The news of a new Fleet Foxes album dropping with a day’s warning last month was nearly as surprising for Robin Pecknold as it was for fans. At the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic this spring, the New York-based songwriter had a half-finished album. In April he felt stuck, creatively paralysed by the horrifying sights of trucks functioning as makeshift morgues close to his Greenwich village apartment. He hadn’t written a single lyric for the songs composed in 2018. Completion in 2020 felt insurmountable.
By June, however, Pecknold had a breakthrough. He took advantage of loosened lockdown rules and embarked on aimless drives through upstate New York. It afforded him the space to ruminate on things he’d been thinking about up to and during lockdown: his personal anxieties and how the pandemic had somehow dissolved them, the beauty of life when faced with death, his musical heroes, politics, and “renewing my vows with music”.
New lyrics flowed, before recording sessions with Grammy award-winning producer and engineer Beatriz Artola were completed. New album ‘Shore’ was then ready for release at the precise time of the Autumn equinox.
The 34-year-old musician says a September release was originally the goal, but it felt too “corny” to tease a new album amid a health crisis and seemingly exponential threats to democracy. “I felt like we still have this moment, pre-election, where there can be some optimism in the air,” he explains.
‘Shore’ is a more hopeful, tonally brighter record than its knottier, darker predecessor ‘Crack-Up’ (2017). “I felt that ‘Shore’ could help people,” Pecknold says, as “the yin to the yang” of his last album. “If Donald Trump gets re-elected in November there’s going to be a hellish depression we’re going to sink into. And then who cares about music at that point? To attach it to the equinox was just like, ‘Well, despite this madness…the earth and moon still exist.’ I wanted to tie it to something stable.”
The reception to ‘Shore’ from fans and critics alike has been rapturous, a “real mood-booster”, Pecknold says. Over the past two weeks he’s been sharing Instagram photos of ‘Shore’-related tattoos fans have had inked. “It’s been very surreal, but great, to switch between that and checking the news with things being so insane.”
The Seattle native has been conscious of weaving socio-political commentary into his songs since 2011’s ‘Helplessness Blues, but ‘Shore’ is less preoccupied. ‘Quiet Air/Gioia’ and ‘Maestranza’ speak to the negative tensions of America post-2016, but there are plenty of celebratory ideas about honouring lost heroes (‘Sunblind’, ‘Jara’) or having gratitude for life and music (‘Wading In Waist-High Water’, ‘Going-to-the-Sun Road) when things feel hopeless.
What inspired this unlikely wave of optimism? “The pandemic was a big period of reflection for me in that I recognised that a lot of my problems compared to what’s going on are just so small,” he says. “I’ve been so lucky to make music for a living, to know the people I know, and to have been born with the talents I have and to have cultivated them.”
In 2018, Pecknold revealed on social media that he had been “actively suicidal” a few years prior. The lyrics on ‘Featherweight’, specifically “I was staging life as a battleground”, hear him suggest that he perhaps created some problems for himself. ‘Shore’’s largely joyful disposition certainly sounds like he’s moved beyond those old troubles.
“I’ve had periods of kind of feeling utterly powerless”
“It’s such a sensitive topic because obviously all I can do is describe my own experience,” Pecknold says of that worrying period. “I can’t know how closely that mental experience tracks with anyone else’s. I’ve had periods of unexplainable emotional exhaustion, and then I’ve had periods of kind of feeling utterly powerless. And then that, relative to what I’m noticing going on around me, leads to this total shutdown of my spirit. I have a much better handle on that feeling now, though – I feel much less at the mercy of the world, personally.”
He’s found CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] – and “anything that separates you from your thoughts” – to be very useful. But he stresses that it might not work for others: “I don’t know what will be helpful to them, but I really wish I did.”
Pecknold feeling less at the mercy of the world guided the lyrical direction of ‘Shore’. “I guess I was focusing on other people, working in more gratitude and not wanting to add another moaning white dude to the discourse,” he says. ‘Maestranza’ is Pecknold’s outward-looking, rather than deeply personal protest song, inspired by Black Lives Matters marches he joined this year. “Con-men controlled my fate / No one is holding the whip / And the oil won’t stick / But I will,” he determines in a warm tenor over the track’s groove and fidgety acoustic arpeggios. “People are rightfully angry and feel so energised against what’s going on in so many wonderful ways,” he says of today.
He says the prospect of “bulletproof” Trump winning another term is “very terrifying” and that “it’s hard to be convinced that Joe Biden will win”, but still he longs to be proven wrong. Does Pecknold feel a responsibility as an artist to discourage political apathy? “I don’t want to make music that has an expiration date, obviously,” he says. “I love being able to be involved in [politics] where it makes sense and if it feels like additive. But with music and politics, there’s also the kind of ‘Be the change’ mentality, where if somebody hears this album and looks at the list of contributors, reads the lyrics and absorbs the mindset it’s coming from, then the takeaway from this record is not going to be like, ‘Yeah, four more years of Trump!’”
