Will Sheff is walking in the rain and talking about tracheotomies.
There’s a reason he’s landed on the subject: One of the songs on Okkervil River’s latest album, In the Rainbow Rain, is dedicated to the topic.
“I knew about tracheotomies before I knew how to read,” Sheff says. “It was a subject in my family that hovered over everything. Sometimes I’d wonder if maybe I wasn’t supposed to be alive.”
Sheff’s own tracheotomy occurred when he was an infant, but his fascination with the procedure lingered. When Catherine Zeta-Jones began to regularly appear in films, he quickly noticed she, too, bore the distinctive scar that all survivors of the operation share. While Sheff’s has faded, it’s never left his mind.
Instead, it became the basis for “Famous Tracheotomies” — one of 10 new songs that reflect a pivot away from the literary-minded ballads that have long served as Sheff’s primary mode of expression. A band largely in name only — Sheff is the creative center and only remaining original member — Okkervil River has come to represent a highly intellectual subsect of folk where twang meets truth.
On In the Rainbow Rain, Sheff says the concern wasn’t over whether his words impressed people, but whether he could imbue his music with a fresh sense of wonder.
“I like to read rock bios,” he notes. “One thing you start to notice is these patterns where people either go into autopilot or they manage to stay vital.”
To that end, Sheff’s made some notable changes in his life — including experimenting with microdosing psychedelics and regularly attending Quaker services. The former evolved from some experiences with mushrooms he enjoyed while staying at a friend’s cabin in Upstate New York.
“It was a really positive experience for me,” he recalls. “What I wanted out of life started to change pretty significantly. Microdosing was an attempt to bring that feeling and sensation into my life in a more integrated way. I wanted to be a normal person who wasn’t constantly tripping balls but who was still connected to that experience. I feel like that’s something that’s been a theme for me. I’m always trying to invite in mystery and figure out a way to thread it through my daily life.”
Speaking with Sheff, it’s clear that he thinks deeply about the songs he writes. On 2005’s critically acclaimed Black Sheep Boy, he managed to weave together musings on his own relationships and tribulations with the narrative of 1960s folk singer Tim Hardin, who struggled with heroin addiction (and wrote the song that gives the album its title). Across Okkervil River’s eight albums, Sheff has always approached his craft with a storyteller’s eye, a tactic that has earned him adoration from critics and a dedicated, if niche, fan following.
In conversation, Sheff is quick to reach for metaphors. When it comes to his songwriting, he compares the process to photography.
“Your mind is kind of like a dark room on some level,” he says. “You take the picture — which could be an idea or an experience — it goes into the darkroom, and something comes out the other end. If you go barging in there to check out the pictures while they’re developing, you might screw it up. I’d say thinking too consciously about what you’re trying to do in the middle of the process would be akin to barging into that darkroom.”
In addition to mystery, Okkervil River’s latest work is also an exercise in simplicity. While In the Rainbow Rain’s closing number, “Human Being Song,” may be one of the most straightforward tracks Sheff has ever written, it’s for that very reason that he considers it some of his finest work.
“For much of my life, I’ve used being wordy as a defense mechanism,” he says. “I think that’s what I find myself less pleased by when I listen back to some of my earlier songs. It’s like here’s this guy who is really trying to get your attention with his words. It’s a bit ironic, because some of the songs that I feel that way about are some of our most popular songs. I don’t think I’m the same Okkervil fan that most of our fans are.”
With “Human Being Song,” Sheff has rebuked the heady constructs that often define his work and instead penned something you might expect from Muppet Show songwriter Joe Raposo.
“It’s my attempt to write ‘Bein’ Green,’ ” he says. “Language will be something that I always have and that I will always deeply love, but there’s also something nice about throwing down your weapons, to just come out with your hands up and say, ‘This is who I am.’ ”
Okkervil River, Saturday, June 2, 9 p.m., at Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Ave. $23-$45; 415-474-0365 or bimbos365club.com