Animal Spirits: an Interview with Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg
For three albums and half a decade, Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg ventured ever further into abstract, imagistic baroque pop. Now in his seventh full-length, Meiburg turns towards a more personal, cathartic sound, written mostly in the first-person, grounded in rock and almost entirely free of bird references.
“By the end of The Golden Archipelago, I felt like I’d become the great green floating head of Oz in the sea. Even the art of the last album shows a figure looking off into the distance, and, to me, that’s what the record sounds like,” says Jonathan Meiburg, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who has, for more than a decade, headed Shearwater. “For this record, I wanted to make something that was much more immediate, much more upfront, and also much more personal.”
Meiburg began to feel the onset of a new phase during a January 2011 show in Austin, Texas when he and his band played all three of the linked “Island Arc” records in a row, first Palo Santo, then Rook, then The Golden Archipelago. “I had the feeling as we were playing that was moving through time,” he explains. “When we started the first album, I felt like I was back in 2006 and as the evening went on, it progressed forward to the present moment when we finished the last note of the last song.” As the night ended, Meiburg says he sensed a resolution. “It wasn’t so much that I thought this was over, exactly. I just thought that a particular phase was finished and an approach that had gone as far as I wanted to take it,” he explains.
Meiburg began Shearwater in 2001 in Austin. At the time, he was a member of Okkervil River and required an additional outlet for songs that were too quiet for the main project. Okkervil’s Will Sheff was a member of Shearwater early on and wrote songs for the first three albums. But by 2006, the two friends began to focus on their separate projects.
With his ex-wife Kim Burke on string and electric bass and Thor Harris on percussion, Meiburg wrote and recorded the haunting Palo Santo, an album heavily influenced by Talk Talk, with dramatic swoops and dynamic shifts. Originally released on Misra Records, it was picked up and re-issued as a two-disc set on Matador in 2007. A year later, Rook extended Shearwater’s run, earning Shearwater some of its best reviews. PopMatters’ Christel Loar wrote, “Not only is Rook destined to be named one of 2008’s favorites, but it could be one of the best albums for years to come….Rook is among the most achingly beautiful things ever recorded.”
Shearwater toured with Clinic and Coldplay in 2008, significantly increasing its audience.
Two years, later came the third in Shearwater’s trilogy, The Golden Archipelago, another triumph, which BBC Music described as “Replete with moments of jubilance and tranquility, cataclysm and contemplation, it feels like the successful culmination of everything the band have been aiming towards over their career to date.”
Meiburg thought so, too, and instead of trying to repeat past successes, began to think about an entirely new phase for Shearwater. “I wanted this album to sound different from anything we’d ever done before.”
“It’s linked in my mind, to a day I was driving with Thor and we saw a tractor trailer on fire,” he says. “It was way off ahead of us on the highway, dead center in the middle of the highway out in Arizona. You could see this black cloud, and you were heading right towards it. But nobody slowed down. Like everybody just kept going straight for this thing, even though it was obvious that something was very wrong. And ultimately, we pulled up right beside it and this tractor trailer was on fire and exploding. We watched it eventually evaporate and sail off into the air over Mexico. There was almost nothing left of it by the time the fire trucks arrived. The driver survived.”
The image, of driving towards mindlessly towards destruction, of refusing to acknowledge the radical changes around oneself, of something solid and real simply disappearing, stuck with Meiburg as he began to puzzle out his band’s new direction. “There are times in your life when you’ve been going in one direction for a long time and you’re on autopilot and suddenly, you get…your world or your attention...everything is changed, and you have to sort that out,” he says.
Shearwater’s albums had always been cerebral, spiritual, evocative and lovely, but this time Meiburg wanted more physicality. “I had a sense last year of reinhabiting my body somehow,” he says. “It was weird, almost like when you’re a teenager and suddenly you become very aware of your body in ways that you hadn’t previously. I felt this great sense of being a flesh and blood creature and identifying also with other animals and their being.”
That’s one reason Meiburg chose vivid animal imagery for his album’s cover, a set of furred, sharply clawed paws in close-up. It’s a bear, he says, and that, in itself marks a change for a band that has often used bird imagery in its lyrics and art. Meiburg has done graduate work in ornithology, but he’d just as soon never have to answer another question about birds for the rest of his life. “I don’t want to be that bird guy,” he says, with a certain amount of heat. “If anybody else writes an article where the title is ‘Bird Is the Word for Shearwater’ I’m going to stop performing.” Fair enough, and, to set the record straight there are hardly any bird references in Animal Joy.
Meiburg also worked with his band-mates to achieve a more propulsive, rock-oriented sound, which you may initially pick up on (I did) in the album’s second track, “Breaking the Yearlings.” The cut is unusually percussion, stark and powerful, and it, along with “You As You Were,” are early singles.
“Watching Thor play live with Swans helped me figure out some of what I wanted, sonically, from the new album,” says Meiburg. “Just seeing him diving around in his corner of the stage, banging on things, I knew wanted to get some of that quality out of him.” For “Breaking the Yearlings,” Meiburg adds, “Thor let loose in a way that I’d never seen him do before on one of our songs. It was really thrilling.”