Pecknold keeps returning to the contributors on ‘Shore’, a record that features Fleet Foxes’ broadest range of guests to date – from Grizzly Bear’s Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, to indie hero Kevin Morby and up-and-comers Uwade Akher and Meara O’Reilly. Despite also being recorded between four studios (Aaron Dessner of The National’s Long Pond studio in Hudson Valley, New York, where parts of Taylor Swift‘s ‘Folklore’ were recorded, for one), all with Beatriz Artola as Pecknold’s constant, it was a solitary experience.
Although many have been deceived by the plurality of the name ‘Fleet Foxes’, the band is actually predominantly Pecknold’s baby. He writes all the music and lyrics alone, and plays most of the instruments. In the past, band members Skyler Skjelset, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo and Morgan Henderson have helped with additional arrangements and supported him live. But once Pecknold realised he could get ‘Shore’ finished for September, it didn’t make sense “timeline-wise”, he says, to open the floor to their contributions.
That tight schedule also prompted Pecknold to explain personnel details that he hadn’t expressed before (he tells NME that he was the only singer and guitar player on Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut – astonishing when you consider the album is a grand, choral chamber pop record). He clarified his sole contributions to ‘Shore’ in a statement accompanying the record not because he wanted undue credit but “more to explain that what’s happening right now isn’t that different from how it’s always been”.
“But the fact that those guys have been such amazing live musicians, so consistent, is a huge factor in why this music found an audience. There’s no discounting they’ve spent six, seven years of their lives bringing this music to people.”
In fact, Pecknold and the group are already planning to film some live performances in the coming weeks: “Everyone’s on board and down – them flying out to New York. And then we’re working on songs together to add to this album.”
Pecknold wrote in the album notes that he and the band plan to co-write music “from the ground up” for the first time to bolt nine new songs onto ‘Shore’. ‘Shore’ currently features 15 songs – why add nine specifically? “That’s because that gets the total number of songs up to 24,” he explains, “a song for every hour of the day. Like a gradient, transitional thing.”
This album has changed his approach to music-making, he says: “I’ve experienced the, you know, ‘Oh, who’s getting the headliner slot?’, or, ‘How many Spotify listeners does that band have?’ And I think with this album, a lot of that melted away due to knowing there’d be no tour,” he says. “It encouraged me to just ask Dan [Rossen] to rip on this song, or to get Kevin [Morby] on that. I’d like to continue with that in the future while balancing that with what the band is and means.”
Pecknold’s work with the Grizzly Bear guys – fellow stalwarts of the indie-folk revival of the mid ‘00s – might lead casual listeners to think Pecknold’s music hasn’t developed beyond that scene’s defining characteristics. Does it worry him that early listeners assume his music is still all foot-stomping folk singalongs? “That’s something that has been a struggle: something I’ve been too conscious of in the last 10 years. It was just the place that [my music] ended up occupying. But music is so infinite and I want to keep exploring it. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed or kind of forgotten as this one thing, but I also don’t want to disavow the early music if that’s what someone likes best.”
“One thing that’s really cool to me is Post Malone saying that he likes Fleet Foxes”
He continues: “One thing that’s really cool to me is Post Malone saying that he likes Fleet Foxes. I do think that, despite the aesthetic trappings of whatever phase the music is in, I’ve always really focused on strong melodies, strong arrangements and interesting structures. And I hear that in Post Malone’s music a lot. That’d be cool if those were the lessons someone was absorbing from the early Fleet Foxes stuff.
“I think Post Malone is the best melodicist in music right now. He’s working in post-genre… but there’s always very strong melodies. And his voice is sick.” Would Pecknold like to work with him someday? “Any time! That would be rad.”
Looking ahead, Pecknold plans to make a “more live-feeling band type recording” for a future Fleet Foxes record in addition to the nine-song collection pencilled for next year. “I also want to do a solo album of super low-key classical guitar music,” he says.
For now, though, touring ‘Shore’ hinges on the pandemic. Pecknold says it’s a “disappointment” to not get out on the road since some of its songs were built to be fun to play live. By contrast, the songs from the last album “were so demanding on both the band and the crowd live”. This quiet period, however, allows Pecknold to rehearse the songs and write new material. He suggests fans might have so much pent-up desire to attend concerts once things have eased that they might prefer action-packed collaborative tours.
“I’d love to do a kind of [Bob Dylan] ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ tour where all these bands people have been wanting to see are playing together in a less hierarchical way,” he says. “Maybe it’s five Fleet Foxes songs, and five songs from someone else. Just this huge, three hour celebration.” Consider us willing, and waiting.
– ‘Shore’ by Fleet Foxes is out now