Fact-Checking NPR's Reports On Vegas 'Violence'

Thousands of people gather at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas for the Nevada State Democratic Convention on May 14, 2016.

Thousands of people gather at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas for the Nevada State Democratic Convention on May 14, 2016. Michelle Rindels /AP hide caption

toggle caption Michelle Rindels /AP

NPR’s use of the word “violence” and claims of thrown chairs in recent stories about Saturday’s Nevada Democratic Party state convention have come under criticism by supporters of candidate Bernie Sanders.

Listener Ya’akov Sloman, of Mishawaka, Ind., writes:

“In the aftermath of the convention a single report of ‘throwing chairs and rushing the stage’ by an openly partisan ‘journalist’ became the story for every major news outlet. In particular, the dramatic image of ‘throwing chairs’ seemed to strike reporters as great stuff; so it was repeated.

As far as my extensive research can determine (and I am still looking) there is no other evidence of ‘thrown chairs’. This one counterfactual account changes the tone of stories containing it dramatically. If it did not happen, claims of ‘violence’ which depend on it are simply not sustainable.”

A number of listeners and readers have written with similar concerns (not all so polite). The reports they are concerned about include this one from today’s Morning Edition, with the headline, “Nevada Incident Could Make It Difficult For Sanders’ Supporters To Back Clinton” and yesterday’s online-only story, “Bernie Sanders Defends Supporters After Rowdy Protests In Nevada.”

The online story, citing the source of the claims, reported:

“But chaos followed after Sanders supporters allege they were denied being seated at the convention and that the state party chairwoman, Roberta Lange, was slanting the rules in favor of Clinton. In the end, Clinton ended up with 20 delegates out of the state to Sanders’ 15.

Sanders supporters, believing they had been treated unfairly, rushed the stage, threw chairs and were shouting obscenities, according to veteran Nevada journalist Jon Ralston. Even after the convention concluded, many refused to leave and had to be escorted out by security.”

As Sloman notes, other outlets, including The Associated Press, also reported that chairs were thrown. While I have no reason to doubt that reporting, in the extensive video posted on social media in the aftermath of the convention I’ve so far found none of a chair being thrown. One video shows a chair being lifted in the air. Other videos do show angry Sanders supporters rushing toward the stage and shouting obscenities.

Talking Points Memo this afternoon tried to get to the bottom of what happened and the report was inconclusive: “There has been disagreement between Sanders supporters and those critical of their behavior Saturday over how violent the state convention actually was, and who is to blame. Descriptions of the day’s events recount shouting, interruptions, crude names and epithets being lobbed at party officials, and an evening that culminated in a group of Sanders backers rushing towards the stage and even flipping chairs. Only some of those incidents could be backed up by video evidence posted by those at Saturday’s convention and other reports.”

I asked Beth Donovan, NPR’s senior Washington editor, to respond to the concerns. She wrote, “Several members of our staff watched live video that showed a man brandishing a chair. Nevada analyst Jon Ralston, who was in the room and over time has been a very reliable source, reported that a chair was thrown. We okayed using and sourcing his reporting.” But, she added, “When Ralston’s reporting came under question, we adjusted our language,” by not repeating the word “thrown.” Instead, Keith’s report this morning referred to “physical skirmishes.” (It also quoted Nevada Sen. Harry Reid as referring to “violence,” which he did, indeed, do.)

Donovan went on, “So, was there violence? There was pushing, shoving, and screaming, a chair was brandished and a great deal of hostile and obscene language used. Several editors and reporters saw and heard the video live and later. People on the ground described it as violence. It doesn’t seem a stretch to me.”

Donovan and I disagree on this; “violence,” which NPR more often uses to describe events in war zones, seems too strong a term to me based on the evidence I have seen so far. And the politics team’s own decision to avoid the word “thrown” renders this online-only introduction to Keith’s piece misleading, unless other eyewitnesses come forward to clarify the events: “Sen. Bernie Sanders is answering for violence at the Nevada Democratic Party’s state convention, where his supporters threw chairs and hurled obscenities as Hillary Clinton claimed the most delegates.”

One final note: I do not agree with those who emailed that this reporting is evidence of an NPR bias against Sanders, a claim which many, many listeners and readers have been making to me and online over the course of months. But that is only all the more reason for NPR to be particularly precise in reporting on events such as these.

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With New Products Google Flexes Muscles To Competitors, Regulators

Google Vice President Mario Queiroz talks about the uses of the new Google Home device during the keynote address of the Google I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif.

