Shearwater listens to the world

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Shearwater interview

Jonathan Meiburg needed a break. The last time the singer/songwriter and leader of Shearwater put a full-length album out under that name was in 2016, just before the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. He described that album, Jet Plane & Oxbow, as a “social protest” record, and the electronics-laden textures of its anthems and allegories were bolstered by direct and urgent arrangements. But even after engaging in that act of catharsis and social critique, he felt hopeless.

It’s not that Shearwater stopped making music, exactly. In 2019, Meiburg and company performed Bowie’s Berlin trilogy live at a series of concerts for WNYC. And during the early days of the pandemic, he released a series of ambient instrumental recordings titled Quarantine Music. But he also threw himself into a number of other projects, playing as a member of art pop group Loma with Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski. And last year, Meiburg published his first book, A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, documenting a journey to observe rare tropical birds that first took place back in 1997.

When Meiburg did finally re-enter the studio in 2020 to record new Shearwater music with his Loma bandmate and collaborator Dan Duszynski, he found himself not only ready to commit to making something without being burdened by a lingering dread, but to embrace the possibilities of starting a new project without expectations.

“I love not knowing,” he says. “I love wandering into this underground space with a flashlight and trying to figure out what its contours are and what it means. Someone said to me about the book, ‘when you finish your book, you finally know what it’s about.’ The record feels very much the same. I don’t know what the whole thing is doing until I can step back from it at the end. One thing we did with his record was take long periods to not work on it. We’d work intensely for a couple weeks and then take a break for a month. I wouldn’t listen to rough mixes, I just wouldn’t think about it, and then certain things about the songs would reveal themselves. Like this song is a dead end. Or this song is a little too slow, or it’s in the wrong key, or it feels a little too forced and doesn’t make me feel anything. The things that we kept were the songs and moments that still made us feel something after listening to them a zillion times.”

The first Shearwater album to be both crowdfunded and released via their own Polyborus imprint, The Great Awakening feels both connected to earlier Shearwater works as well as a step into a new frontier. It’s at once spacious and organic yet more exploratory and sometimes dark and intense. “Laguna Seca” throbs with a kind of distorted industrial menace, “Empty Orchestra” balances an ambient stillness with an urgent momentum, and the stunning “Aqaba” employs a more subtle, gradually more dramatic approach to haunting effect. It’s a bit like being invited into a world unto itself—one that reflects the universe we know and hope to understand, but which creates its own boundaries and definitions.

“My favorite music feels like it’s listening to you, somehow,” he says. “Like there’s a space for you in it.”

We spoke to Meiburg about avoiding hopelessness, clearing out brush in Texas, and making an album where each song guides you through a series of different spaces.

Treble: You’ve said about the period after the release of Jet Plane & Oxbow that you didn’t want to make “hopeless music.” What was your state of mind at that time?

Jonathan Meiburg: I just felt very grim when that tour concluded. And I didn’t want to make music from that place. It felt a little like I had started to drift too much into worrying about the human world. And I can’t help it, I am human. But as a source for what songs should be about—the way that I was approaching it at that time, the way I made Jet Plane & Oxbow was a protest record, essentially, in the way that David Bowie described Scary Monsters as a social protest record. And I didn’t want to do that again. And also I’d been looking to a period of time I thought was very interesting both politically and musically in the time right around 1979-1980, and using that as a palette for what the record should sound like, for Jet Plane & Oxbow, and having used that, I wanted to set that aside and get a different start from a different place using different textures, different compositions.

Treble: Did you find that taking some time away from Shearwater, and making two albums with Loma, helped to put you back into the right headspace?

JM: Well, it was funny. In a way, yes, although the beginning of sessions coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, so everyone was thrown into this opera that we’d never been in before. I had moved out of New York and was living in this trailer in Texas and it was a very isolated place and very isolated experience. Luckily, the trailer was next to Dan’s house where his studio is. So I spent a lot of time clearing brush out there on this large studio where the house is sitting on, just getting stung by scorpions and chopping down juniper trees and making more space for wildlife. I’d been in New York for eight years, so I was just in this earthbound, natural space. But also hemmed in by the terror and paranoia of Trump and the beginning of the pandemic. So, I don’t want to say I was just sitting on the beach and relaxing in nature. In some ways I was just as frightened as when we were making Jet Plane & Oxbow but kind of for different reasons. But I felt more aware of the larger world around me.

Treble: Was there a specific goal you were pursuing with this set of songs?

JM: One thing I really enjoyed with the Loma records is that we tried to make each song its own place. We really tried to make it much more tied to the idea that a song was its own environment you can live in. And my favorite music, when I really think about it, is like that. It has different colors and meanings within it, and it feels more like life is, which is to say everything at once. It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s frightening, it’s soothing, it’s beautiful, it’s ugly. And so, as we developed the songs, I knew I wanted each song to feel like a specific place, and we used various techniques to do that. But I felt the record would reveal itself as we constructed a series of places and moved from one room to the next.

Treble: It’s interesting that you say that, because I tend to think Palo Santo, from 2006, has a similar quality—each song being its own unique, distinctive place.

JM: And I wrote a lot of that record in the Galapagos working on a bird survey project. So maybe in a way it was returning to that way of approaching music. In both cases I didn’t go out looking for it, necessarily, that’s just how it came to me.

Treble: What albums to you are examples of that idea—of each song being its own place?

JM: A record that we listened to a lot was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. We kept coming back to that as a reference in many senses, because there’s just no record that sounds like that one. It seems to exist in its own world. And when you have a work like that to study, it’s such a joy, because I’ve listened to that record many times and enjoyed it, but we’d just listen to it and say, “Why is this working? What’s the balance of instruments here. Why is it giving me this feeling?” And we did that with lots of different albums. It’s always striking to do that. Some years ago I put on [Pink Floyd’s] Wish You Were Here and I probably hadn’t listened to it since I was 15, and I was stunned at the things I heard in it. Things I liked. Things I didn’t like. Production techniques they used and certain things I had just taken for granted. And that’s always fun because that’s how you know it’s you that’s changed. Because that record isn’t any different. But that means I’m different, and that’s a relief.

Treble: In what ways would you say you’re different now than when you were younger?

JM: I’d like to think that I’m better able to listen now, both in the sense of listening musically and listening personally—to other people, to the world itself. The internet is just nothing but people. Everything on the internet is people, people, people, people. Even if it’s not a representation of people, it’s all created by people. No natural process creates the internet. And yet that’s not the world we really live in. The world we live in is one where our lives are just one of the stories that’s going on. Thinking about that, meditating on that, drilling down on it in a scientific sense, with music, I think it reflects that. People play how they are. That’s true with musicians no matter what. One of the joys of playing music is seeing people express who they are through the way that they play. Regardless of their level of ability. You see people express essential things about the way that they play. And I’d like to think that the progression that I hear in Shearwater’s music expresses something essential about who I am.

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