I grew up in a town of about 6,000 people in rural Kansas back in the '70s and '80s. I've never romanticized it much, though it was certainly a simpler time and, for better or worse, it's where I learned to make some sense of my life. The world you inhabit when you come of age in your teen years has a way of digging its claws in you. As the years pass, no matter how far you try to get away from it, it stays with you. The people, the places, the sounds and even the smells become a part of your DNA.
On Okkervil River's latest album, The Silver Gymnasium, lead singer and songwriter Will Sheff looks back at his own childhood in Meriden, N.H., a town with 500 people and not a lot to do. He describes himself as an awkward kid with thick glasses and asthma, and his childhood wasn't particularly remarkable. But, in many ways, it was uniquely American, and his memories offer an intimate portrait of a place in time.
You can hear the majesty and wonder of these songs by listening to the full album in our First Listen series. You can also take a virtual journey through Meriden with a fabulous, hand-drawn, interactive map that pairs intimate stories from Will Sheff's childhood — narrated by Sheff — with photos and locations in the town.
All Songs Considered's Bob Boilen and I talked about these stories, and the music that grew out of them, with Morning Edition. You can hear our chat with the audio link at the top of this page.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
NPR Music's series First Listen, at npr.org, gives you the chance to hear an upcoming album in its entirety before it's officially released. Our own Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton helped choose those albums. They also host an NPR show and blog called ALL SONGS CONSIDERED.
Bob and Robin stopped by to fill us in on the band Okkervil River and its new album, "The Silver Gymnasium," which will be out early next month.
BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: Robin Hilton, you grew up in a small town.
ROBIN HILTON, BYLINE: I did, in rural Kansas. About 6,000 people were all on a first-name basis.
BOILEN: Will Sheff, the leader of Okkervil River - this band that's from Austin, Texas - grew up in a smaller town: Meriden, N.H. It wasn't the golden paradise that you think of - or at least I think of, as a Brooklyn kid.
HILTON: Yeah, only 500 people in his town, but he does romanticize it.
BOILEN: He does, but he also uses it to look back at that time in his life as a coke-bottled glasses, asthma-suffering, little, red-haired kid that just did not fit into this small town. And there's a great line in this song, "Down, Down The Deep River," where he says: It's not all right. It's not even close to all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN, DOWN THE DEEP RIVER")
OKKERVIL RIVER: (Singing) Tell me I'm always gonna be your best friend. Now, you said it one time. Why don't you say it again, all the way down the line? To where the telephone ends, come on, shout it on down the wire. And it's not all right, not even close to all right.
HILTON: In a lot of ways, Will Sheff's life was pretty unremarkable. There's not a lot of drama in these stories, but there's a lot of majesty and wonder. It's all about coming of age in a small town America; where there really wasn't a lot for him to do in a place that just had a gas station, where they could buy candy and rent videos and hang out, and end up smelling like - as he says in this song, "Where The Spirit Left Us" - smelling like sweat and gasoline.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE THE SPIRIT LEFT US")
OKKERVIL RIVER: (Singing) Underneath the house, stuck the frame out here, smells like sweat and gasoline. And when you get hard and your eyes get mean 'cause you're on the march, but I could almost kiss you...
BOILEN: And I don't think of Okkervil as an innovative band. They just take this form, this solid form of great songwriting, and they just make it still work. And I think that's pretty great that this form still holds true. There's a song called "Stay Young." The sentiment in this song is about no matter how kind of awful and awkward he might have felt, Will Sheff, as a child growing up in this small town, he still looks back and he says it's still something to hold onto and something to get through. And he did. He found his little niche.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY YOUNG")
OKKERVIL RIVER: (Singing) All my friends are running to their own corners, the hurters and the haters and the faders in the morning...
MONTAGNE: You can explore an interactive, hand-drawn map of Will Sheff's hometown of Meriden, N.H. - which inspired the new songs - plus hear all of Okkervil River's soon-to-be-released "The Silver Gymnasium," at nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.