Google Vice President Mario Queiroz talks about the uses of the new Google Home device during the keynote address of the Google I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif. Eric Risberg/AP hide caption

toggle caption Eric Risberg/AP

The message from Google’s developers’ conference is clear: The company is prepared to take on competitors as well as regulators.

CEO Sundar Pichai and his team were flexing. Big time.

Through a litany of product announcements at the so-called I/O annual conference in Mountain View, Calif. — messaging apps, a personal virtual assistant and a voice-controlled speaker that connects you with it — the company basically said:

We can do chatbots better than Facebook. We can be smarter at home than Amazon Echo. Our personal assistant gets trained on Google search, which is more widely used than Microsoft’s Bing. We’ve got you covered on privacy; just like Apple, our new messaging service is getting end-to-end encryption.

Google has been under scrutiny from regulators in Europe who say its position is too dominant and criticize Google for pulling consumers into bundles of its products.

Well, it looks like Google won’t stop bundling any time soon. The personal assistant, which will work through multiple devices, is an effort to deepen the relationship with customers.

“We want users to have an ongoing two-way dialogue with Google,” said Pichai about the personal assistant. “We think of this as building each user their own individual Google.”

Already 20 percent of queries on Google’s mobile app and Android phones are voice queries — people saying “OK Google” to summon an older assistant called Google Now.

The company’s been working for years to listen better — get what you say when you’re in a noisy place, speaking slang like a human and not a robot, working to complete tasks. The assistant is being integrated into a new chatbot app Allo that helps you make dinner reservations or buy movie tickets.

Google is also releasing a new device called Google Home to help you manage your domestic life. The company wants Home — which looks kind of like a white plastic salt shaker — to have a place at your dinner table and be the all-knowing, helpful extended family you never had.

“It draws on 17 years of innovation in organizing the world’s information to answer questions which are difficult for other assistants to handle,” said Vice President Mario Queiroz.

Emphasis on other. Google leaders acknowledge: Amazon did it first, with the popular Echo. But they contend their device is smarter — and it can operate in a network — taking commands to shut off the lights in one bedroom while playing Spotify in another.

Google did not announce a release date.

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New Report Details The Horrors Of Life Under ISIS In Sirte, Libya

A view of buildings ravaged by fighting in Sirte, Libya, in 2011.

A view of buildings ravaged by fighting in Sirte, Libya, in 2011. Manu Brabo/AP hide caption

toggle caption Manu Brabo/AP

Crucifixions, executions, food shortages, forced prayer: These are features of life in the ISIS stronghold of Sirte, Libya, according to a new Human Rights Watch report.

ISIS has controlled Sirte since last August. The central Mediterranean city is the hometown of Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the site of some of the final battles of Libya’s 2011 revolution. Human Rights Watch interviewed 45 residents of the city for its report, which paints a vivid picture of how ISIS controls every aspect of life, “down to the length of men’s trousers, the breadth and color of women’s gowns, and the instruction students receive in state schools.”

“We were filled with hope. Then step by step, Daesh [ISIS] took over. Now we feel we are cursed,” one resident who fled Sirte told HRW.

The city drew international attention in February 2015 when an ISIS video showed its fighters decapitating 21 men, almost all of them Egyptian Coptic Christians who were kidnapped in Sirte.

In its new report, Human Rights Watch says it documented 28 other killings by ISIS in the Sirte area between mid-February 2015 and mid-February 2016. These amounted to “scenes of horror – public beheadings, corpses in orange jumpsuits hanging from scaffolding in what they referred to as ‘crucifixions,’ and masked fighters snatching men from their beds at night.” That’s in addition to “scores” of rival fighters disappeared by ISIS and presumed dead, the rights group says.

For example, Human Rights Watch documented the execution of 23-year-old Amjad bin Sasi, who was accused of “insulting God.” According to two family members, “ISIS enforcers burst into bin Sasi’s house and hauled him to jail for allegedly naming God while swearing as he brawled with a neighbor earlier that day.” He was brought before an ISIS judge and, three days later, shot dead in a public execution. His family says they haven’t received his body, because ISIS will not allow them to bury him in a Muslim cemetery – they consider him a non-believer.

