Shearwater - Biography

The Shearwater is a species of long-winged, low-flying seabird that encompasses many different genera, including the mid-size puffin. Shearwater is also a contemplative, atmospheric band from Austin, Texas founded in 2001 by musical collaborators Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff. You may be tempted to think the two Shearwaters had nothing to do with one another, and that the name was just a random, idle, stumbled-upon moniker (like band names so often are). But you’d be wrong. Meiburg, Shearwater’s principal songwriter, doubles as a serious bird lover and graduate of ornithology. He spent months studying seabirds in the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand and the Galapagos, where he became an expert on the striated caracara. You may also be tempted to assume that Meiburg’s avian obsessions somehow feed into Shearwater’s spacious, majestic, soaring songs, and in this case, you’d probably be right. 

Meiburg fronted another bird-themed solo project, Kingfisher, and he played with Sheff in the critically acclaimed Austin rock band, Okkervil River (fronted by Sheff). Meiburg and Sheff formed Shearwater in order to explore quieter, subtler sonic territory and had already formed the ideas for their first album, The Dissolving Room (2001 Grey Flat Records). The debut is appropriately titled, as these fragile, fleeting songs seem to be made of some kind of intangible substance, with wide open spaces making room for eerie ghost stories, lovers’ laments and reflections on loss and mortality. Having intended the album to be a one-off, Meiburg and Sheff ended up expanding Shearwater into an official four-piece with Meiburg’s then wife, Kimberly Burke on bass and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris. They released a follow up Everybody Makes Mistakes (Misra) in 2002. These dreamlike anthems and odes to regret are no less melancholic than on the debut, but the added instrumentation provided by a host of talented contributors puts a lush sheen with layers of texture and interest that keep the sad heaviness in check. Meiburg’s soulful piano and soaring vocal invite comparisons to Talk Talk and Jeff Buckley. But the effect is always unique, as his ethereal fragility meshes brilliantly with Sheff’s gravelly Americana, to stunningly effect (the duo’s vocal harmonies aren’t too shabby either). 

Next up was Winged Life (2004 Misra) a sparkling offering from a band firmly in their stride. The already stellar songwriting has been upped a notch, and shiny nuggets of sonic intrigue pepper this record, like the loopy banjo in “Whipping Boy,” the gorgeous lap steel (courtesy of Howard Draper) in “Wedding Bells” and the moony Rhodes keyboard in “The Kind.” The mood is morose as ever, but being miserable was never so sublime. Palo Santo (2006 Sensory Projects) marked a change for Sheawater as Meiburg had now taken over all of the songwriting. This album earned the band not only critical acclaim (it was voted NPR’s best album of 2006), but also saw a move to Matador Records, who re-released an extended version in the same year. Meiburg kept it a secret for a while in order not to draw attention away from the music, but Palo Santo is a tribute album of sorts, each song referring loosely to an event in the life and death of Nico. Meiburg’s vocal is so pure it’s heartbreaking, and in places so intimate he could be whispering in your ear. From the lonesome, folky “White Waves” to the sweet and complex “Nobody,” this record vibrates with an iridescent majesty, a word hardly anyone seems to refrain from using when describing Shearwater. Meiburg’s profound connection with the natural world is omnipresent, as he explores stark landscapes and fathomless emotional depths.

It would have been a difficult album to follow, but Rook (2008 Matador) is yet another cracking record, complete with Meiburg’s trademark intimacy, grace and artful intelligence. It’s not a concept album, he says, and despite the title it’s not all about birds (although there are birds in it). Although it’s undeniably (and wonderfully) rock and roll, with no dearth of hooks, there’s an alien feel to Rook, as if the songs were composed in some stark parallel universe. The lonely opening track erupts into sonic mayhem, and the stridently dark “Rooks” sends hypnotic electric guitar into a shimmery chorus of trumpets and shrieks. “I Was a Cloud” features a pretty, plucked acoustic guitar over a menacing chord progression; it’s folky, but not as in retro-folk, more like future-folk in a post- apocalyptic world. The most recent release, the sweeping, episodic Golden Archipelago (2010 Matador) dives into the natural world with a fearless reverence and profound morality. Meiburg has introduced an island theme, complete with meditations on isolation, community and mortality. There’s plenty of bleakness here, but Shearwater has the refined ability to penetrate and convey emotion while simultaneously containing it, transforming the melancholy into something exquisite.


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