The Year's Turning: Fleet Foxes Interviewed
The 'lockdown album' has fast become a firm trope for songwriters.
The enforced isolation, the turn inwards have all seemed to germinate in different ways across a thousand different projects.
With their rural fixations and singular sound, Fleet Foxes are perhaps archetypes of this, with each album seeming to burrow ever inwards.
New album 'Shore' is a gorgeous listen, with its quarantined sound set against some of Robin Pecknold's most dynamic, direct, and open lyrics to date.
Largely constructed during this tumultuous year, its author would record acoustic sketches before driving along the endless roads of up-state New York, bathing in the landscapes that drifted past him.
'Shore' was surprise released on the Autumn Equinox, and tonight Robin Pecknold will play a special live stream to bless the Winter Solstice.
Clash caught up with the songwriter last month to discuss the making of 'Shore' and where his music might go next.
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‘Shore’ really chimed with people on its release, didn’t it? Released on the Equinox, no less!
Yeah! I think it was one of those things, really. I wanted to finish the album no matter what, I didn’t want it sitting around… even if it were to come out next year attached to a tour.
Obviously in this situation we’re having to decide how to move forwards, and it seemed like putting it out in the window before the election and while the virus was under control, moreso, in the States, that just seemed to be the time try putting it out as it was done, and aligning it with something more cosmic than social. It seemed like now was the time to try that. And so I worked as hard as I could to get it done, and get ready for that. It was a bit of a gamble… but there’s no touring anyway! I’m grateful it ended up working this way.
How do you feel personally about the touring situation? Some artists feel almost relieved, while others yearn for that sense of connection.
I do miss the connection. For me, recording is by far my favourite part, and the part that is the most fulfilling. I don’t get as much gratification out of performing as I do out of being creative in the studio. I wouldn’t take back any of the incredible experiences I’ve been able to have on tour over the years. But it has left me a little bit undeveloped, I think. I’m 34 and in some ways I feel like 55, and in some ways I feel like 20… when I started touring! I think there’s a bit of arrested development in that lifestyle.
So for me, I’m just trying to take advantage of this year or so where that’s not going to be possible, and just grow up a bit. Which is impossible on tour! All these pillars of adult life are just not there, and I’m not ungrateful for any of it, but I am going to try and take advantage of this year to just… be a man. Rather than a travelling bard.
Do you view music as a means of working through emotional states, then, or does the intensity of creation almost shield you from those lessons?
I have looked at making music as a means of… well, you do have to have a certain degree of acumen in so many different things that there is definitely an element of growth. Especially in terms of a career – there’s maintaining relationships with people, being amiable in the studio, having good ideas, not being a drug addict. All of that. Keeping any career going requires all of those things, even a music career. Especially if you’re not 18 years old trying to get on the cover of NME… or Clash!
There’s something about touring, though. It’s really more about: can I get a dog? Can I get married? Can I stay in one place for a couple years? Those things that touring really makes difficult and that you have to put off. You grow in other ways on tour, for sure. Rising to that challenge is a huge part of my life – I’ve had to grow on tour in so many ways. There are places to grow on tour, but it’s also like this poison that keeps you feeling quite juvenile.
The album has quite deep roots, but it was largely formulated in February and March, as the pandemic took hold. Was that quite an intense period for you?
I guess February, I was working everyday, trying to get it done for April or May… and then I had to stop working as the studio shutdown, and I had to come back to my apartment. And just sat around for three months, basically. I’m just so lucky. I have to be grateful everyday. Even on that level of: I needed to take a break in February and March… and I didn’t intend to, but I was forced to. We were all forced to! And then it provided all of this extra context that informed the lyrics, because I hadn’t finished any lyrics.
It was really June, July, August… that really energised me, having the best time finishing the album. Thanking God or whoever for the opportunity to be working again and to have a distraction from what was going on. It was the most spiritual I’ve ever felt while making music. All these minor coincidences, feeling open to the world in a strange, new way. What a strange year it’s been – such high and lows – so I think I’ll be processing that for a while.
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There’s always a sense of mystery to your lyrics – they’re often left open, so fans can find their own path. What was the process this time?