The report details other cases where people have been taken from their beds at night and executed for being suspected “spies.” Others were killed for preaching against ISIS, or for conducting “sorcery.”ISIS keeps a tight grip on the day-to-day activities of the Sirte population, according to the report. Residents say morality police “aided by informants patrolled the streets threatening, fining or flogging men for smoking, listening to music, or failing to ensure their wives and sisters were covered head to toe in loose black abayas, and hauling boys and men into mosques for prayer and mandatory religious education classes.”

The militant group has taken control of the city’s schools, port, air base, power station, and radio station, the reports says. At least two-thirds of Sirte’s population has fled since ISIS took over.

And amid widespread food shortages, the report says ISIS is funneling reserves to its fighters at the expense of local residents:

“The group is failing to provide basic necessities to the local population. Instead it is diverting food, medicine, fuel, and cash, along with homes it confiscated from residents who fled, to as many as 1,800 fighters, police and functionaries it has amassed in the city.”

According to the report, ISIS fighters have destroyed “at least 20 homes belonging to fighters from prominent local families who joined militias trying to ousted the group.”

And five times a day during prayer times, ISIS enforcers comb the streets, “herding residents into mosques and ordering merchants to close their shops from the start of the prayers of al-Asr in the mid-afternoon until the end of the prayer of al-Isha after nightfall, current and displaced residents said.” They say the punishment for not attending is flogging, according to the report.

Additionally, women are not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative and fully covered according to the ISIS guidelines. Likewise, “shop owners are whipped and their shops are closed if they receive an unaccompanied woman.”

Chaos has erupted in Libya since the ouster of Gadhafi, with two separate governments each claiming authority. A U.N.-brokered agreement signed in December was meant to unify the two into one. But as The Associated Press reports, the agreement only has “patchy support” and the government’s head Fayez Serraj “has been ensconced in a naval base in Tripoli since his return to the country in March, unable to exercise much power beyond his office walls — much like his predecessors.”

ISIS, which first appeared in Libya in 2014, has benefited from Libya’s ongoing chaos and now has multiple local affiliates. Human Rights Watch says the militant group controls some 120 miles of Mediterranean coastline, where Sirte lies.

As NPR’s Michele Kelemen reported, the U.S. is considering sending weapons to the U.N.-backed government. John Kirby, spokesman for Secretary of State John Kerry, says “it will take time to make sure weapons get to the right groups in Libya and don’t just add to the chaos,” Michele reported.

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On Corinne Bailey Rae's New Album, A Focus On Renewal

Corinne Bailey Rae's new album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, focuses on hope and transformation.

Corinne Bailey Rae’s new album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, focuses on hope and transformation. Alexandra Valenti/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Alexandra Valenti/Courtesy of the artist

Corinne Bailey Rae has traveled great distances in her music. The UK singer’s self-titled debut album came out 10 years ago; all sunshiny pop, it was a huge hit. Her second album, The Sea took an emotional turn, coming shortly after her husband of seven years died suddenly. Rae was 29.

Now, Rae has released her third album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers. She spoke with NPR’s Ari Shapiro about how her latest songs reflect her experiences with loss, transformation and newfound love. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, or read on for an edited version.

Ari Shapiro: Let’s talk about the song “Stop Where You Are.” You’ve got this lyric, “Lying in the dark, your seeds will grow / Miracles just like a winter rose.”

Corinne Bailey Rae: That song really came about through thinking about nature, and the things that nature tells us. You know, I think that nature has such a powerful message about moving from dark to light, and bitterness to sweetness. I love the idea of the winter rose that’s sort of sleeping underneath the soil. Underneath all the snow is this plant that was growing and developing and could present itself as this beautiful flower in this time where everything else around it is very barren.

And like the flower, the song bursts out.

YouTube

Yeah, I love the way that the song develops. I wanted it to start off really intimate. You know, the song is about how it’s really important to be in the moment and be present. I’ve learned to do it more and more, I guess, as I’ve just gotten to sort of how rich life can be, and how fragile life can be as well.

What is it that has taught you those lessons? And what is it that pulls you away from the present moment?

I think that I’ve learned a lot in the last few years about the fragility of life. You know, losing my husband in 2008, that was a completely unexpected thing. And that process of grief and mourning that has taught me a lot about life, and how we never know how long we have. I think that every day should be savored, and so a lot of “Stop Where You Are” comes out of that idea that life is really precious, the people around us are precious, and every single moment is worth celebrating.

This idea of transition from darkness to light, from bitterness to sweetness, seems to come up in song after song on this album — for example, the song “Caramel.”