Thor Harris, who has been in the band since the early 00s, has been a major factor in Shearwater’s success, he continues. “Thor is an incredibly creative drummer and force in general. He has an incredible gift for spontaneity and thinking of gestures and patterns that I wouldn’t think of. And he’s very good at breaking me out of the more rigid structures that I can get stuck in,” Meiburg says. “ Also Thor is much more than a drummer. He’s kind of a spiritual presence. People light up when they see him coming. And working with him is always a joy.”
The new rock sound also required some adaptation from Kim Burke who has played bass in the band since the beginning. On early albums, Burke spent much of her time with a bow in hand, acoustic stand-up bass across her shoulder. For this one, she’s switched largely to electric. “Kim found a really special electric bass in store a couple of years ago and it really changed the way that she played. Suddenly she loved the electric bass,” says Meiburg. “ And she has a great gift for melody and little contrapuntal lines that run against the vocal melody in a really lovely way. Kim had a big smile on her face while we were making this record.”
Production was another element in the band’s changed sound. Danny Reisch sat at the boards, helping Meiburg hone a sound that was influenced by great studio bands – the Beatles, Pink Floyd, even the Gorillaz. “I loved the feeling we had in previous records of everything being recorded in one giant room. And sometimes it was,” he says. “But with this one, I wanted it much more in a layered 1960s style.”
One of the album’s most striking sounds comes at the beginning of “Insolence,” in a mesh of echoed pounding and staticky rattling. Meiburg says that the sound was created by layering two separate drum parts over one another. The first was Thor Harris playing a kit beside a giant reverb tank, with no audio pick-ups, just the natural echo that makes the drums sound, according to Meiburg “like the inside of an oil tanker being hit.” The second was Cully Symington playing brushes on a snare, the sound squashed in production, so that it sounds a bit like a startled rattlesnake. “The drummers were never in the same room and never heard the other’s tracks, but the two parts complemented each other beautifully,” says Meiburg. “It’s one of my favorite sounds on the record.”
Meiburg meant his band’s guttier, more visceral sound to be a departure, not just from his own work, but from a whole raft of baroque, alternatively instrumented pop bands populating fashionable scenes. His one-sheet states, somewhat tongue in cheek, that no glockenspiels were used on Animal Joy. But there is a xylophone on “You As You Were,” so we asked him, what’s the difference?
“I like glockenspiel but it’s sort of goes with this ukulele/glockenspiel world that’s being mined so effectively by so many other people,” says Meiburg. “I wanted to make the record much more earthy sounding and less ethereal and heavenly. Glockenspiel always sounds like having little sparkling drops of water falling from heaven. So I loved the much earthier, woodier sound of xylophone."
But perhaps the greatest change in Animal Joy is the degree to which Meiburg puts himself into the lyrics, using the “I” and meaning it, drawing on incidents from his own life for imagery and narrative. For instance, “You As You Were,” opens with a nose-bleed scene, something that absolutely happened to Meiburg. “I was on a hike in a canyon in Utah. The canyon was very narrow and I was just walking through the river the entire time, and I don’t know if it was altitude, but I had a nosebleed and I was trying to rinse my face off in the river and I was getting bloodier and bloodier and bloodier. It just seemed like a stream of my own blood running down into the river,” he remembers. Sharon van Etten, who tours with Shearwater this spring, heard the story and suggested the Meiburg use it in a song. “So I did,” says Meiburg, “and somehow that image connected the personal and the natural in that song.”
But the song goes on to express Meiburg’s sense that he’s ending one phase and starting another. “I am leaving the life, I am leaving the life,” he repeats in the song’s exultant chorus, and musically and personally, he believes he is leaving old ways behind. “There’s a way that you feel that your life ought to be, and it’s something that you usually have internalized, often from a very young age, and I think for a lot of people there’s a moment when you realize that you don’t have to do that. It’s very frightening but it’s also liberating.”
Yet no matter how personal Meiburg gets, he’ll still be a long way from truly confessional songwriting, the kind of let-it-all-hang-out lyrics that share (and sometimes over-share) life’s triumphs and disappointments. “Well, no, you’re never going to get me there, I don’t think. I have a distrust of confessional songwriting. It can seem so unsophisticated and dull,” he says. “But on the other hand, it can go that way if you go too far away from the personal also. You end up with the same problems.”
And, in fact, even at his most direct, Meiburg retains a kind of mystery in his lyrics, a deliberate open-ended-ness that, to him at least, is a critical ingredient in all great songwriting. Near the end of our conversation, he begins talking about two recordings that he considers nearly perfect.
The first is a field recording of Madame Ravao and Rajoro’s “Anio No Mba Hisoka” from the Secret Museum of Mankind which captures a vocal and instrumental ensemble from the 1930s, playing traditional music from Madagascar. “It’s this strange mixture of vocals, harp and harmonium, and it’s got such a wonderful combination of in-tune-ness and out-of-tuneness, of terrific sophistication without being rigid, of yearning and sadness with happiness and joy. I think it’s a feeling of multiple energies playing against one another that make it.”
The second “perfect” song is Nina Simone’s cover of “Little Girl Blue,” where she combines the “Carousel” hit with the melody from “Good King Wenceslas.” “Now, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ has nothing to do lyrically with ’Little Girl Blue’ and yet somehow it adds so much to the melancholy quality of that song. It’s baffling. It’s a song you can listen to many, many times and still feel that at the heart of it is a mystery that you can’t quite unravel.”