Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold Tells Us What Went Into Their Surprise Fourth Album, ‘Shore’

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Of all the qualities that make a Fleet Foxes song instantly recognizable, Robin Pecknold’s voice is chief among them. So when their unexpected fourth album, Shore, opens with an unknown vocalist, the effect is almost shocking. The two-minute intro, “Wading In Waist-High Water,” is sung by relative newcomer, 21-year-old Uwade Akhere, and it’s nothing short of majestic; a sweet folk lullaby erupts into thundering, joyous triumph before winding back down again, a mythic emotional crescendo, like finding a baby in a river. It sets the tone for an album purposefully designed to warm and comfort the listener, immediately establishing that though Fleet Foxes may be back, the band is continually growing and evolving.

Crack-Up was a super personal album,” Pecknold explained over the phone in an interview late last week. “I had a really specific idea of what I wanted it to be, and the songs were from a pretty specific emotional time. On this record, I wanted the first line I sang to be for someone else, like ‘For Richard Swift.’” So, that dedication to the late indie-rock icon is when Robin’s voice first appears, singing this lyric to open the album’s highlight, “Sunblind,” which also happens to be the single greatest entry into the Fleet Foxes catalogue to date.

Both an homage to the great artists who have passed before their time, and a distillation of the joy that fills one perfect day, “Sunblind” represents how grief and despair can double back and lead us toward the profound act of living simply with all our might. Despite this tender sentiment, there’s nothing naïve about Shore — a label that was perhaps correctly assigned to early Fleet Foxes material, and also part of what made it great — and these 15 tracks are the work of an artist taking in everything dark and corrupt about this year, and choosing to craft an artifact of hope. Though the majority of the music was composed and recorded in 2019 and early 2020 before the pandemic, nearly all of the lyrics were written as recently as June of 2020.

This means that musically, the album is as meticulous as Pecknold’s perfectionist streak has ever driven him to be, but lyrically, it has a new sense of openness. From the litany of invocations on “Sunblind” to the aching Neon Bible melodrama of “Can I Believe You?” and the loping determination of “Maestranza,” Shore is more aware of the current moment than any other Fleet Foxes album, but speaks to it with hard-earned wisdom and a sense of respect for the necessary dismantling 2020 ushered in. Recorded across five different studios, and engineered and mixed by Beatriz Artola, who Pecknold describes as “essential” to the record, this fourth album is a triumph from an artist who is rarely, if ever, satisfied with his own offering.

Perhaps he, too, can finally dig his feet into the sand: Shore is a fine epic, a mesmerizing continuation of a band who helped define the 2010s, and proof that, for many more decades, Pecknold’s voice will be an imperative entry into the American songwriting canon — whether he’s the one singing, or not. Along with the album and in lieu of formal music videos, a 16 mm road movie of the same name by Kersti Jan Werdal is available to watch here. Below is a condensed, edited version of a nearly hour-long conversation we had about the circumstances surrounding Shore and beyond.

You have such a signature voice that’s instantly recognizable. But on Shore, someone else’s voice opens the record. Why did you decide to make that shift?

I wanted the first lyric to be this outward looking thing. Then, I had this “Wading In Waist-High Water” song that I didn’t know how to sing. Because I had the lyrics and the melody I liked, but it felt wrong with my voice. Once a friend sent me a clip of Uwade [Akhere] singing, I was obsessed with the tone of her voice and how easy and textured it is. It felt like having someone else open it up, having someone else sing at the top of the album felt like an extension of the ‘For Richard Swift’ line. These other people at the very top to establish that as a theme or an overall feeling on the record.

How did you get connected with Uwade?

A friend of mine just sent me an Instagram clip of her covering the Fleet Foxes song, “Mykonos.” That was the first I’d heard of her, and then they said she was a Columbia student but doing a semester abroad at Oxford, and we happened to be recording in France. She was happy to take the train to come record with us for a day. She’s amazing, she’s a really cool person.

“Sunblind” is an homage to so many artists from the past, and it also feels fitting to have Kevin Morby singing on it with you because he’s another legend of our current time. When did you decide to have him involved in that song?