For me, that song was amazing because I felt like so much of it came through in this really subconscious way. I was playing my guitar and that first line, “It isn’t love, but pain, that makes you brave” — I had no intention of singing that. I hadn’t written it down. But as I played my guitar, this phrase just came out. And I was able to look at it and think, “What does this mean?” and realize I was writing a song about transformation and renewal.

I love that image of caramel — and how, if you’ve only been tasting bitter things, exactly how sweet something like that tastes to you. And the idea of feeling that love was a possible thing — I compare it in the song to dawn, and the idea of the sun slowly coming up. I think that’s really what that transformation time has been about for me: that it’s been a very gradual process, but how, when that sun does finally come up, it appears to be so bright. When you finally taste the sweetness, it appears to be so sweet. It’s so thrown into relief because of what you’ve experienced.

Even in what sounds like the most poppy, upbeat track on the album, “Tell Me,” there’s this idea: “There will be heartbreaks and blue skies / But feel it all, walk tall, don’t close your eyes.” Like, just get through it and you will emerge.

That’s a really important thing for me, the idea of telling young people there will be blue skies and there will be heartbreak. I think that it’s really important for young people to know that life is not expecting it always to be this kind of sunshiny, easy thing, but [rather] being able to sort of roll with it and be pushed around by it and be able to survive it, and know when you have to hide, and when you have to sort of hunker down, and when you can re-emerge.

And you can speak with credibility about coming through darkness because you have not only experienced the darkness, but you’ve fallen in love again. You are married now to your longtime producer.

That’s true! Steve [Brown] and I got married three years ago. The amazing thing for me was that I never really thought I would be able to experience love again in this sort of uncomplicated way. And it was even more incredible for me that it was someone I had known for a long time and been friends with for a very long time. It’s been really a great joy in my life to find this relationship with him.

You know, a big theme of the record, for me, is hope. And the reason I say a big theme of the record for me is because I feel like the album has been making itself known to me. I haven’t sort of sat down and thought, “These are the themes, these are the ideas, these are the songs.” I really feel that just in being still and being quiet and letting the songs kind of float in, it’s really been this dream-like thing for me — almost like a process of waking up.

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Watch Live: Yeasayer, The Jayhawks And Kurt Vile At World Cafe Live

VuHaus

Watch public-radio favorites Yeasayer, The Jayhawks, Bonnie Raitt, Kurt Vile and more perform live at the 2016 Non-COMMvention at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.

The show begins at 7 p.m. EDT and is streaming on VuHaus, a new website that publishes studio sessions and concerts from public radio stations around the country. Find the full line-up below.


Yeasayer

7 p.m. EDT

Hear a 2012 interview with Yeasayer on World Cafe.

Darlingside

7:30 p.m. EDT

Hear Darlingside’s 2015 performance on Mountain Stage.

The Jayhawks

7:55 p.m. EDT

Watch The Jayhawks perform live in the World Cafe studio.

Sunflower Bean

8:30 p.m. EDT

Hear a conversation and performance with Sunflower Bean from World Cafe.

Amos Lee

8:55 p.m. EDT

Listen to a 2013 World Cafe interview with Amos Lee.

Hayes Carll

9:40 p.m. EDT

Watch Hayes Carll perform live for Folk Alley.

Bonnie Raitt

10:15 p.m. EDT

Read a review of Bonnie Raitt’s new album, Dig In Deep.

Kurt Vile & The Violators

11:00 p.m. EDT

See Kurt Vile give an in-studio performance for KCRW.

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Tortoise On World Cafe

Tortoise

Tortoise Andrew Paynter/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Andrew Paynter/Courtesy of the artist

  • “The Catastrophist”
  • “Gesceap”
  • “Hot Coffee”

It’s been more than 20 years since the post-rock instrumental band Tortoise released its first album. Now, the beloved Chicago group has a new album called The Catastrophist, which grew out of a commission the band received from the city of Chicago itself to write and perform material that saluted the city’s rich history of improvisational music. The purposefully loose structures Tortoise developed for that project took on a somewhat more defined shape as The Catastrophist.

In this session, hear a performance and an interview with two of Tortoise’s five members, Dan Bitney and Doug McCombs.

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Trump's List Of Possible Supreme Court Nominees Includes A Judge Who's Mocked Trump

De facto Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has released the names of 11 people he would consider nominating to the Supreme Court should he be elected president.

Only one of them, as far as we know, has publicly called the candidate “Darth Trump.”

