isIn June, “when everything was so young and green,” Robin Pecknold drove through upstate New York. Long journeys, along empty roads, the windows down. The pandemic was then spreading across America, and as he drove he saw how remote towns stood still, with signs warning foreigners to quarantine. He continued to drive, stopping only to buy gas.
Back in town, the spring had been confusing. When Covid-19 reached the United States, Pecknold was in Los Angeles, recording Fleet Foxes fourth album, Shore, but as the gravity of the situation became evident he had rushed east. But the days were unstable: Pecknold’s New York apartment is across from a hospital, and for three weeks the neighborhood has sounded ambulance sirens. For a while the street was lined with trucks that functioned as makeshift morgues. “The air was really invigorating and still crisp right now,” he recalls, “and then it was just quiet like it never had been.
Those day trips were the first time he had left town in months, and it felt good, he said, to feel the sun on his face. Pecknold had struggled to write lyrics. Now, as he was driving, the words finally started to come. “A little funny lines”, he remembers, “pieces of songs”. He would stop in parking lots to jot them down or save them to his phone. “It was kind of like I was going to look for rocks or something,” he says. “I would come home and have this row of lyrics.”
The process of making a Fleet Foxes album has changed somewhat in the 12 years since the band’s debut. Pecknold was 22 by then and his band had quickly gained acclaim – first on the local Seattle tour, then further afield, as interest in American folk rock intensified. Fleet Foxes, with their harmoniously rich baroque pop reminiscent of Beach Boys, Crosby Stills and Nash and traditional English folk song, captured the new vibe perfectly. For two months in 2007, they saw more than a quarter of a million plays on Myspace. When their self-titled debut album was released the following spring, the Guardian called it a “landmark of American music.”
Trying to keep up with such success was intimidating. After three years, abandoned sessions, and a staff change that included adding Josh Tillman to drums, they released the biggest Helplessness Blues. But it would still be six years before another full album. After extensive tours, the band took a break: Tillman reinvented himself as Father John Misty, while Pecknold continued his education at Columbia University’s School of General Studies in New York and took courses in literature and twentieth century art. When their third album, Crack-Up, arrived in 2017, it was more experimental than its predecessors, with references to Francisco Goya and F Scott Fitzgerald, and a nine-minute debut single named Third of May / Odaigahara. Once again he was greeted with enthusiasm.
The band toured on Crack-Up extensively (“170 shows or something, the most we’ve ever done”), and when they returned, Pecknold – exhausted and exhausted after two years on the road – nevertheless had the desire to start writing new material. .
Unexpectedly, he found what he wrote had a new warmth and lightness. “These songs being brighter, it was in contrast to how I felt at the end of this tour and it got me through that,” he says. He created a playlist of “hot” songs to back it up – by Van Morrison, Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, Arthur Russell, Sam Cooke – and set out to make a record that he hoped to bring not only warmth, but a feeling that was festive and vibrant and sure.
In the late ’90s, Pecknold fell in love with a two-minute clip on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds 30th anniversary reissue set – Brian Wilson recording overdubs for Don’t Talk (Put your head on my shoulder). “I listened to this constantly,” he says. “Just hearing how a little out of tune some of them are, but once they’re all together, it makes it even richer.” He was struck by the persistence of Wilson’s picks. “It was like watching a wizard create a spell or something,” he said. On Shore’s Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman, he was allowed to use clips of Wilson’s voice. This clip, he says, changed his life more than any other piece of music. “And it became what I wanted to do with my life.”
The exploration of the human voice – layered, harmonized, a cappella – has become a distinctive part of Fleet Foxes’ music, and on Shore, Pecknold’s own voice sounds even more confident. “I like not to sing the same in every song,” he says. “I love trying to use my voice as high as possible, as low as possible, find different registers that evoke different things and match them to the music and lyrics in the right way. And then if my voice can’t do it emotionally, I ask someone else to do it. He thinks for a moment. “I mean it’s the first instrument, it’s the most expressive. All the other instruments try to mimic the voice in some way, and it’s just an endless, evocative tool. There is so much that is immediately found in his physiology. You can fake a guitar solo, sort of, but there’s so much encoded in what comes out of your voice emotionally that you don’t even intend to, that I think it’s easy to get obsessed. by.
Despite the constant warmth of these new songs, there is a sadness behind many of them. The song Sunblind is a tribute to musicians who died too soon – or “for every gift raised long before its will”, as Pecknold sings, including Judee Sill, Elliott Smith, Otis Redding and Russell. But it opens with the line “For Richard Swift”, the singer-songwriter and producer who died in 2018 from an alcohol-related illness. Swift was a friend of Pecknold’s, although the couple had not seen each other for several years. “But we wanted to work together,” he says. Was he shocked by Swift’s death? “Uh…” he said softly. “I think everyone knew he had been struggling for a little while, and I was shocked, maybe more than the people who were closer to him, but yeah… He was in the family, and everyone knew Richard and loved Richard.
I’m Not My Season connects the story of a friend helping a family member fight opioid addiction and Pecknold’s experience of taking sailing lessons last year. “I have always sailed with my father and never learned to do it on my own,” he says. “And as part of the lessons, we had to practice saving someone who had fallen overboard.” It describes the process of circling the boat, throwing the float, the safest way to help someone in trouble. The line, ‘I’m not the season I’m in,’ he said, ‘was just that feeling of not that things will get better, but the idea that even though things are bad, there is a part. of you who remains untouched by your situation. “
That the record was finished at all, he attributes in part to a lift in the anxiety that had followed him for many years, in part in response to the pandemic and social changes of the past year. He describes it as being “shocked at your tunnel vision – like ‘Wait, why am I so worried about this thing that’s just a sound that some people will hear and like and some people will hear and some won’t. will not want? ‘ I guess compared to everything that’s going on, it downplayed the album in that way which really helped me finish it.
In New York this summer he said, “Everyone was being tested, masked and left behind, but I made a bunch of great new friends and some community doors were opening in this really cool way. We’ve done a really good job of keeping the numbers low as a state, as a city and I’m proud of that. Even though it’s a terrible economic time for so many industries here, I would rather be in New York. I cannot believe that the fires are continuing on the west coast right now. All of my friends are basically there, and everyone is so stressed and tired.
He is tempering his expectations for the November elections. Convinced that Trump would lose in 2016, he is now trying to convince himself that he is going to win, “only in the hope that I am constantly getting the election results wrong.”
Away from the feeling beaten after the album’s debut tour, he now feels somewhat replenished. “There are all these hats that you have to wear that make them interesting,” he says. “It always feels like there is a place to grow, just like a person.” He smiles on the Zoom screen. “I’m super lucky to be in this position, but I’m just trying to find little silver liners in all this craziness, I just find that kind of healing space in music that I maybe didn’t have.” been able to access previously.
• Shore by Fleet Foxes is now available.