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Interview: Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater

Released June 3, Rook is Austin-based Shearwater‘s first proper release on Matador Records, following a reissue of Palo Santo, originally released on Misra Records in 2006. Rook continues the band’s sonic evolution from what resembled field recordings on its early releases to near-art rock topped with Meiburg’s alternately cooing and soaring vocals.

The album is the band’s second minus Will Sheff, who split singer-songwriter duties with Meiburg on four releases prior to Palo Santo while Meiburg’s keyboards and harmonies were a hallmark of Okkervil River, Sheff’s primary vehicle, through 2007. Now fully devoted to Shearwater and the band’s unrivaled creative force, Meiburg took some time on the eve of an Eastern U.S. tour to answer a few questions for Aural States. Shearwater performs at the Black Cat June 15.

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MP3: Shearwater – Rooks

Aural States: It seems you had reservations about the way Palo Santo came out upon
its initial release. Did Rook materialize more the way you envisioned it and did you approach recording differently to try to achieve that vision?

Jonathan Meiburg: Re-making Palo Santo was an interesting challenge. We re-recorded about half the album and remastered the whole thing and added the bonus disc of outtakes, etc…not to mention re-doing all the cover art, which was great fun, though the whole enterprise also felt a bit like the graduate’s dream where you’re suddenly back in school and about to take your finals again…I was happy with the result, though. For Rook we were able to take more time recording it and get very meticulous about the mix. I resolved not to stop working on it until I was satisfied, which I realized late in the process was a bit like chasing a mythical beast (you can glimpse it, but you’ll never catch it). But as for whether it turned out like I envisioned it, that’s hard to say. One of the things that I like most about making a record is that it can be a process of discovery, where you hear what’s working and what’s not, where you learn where it’s going and what it “wants” to be. That takes time, of course, but the results are worth it.

AS: Shearwater has changed greatly from being very minimalist on the early records to quite ambitious and dynamic today. Was this a natural evolution or more intentional?

JM: I’d say both – the result of learning from our missteps and chasing after the things that interest us, which have of course changed over time. We’ve never had a strategy meeting, though.

AS: Your vocal style is quite unique and dramatic. Do you have specific influences as a singer or what else helped you develop your style?

JM: Thank you! Learning to sing in a church choir from an early age made a huge difference, of course, though it also threw up some roadblocks to expressive singing that I’m still breaking down. But it also taught me certain textures and techniques for which I’m very grateful, and I think I’ve ended up in a kind of in-between place that’s interesting. I’m especially lucky that the choir directors I worked with, for the most part, had excellent musical taste and preferred Palestrina and Byrd to showchoir.

AS: Your lyrics are fairly opaque. What inspires you when you write?

JM: Mmm, a toughie…if I could really explain that I probably wouldn’t write the songs. Usually I’ll find a few phrases that feel right for the music (and for the ‘theme’ or ‘feel’ of the album as I come to understand it) and then try to shape the rest of the song about that. But I don’t really like the word ‘opaque’ very much, as it implies inexpressive or inscrutable or uncommunicative – ..if you read the lyrics I think they’re mostly fairly easy to understand even if they aren’t completely linear. My hope is that, in combination with the music, they evoke an emotional response rather than an intellectual one.

AS: On the first several Shearwater albums you split songwriting with Will Sheff. Has it been different/challenging to write entire albums worth of material?

JM: Certainly different, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge, and it’s been much easier to make the albums work as a whole…at best, a two-headed monster is scary in its own special way, but at worst it’s a pushmi-pullyu.

AS: Do you see Shearwater as your full-time focus musically for the time being?

JM: Yes.

AS: Do you plan to rejoin Okkervil River at some point?

JM: No.

AS: Your parallel life as an ornithologist is well noted. Any interesting expeditions lately?

JM: I wish! I keep my binoculars with me in the van and, while we’re zooming around the USA at 75mph, sometimes I’ll get lucky. On the tour we just finished with Clinic I saw a kind of swift I’d never seen before at a rest stop in Arizona, and a pair of bald eagles in Missoula. My last big expedition was to the Falklands about a year and a half ago to work on a survey of the species I studied in grad school – I made a series of funny/scary little promotional videos for Rook out of film that I took there.

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One Response to “Interview: Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater”

  1. Alex Mudge says:

    man, did this guy just name drop palestrina, the father of polyphony in church music? awesome! i remember this crazy music teacher going on about verdi being asked how he could write such beautiful melodies and harmonies. he replies “because i am a child of palestrina!”

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