Jonathan Meiburg, Shearwater

It's a telling indication of the depth of Jonathan Meiburg's experience that if you Google his name and search for images, you'll see a lot of birds.  As any professional writer will tell you, what makes for powerful writing is engagement with the world. Good writers engage with their environment and seek out novel ways to interact with it.  Of course, mere interaction with the environment isn't necessarily an indicator that you'll write well about it; to do so, you have to engage and reflect on that engagement. Ernest Hemingway experienced a couple of wars and lots of bullfighting, but it's how he wrote about those experiences that made him great.

All this is to say that this is why Meiburg, the Shearwater singer and songwriter, writes such quality music.  His experience is vast: he's been to the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, an Aboriginal settlement in Australia, the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, and Baffin Island in Canada.  His masters degree is in geography, and his thesis (which I am reading now) is entitled The Biogeography of Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis). Not surprisingly, Meiburg is an avid birder.  As you'll read below, he spends a considerable amount of time not only writing about the natural environment but thinking about his place in it with keen metacognition.

Read my interview with Jonathan Meiburg after the video. A special thanks to Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, who introduced me to Jonathan and affectiontely told us two "nerds" to go at it.

Since you decided to do this interview on a walk, no doubt you thought that it would make for better answers.  Is walking or exercising a part of your creative process? 

I'm certainly better when I walk. This last year we played a show for Matador's 25th anniversary celebration, and I went out a week early to hike in Utah. That was spectacular, and I'd like to think I got a lot of song ideas that I can directly attribute to that time.  That whole experience worked in my favor when I churned out a bunch of songs a month later.

It was a lot about just being in the moment.  The more concentrated and immediate presence you can bring into your life, the more things are likely to come up from down under and make themselves known.  It's all about living in the moment, not reflecting on the past or thinking about what's ahead.  It's about just recognizing where you are.  Physical activity is wonderful for that because it focuses the mind so quickly without working on it.

How much revision do you to your drafts of song lyrics?

There's something about songs that if I commit the lyrics to the page or the structure of a song to the recording too soon, it fires, like putting something in a kiln.  It can be really difficult to dislodge later, or amend.  I am leery of committing to a final shape either lyrically or musically until I feel good about it.  I have to hold it lightly.  I have a lot of trouble making revisions to a song once I've given it its first form. If I commit too soon, it's too brittle.

When you revise, what do you do to make lyrics better?

The most important thing in a song is how it sounds, and that goes for the words too.  Even if something reads well on the page, sometimes it won't sing right, so I'll opt for words that aren't as good from a poetic perspective, but that sing so much better because the vowels and consonants are in the right place.  You can stretch a note out over a word in a way that you couldn't with any other word.  That's why words and music are so inseparable in songwriting.

But poetry is largely about how the words sound.  I tell songwriters that reading poetry is a good tool.

That's very true. What makes songs and poems so enjoyable are those sudden moments of epiphany.  With music you can emphasize those things in ways that you can't otherwise.  They both get boring when you can tell what is coming up too easily.  But both are delightful whey they abound in unexpected and sudden combinations.  Rhyme still remains important in songs, though I'm not sure why.

Take me through your writing process.

Usually I need a clue from an instrument or a sound. It has to start with something sonic.  I can't start with a concept or idea of what a song is supposed to be about. But I don't need much to go on.  From there, I see where that keys into a feeling that's worrying me or won't leave me alone. 

Every song is an exploration of an ineffable emotional state, because if I could explain it, I wouldn't have to write a song about it.  I can only express it fully by using every tool I have: song, words, and instruments.  Once I've identified the feeling I want the song to live in, I think about what phrases come to mind through that musical phrase. Sometimes it takes a long time, and I'll just walk around hearing that phrase of words repeated over and over in my head.

It sounds like the idea for the song comes from the music.

Yeah, the music unlocks the way to express something maybe I didn't even know I was thinking about.  Over the course of working on a record, there's a complex but immediate emotional state that the whole record comes to embody. 

Are there places that you go to write that are especially effective?

I try not to get too precious about that, since I'm in so many places and it's easy to use that as an excuse for not writing.  One thing I've found lately is that I'll have a few ideas that I've recorded into my laptop, just musical phrases. Even if they aren't developed, I'll work with another musician in the band, bring these ideas, and something always happens in that space that makes the song more real.  From that, I build some momentum and confidence in the idea, and after those explorations I listen to those recordings with that person in the band, and then I'm able to put a structure of the song together with the lyrics, which usually come last.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer by working with others?

I'm desperate for an editor.  For this next record, a couple of people are going to fill that role.  Somehow in the process of doing the last record, I think I went to a place that not a lot of people could have an emotional connection to.  There's something in me that resists talking about myself in songs in any direct way, addressing my own life.  There's enough confessional songwriting out there.  The concept of romantic love, for example, has been appropriately treated in song. I have nothing to add.  This is always what I've thought, and I think that idea led me to a place that was too conceptual and bloodless.  For our next record, I really need to attack that, and come up with and idea that's messier and more vital.  More hazardous for me, personally.

photo courtesy SubPop website

photo courtesy SubPop website

So writing in a way that connects more with your audience?

You can drive yourself crazy doing that.  Jeff Mangum once told me that if it's meaningful to me, it will be meaningful to others like me.  Of course, that doesn't guarantee that there are many people like me.  Laughs.  But I think that if I go after things that are the most emotionally meaningful to me, I'll find common ground with many others. 

Switching gears, this is the academic in me talking, but how do you think being an English major helped you when you were writing your thesis?

