Lake Wobegon stories that’s possibly based on Hansen or is basically the same archetype. In the Keillor stories, it’s called the Gospel Birds. So I guess my songs are not the first artistic renderings of these kind of performances – this show with the gospel-themed bird act.
FM: Has it happened other times in the past with your work as a folklorist or your musical touring where you’ve been inspired to write a song about an interesting character you’ve encountered?
JO: I feel like I tend to build songs around almost like the legends of people than people themselves. There’s one song that’s on the record – “Albino Animals” – that’s basically three verses, and each one of them is loosely interpreting a news story in an issue of my hometown’s local newspaper. That’s maybe an example of hearing about these situations that seem like they call for some kind of poetic attention. They just kind of captured my imagination.
FM: Did you feel a spark right away for a song when you picked up that particular paper?
JO: Yeah, I think it was the combination of the variety and the unexpectedness of these events and the fact that they were all intersecting in this very tiny community. It felt like this single issue of the paper was like a whole mythology unto itself. It had this resonance to think about those three parallel things going on related to people in my area. Any one of them on its own had so much tension or suspense in it. It’s kind of the larger than life stuff that interests me. It’s like when you come across something that feels like it has those huge dramatic proportions, but it’s also so far outside the public consciousness. It’s just this small-town newspaper, but on the other hand it feels like it has this mythic proportion and it feels like it could belong in some oral epic poetry.
FM: That would be an interesting genre to start – modern oral epic songs.
JO: Yeah. It’s really hard to write an actual narrative song. It’s interesting, because that used to be what songs were in cultural settings – narratives and poetry that told a concrete story. But that’s not really part of popular music in the same way anymore. I don’t think I’ve ever really had success actually telling a story in a song, going from where you describe an actual sequence of events where there’s a beginning, middle and an end. I’m definitely aware that what I’m doing when I’m talking about a story is kind of hinting at it or using it as a jumping off point for some images or moods. It’s pretty different than being able to convey a narrative.
Elephant Micah opens for Centro-Matic tonight at Boot & Saddle (1131 S. Broad St., Philadelphia). 8pm doors. 21+. $12. Click here for tickets.