There was a moment when I thought it would be cool to have a gang vocal with a ton of people singing on it, but then that started to seem a little too “We Are The World” or something. But I really wanted Kevin on there, so I asked him just a few weeks ago. One of the small upsides of the lockdown situation is that everyone has the home recording situation pretty dialed in. And Kevin was really close with Richard Swift, Joshua Jaeger played drums on this song, and Homer Steinweiss plays drums on this song as well — and he played drums with Richard in The Arcs. I wanted to involve people who knew those guys, and that were a little younger than me. Mentioning a bunch of people that had passed that were our heroes, and then to include the guys that were younger than me, in a way keeping that memory alive.

Your lyrics are often so imagist or opaque, and this song with all the very specific name references felt different. Why was that important to you?

On Crack-Up, those lyrics meant a lot to me, but I was a little bit afraid of what I was talking about, so I was couching it and obscuring it. I thought for this time, I wanted it to be really specific lyrically. And I couldn’t get more specific than people’s names, and then use that as a jumping-off point for exploring different specific, clear themes.

Well I love the song, it’s probably my favorite song off Shore.

Me too! Thank you. It was the last one that came together and I was really happy that it did.

Really? It feels like the center of it.

I know. It totally is the center of it, to me. It was a huge question mark right up until a few weeks ago and I finally unlocked it. It was one of those things where we’ve been working on this album for a year and spending all this time and money, but this wasn’t there? And it’s so central to it, now. The same with “Featherweight,” that one came together super late too, and it was like wow, I can’t believe this was missing. We were excited about this album before but all these really key pieces were missing.

“Featherweight” was the first song you shared with fans and everyone off this record, in a livestream. Why was that the one you wanted to introduce the album with?

Part of it was it was just the easiest one to come across well with that limited setup. And I knew it was going to be easy enough to sing it in one live take and not go terribly wrong. That’s an important song for me on the record, too. Because of the melancholy nature of the music, I think the lyric could’ve gone that way, but to have the lyric be a little more about gratitude, or letting go of old personal battles, with all these descending melodies. I had a big roadblock with lyrics on this record because I wasn’t able to find the point of view, and that was the first song lyrically that I found the point of view for that bled into the rest of the lyrics.

I almost didn’t think it was you singing it. At least on the record, your vocals sound really different, even rhythmically, than you usually sing.

The lyric is so much about letting go of grasping for something and trying to find an ease. So I wanted the vocal to be completely affectless. I tried to sing it as quietly as I could and as easily as I could, and then layered that four or five times, trying to match it perfectly to each other. Not harmonizing, just singing in unison. It was a different character, trying to express no strife.

It reminds me of Elliott Smith.

Yeah, Elliott Smith, or Arthur Russell. Or honestly, like Billie Eilish, how those vocal productions sound.

Well I know that Beatriz Artola had a huge impact on the album as the engineer and mixer. I’d love to hear more about how you guys started working together.

She was essential. Absolutely essential. She worked on Crack-Up for one day when we recorded strings, but I didn’t know her before that. And then she mixed some live stuff from the Crack-Up tour, and I always thought it came out really powerful and strong-sounding. She was always so fun to work with and I just really liked her as a person. I wanted Shore to be engineered from the ground up by a professional. She ended up being a great sounding board for ideas and has an incredibly encyclopedic memory.

When we would record, she was taking notes of every tape we were doing of every musician we recorded. She has all of these notebooks full of her notes on the tapes, and which were the good ones and which one had minor differences. So this last month when we were mixing, we were able to refer to her notes and pull up old performances from eight months ago, and she knew exactly what performance I was talking about, and where it was in the session. We were on a similar wavelength all the time of wanting to work really hard, and what tracks were made where. It was a great experience.

The entire music industry is dominated by men, but I’ve interviewed some female engineers and mixers in the past about how that’s even more true on their side of things. Do you have any thoughts on that aspect?

One thing I want to address, whenever there’s a chance to tour again, is the kind of boys club nature of touring. Even if you love everyone on the tour, if it’s mostly men it’s just going to take on a certain tenor. It’s just a little fratty. So for me, when Beatriz would show up, sometimes she would come out to help with a livestream at a festival, it was always a breath of fresh air to see her on tour. I want to have a more diverse set of energies on tour. But for Beatriz, all of her technical abilities and even her personality, she’s the best in the world. That’s true regardless of her gender.

What was the significance of releasing the album on the Autumn Equinox? And without any notice?

