How Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold Writes a Song

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Fleet Foxes have been blazing new paths in the ancient realm of folk-rock for nearly 15 years, from their acclaimed 2008 debut to 2020’s excellent Shore. The new book Wading in Waist-High Water: The Lyrics of Fleet Foxes, out this week through Tin House, collects songwriter Robin Pecknold’s words from across four albums, with a foreword by novelist Brandon Taylor. In his afterword, excerpted here, Pecknold explains his songwriting process and the lessons he’s learned.

Growing up, I loved the most basic, antipoetic lyrics. Lyrics about wanting to hold hands, how the times are changing, being a jealous man, being very sad sometimes, being in love with a girl. My teenage mind marveled not at the words themselves, but at how impactful they became when paired with inventive instrumentation and canny melodies, how layers of meaning and identification would alchemize when a lyric collided with arrangement, timbre, delivery, tempo, key, and meter. I liked phonemic choices and elisions that seemed butter smooth, sanded to a finish. I liked judicious use of internal rhyme, alliteration, and anaphora. I liked lyrics that were emotionally rich but technically invisible, no hanging syllables or Germanic consonants, like paintings that hide their brushstrokes. I liked lyrics that weren’t trying to sell a false promise or an easy answer. And above all, I liked coherent, sturdy, undeniable melodies, the metric ton of horsepower a good melody could infuse into any well-set lyric. Now, at 36, past retirement age in Rock Years, I still feel the same. I’m not sure if we really change as we get older. Maybe we just get confused for a while by something or other, and eventually circle back to wherever it was we unselfconsciously began — a bit wiser, a few more questions answered.

I’m honored that Tin House has published these words, but I’m also a bit embarrassed, because I don’t really identify as a lyricist, or even as a writer. I do make time most every day to sit down, sing into a microphone, and seek out song ideas, but I never sit down to write lyrics. I only ever “write” words while actively singing; the lyrics always start as a confused cloud of vocalese gibberish. Over the course of hours of searching repetition, this gibberish congeals around one or two repeated sounds, utterances that braid well with melodies I’m simultaneously trying to find. Those sounds inevitably suggest a handful of possible phrases; those phrases suggest concepts; those concepts suggest elaborations and refutations. It goes on like this, order arising from chaos, until there’s a finished lyric that reveals some emotional truth I didn’t at first intend to share, and often don’t consciously understand. Maybe this is how the process works for real writers, too, but it never feels like writing to me. It feels more like discovering something.

If a bottle of water in a freezer is clean enough, the water will remain liquid; to initiate the freezing process, ice crystals need a speck of dust or other impurity to attach to. Similarly, in finding lyrics, there’s usually one word or phrase that floats in, sticks, and catalyzes a chain reaction. I remember sitting in the dark in our old Seattle recording space, the same dingy triangular room where Nirvana made Bleach, singing and playing into a broken PA, writing the song “Helplessness Blues.” I was repeating a strummed chord, finding that trancelike space where my songs come from, tracing the jutting arc of the melody and singing “something something believing . . .” over and over. The rest of the lyrics arose out of the implications present in that word “believing,” a word that itself arose randomly in the process of finding the melody. And in the years since, whenever people have shown me the lyrics to “Helplessness Blues” tattooed on their skin, I always think back to those gloaming hours singing nascent gibberish in the dark; it’s a marvel that lyrics born so randomly could come to live permanently on a forearm or a clavicle.

Or in a book! Compiling and notating the lyrics here was maybe the first time I’d read them together, and one thing I kept noticing was the preponderance of question marks. I counted 88 in total, about two per song, and one per key on the average piano. This reminded me of how fundamental the asking of questions has always been to my songwriting — not just with words, but with the music itself. Creatively, I’m most excited when the song I’m working on seems to be posing an interesting question, when it embodies some combination of elements or conceits that hasn’t been attempted in exactly that way before. A question could be micro or macro; it could be teasing out unexplored implications of other beloved music; it could be strictly lyrical, strictly musical, or both. To me, a song is “good” if it is asking interesting questions. And a song is “done” when those questions are no longer confusing the song’s maker.

Can I fit two choruses into a four-minute song? What if the Beach Boys were Trappist monks? What does the Pacific Northwest, as I’ve experienced it, sound like? Can I blend six genres at once? How did the greats used to record? How might people be recording in five years? Can I be so emotionally vulnerable that it’s uncomfortable? How many chords can gracefully support this one melody? Can I get away with saving the best part of this song for minute three? Minute five? Can an eight-minute-long song hold one’s attention? How much can happen in two minutes? What’s a guitar tuning no one else has ever used? Can a song start as a sentence that’s describing imaginary music? What if a song’s structure resembled nonlinear film editing? How many octaves can I sing across in one song? Can listening to a song feel like being trapped on a sinking ship? Can it feel like Elysium?

