Birds of a feather 

Shearwater sculpts dusky yearning into effortless glide

What do musicians daydream about as they stare out the windows of their tour van during long journeys between cities? Playing the best show ever to a rabid, sold-out crowd later that evening? Selling enough albums to upgrade to a plush private jet? That a Waffle House will turn up at the next exit?

As indie-pop quintet Shearwater makes its way en route, frontman Jonathan Meiburg's thoughts will likely be honed in on this: the fabled Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

"It's a supposedly extinct giant woodpecker that used to live in the Southeastern U.S., but was probably wiped out when all the hardwood forests were chopped down," says the singer/multi-instrumentalist. "But there have been some sightings in the area recently, so at some point, we're going to go to where it was last seen and do some field recordings for our next album."

That's one way Meiburg manages to conjoin the two disparate worlds in which he lives. On one hand, he's the leader of Shearwater and a principal member of the Americana outfit Okkervil River, both of which hail from Austin, Texas. On the other, he's working toward a graduate degree in ornithology, a pursuit that's taken him to the far corners of the world to study myriad birds in their natural habitats. In fact, a shearwater is a low-flying oceanic bird so named for the way its wings skim the surface of the sea (Meiburg Conjoining Method No. 2).

Though his passion for both callings is equal, Meiburg says he finds himself more inclined to talk about birds than his music, or much else. That's frustrating for journalists, he admits, and not always indulged by his vanmates, either.

"Well, they tolerate me," says Meiburg, laughing. "But I try to keep it measured, since my enthusiasm is a particularly nerdy one. The whole thing about discussing music is that it's kinda ineffable. There's really no way to explain it other than to get up and play the song."

Historical facts are easier to convey: Shearwater began as a modestly intentioned four-track collaboration between Meiburg and Okkervil River honcho Will Sheff in 2000, around the time the former had joined the latter's band as an accordionist, singer and banjo player. Those recordings evolved into a full-length album, 2001's haunting The Dissolving Room, which was followed the next year by the equally harrowing Everybody Makes Mistakes, though the duo never toured behind either release.

That's changed with the marvelous Winged Life (Meiburg Conjoining Method No. 3). Sculpted from delicately handled guitars, banjos, upright bass, lap steel, organs, violins, vibraphone, live and programmed drums, and Meiburg's creamy purl (somewhere between Lou Barlow and Art Garfunkel), this is melodically rich yet airily constructed music for dusty road drives at twilight; for bittersweet, besotted contemplation in dim bars, where the aura set by the (smog), Galaxie 500, Elliott Smith and Pernice Brothers discs in the jukebox wouldn't be interrupted by its ingression. The 12 songs are populated by characters you might find wrestling with their lot in a Kevin Canty short story or Robert Altman film -- yearning, dying, loving, regretting or just hanging on. Pathos dominates, yet the mood is hardly monochrome.

"One of the things we're trying to fight is that Shearwater is 'depressing,'" says Meiburg. "I really hate that tag. Listen to modern rock radio -- that's depressing. I think that music that's sad, for wont of a better word, can be uplifting, cathartic and satisfying in a way happy music really can't. And there are moments of joy on the record, and certainly in our live performance. We're not a downer."

Once the current tour concludes, Meiburg is off to the Galapagos Islands to study a species of hawk for his master's thesis. Then, perhaps, the hunt for the elusive woodpecker and, in the process, the making of another Shearwater album, will begin.

"I would like to continue to do both, I don't know if I will be able to do either," says Meiburg of his divergent careers. "Neither one is particularly sustainable -- it's just as hard to make a living as a bird scientist as it is a musician. I picked a good fallback, huh?"


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