I don't think I would have been interested in that bird if it weren't such a hilarious animal.  They are social, intelligent, incredibly rare, and without fear of people.  They approach the world in much the same way people do, in that they always seek out new experiences.  Even things that have no food value; Darwin talks about how they haul away compasses, pots, things like that. To encounter an animal like that, in such a remote part of the world, that approaches the world in a way that was so recognizable, was a riddle I just couldn't pass up.

What I wanted to do was write a piece that conveyed my own wonder and enthusiasm with this animal to someone with only a mild interest in birds.  It wasn't written for geographers or ornithologists.  But I also assumed that the reader was not hostile. Laughs.  That's important in songwriting as well.  You have to assume that the audience wants to hear you.   I'm not writing for my audience.  When I write, I trust that what matters to me will matter to someone else.  And that if I go at them with honestly, it will ring true for all of us. 

I recently interviewed Andy McCluskey of OMD, and he told me that he goes to art galleries to get inspired.  He's very active when it comes to inspiration, and he thinks you have to seek it out. How do you feel about that?

First of all, their album Dazzle Ships is amazing.  I should be more active than I've been, because I find that when I'm active I almost always find it.  Sometimes that's through listening to music, but only some music really speaks to me.  I had a pretty important experience last night, when I went to hear Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.  The conceit is that he's walking around an exhibition of paintings by a friend who had died.  It's one beautiful melody after another, and it plays the orchestra from the lowest note to the top note.  He wrote it for the piano.  It's a template for how music should be: the sudden dynamic shifts, the sudden left turns of feeling and tone.  All of it in this thematic unity.  I hear distant echoes of that in some of my songwriting, and it made me realize how much of it has reverberating in me without me knowing.

Are you a disciplined writer?  Has academic writing made you more disciplined?

I am because there are deadlines, budgets, and a band who depends on what I create.  All that creates momentum that pulls me along.  That forces discipline.  

What's one big difference between songwriting and other kinds of writing that you do?

With songwriting, you can't jump ahead in the process.  When you are writing in another genre, you know you have a section you must cover, but if you don't feel like writing it at that moment, you can set it aside and move ahead to another part.  Then you can stitch the piece together when you are done.  You can't really do that with songwriting.  You have to work from beginning to end. As with some other types of writing, though, I very much write with the intent of evoking an image.

What's the first part of a song that you write?

Often a title will get me going.  It's fun to write a title, then write a song that fits a title. 

How did you get started with that method?

When I was out in the Galapagos on field research, there were trees called Palo Santos. And I thought, "What a wonderful title for a record. I wonder what that record would sound like." The meaning of it grew until I started thinking about how music can relate to the image of these stark, almost dead-looking trees growing in a landscape of barren lava.  Rook was the same.  Someone had a set of cards with a bunch of European birds on them, and I thought it would be a neat title.  Then the next day I saw that name again somewhere, and I thought I had to make it a title. I have the title for our next record, and I had it before I had any songs.   

Do you have a preferred emotion you like to write from?

A strange place where I am just short of having too many cups of coffee.  Your sense of self can expand so easily to include so many things, like your house, car, pets, children, such that if anything happens to them, you feel injured.  Like when your car gets broken into, you feel violated.  Traveling collapses your sense of self to the point that the self you have in your mind more or less conforms to the shape or your body.  And there's some strange relationship of happiness and inspiration to the size of your perceived self.  The more I feel I am walking around in my own skin and the rest of the world is outside it, the lighter and easier I feel and the better my brain flows.  But if I have to be preoccupied with the world, the less it's a world of discovery and the more it's a world of maintenance. 

Maintaining that sense of plasticity or spontaneity really encourages creativity.  I'll give myself permission to hang out in a coffee shop and order whatever I want, as long as I'm going to produce several pages of stuff. 

Do you ever get anxious to write?

There are times when I feel like if I've gone too long without advancing the ball or working on an idea, I get a terrible existential ringing in my ears that does not subside until I get work done. 

Do you compose with pen and paper or on computer?

Unfortunately, I've been trained to use computers.  I like that I can write as much as I want, then shove what I don't like to the bottom of the page.  That way, I don't throw anything away.  I use one file for the entire record and shove all the bad stuff to the bottom of the file. Eventually, the cream rises to the top.  At the top is a neat set of lyrics, and at the bottom there's a bunch of flotsam and jetsam, which I raid in subsequent records to see if there's anything to work from.

How important is it that you start and finish a song in the same emotional moment?

There's something to that, like we talked about earlier.  It's like setting a bone.  If you set it incorrectly, you're going to need to rebreak it later.  I'm terrified of finishing things, and it's only through external deadlines that I get things done.  Sometimes I start things and don't return to them for a while, when the flaws and virtues are more apparent.  Music gives you instant feedback in a way that no other kind of writing can.  It reaches your subconscious immediately, and you know whether it's good or bad. 

Who have you been reading lately?

For a couple of years, it was Peter Matthiessen, whose writing I adore.  His best work is Snow Leopard.  I've actually seen the original papers and manuscript here at University of Texas, because I wanted to see how much writing he actually got done on that 250 mile walk through Nepal.  And there are whole passages from his book that also appear in his journal.  I love Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, James Joyce.  I love Stevens's sense of comedy that pervades his writing.   I read Anna Karenina on our last tour.  I also like John McPhee, who writes for the New Yorker. 

*photo by Amy V. Cooper

Common Ground: read my interview with

  • Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak)