Shearwater – Taking Flight

July 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

Published: The Big Issue, #307, July 2008.

The creative force behind Shearwater, Jonathan Meiburg, draws his inspiration from the natural world. His music is for (and sometimes about) the birds.

Jonathan Meiburg’s conversation doesn’t rest in the machinations of the music industry. His curiosity fails to wander in the contrivances of record labels and next big things and who knows whom.

“If you’re making music or if you’re writing about music, you really have to be careful so as to keep your love of music alive, because it can definitely go away,” he offers in his measured, softly spoken parlance.

“I can kind of keep up with the new bands are out there, but it’s a bit like reading the stock report or something in all honesty.”

For Meiburg, the vocalist and chief creative logician behind the near-orchestral sonic experience that is Texan folk-rock ensemble Shearwater, music is something that finds its bearing in the mystique of the natural world, rather than that of the touring and publicity grind.

“You know, I’ve got a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers building a nest in the dead Sycamore tree in my front yard,” he says, today speaking over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas. “And no matter what I’m doing – sitting their answering emails for a really long time or something – I’ll hear them calling and walk out and look at them with the binoculars for a little while. All of a sudden the whole world just opens right back up again.”

While it may sound a little twee, it’s a quality that echoes throughout the songwriter’s meticulously rendered musical craft – most recently articulated in Shearwater’s beauteous fifth oeuvre Rook – which sees ornate layers guitar and string arrangements entwine Meiburg’s impassioned, choirboy-like high-register. An experienced geographer and ornithologist, Meiburg garners his stunning musical vernacular via observations and anecdotes from much farther a field.

Raised and educated in the American southeast, Meiburg has spent a great deal of his adult life in some of the world’s most isolated environments. After completing a degree in English Literature, he was awarded an ambitious travelling fellowship dubbed The Study of Community Life at the Far Ends of the Earth, which took him from the sub-polar archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, situated off the southernmost tip of South America, as far as Kowanyama, a remote Aboriginal settlement on the eastern edge of Cape York.

“I lived in an Inuit settlement in the Arctic; I lived in the Chatham Islands off New Zealand; I lived in the Falklands, where I happened to meet an ornithologist and became his field assistant,” he recounts excitedly. “I’d never been outside the southeastern United States before then, so by the time I came back, it was like I’d had all my circuits blown wide open, you know. I was just loaded down with questions, many of which I still have.”

When Meiburg returned, he moved to Austin and began hanging around the geography department of the University of Texas. He eventually took a Masters degree studying migratory birds and human modification of the landscape, with a specific focus on the Striated Caracara, a bird species unique to the outer islands of Tierra del Fuego.

In this same period, Meiburg, who grew up singing in Episcopal Church choirs, began to embrace his latent musical talents, joining songwriter Will Sheff’s band Okkervil River as a banjo and keyboard player. But within the space of a year, Meiburg’s own song-writing ambitions had come to the fore, and in 2000 he and Sheff formed Shearwater as a then side-project.

“You choose to work in a particular art form because you have no other way of expressing what you need to express,” he reflects. “And I realised then that I definitely needed to be expressing my own vision through music as well as science.”

“I think I would have been a very frustrated scientist without writing my own music,” he laughs. “But I also think that without science I would be a very frustrated artist.”

The group released their debut The Dissolving Room in 2001, followed by Everybody Makes Mistakes in 2002. By the time they had released acclaimed third album Winged Life in 2004, they were evoking comparisons to anything from the plaintive strains of Nick Drake and Will Oldham to the sonic cacophony of early era Split Enz. The intermittently abrasive and tender Palo Santo (2006) – which saw Sheff leave the band to concentrate wholly on Okkervil River, and featured the now permanent line-up of Thor Harris, Kimberley Burke and Howard Draper – was nothing short of a master class in soaring rock arrangement and deft composition.

Rook only adds to Shearwater’s remarkable aesthetic. Pealing with both intimacy and stark, wintry isolation, the record is the group’s most cogent and complete to date. Moments like the wondrous, lilting lament of ‘I Was a Cloud’ are doubtlessly Meiburg’s strongest and most poignant songs to date.

But for him, the album came together in the most straightforward of fashions. “I just chipped away and chipped away and it was all suddenly there,” he offers plainly.

“Supposedly Michelangelo said that sculpture is easy, you just move all the unnecessary stone. It felt very much like that.”

But despite its seamless process, as Meiburg explains, Rook is anything but a flippant record. “In my field studies I’ve been lucky enough to see little glimpses of the world as it was before we took it over, and that world is now passing away,” he says.

“This record really came from my experience of that place, of its birds and its life,” he pauses. “And of the vast contrast between that world and one in which most of us live today.”

by Dan Rule

Rook is out now through Remote Control/Inertia

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