It’s good to get a three-month lead sometimes, it’s good to get people’s attention. I’m hopeful that we can get the word out about the album in this short period of time. It just feels like a good moment to try a no BS “here you go” vibe. I feel sick of reading the news a little bit, and I’m keeping up with what’s going on, but it’s not the least exhausting part of my day. So I didn’t want to feel like I was trying to garner attention over a three-month album cycle. Especially when the album was ready… and it’s not really a winter album. It’s kind of a summer-to-fall album, and I would like to capture that moment of transition.

And I also didn’t want to sit on it for a year and wait until next summer. I was prepared to just Bandcamp it, and then Anti— was super supportive of the idea and came onboard to help with it and they’ve been awesome. The first line of the album is “summer all over” and the last line is “now the quarter moon is out,” and that’s the phase the moon will be entering after the equinox. And those were coincidences, but I was in this heightened period of taking coincidences seriously. So It became inevitable to me in some way.

Recording for this album began at Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond studio in upstate New York. Obviously he works with so many artists, but has been something of a catalyst for new albums from both you and Taylor Swift this year. How would you describe his presence in the music industry?

Yeah, and he makes such great music solo, and with Justin, and that whole team together. They’re really actualizing the promise of this post-genre internet world. Bridging gaps. Being from Seattle, every aesthetic choice was politicized. And it’s cool to see the benefits of not thinking in those terms, and how many different things he’s been able to have his hand in, and genres he’s been able to meld. He was super sweet to let us use the studio, I don’t know him super well but I’m very, very grateful to him for that.

Both this record and Folklore came with almost no announcement, and were finished in quarantine. I think it’s hard for anyone to talk about modern folk music without referencing Fleet Foxes. Do you think about the impact your music might’ve had on Taylor?

Oh, I wonder if any? I don’t know. I’m not sure, I wouldn’t presume to know she’s even heard it. And I love what they did. Because, listening to that album it’s this cool other thing. There’s something placeless about the tracks Aaron produced, and there’s obviously her perspective is very singular and no one can copy that. It’s cool, it’s a real meeting of the minds that created something totally distinct. Because it’s not just like a folk album, it’s something else.

People tend to have really strong feelings about orchestral folk or this style of folk music. Some have a very negative reaction that’s rooted in stereotypes, or often, not even listening to the music. What do you think is the biggest misconception about Fleet Foxes?

The biggest misconception? I think it might be easier for me to even discuss this idea of orchestral folk. That reminds me of listening back to Shore with Homer Steinweiss for the first time. He said “I love when an album sounds like a symphony but you’re just using rock instruments.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.” Because I haven’t really used strings, there’s some horns and voices, but there’s this fine line to walk. Once you ask a guy to do an orchestral arrangement and you hire the London Symphony Orchestra, then it’s just that. There’s something more charming and grounded or a bit more of a magic trick to pull that off without using those resources. Even if you could have access to them.

Even just a clip of Brian Wilson layering his voice seventeen times until it’s this whole world to escape into. That’s super egalitarian and it doesn’t cost a dime, there’s nothing bougie about that. Pulling off really complex arrangements or really interesting sounds, but not dropping fifty grand on some insane session is also slightly egalitarian to me. Music that felt accomplishable to me always resonated more. Accomplishable in terms of when I was a teenager, I could be good enough at guitar in my room to pull off Elliott Smith and learn these songs. I think being from the Northwest, that kind of thing will always mean more to me.

It was almost surprising to me when I realized this was only your fourth album. How are you feeling now about the entire Fleet Foxes discography and how Shore fits into that?

It used to seem like a flex to me if it was like a Talk Talk vibe. I used to think about it in those terms. After Helplessness Blues I was like well maybe that was my music career, and it was kind of an awesome experience. I’ll come back and think one day about this wild time where I made this. But now, I’m like “I can’t believe there’s only four albums, this has been my entire adult life and it’s like, three hours of content. I’m so lazy.” [Laughs]

I really do write a lot more than I’ve been able to release. After the first album, what I thought those releases needed to be really limited my output. I don’t really have that concern anymore, and it feels like I can move into the future in a much more productive, prolific way, and not have some of those same hang-ups I used to. And I think I’m young enough that I’m not delusional to think that I’ll still have some good collaborations and work left to do.

Shore is out now via Anti-. Get it here.