Fleet Foxes: ‘I’m trying to find silver linings in this madness, a healing space in music’
Robin Pecknold on how the pandemic cured his anxiety and the band’s new, fourth album
Robin Pecknold: ‘There’s a healing space in music.’ Photograph: Kyle Johnson/The New York Times
In June, “when everything was that young green”, Robin Pecknold went driving through upstate New York. Long drives, along empty roads, with the windows down. The pandemic was then spreading across America, and as he drove he saw how remote towns stood still, signs warning outsiders to quarantine. He kept driving, stopping only to buy petrol.
Back in the city, the spring had been bewildering. 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 apparent, he had hurried back east. But the days were unsettled: Pecknold’s New York apartment lies opposite a hospital and for three weeks the neighbourhood rang with ambulance sirens. For a time the street was lined with trucks operating as makeshift morgues. “The air was really bracing and brisk still at that point,” he recalls, “and then it was just silent in a way it had never been.”
Those day-long drives were the first time that he had left the city in months, and it felt good, he says, to feel the sun on his face. Pecknold had been struggling with lyric-writing. Now, as he drove, the words finally began to come. “Slightly funny lines,” he remembers, “bits and pieces of songs.” He would pull over in car parks to scribble them down or record into his phone. “It was kind of like I was going around and collecting rocks or something,” he says. “I’d come back home and I’d have this row of lyrics.”
The process of making a Fleet Foxes record has changed somewhat in the 12 years since the band’s debut. Pecknold was 22 then, and his band had quickly gained acclaim – first on the local circuit in Seattle, and then further afield as a revived interest in American folk rock gathered pace.
Fleet Foxes, with their harmony-rich baroque pop, reminiscent of the Beach Boys, Crosby Stills and Nash and traditional English folk song, captured the new mood perfectly. Over two months in 2007, they saw more than a quarter of a million plays on Myspace. When their self-titled debut was released the following spring, the Guardian called it “a landmark in American music”.
Attempting to follow such success was daunting. After three years, scrapped sessions and a change in personnel that included the addition of Josh Tillman on drums, they released the more expansive Helplessness Blues. But it would be a further six years until another full-length record. After extensive touring, the band went on hiatus: Tillman reinvented himself as Father John Misty, while Pecknold pursued a degree at Columbia University’s School of General Studies in New York and took classes in 20th-century literature and 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 lead single named Third of May/Odaigahara. Once again, it was greeted rapturously.
The band toured Crack-Up extensively (“170 shows or something, the most we’d ever done”), and when they returned, Pecknold – drained and exhausted from 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, that was in contrast to how I was feeling at the end of that tour and it was kind of helping me through it,” he says. He made a playlist of “warm” songs to buoy him – by Van Morrison, Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, Arthur Russell, Sam Cooke – and set about making a record he hoped would carry not just warmth, but a feeling that was celebratory and vibrant and safe.
In the late 1990s, Pecknold became infatuated with a two-minute clip on the 30th-anniversary reissue box set of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds – Brian Wilson recording overdubs for Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder). “I listened to that constantly,” he says. “Just hearing how some of them are a little out of tune but once it’s all together that makes it that much richer.” He was struck by the persistence of Wilson’s retakes. “It was like watching a wizard make a spell or something,” he says. On Shore’s Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman, he was granted permission to use snippets of Wilson’s voice. That clip, he says, changed his life more than any other piece of music. “And that became what I wanted to do with my life.”
'While things are bad, there’s a part of yourself that remains untouched by your circumstances'
Exploring the human voice – layered, harmonised, a cappella – has become a distinctive part of Fleet Foxes’ music, and on Shore, Pecknold’s own voice sounds even more assured. “I love not singing the same way in every song,” he says. “I love trying to use my voice as high as I can, as low as I can, finding different registers that are evocative of different things and matching those to music and lyrics in the right ways. And then, if my voice can’t get there 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 one. Every other instrument is trying to mimic the voice in one way or the other, and it’s just an infinite, evocative tool. There’s so much that’s immediately there just in the physiology of it. You can fake a guitar solo, kind of, but there’s so much encoded in what comes out of your voice emotionally that you’re not even intending, that I think it’s easy to get obsessed by.”
Despite the steady warmth of these new songs, there is a sadness that runs beneath many of them. The track Sunblind runs as a tribute to musicians who died too soon – or “for every gift lifted far before its will”, as Pecknold sings it, among them 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 as a result of alcohol-related illness. Swift was a friend of Pecknold, though the pair had not seen one another for several years. “But we’d wanted to work together,” he says. Was he shocked by Swift’s death? “Erm …” he says gently. “I think everyone knew that he’d been struggling for a little while, and I was shocked, maybe more so than 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 ties together the story of a friend helping a family member through opioid addiction and Pecknold’s own experience of taking sailing lessons last year. “I always went sailing with my dad and never learned how to do it myself,” he says. “And as part of the lessons we had to practise rescuing someone who’d fallen overboard.” He describes the process of circling the boat, throwing out the float, the safest way to help someone in trouble. The line, “I’m not the season I’m in”, he says, “was just that feeling of not that things will get better, but the idea that while things are bad, there’s a part of yourself that remains untouched by your circumstances.”
That the record got finished at all he credits in part to a lifting of the anxiety that had followed him for many years, in part as a reaction to the pandemic and social shifts of the past year. He describes it as being “shocked out of your tunnel vision – like ‘Wait, why am I worried so much about this thing that’s just some sound that some people will hear and like and some people will hear and some won’t like?’ I guess in comparison to everything that’s happening, it minimised the album in this way that really helped me finish it.”
In New York this summer, he says, “Everyone was getting tested and masked up and distanced, but I made a bunch of great new friends and certain community doors were opening in this really cool way. We’ve done a really good job in keeping numbers low as a state, as a city and I’m proud of that. Even though it’s a terrible time economically for so many industries here, I would rather be in New York City. I cannot believe the fires going on right now on the west coast. All of my friends are out there basically, and everyone is just so stressed and tired.”
He is tempering his expectations for November’s election. Convinced Trump would lose in 2016, he is now trying to convince himself that he will win, “only in the hopes that I’m consistently wrong about election results”.
Far from the beaten down, post-tour feeling of the album’s beginning, he now feels somehow replenished. “There are all these hats that you need to wear and that keeps it interesting,” he says. “It always feels like there’s a place to grow, just as a person.” He smiles across the Zoom screen. “I am super lucky to be in that position at all, but just trying to find little silver linings in all of this madness, just finding this kind of healing space in music that maybe I hadn’t been able to access before.” – Guardian
Shore by Fleet Foxes is out now.