“We’ll rebuild the Death Star. It’ll be amazing, believe me. And the rebels will pay for it.”
—Darth Trump pic.twitter.com/y25LADg15J

— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) April 8, 2016

The list includes conservative federal and state judges, all “representative of the kind of constitutional principles I value,” Trump said in a statement.

NPR’s inimitable legal correspondent Nina Totenberg will be posting later today with a full analysis of the names on the list, and what Trump might be signaling with those names.

In the meantime, we can all amuse ourselves with a look at one name in particular: Don Willett, a justice on Texas’ Supreme Court and a champion tweeter.

Last year, he couldn’t even bear to think about whom Trump might suggest for the highest court in the land.

Donald Trump haiku—

Who would the Donald
Name to #SCOTUS? The mind reels.
*weeps—can’t finish tweet* pic.twitter.com/a326AP0mN1

— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) June 16, 2015

And now … he’s on the longlist.

As multiple news organizations have noted, Willett has repeatedly mocked Trump on Twitter. (We first saw it on Vox; they cite eagle-eyed political reporters Betsy Woodruff and Jennifer Bendery.)

Low-energy Trump University has never made it to #MarchMadness. Or even to the #NIT. Sad! ? pic.twitter.com/DWcfJOZkPu

— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) March 15, 2016

That time @WilliamShatner flew Trump Airlines. pic.twitter.com/ok8dF0BsOj

— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) March 11, 2016

Willett is famously prolific and personable on Twitter. In 2014, an opinion writer for The New York Times spoke to Willett about his prolific social media presence.

The judge described himself as “probably the most avid judicial tweeter in America — which is like being the tallest munchkin in Oz.” He also said he “avoids partisan commentary,” as the Times‘ Jesse Wegman put it.

Well. Maybe not completely.

Trump to “the evangelicals”—

“I’ll be the best thing that’s ever happened to them.”

ps—Happy Easter, everyone! pic.twitter.com/a1mGbY8a9p

— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) March 9, 2016

Can’t wait till Trump rips off his face Mission Impossible-style & reveals a laughing Ruth Bader Ginsburg. pic.twitter.com/LieabD35zb

— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) August 27, 2015

Not all of his tweets about Trump are derogatory.

Fascinating look at Trump’s rhetorical style—how he says what he says.

Short words & phrases that pop, not drone.http://t.co/CsbEzyt8fv

— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) September 15, 2015

And of course, most of Willett’s tweets have nothing to do with the apparent Republican nominee. They’re about his family, his everyday life, Star Wars, the legal world … or general exhaustion with the 2016 campaign.

Uber, but for skipping the next six months of presidential politics. pic.twitter.com/fzLezjegyu

— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) May 4, 2016

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Itzhak Perlman On Canceling In North Carolina: 'I Had To'

Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman playing in New York in 2009.

Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman playing in New York in 2009. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

One of the world’s best-known and best-loved classical musicians has joined the ranks of artists refusing to perform in North Carolina. Violinist Itzhak Perlman canceled an appearance scheduled for Wednesday with the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh to protest HB2, the controversial North Carolina law limiting civil rights protections for LGBT people.

HB2 excludes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from the state’s non-discrimination laws and prevents local governments from offering discrimination protections that go beyond the state’s. It also requires people to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex indicated on their birth certificates.

Speaking by phone Wednesday, Perlman said he had been contemplating a cancellation and its repercussions for weeks. “The first thought was to cancel,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to the orchestra musicians? They’re going to suffer. It’s not their fault.’ So I thought that I was going to go, and that I would donate my fee to Equality North Carolina. And I wanted to put fliers into the program explaining my position. So I thought that was all set.”

“And then yesterday morning at 9:30 AM,” Perlman continued, “I get a phone call — and the symphony said, no, the state would not allow that statement. After that exchange, I thought, ‘I am going into a hostile situation.’ And that’s when I said, ‘As much as I hate to cause problems and stress, I have to have a stand. I’m canceling.'”

“The law is ugly and hostile, as far as I’m concerned,” said the violinist, who was born in Israel in 1945 and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015. “I feel that it is discriminatory — and it’s not just about bathrooms. It’s about dignity, like [U.S. Attorney General] Loretta Lynch said. I’ve been an advocate of equality for the disabled, and this is just another situation in which this is the subject. We are dealing with the equality and dignity of citizens.”

