Jun 09, 2022
By Stephen Humphries
Photography by Jenna Moore
The new Shearwater album features an instrument that has no precedent in the annals of rock history: a singing refrigerator.
“In the song ‘There Goes the Sun,’ there’s this little ‘whoop’ sound that sounds like a human voice,” says Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg, who recorded the band’s first album in six years at a rural home studio near Austin, Texas. “The refrigerator at the house was dying, or the fan belt on it was dying, and it would make this squeaking sound…. Every 15 minutes or so you’d hear this little ‘whoop’ from the other room and we put it in [the song]. It just seemed to have so much personality.”
That’s not to suggest that The Great Awakening—Shearwater’s 10th studio album—sounds like synthetic machine music. Quite the opposite. The instrumentation feels almost entirely organic. In contrast to the previous Shearwater album, 2016’s Jet Plane and Oxbow, the electric guitar is used sparingly. There’s also little synthesizer this time. Shearwater keyboardist Emily Lee focused instead on Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, and prepared piano. She also transcribed the strings that play a key role throughout the record. For instance, halfway through the acoustic ballad “Everyone You Touch,” a swell of strings curls into a cresting wave and the listener surfs through the tumbling tunnel until it breaks and dissolves into calmness.
Another Shearwater regular, drummer Josh Halpern, contributes slinky rhythms. On the undulating and disorienting “Laguna Seca,” the drum part is as tricky as trying to waltz on a moving walkway that’s going in the opposite direction of the dancers.
But what makes The Great Awakening the kind of album you’d take to a store to test sound systems is its Ziggurat layers of production. The record was engineered and mixed by co-producer Dan Duszynski. It’s a sonic adventure as lush as the Guyana jungles where Meiburg recorded the howler monkeys that are credited as “backing vocalists” on the song “Xenarthran.” (It’s safe to say that Simian “singers” on an indie rock album is also a music first.) Yet the music never sounds cluttered or too dense. On the top of it all is Meiburg’s resplendent voice, more assured and expressive than ever.
For Meiburg, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and leader of Shearwater, the new album is a homecoming following several busy years. Last year, his debut book, A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, received clamorous acclaim from The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Washington Post, and luminaries such as Margaret Atwood and Laurie Anderson. Meiburg has also found success in Loma, a collaborative pop trio rounded out by singer Emily Cross and the aforementioned Duszynski. Though Meiburg is eager to make a follow-up to The Great Awakening, the scale at which Shearwater operates in future will depend on sales of this self-released album.
Under the Radar spoke to Meiburg from his new home in Germany about the making of The Great Awakening.
Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): The new album sometimes includes the sounds of animals. Which animal sounds naturally lend themselves to song? Presumably not cats!
Jonathan Meiburg: In “Aqaba,” there’s a toucan. There’s a moment I describe in the book [of] actually listening to the sound of this toucan, because it was calling at a place in the river where there was a very sheer bank that had been cut by the river and it was higher on the other side. So, it was nicely reflective and it was giving back this perfect single echo of this bird. And it kept calling and calling. And I wondered if either it just liked the sound of an echo, just like we do, or if it thought maybe that there was another toucan on the other side of the river that was really aggressive and challenging. It was very excited to find such a game opponent!
The toucan had a strangely mournful kind of quality that I’m sure it didn’t intend. But when I placed it in that part of the song, it had the effect that I wanted.
I had read about howler monkeys before I ever heard them, but I never really heard a recording of them such that I knew what it was. It sounds like somebody ripping open a hole in the fabric of space and time. It sounds like a cosmic phenomenon. It smooths out at even a short distance into this undulating, eerie sound. It’s unlike anything I would ever expect an animal to make.
In approaching the Shearwater record, did you start with a crude conception, or some big idea, for what you wanted to accomplish?
I don’t like to start getting too conceptual too quickly. I definitely knew I wanted to make something different from the previous record. That record I like, but when I listen back to it, it seems wound awful tight. And maybe that’s just because I felt so anxious at the time of making it. I feel like you can hear that in the music. And occasionally it seems a little congested or choked to me in that way. I knew I wanted to make something that felt looser.
It was nice to not have any ambitions at all of making any kind of radio single or something that was supposed to be conventionally appealing in any way. Because we’d crowd-funded the record and we didn’t have a record label, we were beholden to no one really, except for the people who’d funded it. I did want to give them something that they would recognize as being Shearwater in some way and hopefully like. But beyond that, we’re extremely free and I just didn’t care. We tried to make something that we enjoyed and that felt interesting.
