Given that Jonathan Meiburg trained as a biologist before becoming a full-time musician, it's not surprising that he's just as happy to talk about birds as he is to discuss his band, Shearwater. In fact, when the Georgia Straight reaches the singer, songwriter, and guitarist at home in Austin, Texas, he's getting ready to deliver a paper on “The Caracaras: Distribution and Ecology of the ”˜False' Falcons” to the Texas Ornithological Society.
“They're relatives of falcons, but they look like a combination of a large hawk and a crow, and they act more like crows,” says Meiburg, who first encountered members of the Caracarinae family on the Falkland Islands in 1997, while working on a graduate degree in ornithology. “They're very social, very intelligent, and very inquisitive. They're interested in anything they haven't encountered before, and they spend a lot of time walking around on the ground. So, altogether, a very odd bird of prey!”
In the Falklands, Meiburg was trying to discover why the striated caracara, in particular, was confined to a few islands near the tip of South America. (Glaciation, he says.) Unbeknownst to himself, he was also gathering material for Shearwater's latest release, The Golden Archipelago, a subtle, atmospheric, and largely keyboard-driven meditation on man's relationship with nature.
Ever since his college days, Meiburg has been fascinated by how islands act as refuges for species—and societies—that have vanished elsewhere. Some of that thinking informs The Golden Archipelago, which opens with a snippet of Bikini Atoll's national anthem, sung by islanders who were evacuated from the nuclear test site in the 1940s, and ends with an eerie, contemplative dissertation on water and time, “Missing Islands”. But Shearwater's sixth release is no fact-filled graduate thesis; instead, it's both notably compelling and rather enigmatic.
The gorgeous, detailed music—acoustic art-rock with a symphonic flair—is unabashedly moving, but the words paint mysterious portraits of travel and longing. If there's a theme here, it's the disappearance of the natural world, but Meiburg's no polemicist.
“My favourite works of art—whether visual art, music, film, anything—are the ones that really invite you in,” he says. “And, ideally, that's the kind of art that I'd like to make. For me, it might be invested with certain meanings or symbolic references or concrete images, but the feeling that you can make sense of it in your own way is something I strive for. It's what makes art the most appealing to me.”
He's also no folkie, he stresses—despite the acoustic instruments that dominate The Golden Archipelago, and those widely disseminated photographs of him playing the banjo.
“I used to bring a banjo on the road because I used it on a couple of songs, but I played it in a way that had nothing to do with bluegrass or folk music,” Meiburg explains. “And it started driving me crazy, because I was always getting photographed playing that banjo. People would run captions like ”˜folk outfit Shearwater', and I'd just be, like ”˜Oh, God!' So I won't have the banjo with me. I'll just be playing electric guitar, really loud!”
Shearwater plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Wednesday (April 28).