What went through Jonathan Meiburg’s head when, in 2008, he formally left critical darlings Okkervil River? I’d be willing to wager either a sense of duty or a feeling of dread; a now or never sort of thing that only he could truly understand. Sure, his band Shearwater was gaining fans every day. Signing a contract with indie giants Matador couldn’t hurt either, but it couldn’t have been easy.
As a fan of both Okkervil River and Shearwater, it has taken me a long time to admit that Meiburg had the right idea. The releases that followed Meiburg’s decision to make Shearwater a priority get better and better, and Meiburg has positioned himself as the songwriting equal of his former bandmate Will Sheff. Where Sheff excels in portraits of people–glitter rock casualties, poets that killed themselves, rich kid singer-songwriters–Meiburg prefers stories drawn from the earth. His lyrics make me think of a quote by the French theologian, St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
“Trees and stones will teach you what you cannot learn from masters.”*
Meiburg derives his inspiration from the land and water, as well as the creatures that inhabit the land. His iconography all comes together on the latest Sheawater album, Animal Joy (Sub Pop). The bits of Scott Walker, Talk Talk, and even the similar song structures of his former band, along with Meiburg’s voice and lyrics make this the best Shearwater album yet.
Mr. Meiburg answered some questions for the latest in our Band Booking series.
Jason Diamond: You had the Island Arc trilogy of albums. How does Animal Joy move in a different direction from those records?
Jonathan Meiburg: We played a big show last year where we performed all of the Island Arc records as a piece, and it was a great moment for the band – also by far the longest show we’d ever played! It was a really affirming experience, but it also felt like the end of an era for the band, and I felt certain, after that show ended, that I needed to reimagine my approach to recording and to songwriting. I wanted to make a record with blood and guts, one that appealed to my body as well as my head, and rather than contemplating faraway landscapes and peoples, I wanted to dig around in my own emotional life for inspiration, which I hadn’t really done for awhile. It was tough but rewarding, and I feel like the finished record has the immediacy that I wanted. I love the Island Arc albums, but I think Animal Joy is our best record.
What’s your ideal environment for writing songs? Your songs have so many references to animals, bodies of water, etc. I guess I have this weird image of you sitting outside all day coming up with songs.
Lounging under a tree, with a quill pen, waiting for inspiration to strike? If only! I did a lot of the writing for Animal Joy in a tiny, dark, rented rehearsal space that I don’t think anyone would describe as inspiring – but there weren’t any distractions there. The raw material for the songs, though, came from time spent both on and off the road, and for me it’s often time spent out away from the giant urb where we spend our touring lives that recharges my batteries. On tour, the songwriting parts of my brain tend to shut down – maybe just because of lack of sleep – but I also feel like such a raw bundle of nerves that I think I’m especially receptive to everything that’s coming in. But terrible at processing it. That has to come later.
I was really interested in the Blue Water White Death project (with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu), especially after your time in Okkervil River. How has working alongside people like Will Sheff and Jamie Stewart influenced you as a songwriter?
I’ve always been fascinated that you studied ornithology for your masters. Are you a birdwatcher in your spare time?
I’m always in awe of your lyrics, and you hold a bachelor’s degree in English. Is it fair to draw the conclusion that you do a lot of reading? If so, what have you been reading lately?
John Darnielle just gave me a copy of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (NYRB Classics), which I’m looking forward to getting into as soon as I’ve finished the last few pages of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. Touring can be great for reading once you’re into the rhythm of it. I tend to like really long books- they’re like friends who stay by your side even as everything’s constantly changing around you. A year or so ago I read Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, and last year I read Anna Karenina. This was after a year or so of reading pretty much everything Peter Matthiessen ever wrote. Bill Callahan’s novel, Letters to Emma Bowlcut, is also pretty great; I recommend it to anyone who’s ever wondered what Bill’s “really” like. And my old school and band-mate John Jeremiah Sullivan’s new collection of essays, Pulphead, has some wonderful pieces in it, including a mind-blowing essay about cave art in North America and another about traveling to Kingston to meet Bunny Wailer.
Have books ever played a part in your songs? I know I mentioned the references to birds, rivers, various animals, etc. But has there ever been a song or lyric influenced by a book you’ve read?