Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg: I came back before I got frostbite
Jonathan Meiburg started Shearwater as a side project with his then-bandmate in Okkervil River, Will Sheff, as an outlet for material that wouldn't quite fit the sound of their primary band. After 12 years, while Sheff is now solely focused on Okkervil, Meiburg is still dedicated full-time to Shearwater, and the band has just released their eighth full-length, the sublime Animal Joy. Their U.S. tour is support of the record finds them opening up for Sharon Van Etten, a wonderful double-bill which comes to the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday night.
Gimme Noise: Each of your albums have rich, vivid lyrical themes that are threaded throughout the work. Are there any themes that you carried through Animal Joy?
Jonathan Meiburg: Change, transformation, astonishment, terror, and joy. Losing your way, and finding it again. To me, the songs "You As You Were" and "Insolence" are the heart of the record.
Did playing your last three albums live in Austin help you put that trilogy behind you in order to focus and move forward with these new songs?
Absolutely. That show was cathartic; it was really affirming, but it felt like the end of an era -- for the band, and for me as a songwriter. It was also nerve-racking; we sound-checked for like five hours, and there were all kinds of technical problems leading right up to doors -- we even blew the power twice during the show; you can hear that at the end of the recording of "Hail, Mary."
I remember finishing the last song and being overwhelmed at how grateful I was to have been able to do this for so long, to have been able to work with so many talented people, and also by a sense that from now on things needed to be different.
How do you see this album as differing from your previous work? Were there any elements of your past sound which you distinctly set out to change?
I wanted to make an album that felt much "closer," emotionally, than our past records. I think I've spent a lot of time processing my travels to far-flung places in our music, and this time I wanted to travel inward -- toward my own experiences of love, loss, exhilaration, and grief.
To me, The Golden Archipelago had a real insular, isolated sound and feel to it, as if I was alone in the city (or on an island) listening to this glorious record all by myself.
That was very much the idea! But it gets lonely out there.
But Animal Joy sounds much more warm and inviting. Was that an intentional objective on your behalf, or do you think that is more of a result in a shift in subject matter?
I wanted a thaw in the music and lyrics; things had gotten a little too icy and cerebral for me, and I wanted to come back before I got frostbite. I wanted Animal Joy to evoke the times in my life when I've felt my blood was running closest to the surface.
There are some clear blues-based elements to the sound of the new record. Is that an effect of the music you're currently listening to seeping into your sound, or are you just setting out to expand your musical palette a bit?
I wouldn't want anyone to expect a bunch of blues riffing, or anything...but there's definitely more swing and earthiness in the rhythm section. Some of that comes from my desire to make a record that you could feel in your body, and not just in your head.
It would seem that your background in biogeography would certainly help color an album titled Animal Joy. How have your studies influenced your songwriting, and do you ever have to restrain yourself from getting too technical in your word choices and descriptions?
Too technical? I've never had to remove jargon from a song, if that's what you mean...I think the kinds of thinking that lead to really interesting science and really interesting art aren't so different.
It seems that listening to each of your albums is a journey, not to anywhere specific but to a place which still feels very real. Is that type of odyssey something you experience while writing the records? How important is travel to you as a songwriter?
You hear this a lot from musicians, or writers, or filmmakers, or whatever, but undertaking a big project really is like walking into the wilderness - you have some idea of where you want to go, but how you're going to get there is a mystery. You really have to trust in your own instincts and in a sort of cosmic benevolence.
Traveling is an important source of inspiration for me -- I feel like it's where my creative batteries recharge, even if places don't usually make their way into the songs in a literal sense. But there are exceptions - last year I spent some time hiking in Utah, and my nose started bleeding once while I was hiking through a river. I remember watching my blood disappearing into the water - an image I used in "You As You Were."
What's been the key to you turning this initial one-off project into a flourishing, functioning band 12 years on?
Restlessness, stubbornness, curiosity, and a feeling that I can always do better.
Both you and Sharon Van Etten are touring together behind brilliant new records. Does it help to be touring with another artist who shares that same excitement and thrill of playing these new songs live for the first time?
I met Sharon several years ago -- she was even our tour manager for one of the Golden Archipelago tours - and watching her bloom as an artist has been an inspiration and a joy. She's the real thing.
Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater play the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday, February 18, beginning at 8:00 p.m. The show is sold-out.
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