You’ve mentioned that recording the voiceover for Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie Inherent Vice felt similar to recording a song. How did the timeline for that project fit in with this album, and did anything carry over to this record from the experience of filming and recording the voiceover?
I had done all of my recording of the record before I did the movie, I think I[’d] started the mixing process. So from a writing or arrangement perspective, there wasn’t any crossover. It’s possible that the idea of a complete verisimilitude…I’ll say this about all Paul Thomas Anderson films: They each inhabit purely different worlds. You can always recognize his movies as his movies, but the air smells different, the ground feels different underfoot, the quality of the light is different, it feels like they are just completely separate from each other. You look up Inherent Vice next to Boogie Nights; the time period is fairly similar, at least approximate, and those two films look and feel completely different. So, I was definitely thinking about that idea when I was mixing the record. There was some crossover there, in the sense that I wanted each world that each song occupied to feel different.
Why do you think you’re drawn to the kinds of motifs and references that populate your work?
Oh man, I don’t know. Why do we like what we like?
You know? Why do I hate bananas?
Whatever that aesthetic impulse is, it’s similar to following your nose to the scent that smells good or eating a dish that tastes good. You just go in the direction that gives your particular brain gratification.
When you did Inherent Vice, what did you learn about acting as a newcomer, and as a newcomer to a project that already had so much prestige and attention?
Regardless of how massive a fan I am of Paul’s work—he’s my favorite director—but even keeping that in mind, I never would have said yes if he wasn’t my friend. I would have been much too scared of embarrassing myself. Depressingly, some of what I learned didn’t happen until I was watching myself on camera. Watching the finished film, there are so many things I see where I’m like, Oh, God, why am I doing that right now? Don’t do that! I want a do-over! which happened more with the on-camera stuff.
The voiceover I feel really good about, I had more of a clear direction, but I’m really scared of cameras. I get spooked and I get that feeling of walking across the high school cafeteria with your tray and all eyes on you—terror. I thought that the key was going to be forgetting that the camera was there, but actually it wasn’t. It was about this relationship and trust that was being built with Paul and with the DP. It stopped being about ignoring the camera and started being more about feeling like when I’m improvising music with someone and sitting and listening really carefully and playing off what they’re doing and they’re playing off what I’m doing; it starts feeling like an organism in some way. I really didn’t learn that until the music video [Paul Thomas Anderson directed], which was a kind of acting, in a way. I would have loved to take that and reapply it to the movie so I wouldn’t be mortified every time I see myself on camera.
This is the first album cover that didn’t have a portrait of you on it, and I’m interested in what motivated that.
I’ve always claimed, in the past, that my album covers are portraits of the narrator of the record. The narrator of the record is me, usually, but a me with certain aspects really concentrated or exaggerated. Other aspects [are] removed because they’re not relevant to the record. It’s a stylized version of me every time, and then usually that narrator is also housed within some framework that hints or points toward the vibe, the mood, and the feel of the record. This album cover is no different.
How did you come across the artist Kim Keever whose work is on the cover of Divers?
I first found him five or six years ago walking around in New York City. I saw one of his pieces hanging in a gallery and I dug it very hard and went in and asked about it. I actually was really in love with two of his pieces. One was called “West 104K,” I believe. It’s the piece that, in the lyric booklet, is married to the song “Sapokanikan.” And then the other piece of his that I loved is Wildflowers 51h, I think it’s called [Wildflowers 52i], which is the one that is the cover of the record.
The reason I chose [to buy] the big mountainscape—the “West” one over the “Wildflowers” one—is that as much as I completely loved “Wildflowers,” it gave me this agitation, like a bee in my bonnet. Every time I looked at it, it was like I had four cups of coffee. I was very emotionally perturbed, not unhappy, just like the throes of falling in love or being really nervous or excited about something, and I didn’t know where in the house I could hang it, ’cause it’s not a feeling I want to feel for more than five minutes a day. So I chose this other piece that I was also super inspired by and loved, “West [104K].”
As I started the process of writing the record, when I was four or five songs in, I don’t know when exactly, I realized that the motivating set of ideas and feelings pushing that writing were the same set of feelings and ideas that agitated me so much about this Keever piece. There was some connection in my mind between the two things that made me horrified and delighted in the same ways. I had a really emotional connection to his piece and it was the same thing that kept pushing these songs into existence. At that point I wrote him, I asked someone to get a hold of him, I think I asked the gallery where I bought his piece originally. He was wonderful and lovely and interested in trying whatever: he was willing to make new work, he was interested in the idea of collaboration, whatever that ended up being. We talked about it for years and, it’s funny, the working title for my album years ago was Divers, and my working album cover was his piece “Wildflowers.” I cycled through, over the course of five years, a list of, like, 200 possible other album titles. I went through the entire portfolio of Kim Keever’s work, new work, and we talked about so many different things, but in the end I knew that it had to be that title and that piece of art, which had been there from the beginning.
Do you feel any attachment to or nostalgia for these previous narrators?
Definitely. And of course, when I say narrator I’m not making any claims toward complete fiction or anything like that. But I definitely have nostalgia for who I was and what my life was when I made all those records. They are definitely, both in their fictions and their autobiography, very accurate depictions of what was going on in my mind at that time—who I was and what I was interested in, what made me sad and what made me happy, and what was exciting and what I was admiring.
Did each phase feel complete once the album was done?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, for example, the Kim piece that’s on the cover of the record is now hanging on my kitchen wall because it no longer gives me the agitation and whatever passenger I was carrying at that point in time has moved on. I can just look at it as a gorgeous piece of artwork.