After nearly a decade of toiling in obscurity, Will Sheff has suddenly found himself in a strange, almost troubling position. The Stage Names, the singer-guitarist's fourth outing with Okkervil River, has turned the long-running Austin, Texas, act into an overnight sensation among North America's indie-rock cognoscenti. As the glowing reviews have stacked up, the major television networks have come calling; when the Georgia Straight tracks Sheff down on his cellphone in the middle of the Arizona badlands, he and his bandmates are fresh off an appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
All this is turning Okkervil River's frontman into someone who's almost famous, even if it's primarily among hipsters who can name every act currently signed to Jagjaguwar Records. What makes that weird is that The Stage Names is a record very much fixated on the cult of celebrity and the strange relationships that average Joes and Janes end up developing with performers they typically never meet.
"We're more of a commodity than ever before, and that's really interesting," Sheff says matter-of-factly. "So in some ways what you are writing about as a songwriter is starting to happen to you. All these people are starting to look up to you in a way, and yet you are still the same person that you always were."
The argument could be made that Sheff today isn't the same guy who wrote Okkervil River's 2005 breakthrough, Black Sheep Boy. Where that record found the singer wondering where everything had gone horribly, blackly wrong, The Stage Names is a more optimistic-sounding affair, with the often-orchestral songs blending beautifully lilting indie rock with gorgeous, sunset-swept Americana.
"I knew that we'd got a certain amount of attention for Black Sheep Boy, so I understood that people were going to be paying more attention to what we were doing this time," he notes. "That was an interesting thing to think about, but you can't think about it too much. It's like looking down at your feet when you're walking a tightrope. It's better to look ahead."
That focus yielded one of the year's best albums, with Sheff serving up the kind of vividly drawn characters that made the Hold Steady one of 2006's major breakout bands. Sometimes The Stage Names's songs are rooted in tragic reality, with the star-dusted acoustic lullaby "Savannah Smiles" inspired by the life and death of '90s porn star Shannon Wilsey, better known by her stage name, Savannah. No less captivating is the winsome rocker "John Allyn Smith Sails", where Sheff imagines the final thoughts of alcohol-addled American poet John Allyn Berryman, who jumped to his death from a Minnesota bridge in 1972. The Stage Names's indisputable stunner is the swaying, country-gold classic "A Girl in Port", which offers the most accurate portrait ever written of what it's like to go backstage at a show to hang out with people who, no matter how much you might wish otherwise, are complete strangers.
"You know how, if you're a really, really big fan of somebody, you start to feel like you know them?" Sheff asks. "After a while, you start to forget that you don't really know them at all. But despite that, people start to talk about a singer so affectionately that they'll even use first names, as if they're buddies from the same street. There's something really sweet and awesome about that. But there's also something sad about the fact that it's really not true."
More than ever, Okkervil River is learning that to be the case.
Okkervil River plays Richard's on Richards on Sunday (September 9).