Jonathan Meiburg on Loma, Dog Solos & ‘Uneasy Listening’
Jonathan Meiburg is a renaissance man. He entered TIDAL’s HQ talking about the book he’s currently working on about a rare kind of falcons called caracaras…and left brainstorming a screenplay about German geologists hiding out during WWII.
He also spoke a bit about collaborating with Okkervil River on their upcoming album, In the Rainbow Rain, and busted out a passable imitation of former President Barack Obama. In the middle there, Meiburg (lead singer of Shearwater), discussed his new project, Loma, a collaboration between him and Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski of Cross Record.
The band’s self-titled debut is a contained ecosystem of an album, a cottage in the middle of a rainstorm, a greenhouse at night. In short, it’s simply lovely, and you should definitely set aside an hour of solitude this coming weekend to drink it all in.
Over the course of the recording, Duszynski and Cross divorced, but no evidence of the rift mars the gorgeous album. The feeling of loss, for sure, weaves through the tracklist, but it’s not a jarring one. It’s all part of some kind of otherworldly, slightly troubling dream.
Read on for some of Meiburg’s thoughts on Loma and the art of “uneasy listening.”
On birds and music… It’s kind of a misconception that I write a bunch of songs about birds. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t! There are actual birds [on the record], though. The house where we recorded the album was out in the countryside outside Austin in the hill country, which has these sort of low, rolling limestone hills covered in a low, oak, pinyon, juniper forest and semi-desert. It’s also a place that has violent thunderstorms a lot in the summertime — and a lot of wildlife and ranches out there. A number of exotic ranches. So you’ll be driving along on a little dirt road and suddenly you’re see a bunch of zebras.
The house that we were in was on this property that’s not a ranch, but surrounded by ranches. Just over the hill from it there’s an aviary where they breed and rescue parrots. They have hundreds of them. So every morning and every night — just like parrots do all over in the world in the wild — they all freak out.
So, first thing in the morning, the roosters start up from the farm on one side of the house, and then parrots will start imitating the roosters. It was this chorus of all these unearthly sounds. In the song ‘White Glass,’ there’s a moment where you hear this thunder and these weird bird cries — and those are the parrots.
On leaving natural sounds in… There were two dogs named Ghost and Bobo. I was sort of worried, because they were always passing through the house. If you ever try to make a record around dogs or small children, they’re just going to make sounds on the record and you’re always getting rid of them. So we decided that whatever sounds the dogs made, they would stay in the record no matter what. And every time the dogs appeared on the record, we loved it. There’s, like, a dog solo on ‘Sun Dogs.’ I love that moment. It kind of made my hair stand on end.
On ‘uneasy listening’… That was our name for [this album’s genre]. For me, the music that I respond to the most or the art that I respond to the most in general always has different currents running through it, some of which are in opposition to one another. There’s something beautiful but something ugly at the same time. When something’s quiet, it’s also unsettling. There’s never just one single thing.
On making room for the listener… My favorite records almost seem like they’re listening to you. Like there’s some way that you’re involved. Music that doesn’t seem like that, that could be happening whether or not you’re there, doesn’t seem as interesting.
On collaboration… The three of us, even though we had been on the road together for a year, I wouldn’t say that we knew each other all that well. [Cross Record] are both very self-contained people, so I knew I respected them as artists and I was really interested in their process, but I didn’t know what it was. Which is part of why I wanted to work with them. I wanted to find out. … When you’re collaborating with someone there’s almost this third person projected who is doing all the decision-making. … It felt like playing with an Ouija board [working with Emily and Dan].
On his band members’ divorce… When I was trying to write lyrics for the record, I was just reaching out with my antenna, trying to figure out what’s happening. I was surprised when Dan called me and told me that they were splitting up. But when I look back at the lyrics, it seems maybe not as surprising.
I wrote most of the lyrics, but it was really me thinking about Emily or an imaginary version of Emily and what I would imagine her singing. I had never written for another person to sing before.
‘Shadow Relief’ was the only one I wrote after they split up. I was thinking kind of about that state when you’ve just broken up with someone… It’s devastating, but you also feel very alive at the same time. There’s sort of this tension between the person you’re going to be and the person you have been, and you’re being pulled in both directions by those things that you aren’t anymore and haven’t yet become.
‘I Don’t Want Children,’ I feel very proud of that song, but it was also the weirdest process for a song that I’ve ever experienced. … It was very special. I was a little worried. I felt like I was walking out on a limb there as far as the lyrics and whether she’d be comfortable singing them or not, but she liked it. The emotional energy that she put into it made the song go from 2D to 3D.
As you get older, when you’re not in your early 20s anymore, the idea of children is not just a theoretical idea; it becomes very real and it’s something that you have to reckon with. Despite the title of the song, it’s not a manifesto. It’s about how difficult it is to think your way into that subject… or out of it. It’s a love song, really. I was thrilled that she was willing to go there. If I had to pick one song to live on past me, it would be that one.
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