Fleet Foxes’ new album Shore seemed to drop out of the sky last week, a release timed to the autumnal equinox. But it turns out that the process that Robin Pecknold, the band’s artistic driving force, had to go through to birth the album’s 15 songs was anything but sudden.
Speaking to American Songwriter a few days after the album, Fleet Foxes’ fourth album and its first since 2017’s Crack-Up, was surprisingly unveiled, Pecknold spoke about how he needed a change of perspective when he first began writing the music to Shore all the way back in 2018. “Coming out of the two-year tour from Crack-Up, I was pretty tired but I wanted to keep working on music,” he says. “I guess for the first time I started writing songs that would just be my music that I could use to cheer me up or give me energy, and less music that was matching the mood I was in. I was just thinking it would take a year to make this thing and, based on how tired I was, it needed to be a more hopeful attitude. Trying to make something that’s optimistic that feels earned and doesn’t feel cheesy.”
To get into that headspace, Pecknold began immersing himself in, and making playlists of, classic artists that he felt captured the warmer vibes he had in mind. “I think that became an interesting creative challenge and required really learning a lot of lessons from music that has that feeling to me or that resonates with me as true, and not corny, even if it’s cheery,” he explains. “It’s quite easy in some ways to make something that’s moody. It’s not that hard to hide behind that, and there’s not a lot of vulnerability there. But I would learn more about myself creatively if the project was optimistic.”
The optimism began to wear off, however, when the summer of 2020 rolled around and Pecknold still didn’t have any lyrics for his musical compositions. He took to taking long drives through upstate New York to clear his head. On one such drive, the words to “Featherweight” came to him, broke the logjam and set the tone for the rest of the record.
“Before that I had no lyrics and I was really stressed about it, not knowing how to write words that matched the music I was making that didn’t put it over the top or dull its impact, that just felt like the right accompaniment,” Pecknold explains. “With ‘Featherweight,’ the words just materialized line after line like I was just watching it happen. They were fitting this melody that I’d had for a year or something, and just perfectly matching a lot of the gratitude and acceptance I’d been feeling lately, in terms of having a roof over my head and of not being waylaid by the pandemic and the decimation of the music business.”
“I guess I was feeling that my problems seemed small compared to what’s going on. That’s a better place to live mentally regardless. ‘Featherweight’ was the first one where that sentiment was being expressed in the lyrics. And that made it much easier to carry that sentiment over into songs for which I needed to write lyrics.”
Part of that gratitude extended into songs like “Sunblind” and the title track, which actually make direct lyrical references to some of Pecknold’s musical heroes. He says that was something that might not have happened in the early days of Fleet Foxes, when the band’s breakout success with their 2008 debut and Pecknold’s ability to construct stunning vocal harmonies drew a boatload of critical comparisons to acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Beach Boys.
“I remember putting out the first Fleet Foxes record and being bent out of shape anytime anyone would make a comparison to anyone else,” he says. “I was very sensitive to that, sensitive to the fact that as a young person, I was very beholden to influence, almost in a way that was beyond my control. The thing you’re enamored with, when it’s showing up in what you’re doing when you’re younger, there’s just an element of impersonation until you figure out what you want to do. I was very anti-influence on something like Crack-Up.”
“On this one, I was coming back around and thinking about influence, not as a negative thing, but as a form of carrying a cultural memory forward. Keeping someone alive and keeping someone immortal who has meant a lot to you, just in this oral tradition of mythmaking or telling legends about people. I guess I was just more comfortable with that because I knew that, in the end, I’d be combining everything and ending up with something that was to some degree distinctive. And that they could be honored and highlighted in that way more explicitly.”
Pecknold also found it OK to get a little tongue-in-cheek for one of the first times in his career on the winking “Young Man’s Game.” “The last two Fleet Foxes records, I was really self-conscious making them and I liked them, but there was a certain bar that every song had to pass in terms of not being goofy or silly,” he admits. “They’re kind of serious. There are serious elements to this record too, but it felt almost like a kind of therapeutic exercise to let a song be silly. And to have the lyrics touch on why. Thinking of that kind of self-consciousness as a young man’s game and maybe it’s ok to just let your hair down and let a song have some humor. You can still be a serious artist if you’re making something funny.”
Pecknold created the tracks in collaboration with recording and mixing engineer Beatriz Artola, who helped him craft the engaging mélange of sounds on Shore as well as acting as a crucial sounding board. “That was always a constant test, if she (Artola) was tapping her foot or her head was bobbing,” Pecknold says of how he decided on certain takes of songs.
To capture what he heard in his head, Pecknold studio-hopped from New York to Paris to Los Angeles, at least until the pandemic ended all that. Certain songs have an undeniable Pet Sounds/Smile vibe with their chamber-pop experimentation, and a sample of Brian Wilson counting in a song on “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman” only adds to the effect.
Pecknold embraced that aesthetic. “There’s something kind of punk to me about Brian Wilson making whole words just with his voice,” he says. “Fitting all this complexity into rock instrumentation. That’s always been the North Star for me. Make it as lush as you can but don’t bust out the London Symphony Orchestra, because then it just becomes that and it’s less fun somehow.”
Even with the buoyant music, Pecknold’s narrators often find themselves at a turning point; “No time to get it wrong,” he implores in the Steely Dan-ish “Maestranza.” But he claims that Shore is more about leaning into that state than raging against it. “It’s capturing the moment of acceptance, where it’s still kind of fresh,” he says. “Needing to acknowledge what’s been overcome, more so than maybe the next album that might be more squarely in a different lane and less from that liminal border state.”
Pecknold isn’t through with Shore; he still plans to include songs written and recorded with members of Fleet Foxes’ touring band, who were absent throughout the recording process for the initial 15 tracks. They’ll be part of a planned expanded edition down the road. And he can’t deny how much this record means to him, both for the circumstances in which it was made and the emotions that it expresses.
“This one is super-special to me, for sure, where it was a real confluence of things,” Pecknold says. “I think Crack-Up caught (drummer) Chris Bear’s ear more than Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes second album, released in 2011) would have, so he was receptive to drumming on this one. And then having access to these studios where I always wanted to work. The only thing I felt like this album needed to be in the world was of a certain standard of quality. There was no narrative goal that I had in mind. It wasn’t a comeback album. It wasn’t the follow-up to the successful debut. It was, ‘Oh great, this can just be an album of songs that I’ll work as hard as I can on and make as good as I can.’ There were no conceptual roadblocks.”
“And then when the pandemic hit, and it was clear that there were so many more important things to be talking and thinking about, that contextualized the album in a positive way to me because it seemed less serious. The lack of immediate live possibilities opened up some different creative doors that were going to be fun to explore. The album draws with gratitude on elements of all three of the previous three Fleet Foxes records, and also finds some new ground. So it feels a little like a culmination to me in certain ways, a companion to Crack-Up, and it leaves a fairly clear horizon from where I’m standing right now.”
The bright and hopeful album, released via Anti-, is available to stream and for physical pre-order HERE