How do you see the difference between the Loma and Shearwater, other than obviously each band has a different singer? How do they offer a different outlet for different sides of your musical personality?
Certainly, when I made the first Loma record, which came right after Jet Plane and Oxbow, it is like the opposite of that record. It’s very sort of humble and homemade sounding and textural, and also made without any real commercial aspirations at all. The second Loma record, we leaned a little further in that direction, I think. But Loma is a democracy. The three of us make pretty much every decision together. Three people is a really good decision-making unit because it’s either two against one, or you all agree. So, we end up in places that I never expected I would go. And I think that’s true for all of us. But with Shearwater, I’m completely in charge. The processes that flow from those starting points are just so different.
In preparation for the Shearwater album, did you sit down and listen at all to other people’s albums as reference points?
We did that more during the process. If something occurred to us from a song—“You know, I’m remembering this thing in What’s Going On, the Marvin Gaye record, that has this particular sound. Let’s listen to that and see what that actually does.” And then you listen to that song. It’s a fascinating process because, rather than listening to it passively, as you normally do, you’re listening to it as a technician and trying to understand how these different parts fit together. How did they get that sound? What is it that’s making this song sound like this? And often those things are ineffable, but sometimes you can actually learn things. You can go like, “Wait a minute, that snare drum is really tiny and small, but they’re playing a conga at the same time as the snare drum, which is kind of a no-no for conga playing, but it sounds magnificent in this recording.” You can pick up on ideas like that, and then you try them in your own song and either they work or they don’t. But that’s really helpful.
[What’s Going On is] a wonderful record in the sense that it, it conjures a particular atmosphere that no other record does—that no other record inhabits, that space. I mean, I didn’t want to make that record. I couldn’t. But it could be a reference point. And we went back to that one a fair amount. It’s very dynamic and uses the strings in a really intelligent and clever way that’s very moving.
We did decide to use strings on this record, which we hadn’t done in a few records, and we were just delighted with what they did. Some of the fun of it was so much more so than when I was working on older records, like, you know, 10 or 12 years ago. You’ve got the string performance and there it is. Now it’s much easier to manipulate sounds so you can cut them up or change the pitch or jam them all together and throw them in in different places. For instance, the strings in “Aqaba” are the strings from “Xenarthran.” It’s the same performance.
It’s a very striking part of the record, and it just adds to another great layer to what is such a textured and rich and immersive sonic experience.
I want to make a record you can live in because those are the records that I love. The records that give you an entire world to experience and inhabit and a place where you can put your own thoughts as a singer. The human voice is so demanding of your attention that if there’s somebody singing, even if they’re distantly way off in the background, your brain just goes right to it. I tried to use it more sparingly in some ways on this record so they weren’t listening to me, me, me.
I seem to recall reading that the album by Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders with the London Symphony Orchestra was another one you were listening to during the process?
Yeah, that was fairly late in the game. Dan was listening to that a bunch and we were really marveling at it. The dynamic range and that and both audacity and brilliance of that combination.
I keep bringing in Morton Feldman for Dan to listen to. And sometimes you can’t stand it and sometimes I can’t either. And then sometimes it’s just the most mesmerizing music there is. And so of course, you could hear the influence of that in that recording. And it reminded me a lot of piano and string quartet with that one figure that just never changes. Or it does change, but it changes very subtly while these other events are happening.
This is an album of two halves. And I wonder if you could talk about the sequencing of that and other albums that you love that have a distinct side A and side B.
We’d just come from the experience of recreating the Bowie Berlin trilogy when we started on this record, which is the last live performance that Shearwater did in 2018. And Low and Heroes in particular have such completely distinct sides where one is almost entirely instrumental and the other is songs. That was a very inspiring and sort of freeing way to think about the record.
My initial idea was to have the second set have no drums at all and. And we did end up breaking that rule. But we went pretty far.
We bought Josh in to play drums just for a few days and we had a few tracks that were done to the point that he could actually just play along with them. But then we also got him just to do a bunch of random things. We had him do things that were against no track whatsoever. Then we were able to take these fragments and assemble them however we want to. I think Josh was surprised when he finally heard the record and he was playing so much on it.
But, yeah, I did want to break the record in halves in that way and to kind of reset things after track six to go on this quieter, more inward journey in the second half of it.
Which song came the furthest distance from conception to birth?
“Laguna Seca” was really strange. That one came out of a rule that we were only allowed to make changes in the chords by moving up or down by a half step. We wanted to see what would happen if we did that. And then I started playing, making this complicated, layered drum part for it, which we then later redid. But I made sort of a sketch of it. We ended up with a song that was sort of all hovering around one tonal center, but very in a very queasy way.
