Natural History: Jonathan Meiburg reveals Shearwater's cover album

Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg explains why it took a twist on an old concept to convince him to finally record an album of cover versions

Feature by Gary Kaill | 19 Nov 2013

“I would send the tracks off and they would come back embellished with all these incredible things. They were exactly what I had hoped for, which is to say, they were not what I would have predicted at all.” Jonathan Meiburg is in midtown Manhattan, New York City (“I’m trying to find a quiet corner to talk to you – it’s quite a challenge!”) and is explaining why he decided it was finally time for Shearwater to record Fellow Travellers, an album of cover versions, a side road that had always appealed but had never been a feasible option until now.

“Like a lot of ideas, it started very small,” he continues. “I imagined doing a 7" with a band that we’d toured with, perhaps, and maybe covering each others’ songs. Then I thought about a series of 7"s, and before I knew it, it was a whole record.” An added twist to an intriguing list of song choices is that the artists being covered were invited to contribute – but not to their own tracks. This presented all manner of logistical obstacles. “The technology to allow us to be able to do this has been available for years, obviously, but it’s the first time I’ve had people actually send in tracks via email, and I was nervous about how that might work. But that was really the only way I was going to get tracks from the likes of Clinic, who are in Liverpool, or David (Thomas Broughton), who is in Pyongyang: I was surprised at how well it worked. It was really a lot of fun. And so I then had to figure out how to take these interesting performances and mix them into the songs. I really enjoyed it. Part of the reason we decided to go ahead and release it as a full LP, was that, ultimately, it was just so much fun.”

Fellow Travellers is Shearwater’s ninth album in twelve years. Their first, 2001’s The Dissolving Room was intended to act as an outlet for sounds and textures that didn’t fit his then band Okkervil River. Over a decade on and they’re still very much here. Their most recent outing, 2012’s Animal Joy, confirmed that while their focus might shift, and band members come and go, their continued striving remains a given.

"I would take extreme exception to the idea that we’re an Americana act. I’ve been trying to get out of that ghetto for many years” – Jonathan Meiburg

To the casual observer, a covers album seems like an easy shot. Not having to actually write any songs, for one. Meiburg is refreshingly honest on that score: “Starting a record without having to write the songs is like starting half way up the mountain: it does make it so much easier. Then you’re simply left with how to interpret the songs, how to arrange them, try to make them into something that suits your own aesthetic and voice. Of course, it goes against this rather old-fashioned idea that you have to write all the songs that you sing: that in itself is a relatively new phenomenon.”

In this age of talent shows and karaoke, we’ve become too easily attached to the idea of writing your own material being a worthier pursuit, and yet some of the best singers of the pop age have sung songs written by others. “Yeah, absolutely. I always think of Nina Simone. She did write some of her own songs but not very many and yet when she sings a song she owns it so completely and her versions are almost definitive to me. She managed to pull meanings out of them that the original writers didn’t intend or know were there. She could, and did, take a song like Kum Ba Ya or My Sweet Lord, songs that don’t seem like there’s much to ‘em, and really make something.”

Fellow Travellers is nothing if not daring. In place of artists and songs safe for interpretation, Meiburg opted for the work of friends and bands they’d toured with and had grown to admire. “It was fun to limit the choices in that way. I said, let’s think about the bands that we’ve toured with, that we’ve seen play these songs, because I wanted to give people a window into the other side of the stage with this record. Touring is very solitary in a way, and these are the people you’re in it with together, so I kind of felt a bond with all of them. I had all of their repertoire to choose from, which was wonderful. I could pick songs that would fit together. The record, like all of our records, it’s very consistent as a whole, I think. It features some very broken characters. Everyone in it is somehow very flawed: from the very first line 'There’s a kink in the pattern / Did you do the right thing?' (from their tender take on Jesca Hoop’s Our Only Sun) to the end of Your Fucked Up Life (by The Baptist Generals), which is a song about accepting someone with all of their flaws, with fondness and with good humour.”

Meiburg is genuinely enthusiastic about the colour others have added to the album. Jesca Hoop (“Oh she’s fantastic. Very, very talented”) sings on tracks by St. Vincent and Wye Oak. David Thomas Broughton, never one to make life easy for himself, sent in recordings of bird songs he’d made in North Korea and the Falklands. Meiburg’s admiration knows few bounds: “I watched David night after night when we toured together and his show is never the same twice: truly incredible.”

But it’s the inclusion of Coldplay’s Hurts Like Heaven that might raise a few eyebrows. Shearwater opened for them on their Viva La Vida tour in 2008. Meiburg rejects the idea that the world’s biggest band and an act perceived unfairly as being part of the Americana scene might not be an obvious mix: “That’s interesting. I would take extreme exception to the idea that we’re an alt.folk or Americana act. I’ve been trying to get out of that ghetto for many years – we don’t belong there.”

Anyone who’s followed the band’s development over the last decade wouldn’t question their lyrical, expansive sound being suitable for opening a stadium show. Those who saw them play on last year’s extensive Animal Joy tour would be in no doubt at all. “On the last tour we did with Animal Joy, we were loud as hell. For some of that record we were touring with Dinosaur Jr, so we really had to make a huge racket. Anyone who’d turned up hoping for a folk show would have been confused at best.” He pauses and laughs. “And perhaps enraged.”

"Coldplay were actually very inspiring,” says Meiburg, returning to the subject of the band’s time with the ‘circus,’ as he subsequently described it. “They were working far harder than they had to. And watching them rehearse for the first night of their tour for that record, they were really sweating it, trying to figure out how to do a show for 20,000 people, how to make it interesting, how to make it live up to peoples’ idea of what their show should be like. They had moving stages, lasers, confetti, trampolines and it was just so complicated, and it all just hung on them giving an incredibly committed performance in a very strange and artificial setting. I was really impressed by them.”

With Fellow Travellers in the can and primed for a November release, attention turns to an album of new material. Talk of the future animates and excites Meiburg. The UK can expect to see the band return next year (“we should be over there late April, early May,” he reveals) but it’s the content and structure of the live show that’s proving troublesome: “I’m still trying to figure it out exactly because I think a show of covers would be a bit strange. We’re already about two months into working on the new record and so I imagine we’ll play a combination of songs from Fellow Travellers, some of the new ones and a few old ones.” It sounds like a nice headache to have. “Absolutely.” Not for the first time, he reflects and laughs. “You know, people like to watch artists suffer! It’s a perverse thing in audiences.”

Fellow Travellers is released via Sub Pop on 25 Nov