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Shearwater Take Wing

From the first gently plucked strains of "The Hush" to the final soaring chorus of "The Set Life," Winged Life, Austin-based Shearwater's third full-length album, envelops listeners with an organic, wholly-natural beauty. It's an album built with traditional instruments — banjo, stand-up bass, lap steel guitar and quavery, high vocals — that ends up sounding not traditional at all. Instead, the result is eccentric, highly personal, nearly orchestral pop music.

The band Shearwater was born in late 1999, a few months after Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff met at a benefit concert for Austin's KVRX where they were both performing. "Okkervil River [Sheff's band] had an energy and an enthusiasm and an intelligence that wasn't into being clever so much as it was into being exuberant...I don't know, I just couldn't get it out of my head," singer/songwriter Meiburg said during a recent interview.

Meiburg telephoned Sheff and suggested collaborating on a modest 4-track recording. The two sketched out the songs that became Shearwater's first album, 2001's The Dissolving Room, in a single afternoon, then were so pleased with the results that they booked studio time shortly after to make more formal recordings of the songs. "We ended up liking that record a lot and thought, well, maybe this should actually be a band," Meiburg recalled. "Maybe we should try to play some shows. It sort of grew from there. The [initial] idea was that it was something that was never going to last longer than an afternoon."

But it has lasted considerably longer. The band followed with Everybody Makes Mistakes, released on Misra in 2002, then with Winged Life, also on Misra, earlier this year.

Today Shearwater is made up of co-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Meiburg and Sheff (both now also of Okkervil River, which Meiburg joined a few months after the two formed Shearwater), plus Kim Burke on stand-up bass, Thor Harris (Angels of Light, Devendra Banhart) on drums and vibraphone, and Howard Draper on lap steel, organ and other instruments.

Winged Life is a haunting piece of work, defined by a wistful sense of moments passed and passing fast, and this, explains Meiburg, is partly due to the sense of flux the band members felt when they recorded it. "All the songs in Winged Life reflect characters who are at sort of pivotal moments, but they're all different," Meiburg said. "For example, in the very first song ("The Hush"), the character who is speaking has just died."

The album's title is drawn from a William Blake verse — "He who binds himself to a joy/ Doth the winged life destroy/ But he who kisses the joy as it flies/ Lives in eternity's sunrise" — and the album is as much about letting go as about celebrating each moment as it happens.

Meiburg adds that his fellow band members Sheff, Burke, Harris and Draper all felt that they were at transitional moments during the album's recording. "We're trying to figure out if we can actually pursue this as a career, as a thing that we can do with our lives or if we need to change directions and do something different just to survive," he said. "Everything seems incredibly uncertain. And, as a result, everything also seems very precious. We're trying to sort of, to explore through some characters, people who are in that kind of situation. I don't think we were doing that consciously, exactly, but we noticed that it ended up that way when the record was done."

Winged Life was recorded at Echo Lab in Denton, Texas, with Centro-Matic drummer Matt Pence recording and mixing it. Meiburg says that studio, built specifically by Pence and another engineer, was a beautiful setting, made almost entire of wood and situated out in the country. The band lived and worked there during the recording process, putting down sleeping bags in a small lounge outside the studio. "It wasn't like staying in a luxury hotel or anything, but it was comfortable and a really nice atmosphere," Meiburg said.

One homey touch for a band which seems, to a person, to really love animals, was the presence of Pence's dog Hoagie, whose barks can be heard on the band's tour-only CD split with Okkervil River. During an extremely productive session, the band recorded 22 tracks, selecting just 12 of them for Winged Life.

The songs on the record, says Meiburg, draw on his and Sheff's personal experiences, filtered through fictional settings and characters. They are often written like oblique short stories, often in the first person, but with the focus on characters other than the "narrator." For example, "Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine" shares a few lines with a 1930s pop song of the same name, but puts a modern twist on the sadness that surrounds watching your friends grow up and start families. The lyrics to this tune, written by Sheff, are achingly specific: "Now they're all paired off and kissing the other half goodnight/ And then falling deep into the same sleep/ While walls and warm sheets shut out the light/ And I'm the only one/ At the top of my lungs/ Who's still singing 'Sweet Adelines'."

And, in the equally powerful "(I've Got a Right) to Cry" written by Meiburg, a hospital patient lies enmeshed in tubes and tourniquets, slowly losing his sense of self and humanity and observing that "this terrible drone is the sound of a thousand machines, singing to themselves in a language that no one can read."

Shearwater's music has a fragile, fleeting beauty, reflecting the fact that band members love what they're doing but aren't sure they can continue. Meiburg, for instance, is balancing master's work in ornithology (and possibly a Ph.D. in biology later) with music, two interests that require diametrically opposed lifestyles. "With music, you're heading for population centers, and with birds you're rocketing away from human beings as fast as you can," said Meiburg, who has spent time studying birds in remote locations like the Falklands Islands and Tierra del Fuego. Pursuing both passions, he admits, may be impossible, and it's difficult to choose, since he loves both. "I have dreams about the birds, especially when I'm on tour," he said, "and I feel like sometimes when I'm out here working that I'm slowly letting them go, and it makes me really sad, because that's a thing that really means a lot to me."

But, he added, "Sometimes when I look at my notebooks from working on the birds, I'll have a couple of paragraphs of observations and then I'll start writing in song titles. There may be a grass-is-greener situation."

Still Meiburg says that there are similarities and connections. The band's name, for instance, is borrowed from a species of water bird whose photo adorns the cover of Winged Life, and there is something meditative and otherworldly about both music and the study of birds. During the course of ordinary life, he says, people are bombarded with so much stimulus — advertising, for instance — that they necessarily have to shut out much of what they experience. "Part of the job of art, but also of things like going out and watching birds, is just really carefully and deliberately trying to undo some of those latches and open up to things that you had previously been ignoring," he said. "And then when you do that, you find that there are completely other worlds going on outside your purview."

Meiburg and Sheff are currently touring the West Coast with Okkervil River and will subsequently visit many of the same locations on Shearwater's first tour. Then, both bands will head to the Midwest and East Coast for a joint tour. Once back in the studio, Meiburg says his band plans to start work on a new album inspired by the story of the Iberville Woodpecker, once the largest woodpecker in America and native to the forests around the Mississippi basin. Scientists had thought the Iberville Woodpecker was extinct for years, but recently there have been a number of unconfirmed sightings. "The Iberville Woodpecker has become sort of like the Loch Ness Monster, a figure of myth and legend," Meiburg said . "We're going to do some field recording in the river basin where it was last seen, and make a record that's sort of a meditation on it disappearing." — Jennifer Kelley [Tuesday, April 6, 2004]

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