Elijah Wolf thought his second album might be his last.
“The thought of moving on from music was terrifying, but so was the thought of staying,” he says.
After an international headline tour for the critically-lauded Brighter Lighting, adrenaline and momentum vaporized once he landed back in New York, where Wolf faced the punishing realities of the music industry. He tumbled into an isolating period of self-doubt compounded by a series of professional losses.
“I had a few major blows to my music project that left me feeling so vulnerable and let down. As a creator, I felt really used and strung along. I put this pressure on myself to create something bigger and better. I tried so hard to write music, but the moment it was forced, nothing came out. I felt such intense emptiness. The idea of making another record became a task I felt was too overwhelming,” Wolf says.
Feeling numb and directionless, he grasped at fragments of lyrics and melodies.
“As winter became spring, I finally began demoing out some of the musical ideas I had pieced together throughout the year. It was an intense process, facing rejection and anxiety, but one that I felt needed to be completed,” he says.
He knew just where to turn for guidance.
“I called up Sam Cohen, a dear friend who produced Brighter Lighting. He had created such a safe space for me while recording our last record that I knew he would be able to help me navigate this moment. He was so open, and he invited me to come to the studio to begin piecing these ideas and songs together to create something new. In that moment, I felt like I needed to see this through. This would be a chance to dig deep into myself and figure out what had been going on with me during this dark chapter in my life,” he explains.
Wolf found himself in a car with drummer and collaborator Joshua Jaeger on a bleak late-winter drive out of the city. They made their way Upstate to a dormant patch of farmland tucked between the Catskill and Shawangunk Mountains, the site of Cohen’s studio. Here they would stay until Wolf’s third album was recorded.
“At Sam’s direction, we made a decision to take a leap and not recreate anything I had done already. We wanted to get away from the folk-rock band sound of traditional instruments in a room together. We decided to start each song by experimenting with synthesizers, samples, and cool effects. We looked for new song arrangements and structures,” he says.
Probing for something fresh and alive also required the excavation of buried emotion.
“While we were experimenting with different production techniques, we were above all journeying inward, talking about life and what we were all going through. It became a sort of group therapy session. And as we shared stories about what the lyrics meant to us, it became clear that I wrote these songs about a hard time when I felt lost, scared, and detached. I had written lyrics about my own experiences without even realizing. The songs were about coping with anxiety in unhealthy ways and repeating old patterns. It was an intense process to face these moments. Brighter Lighting had been fun and smooth sailing. Forgiving Season was emotionally taxing and a real challenge,” he says.
Wolf found meaning beyond the studio’s walls, where a hardened landscape of bare branches and cold earth began to hint at a coming spring.
“The winter freeze had replaced itself with chirping birds and budding trees. The studio, filled with windows and light, provided me a place to watch nature come back to life by the day. I felt so inspired again. For the first time since recording Brighter Lighting, I knew I was on the right path again. We dug deeper and deeper,” he reflects.
The Forgiving Season recording session progressed in a series of exhaustive experiments, recruiting everything from the percussion of a wooden mallet hitting a piano bench to a broken tape delay.
“We explored and explored, finding new sounds through extended recording techniques and analog equipment being manipulated in real time,” he explains.
Enlisting the help of Wolf’s childhood friend and multi-instrumentalist Photay (aka Evan Shornstein), the group began shaping the record’s spacious and immersive atmosphere.
Wolf’s early work on On the Man Lauren Rd dealt with grief by embracing solitude, showcasing his ability to deliver haunting imagery and heart-rending vocals while creating almost entirely alone from his bedroom. Like his warm psychedelic folk record Brighter Lighting whose all-star band included Nels Cline of Wilco, this latest venture is a testament to the power of collaboration.
“Sam brought a sense of exploration. Josh lent emotional direction. Evan provided incredible textures and musical themes,” Wolf says.
But while Brighter Lighting pulled listeners into the room with the band, Forgiving Season transports them to another world entirely. Reinterpreting folk melody and rock instrumentation through electronic distortions, the synth-rich sonic landscape feels at times extraterrestrial, bending genre and sending Wolf soaring beyond his comfort zone. While the breezy instrumental “Blue” showcases his guitar skill at its most sophisticated, the remainder of the record jettisons the acoustic sound he’s known for. The spare and hypnotic single “We Talked About It” is a stark departure from his past work.
“On ‘We Talked About It,’ I played no guitar at all, the first time ever for me. Speaking of which, we recorded that song in three styles before finding the right version. This was the path we chose for this record: Search and search,” he says.
All the while, the music traced the contours of its wooded mountain setting.
“I wanted actual sounds to portray a time-lapse, almost, of plants growing and trees budding and nature coming back to life. We went outside and walked around the property, recording with our phones bird sounds and rain hitting leaves, and we used those sounds in the songs,” Wolf explains.
As the album revealed itself, he felt a release.
“When I was able to make sense of these pieced-together demos and scattered lyrics, I began a process of forgiving myself for so much. In the end, I wrote a record about vulnerability, about the ways that mechanisms of self-protection can make you miss the good around you. It’s about allowing the walls to come down and accepting your own failures and imperfections,” he says.
Stretching in new directions both musically and emotionally has resulted in Elijah Wolf as he’s never been heard before, a transcendent collection both refreshing and comforting, evoking natural elements from this planet and beyond. Floating along through Forgiving Season feels like ice melting, verdant flickers in a grey vista offering a promise of what’s to come.