Seeking answers to questions like these is what compelled me to make songs in the first place. Sometimes I’ll just make long lists of questions, all songs yet to be made, and I’ll spend afternoons and evenings teasing out answers to each one. If a question goes nowhere, so be it, but I find it impossible to separate curiosity from creativity. As I get older, I find it harder to come up with new questions that are not only compelling, but that I haven’t tried to answer at least once before, and so I write fewer songs. But I much prefer that songwriting lives in the space of “seeing what he could see,” even if it’s just the other side of the mountain, than in the space of having everything, or anything, figured out. It’s much more fulfilling to me to seek new questions than to rely on old answers.

The most recent musical question I found myself asking while making an album was “What if I could write only one more song? What would I want that to be?” It was the peak of summer 2020, and I had nowhere to go in the world but out for a drive, aimlessly away from our then-dim present. I had one lyric left to finish for the album Shore, a stubborn song called “Sunblind.” I wanted the song to function as a statement of intent for the whole record, but it remained unfinished. Studios were closed and I had nowhere to work, so I was in the habit of driving nowhere in particular down country roads for eight or ten hours a day, feeling the warm breeze through the open windows, listening to David Berman, Judee Sill, Elliott Smith, Richard Swift, John Prine, Bill Withers, Arthur Russell, Duncan Browne, Joy Division, Tim Buckley, Chris Bell, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye: all lost heroes who left us too soon. I was trying, in that grim season, to honor loss by reacquainting myself with this music that had meant so much to me over the years, these people whose loss I still feel.

On one of my drives, I got turned around looking for a swimming hole, and instead ended up winding down desolate, boarded-up Main Streets, past graveyards and pop-up Covid testing centers and empty baseball fields. Seeing all this, with my playlist of lost heroes on the stereo, it struck me that maybe I should write “The Last Fleet Foxes Song,” just in case, because who knows, or rather who knew anything, in the summer of 2020. I realized that if I could write only one last song, I’d want it to be an elegy to, and a commemoration of, other musicians, in that delicate tradition of songs about music itself, like David Berman’s “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan” or ABBA’s “Thank You for the Music.” I don’t think I’d have any last words of my own; most of the questions I’ve posed in my lyrics remain unresolved for me anyway. What’s there to really say at the end of it all except “thank you”?

I appreciate now having a place in a chain. “Sunblind” stands squarely between the older musicians I’m honoring and the younger musicians who may be listening in for the first time. In that spirit, and on the off chance that “Sunblind” actually is the last Fleet Foxes song and no second volume of lyrics will come out in ten years, I want to offer some brief, more explicit parting words of advice to any young songwriters who might be reading this.

It’s okay to be insecure; in many ways insecurity works to your benefit. Anyone too pleased with what they’re doing is either delusional or not aiming high enough. Think about songs as questions to be answered; it helps to depersonalize an already fraught process. If you want to get rid of writer’s block, get rid of any concept of a writer; think about songs as things you’re finding more than things you’re making. You always have permission to do whatever you want creatively, regardless of how true that might feel in the moment. Be as courteous with your listener as you would be with a respected guest in your home. It’s up to you to set their expectations, and also to endeavor to exceed them — take advantage of that aspect of having their attention. All good art has some quality of defamiliarization to it, some sense of novelty, some combination of elements that seem to present an alternate view of reality. The first line of a song colors the listener’s perception of everything after it. Every great album has at least four undeniably good songs on it and no less — focus on those four first. Work with people you feel safe around and avoid narcissists. Some degree of certainty is necessary, but it’s always temporary. Know when to freeze and when to melt. If you want to end up with ten great songs, try to find, say, 50 ideas with potential; arrive at quality via quantity. Don’t be afraid to throw things out, or cobble songs together from the very best bits of everything you’ve tried. Don’t go back to school at age 26 and abandon your career at its peak, and don’t take anything that other artists are doing too personally. Life is too damn short and music is too damn sacred.

Thank you to Brandon Taylor, Masie Cochran, and Craig Popelars at Tin House, Aja Pecknold, Sean Pecknold, Lisa Pecknold, and Greg Pecknold. Thank you to Joanna Newsom, my musical and lyrical hero. And thank you to everyone who has supported the music of Fleet Foxes over the years. You have been incredibly generous and we have been unspeakably lucky.

Excerpted from Wading in Waist-High Water: The Lyrics of Fleet FoxesIntroduction by Brandon Taylor, Songs, Notes, and Afterword by Robin Pecknold. Published by Tin House. Copyright © 2022 by Robin Pecknold. 

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