Then we started thinking about “I am the Walrus.” How do they do that with the strings on that song? And we realized that the drums are open to one side. It’s a really unbalanced mix from that song. You’d never get it out of a mastering studio now. We made a string part that would go along with [“Laguna Seca”]. At the end of it, when that song was coming towards the runway, Dan said, “This is really different from any other Shearwater song.” And I agreed and was very happy about it.
And the same with “Milkweed,” actually. That song took a very, very long time, and it was probably in some ways the one I’m proudest of on the record. So much went into it and so much was taken away. And we kept taking away and taking away and taking away and taking away until very few elements were left. But we were somehow more interested in it.
There’s something so brooding and dark about that track.
That song’s meant to be scary. There’s theatrically scary, which is not actually scary. And then there’s actually scary, where you really do feel a bit disturbed or unsettled or like something’s gone rotten. We were trying to aim more for that kind of territory.
It’s because that’s how it feels to be alive at this moment. Throughout 2019, 2020, as we were making this, it was very much like now, but in different in different ways in that everything felt very tenuous and uncertain and we were very isolated.
Is it true that you dread writing lyrics?
Yeah, that’s the point where you ruin the record! Once you sing a word, it means something. Singing a word gives it a power that it can’t have any other way. It’s a form of magic that I still feel like I don’t understand very well. I learn more about it every time we make a record. But finding the line between something that’s too overt versus something that’s too obscure is really difficult. Something that sings well versus something that reads well. You’re always making these judgments and then stepping back at the end and looking at what you have and saying, “Okay, do they add up? Do they talk to each other? Is there a is there a hole here? If there isn’t, do we need to adjust this in some way, or do they need another to be another piece?”
It reminded me very much of writing the book. I feel like all artistic processes at heart are the same because there’s this creative phase and this analytical phase.
Were there events or changes in your life that may have influenced the themes and the lyrics on the album?
Living in a trailer in Texas. We left New York shortly after we did the Bowie shows and moved out to Dripping Springs [Texas]. I did that before the pandemic began, but only a few months before. And then suddenly we were locked in. It was like we’d gone to take the tour of Biosphere Two, and then they locked the doors behind us. I felt very lucky to have been locked in at the moment that I was there in my friend’s studio. But there was a lot of adjustment that it took to actually living out there for an extended period of time and hardly seeing anyone else. With the record, we wanted to both explore where we were and conjure a way out of it.
How do you balance the several different projects you’ve got going on simultaneously? You’re writing books now. You’ve got Loma. You’ve got Shearwater.
I’m working on a new book about Antarctica right now. There are so many stories surrounding Antarctica in its past, its present, its future that have not been told in any popular way at all. I’m really spoiled for choice in the way that I’m assembling that book. You can go outside the world of penguins, whales, seals, icebergs, and climate doom and still find more than enough to talk about. So that really feeds my mind. I’m pushing against the boundaries of what I know. And sometimes even what anyone knows about the natural world. It really is better than looking at the same newsfeed that everyone else is.
A trip to Antarctica is in the cards, right?
I hope so, yes. Seems like a logical next step. So, there’s that, and that’s occupying me. But mostly right now there’s the new Loma record we’re assembling in August in Texas, too.
We are trying to organize a big show in Austin at the symphony hall next year for both Shearwater and Loma together, which normally I would be hesitant to do. But in a situation like that, I think it’d be quite special and to film and record that and that might be in lieu of a tour. I mean, just that the world of touring is so different from what it used to be, but I do want to perform live again.
These projects together are more than enough to keep me occupied from day to day. But because they’re different and it helps to keep from getting burned out and any more of them. And I can get burned out by all of them. [Laughs] But I mostly feel very lucky to be able to focus my life on things that really interest me.
What time of year do you anticipate that joint show might be?
Right now, the dates that are being held are between May 23rd, 24th, or 25th of 2023. It may even be that there will be a new Loma record out at that point. I don’t know. It depends on how fast we can get it done.
So, can we expect to maybe hear the sound of penguins on a future Loma or Shearwater record?
They’d have to do something I haven’t heard them do before for that to happen. No, I don’t think you’re going to hear any penguins on them. I’m very wary of being the bird person, to be honest with you, because my interest is not in birds—it’s in the world and about where we really live, and where we really are, and who we really are in relation to it, which we do a terrible job of understanding. So, any sound I could find that would that would draw me closer to that feeling is game. If a penguin makes it, I’ll put it in!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.