Perlman has also published a statement on his Facebook page, in which he links his opposition to the North Carolina bill with his own work and experiences as a person with and activist for those with physical disabilities. (Perlman contracted polio as a young child, and uses crutches and a motorized scooter.)

Linda Charlton, the orchestra’s vice president for marketing and audience development, sent NPR an emailed statement that reads in full: “The North Carolina Symphony welcomes all people with our hearts and minds open, and we are honored to share our music-making with everyone. However, as a non-partisan organization our performances are not an appropriate forum for political commentary.”

Charlton did not respond to NPR’s questions about links between Perlman’s proposed statement and the state funding that the orchestra receives, or about discussions with Perlman about putting a flier with his statement in the concert program. According to the symphony’s published materials, they received 26 percent of their funding in 2015 from the state of North Carolina, which is split between recurring and non-recurring monies. (The state has provided funding to the orchestra since 1943.)

In response to the orchestra’s written statement, Perlman replies: “The orchestra cannot say that they are non-partisan. How can they say that? They’re getting help from the state. And the state is very partisan. That’s a little bit inaccurate. They’re caught in the middle here, but they are very concerned about their support from the state. I don’t blame them, and the orchestra is not at fault, but that is the fact.”

The 70-year-old violinist says that at other points in his career, he has refused other engagements on ethical and political grounds, pointing to two specific examples: He says he declined to play in South Africa due to the apartheid regime, and turned down opportunities to play and record with the renowned Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, who had been a member of the Nazi Party. “It’s about a willingness to live with a decision — how are you going to feel about it in 10 years?” Perlman said. “I just couldn’t do it.”

Perlman says he wrestled with what his cancellation would mean for the North Carolina Symphony musicians with whom he would have been performing. It is a different and more locally collaborative process than that of a musician such as Bruce Springsteen, who canceled a North Carolina concert in April, and who tours with his own band.

Perlman directed a message to the members of the orchestra. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really think they are caught in the middle of this ugly period. All I can say is that my thoughts were very pure on this matter. I was going to come and play, even though it was a bittersweet decision. But once I was being told by the state that I cannot really express my opinion — which I’m sure some of you share — I unfortunately had to cancel.

“I’m hoping that if the law is repealed, and of course if you still want me, if I’m invited again, we’ll be able to play together in the future. But under these circumstances, I just cannot do that. I’d like to tell them that I’m really sorry for any pain that I’ve caused, but that I felt that I simply have to take a stand, and this is the only way I could do it.”

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Songs We Love: Okkervil River, 'Okkervil River R.I.P.'

“I just want to make stuff that feels humble and natural and ‘right’ and comes from somewhere other than just my brain,” says Will Sheff of Okkervil River. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

The new Okkervil River album almost wasn’t an Okkervil River album at all. That’s how the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Will Sheff, explains it. “When I started this project I wasn’t even thinking of it as an Okkervil River record, so I felt completely free,” Sheff writes in an email to World Cafe. “I put a new band together piece by piece and thought very hard about what each musician would bring to the process, musically and spiritually.”

The new album, Away, due later this year, was written during a period that Sheff says was “a kind of confusing time of transition in my personal and professional life.” It’s been three years since Okkervil River released its last album, 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium. Since then, Sheff says, he “lost some connections in a music industry that was visibly falling apart. Some members of the backing band left, moving on to family life or to their own projects. I spent a good deal of time in hospice sitting with my grandfather [T. Holmes “Bud” Moore], who was my idol, while he died. Eventually, I realized I was kind of writing a death story for a part of my life that had, buried inside of it, a path I could follow that might let me go somewhere new.”

“Okkervil River R.I.P.” is a gorgeous — albeit melancholy — song about soul-searching, finding the strength one needs to carry on in the face of adversity and finding solace in the ones we love. The song begins with a warm, soft and contemplative acoustic guitar riff, à la Joni Mitchell‘s “Morning Morgantown,” and picks up the tempo midway through its almost seven-minute ride of reflection, storytelling and metaphor. There’s an ingenious reference to the R&B vocal group Force MDs: Sheff connects the early deaths of three members of the group to his grandfather’s passing. Sheff also sings about both a “big chance coming” and a “bad chance coming,” suggesting that even in heartbreak one can find hope.

As the song’s title suggests, making Away involved the metaphorical “killing” of the Okkervil River project. World Cafe went in depth with Sheff about his process in creating the new album and what it was like to start over.

In what studio did you record Away, and what part did that play in the songs?

