Winged Life | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Winged Life 

Shearwater soar to such great heights.

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Standing in the gravel parking lot of a taco shack in East Austin, with one hand shading his eyes as the other points into the afternoon sky, Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater identifies a red-winged hawk in the distance, along with a few finches and sparrows closer by. Though seemingly random and insignificant, his keen observation, coupled with his fascination with the minute details that make life extraordinary, reflect the way in which he approaches music as a way to balance action with contemplation, the physical with the spiritual. If true art manifests through contemplation within the realms of nature, as the French sculptor Auguste Rodin once suggested, then Meiburg may prove to be one of the most insightful and brilliant visionaries of his generation.


The singer-songwriter, who recently performed at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England with Okkervil River and Bill Callahan, has made quite a name for himself in the field of science as an ornithologist, following the completion of his master’s thesis in biogeography on the Striated Caracara, a bird of prey native to the Falkland Islands. “People often get so caught up on exotic birds that they completely miss what’s fascinating about the common bird,” Meiburg says. “The caracara has an uncanny level of intelligence and curiosity about the world around them.”


Meiburg exhibits similar traits in his musical approach. “Songs have a tendency to show up like birds on a windowsill, but you still have to be looking,” he says. “If you just go out on your back porch and gaze at your back yard for a minute, you might not see anything happening. But if you sit there for a while, pull out the binoculars, and start to really pay attention, you’ll begin to notice things. You’ll find yourself asking questions like, ‘What’s up with these two blue jays? They appear to be having some sort of crisis. Is there a cat around?’ The same goes for songs. If you sit around with your instrument for awhile, thinking and listening, the ideas will come to you.”


For Palo Santo, Shearwater’s magnificent fourth full-length album (named after a tree found in the Galapagos), that songbird proved to be Christa Paffgen, better known as Nico, the seductive European supermodel and songstress whose deadpan vocals lace the Velvet Undergound’s eponymous debut. “I was listening a lot to Desertshore and Marble Index at the time and then I started reading James Young’s The End, which chronicles the final years of her life,” Meiburg admits. “She was utterly original and frighteningly beautiful. She seemed otherworldly, as if she didn’t belong to the same society as everyone else.”


The record, originally issued last year, exudes the same alluring mystique, though it sounds almost nothing like its inspiration. As Meiburg moves during the first three songs from behind the piano on “La Dame et la Licorne” to banjo for “Red Sea, Black Sea” and electric guitar for “White Waves,” his vocals follow suit, floating gracefully from a frail falsetto that recalls Roy Orbison or Antony to a cataclysmic and violent outburst that transcends any possible comparison. The album’s release also marked a turning point for the group as Meiburg became the band’s cardinal songwriter, a position he previously shared with Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, whom he formed the band with in 1999.


Despite nearly universal critical acclaim, the band was advised by their label, Misra Records'which was going through its own internal transformation at the time'to find a new home. Meiburg responded by sending emails to different labels across the country. Almost instantly, he received a response from Gerard Cosloy, part owner and manager of Matador Records, the major label behind works by Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, and Guided by Voices. “I was immediately struck by how gorgeous and unique their compositions sounded,” Cosloy says. “I don’t think there’s any band like them in the world.”


Instead of attempting to churn out another record, the band decided instead to reflect upon its past, re-recording, re-mastering, and re-releasing Palo Santo. The Matador-backed expanded edition features four new songs. “Every Hook, Every Eye,” an experimental and abrasive piece, delves into uncharted territory, along with “Discontinuities,” an extracted fragment of feedback and fuzz. “My Only Boy” is a haunting, banjo-plucked narrative, while “Special Rider Blues” transforms the Skip James classic into a minor key lament.


What’s more interesting, though, are the revisions, described in detail by the band at, which clearly illustrate the group’s musical maturation and progress. The pounding piano ballad “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five” bursts forth with newfound vigor, reminiscent of the Shearwater’s live performances, and the album’s apogee “Hail, Mary” soars past where it once peaked, adding an additional minute of screeching atonal arrangements.


“You never stop learning about a song,” Meiburg concludes. “It’s the same thing with scientific research. If you continue to dig, you continue to make new discoveries. You learn to play things with a different emphasis to get the sound you’re really looking for. Then sometimes the songs take on a whole new life. It’s like the musical equivalent of evolution.”


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Austin Powell

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