Music

Fleet Foxes On Making ‘Shore,’ Being Backstage With Paul McCartney And Neil Young And More

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In September Fleet Foxes released their fourth album, Shore. The collection, a surprise announced just the day before its September 22 release, is a sterling 15-track package of songs that has ended up on numerous best of year-end lists.

I spoke with Fleet Foxes mastermind Robin Pecknold who told me the album was begun pre COVID, then finished in isolation during the pandemic. And in terms of the surprise release, Pecknold admits he was partially inspired by Taylor Swift’s Folklore.

During the course of our very engaging conversation Pecknold took me through the making of the album, what it was like to be in a conversation with Neil Young and Paul McCartney and how his songs have changed over the years.

Steve Baltin: How is it in New York City now?

Robin Pecknold: It’s alright, it’s getting a little colder, which is feeling good. They’re installing permanent outdoor dining in all the restaurants so it feels a bit like a permanent music festival, lot of tents everywhere. But it’s been good all things considered.

Baltin: How long have you lived in New York?

Pecknold: I’ve been here on and off for like six years or so.

Baltin: Where was Shore written?

Pecknold: Some stuff in Portugal, I took a couple weeks and went to Portugal, and then mostly in my apartment in New York.

Baltin: I am always a big believer in how environment affects writing. So does the stuff you wrote in Portugal feel different to you then the stuff written in New York?

Pecknold: I can’t say it was actually entirely written in New York, but I did kind of write some stuff in Portugal. We were working in a studio in France where I ended up writing some stuff. And then worked in a studio in L.A. where I was writing a lot. And, like you were saying, I had the thought maybe at some point to make my own little studio space to work in, but then I also love variety and I think variety is super important to how a record turns out. And I wouldn’’t want to feel obligated to only work in one space I guess, as I spend a bunch of money setting it up for that reason, but maybe someday. I think, for writing chord progressions and stuff that can happen anywhere, and a lot of that I just did in my bedroom. But then writing songs, it’s good to buy a new guitar or go to some place in the woods, or whatever it is, to kind of get out of the routine mind set.

Baltin: For you this is a very global album, what was the time spent that it was written and recorded then? I am assuming it predates COVID then?

Pecknold: It does definitely predate COVID. I started working on this right at the end of the Crack Up tour. September 2018 I started writing songs for this kind of knowing that it can take me a while to write stuff and I wanted to have something out within three years of that album, even though we did a two-year tour. So I had to kind of just keep going after that was done. Um, and so most of the music was done by February of 2020, but I didn’t have any lyrics written and there were a couple gaps in the track listing. It totally pre-dates COVID. I was kind of confused about how to finish it once the pandemic hit, when and how it should come out, or if I should even put the time and money into finishing it at all, but I’m glad that it came together like how it did.

Baltin: So at what point did you make the decision to put it out? Why a surprise release.

Pecknold: It was sometime in June or July, cause the big bottleneck was having lyrics to record and I didn’t have any. And that was just like, “Who knows when these will happen, this could take until the end of fall. This could drag on forever if I can’t get these lyrics done.” But then they just kind of started happening in a way I wasn’t really expecting in June. Once that happened I was like, “Okay great, I have all these lyrics I can record, so I can actually finish this damn album now.” Then in July I had to start thinking about that ‘when it’s going to come out’ and I think a few days before that Taylor Swift album came out and I was like “I just want to put it out a couple weeks after it’s done. If I have to do that on Bandcamp so be it.” And then, that happened and that emboldened me to do that because, she’s obviously much more successful, but someone else publicly releasing music was thinking along those same lines just that this uncertainty will continue for who knows how long. So it was kind of in July that the September release plan came together. And tying it to the equinox felt really good cause it was on a Tuesday. Albums used to come out on Tuesday and I used to love that. And that felt like tying it to something that didn’t have anything to do with politics or with the stresses of 2020, the societal stresses. It’s a gamble, who knows if that was the best idea in the long run but it’s worth it to me to just have it off my mental plate.

Baltin: Was there a turning point where you started to feel like the songs were coming in a direction for you or the lyrics started to manifest themselves?

Pecknold: Yeah, like I said, I went right into making this album right after the last tour and so that was two years of touring. I guess there is some stuff people write about, exhaustion on tour or make albums about that. I didn’t have like a big break up I wanted to write about. I was just kind of making music or thinking about music for like four years straight. So I didn’t feel like I had a lot to write about before the pandemic. But then having this like three-month forced reflection time when there’s this long overdue emphasis on social justice and systemic injustice and class consciousness that was not being paid enough attention to the last few years. And just feeling grateful to have a roof over my head and to not know anyone who’s passed but also feeling an impetus to keep the memory of the dead alive in some way musically and lyrically. I guess all of the lyrical ideas I found for the album were totally just resultant from lock down and the pandemic, and without that I wouldn’t have had anything to really write about.

Baltin: Writing is such a subconscious thing, so were there lyrics that when you go back and look at them that really kind of surprised you?

Pecknold: Yeah, I think there is a lyric in the song “Featherweight” that talks about making life harder for yourself, something I would have definitely done in the past, out of success coming too easy, or stuff like that. I would seek out hardship where I found it just to kind of temper the good luck I’ve had. And so, I wasn’t intending to write a song about that, but the lyric kind of came out, “In all this war I’d forgotten how many men might die for what I’d renounce.” That lyric just flowed perfectly with the melody and rhymed perfectly and it was just the first lyric that came out of nowhere and then kind of set the tone for the rest of it.

Baltin: As you get older, I think for everyone, you get more comfortable with yourself. So do you feel like that’s allowed you to get a little more comfortable with the idea of success or the fact that youve had the success?

Pecknold: I’m super lucky to be able to make music for a living still. I’m not set for life by any means. I want to continue working and doing exciting things and I intend to keep that energy going. As far as shirking success I can see both sides of that where you would say, “Yeah this is uncomfortable.” I’m super lucky I’m not so well known that I can’t go outside in some fame prison, that seems difficult in some ways. But also those people have all the resources in the world and can mitigate that however they want. I don’t have that experience, I’m pretty anonymous. I’m not like embracing success or chasing it but something feels kind of gross about renouncing it or when it’s a really rare opportunity and a lot of people would kill to be in a position to be able to do that.

Baltin: A lot of people who would kill to be in that position have no idea what it comes with. Is there one artist that you look to as having sort of the role model career, the definitive career of that balance of fame and success and everything?

Pecknold: My answer for this, Charles Ives (laughs). Which is kind of a pretentious answer, but he was an insurance broker and a well respected one, and he won awards in the business and that security allowed him to make this insane innovative classical music, kind of in his spare time, a little bit. I think Charles Ives is my weird answer to that.

Baltin: Thats a great answer. I dont know who he is. Now I’m curious to go check him out.

Pecknold: He’s experimental and Americana type classical music from a long time ago.

Baltin: My answer is Tom Waits. He can go tour whenever he wants, hes set from royalties presumably, hes always got a following. But he can go into the market and no one knows who he is other than you and me and music geeks.

Pecknold: That is the absolute dream. And his success with Anti Records is one of many reasons that we wanted to put out the album with them. He’s actually not that different from Charles Ives in my opinion as someone who is kind of taking American tropes and twisting them and making them their own. 1699

Baltin: Are there songs of yours where you go back and they change for you over time? Are there songs of yours that you have the different appreciation for that have changed over the years?

Pecknold: Yeah definitely. As a lyricist I always start with the melody first. I always want to work as much meaning as I can. I want it to be as coherent as a story or as whatever the lyric is. It’s always the melody first. It can be the kind of thing where one word pops out and then the words that rhyme with that word kind of dictate almost how the lyric flows. So sometimes when I am writing lyrics, I don’t feel that in control because I feel like I have so many restrictions on how it needs to be. And I will look back and be like, “Damn that guy, he was really searching or he was really confused,” in a way that I wasn’t really conscious of in the moment writing it. I think there was song on the Crack-Up album called “Cassius” that was really about walking in protest, but I didn’t know how much I could claim that so it was a little bit imagistic. I felt uncomfortable owning it for some reason, because of who I am. I didn’t want to feel appropriative of the moment. And all of that album, all the lyrics for that were written on November/December 2016 and now were four years up from that. So there is a lot of despair in that album that I have to associate with that winter, that fall.

Baltin: I like the way that you put it, where youre talking about it, and youre like, that guy. When you go back and look at stuff, do you feel like it almost is coming from someone else, because its subconscious?

Pecknold: Oh, absolutely. There are things that remain, like a work ethic or a set of standards or certain kinds of tastes, but the subconscious stuff that’s happening with lyrics, that was someone else’s work entirely. There is a whole different set of behind the scenes factors going on now verses then. In that Dylan interview where he is like I can’t access that anymore, the guy that wrote those songs, in that 60 Minutes interview. You just hope that whatever you do have access to remains exciting to you I guess. But yeah, I don’t feel like the same person that made those early albums at all.

Baltin: We talked early on about dealing with success and the different feelings that come with that. Are there artists that youve gotten to speak to or that you look to that you really admire for the way that they, or the advice that theyve given you for how to sort of handle that double edge sword?

Pecknold: I guess I have some contemporaries, like the guys in Grizzly Bear or Dirty Projectors, we’ll kind of talk shop about how our “careers” are going or like what we wanna do, or touring, or recording. We’ll of talk shop every once in a while and check in with each other and that’s kind of helpful I think. There was one festival, this was 10 years ago, where I found myself speaking with Neil Young and Paul McCartney. This was the weirdest triangle of people I’ve obviously ever been in. I said literally nothing. I was just shocked at being in that position of standing next to those two guys, and they were talking about something. And then Paul McCartney was like “Oh hey, great album, keep Fleeting.”He just mentioned it in this cheeky kind of Paul McCartney way I think, just this little pun. But I have thought over the years at times of difficulty, I’ve thought, “Keep Fleeting.” In this kind of like way of if, Paul told me to keep fleeting, I must keep fleeting. So that’s as a weirdly minor event, that he probably doesn’t even remember saying it, but you know, those things have deeper resonance than someone intends.

Baltin: Now being older, having more experience in the industry, what would you ask Paul McCartney and Neil Young hanging out with both of them if you felt more comfortable to contribute to the conversation?

Pecknold: I would just ask how they got through certain phases of their career where they were finding some new thing they wanted to do, but they were a couple years off of their biggest albums. How were they keeping excited and what else was on their mind. I guess I would ask those kinds of questions about that as I am kind of moving into that phase a little bit myself, you know, doing this for 10 or 12 years now. I totally agree that you should never lose your fandom and i think it’s almost better just to be guileless enough to be like, “Hey, I’m a big fan, I love your music.” Rather than try to be kind of like, Yeah, were peers. Or to ingratiate yourself with someone because you want something from them, that always feels gross to me, and I try to avoid that as much as possible.

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