As I’ve gotten older, my gratitude for the role music has played in my life has deepened. And I feel like I’ve become more discerning about what it is that makes my favorite albums — the ones that have been the most consistently useful for me over the longest span of time — stand out above albums I merely like. Honest songwriting is a huge part of it, but I also just love hearing devoted musicians who are masters of their craft, all of them listening and feeling something together. And I love the gorgeous recording tools and machines, from the peak of the hi-fi era, that were so loved and lingered over that they started to develop a soul of their own…

An engineer friend, Phil Palazzolo, told me about a kind of little best-kept-secret studio in Long Island called Sabella. The owner, Jim Sabella, has this obsessively-maintained collection of mics and outboard gear from the legendary CBS 30th Street Studio, along with the old Neve console owned by the famous producer Phil Ramone.

We worked quickly, and many of the tracks that ended up on the record represented only the first or second time we’d played that song. The most important thing was for the songs to come out naturally and [to] maintain a feeling of joy in playing. I wanted to take the best songs I could write, give them to the best band I could, stand in front of quality recording gear they don’t make anymore and let the music happen without getting in the way.

Who played on the album?

My first intuition was to avoid players from a rock background. The guitarist is a guy named Will Graefe, with whom I was familiar through his band Star Rover — they do these modern deconstructions of early 20th-century old-time ballads along with more avant-garde, jazzier stuff. I knew I wanted upright bass on the record, and I got another younger jazz player named Noah Garabedian. For the two songs with electric bass I got Benjamin Lazar Davis, who’s in this great collective called Cuddle Magic and has also done a lot of Afrobeat-style stuff as well as working with Joan as Police Woman.

That was the core live band, along with Cully Symington on drums, who is one of the only previous Okkervil River members involved — a brilliant drummer and a real cheerleader for me to make this record when I was kind of at a low point. We tried to play in an open way to make room for the orchestral arrangements, which were written with Nathan Thatcher and performed by yMusic.

I also added other players: Marissa Nadler and Jesse Marchant singing harmonies; Jared Samuel, who plays with Yoko Ono as well as fronting his own great band the Invisible Familiars, on electric piano; Jose Galeano from the Latin funk and cumbia band Grupo Fantasma on congas; Mick Rossi, who plays with Philip Glass and Paul Simon … The only other previous Okkervil River person was Jonathan Meiburg, who added vocals. He’s my old original partner from really early in Okkervil River and my closest thing to a musical soulmate.

It’s a bit ironic that “killing” Okkervil River has given you new life. What have you learned in your rebirth?

I had an epiphany around the time I was writing, which is that I really believe it’s an artist’s job to create beauty around them — to make beautiful things that can be useful to people. I’m defining beauty broadly, because beauty can be ugly or scary or violent, or even kind of silly and fun. But music has this chance to be an actual form of magic that can change your mood or change your mind or even save your life.

I’ve been up and down in my career, and I’ve spent time worrying about it, and I’ve spent time pretending I don’t care but secretly caring and not being able to stop worrying about what I’m supposed to do in the music business or what I’m supposed to not do, or how I’m supposed to keep going … Now I think I have to try every day to remember to let all that go and just do what feels right, and not try to please or impress anybody but to just fully embody, as much as possible, the job of being a person who makes pretty things.

Away (ATO Records 2016).

Away (ATO Records 2016). Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

What are a few things that you “killed off”?

In a way, this record is about killing things off (or maybe allowing a part of myself to be killed off), but the experience of it wasn’t aggressive … It was like starting in an empty room, and then thinking very carefully about everything from my previous life I wanted to bring back into the room. That list turned out to be tiny, and it didn’t include the previous band that made up Okkervil River. I want to make very clear that I love them and think the world of their musicianship and who they are as people … I think I didn’t like the way I personally was, and it was like one of those situations where the only way you can change is by moving to a new town. I’m trying to correct mistakes I made before and do it right.

With the music, I’m not as interested in rock ‘n’ roll as I used to be, and I don’t really think of this as rock. That was a really fun thing to do when I was in my 20s and catharsis was a really important goal for me, and I feel like catharsis is still important, but there’s something else that seems like it’s more powerful to me now … As for my own writing, I’ve been trying and wanting forever to kill off cleverness or any kind of emotional dishonesty and just write from intuition. I just want to make stuff that feels humble and natural and “right” and comes from somewhere other than just my brain.

Away comes out Sept. 9 on ATO Records.

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