I think I wasn’t being very reflective, initially. As soon as the ‘Crack-Up’ tour ended – which was a really gruelling two year tour – I didn’t want that exhaustion from the tour to stop me working on music. But I wasn’t being that reflective. I was in music, melody-creation mode, song-idea creation mode. I wasn’t like: what is my place in the world? There was not of that going on… so I wasn’t really writing lyrics.
I mean, right now I feel very reflective with all this stuff done. But back then I wasn’t really being introspective. So the lyrics weren’t happening. I knew I wanted the music to have a certain character but I didn’t know how to find the lyrical voice that would match or augment that because I was so used to writing these very searching lyrics. I think it was more that than anything else. And then three months forced reflection in lockdown was, unfortunately, exactly what I needed creatively.
In the sense of being forced to confront things…?
For sure. I’m just so used to this feeling of always wanting to do better, or continually challenging myself, and I think it was that feeling of being in lockdown, and thinking: man, I’m so lucky. I don’t know why I was making it so difficult. It’s actually a privilege to be that hard on myself! I think I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have that realisation without what happened. And it was really that thought which was the germ of the rest of the lyrics, for sure.
The surprise release was a wonderful moment – it felt like this real-time moment for fans. It’s a very unified record, was that a natural quality?
I thought so. One of the challenges on the record was making something 15 songs long, that’s 55 minutes in length, and it didn’t feel too long, and it had enough variety in it to maintain people’s attention through the whole thing. That was one of the things where I was like: how do I pull that off…? And to me, that meant shorter songs, songs that have a very different quality to the music they are surrounded by… almost like interludes, but also bridges between songs and entire sections of music. And so that meant that if we put out a song like ‘Sun Blind’ and it was sitting in the world for two months, it would give you the wrong idea about what the album was.
There weren’t really any singles that I could think to pull from the record that would also serve as an indication of what the album actually was. I would rather someone hear it all at once. In that sense, it was perfect timing for me to do it all at once because that was how it made the most sense. There’s no concept – it’s not an art film, or anything – but they work together in a certain way, and the songs are both complimentary and different in certain ways. It really felt good to be able to do it like that.
That instinctual approach seems to be a hallmark of the ‘Shore’ process.
Yeah. I’ve had to learn to trust my gut, I guess. That can be a really difficult thing to accept sometimes, and you can doubt yourself, but then there are other times where something can feel inevitable, mentally, and if you go with that, it’s always the thing that people respond to the most. If something is intuitive to you, and then you go with it. Not something that you’ve over-thought a whole bunch.
It must be difficult to find the balance – very own your own opinion is the most negative!
I know! I actually feel like I should start making another album because I’m back in that mode of just sitting around, over-thinking everything. But things take time!
That’s a key element, isn’t it? Making art is a positive thing, but relentless introspection can be damaging?
I went to music as a kid for salvation, y’know? I learned guitar because playing Elliot Smith songs was the thing that brought me the most joy… ironically, I guess, because it’s all pretty sad music. That’s the important thing to keep connected to as much as you can. Yes, touring can be very exhausting, and there’s a lot of isolation on tour when you’re in a dressing room or just waiting around… and that’ can lead to a bad state of mind, if you’re not careful. One thing I’ve been doing recently is just playing guitar in the morning and covering people’s songs… just playing for the joy of it. And that buys me half a day of relief!
I’ve read you’ve also been doing a lot of driving, recently.
That was mainly June, actually. I’ve been driving a bunch since the album has been out, and that’s a great way to clear your mind and get out of the house. It’s just so satisfying.
Is it the up-state scenery? Or the ‘bathing in nature’ immersion?
I think that’s part of it. And it’s the same with a bike ride or going on a walk. I think movement is key. I think for me, most of my good song ideas – aside from actually playing the guitar – have come while I am walking or biking or driving my car. A certain part of your brain gets shut off when you’re moving that opens up another part of your brain to be generating ideas.
When I was driving, words would come to me in a way I had never experienced before. Some people have different opinions on whether the artist is channelling something from the beyond… I don’t know where I stand on that, but I’ve had strange experiences where lyrics really felt as though they were writing themselves, and I wasn’t that responsible for them. And it was just happening against my will.
Where do lyrics really come from? It’s the same place as an anxious thought, really. Is it you authoring that thought? When you try and change that fact are you acknowledging that it doesn’t come from you, necessarily? Those are always fun questions to ask.
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'Shore' is out now
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