On his new album No Wilderness Deep Enough, Neurosis vocalist and guitarist Steve Von Till takes his bravest leap into the unknown; the beguiling, lush arrangements and the confidence in his own singing making it his strongest solo work to date. With his days full as a primary school teacher in rural Idaho, Von Till wasn't even planning to make a record. Harry Guerin is very glad that he did. 

This album began quite by accident. 
I was visiting my wife's family's house in northern Germany; they're in a rural area, outside Bremen. As always happens when I travel over there, I had pretty bad jet lag - a little bit worse than normal - and so I was sitting up late at night. I always have a weighty emotional vibe on their property because their family has been on the same exact farm for over 500 years, which even by European standards is a long time to be in one spot. I had my laptop and some headphones and a keyboard in the corner of my wife's childhood bedroom. I found this really decent-sounding piano instrument and I just started putting down these very kind of contemplative, simple but harmonically rich piano chord progressions. I wasn't aware that I was making anything or creating anything - they were just kind of coming out and I was recording them.

I'm not much of a piano player, so they were very simple chords!
Over the following week that I was there I started adding some mellotron, some string sounds and some French horn sounds and it was pretty interesting the way it was developing into this minimal but beautiful and, like I said, harmonically complex stuff. But I still didn't think I was making anything! I thought I was just playing around learning the software!

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When I got home, I brought the recordings out here to my home studio where I'm sitting right now and started adding some synthesisers... and started messing with it.
I just kept playing with the sounds and at one point I realised I had kind of carved out these arrangements into these really flowing pieces. I didn't really know where this stuff fitted in. I had no plans of singing on it whatsoever until after I'd spoken to my friend Randall Dunn, who produced the record and my last solo record as well. I ran it by him and said, 'Hey, what do you think about booking some studio time? I'll replace the electronic piano with a real piano and we'll get a real French horn player to replace the sampled French horn. And maybe we'll get a cello player to flesh out some of the mellotron strings and the vintage synthesiser strings'. He thought, 'Yeah, that's a great idea and we should definitely do it. But I also think you should just sing on it and make it your next solo record'. 

I totally disagreed with him.
I thought, 'No, no; this is pretty just the way it is. I don't need to screw it up by croaking all over the top of it!'. But I took it as a challenge. I was alone here over our winter break; my wife was back visiting her family and it was just me and the dogs home. I didn't want to be out in the studio so I set up one microphone in our living room, got a journal and a pen and I just kept playing the arrangements over and over again. Every morning I'd wake up with my coffee and walk into the living room and start improvising vocals. By the end of the week I had lyrics and vocal patterns that I really liked. And I had to call Randall up and say, 'Hey, you were right. Let's do it'.

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I'm very proud of the results and surprised in the results.
The entire thing was like a beautiful, accidental process. I mean, there was some hard work in the way once I'd decided I was accepting the challenge to sing on it. It was definitely a lot of work, waking up every day and just doing it. But it was focussed and it felt effortless in the sense of that I was in the flow of what I was supposed to be doing. I was going with the current to where it was drawing me. It was a great experience.

When I listen to people talk about songwriting, like Bruce Springsteen or others who I would consider great songwriters, they talk about their work ethic and working on it. I don't think I've ever had the time to work on it that hard.
It's not my full-time job. For me it's about learning to be extremely productive with small periods of time and to make my creative time count. To trust the muse, trust that spirit of creativity and let it take me where it's going to go. I guess trying to get out of my own way! I could easily have talked myself out of this whole project, saying, 'That's not really in the style of what I do. That's too pretty. Who am I to sing on this kind of music?'. It's just learning to trust that the ideas that are flowing out there in the Universe that I'm lucky enough to be able to tap into once in a while are valid.

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This new record, especially in combination with my book of poetry, they're both kind of things where the Imposter Syndrome looms pretty large.
I've got to be like, 'Ok, that's negative self-talk b******* and I should just own this!'. I mean, I'm 50-years-old and I've been doing this creative work my entire adult life, even though I was a shy kid. I don't like public speaking. I don't think I'm necessarily good enough at any of this stuff. But that's never stopped me - whether I was 16 and taking my demo tape around, asking if record shops would sell my band's demo tape or starting a fanzine or booking shows and putting on our own shows or starting a record label. It's all just like an extension of the same stuff - 'Ok, that self-doubt is there, but thank God for punk rock!'. I don't have to be the best; I just have to be inspired.

My fascination with nature evolved as I grew up.
I was a suburban kid. We always lived near cool outdoor spots. Coming into the south bay of the Bay Area of California you had the ocean not far; you had the Redwood Forest not far, we had a nice kind of park up in the hills above us. And back before Silicon Valley turned it into the endless sprawl we had lots of orchards and stuff. I always liked getting out in nature, but in my 20s it started to feel like I needed to get to it. As an adult, and when I became a parent living in San Francisco, I could no longer see what I enjoyed about city life. As much as I longed to get to nature as often as possible, you had to make a plan and you had to get spare time and you had to go way out of your way to get somewhere to relax or to feel like you had some space. Basically, I just made myself a life plan that I was going to go get a teaching credential [and] I was going to get out of the city. I had to move to a place where I could basically exist in nature all the time. Now that I've been here for 15 years I'd love to be further out, but that wouldn't be very convenient!

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I decipher the lyrics as if they're voices in the wind.
I try to hear the right rhythms, the right cadence, the right vowel sounds to hang on. I go through my journals of poetry and I just butcher them! I grab pieces, steal pieces and put them into some sort of form that sounds right and make some sort of sense. I really admire people like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or Patti Smith or Townes Van Zandt - they can be a lot more specific about what they're writing about. Whereas to me I still feel my words become something specific, but through an accidental process of almost like collage: collage of random thoughts, collage of random images, collage of stolen lines from poetry that is from completely different times and situations in my life. So I really have a lot of respect for people that would sit down and hash out a story or hash out a specific vision, really be able to give you something specific in a way that's written with the song at the same time. Maybe someday I'll challenge myself to try some of that. I love that very specific songcraft and I've really only been able to dabble in it. I really respect those people that made it their entire life.

I've set up a busy, inspired life, too.
No complaints; I've asked for all of it.

Steve Von Till's No Wilderness Deep Enough is out now on Neurot Recordings. His book, Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems and Collected Lyrics, is published by Astrophil Press at the University of South Dakota.

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