Published Jun 19, 2017Fleet Foxes' new album Crack-Up, out now on Nonesuch, examines the human condition in ways both personal and existential. As such, there are a number of characters who figured into singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold's writing one way or another. He recently outlined to Exclaim! the influence of these important figures.
1 Skyler Skjelset
Guitarist Skjelset is in Fleet Foxes, but Pecknold has also been very clear that the song, "Third of May / Ōdaigahara," is about his longtime friendship with his bandmate. While Pecknold mentions "Sky[e]" by name in the first verse and titled the song after his birthday, the opening lyric also explains their bond in the context of music: "Light ended the night, but the song remained."
When asked about what he missed most during his time off — the band's last album, Helplessness Blues, came out in 2011 — Pecknold offers "I missed feeling like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, you know? Even if there are ups and downs with doing music professionally, at least when I'm recording a song or something I feel like that's where I'm most in my element. That keeps pulling me back to music."
2 Muhammad Ali
When asked about balancing his own privilege and perspective while commenting on politicized events ("Cassius, -" is said to be about participating in protests following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last summer, as well as the death of Muhammad Ali), Pecknold says: "I guess the perspective in that song is that of a participant, and a sympathetic observer, and a questioner. The lyrics 'I walked home, no words to say' are just saying I don't have any value judgements to make.
"It's just a depiction of events that I participated in. 'Cassius one month gone on his way'— Muhammad Ali had died a month prior, and I feel like he was a cultural leader and a hero, and so the void left by his death at that time was palpable, I felt. So that's why that comes up in the song. 'Who will lead us and who remains to die'— the election was ongoing and it wasn't clear who was gonna be president. 'Drop my head to cry'— just saying that is as much of an answer or statement as that song gives about those events. I'm explaining it like this because I feel like [saying that much] is completely within my right to write or depict that. I'm not overstepping, I'm not like Macklemore saying 'black lives matter,' I'm not trying to co-opt something that doesn't belong to me. I'm not trying to sing a song that isn't mine to sing, but I can at least comment as a sympathetic observer."
3 A friendly neighbour
About the song, "Kept Woman," Pecknold offers: "I used to live in this house in Portland, OR, and when I moved away in 2012 I sold or gave away everything. I had this little vegetable garden in the back; I was tearing my life down and I pulled up everything I'd planted. A friend of mine had moved into the house behind me, and I would sometimes hear her washing dishes or listening to music or whatever, and so I just started having a conversation with her over the fence. I couldn't see her but we talked for a few hours, and it was the day I left that town. So to me, it's kind of an imagistic memory of that event. Obviously it's pretty obscured, but that's what it's about."
4 Donald Trump
Pecknold took a less direct approach to tackling this particular political elephant. "I did feel like this last year, I was watching the election and worried Trump would get elected; after he did I was disappointed and crestfallen. But I was recording this album that I would eventually talk about and perform on stage, and that emboldened me to make the music about the music, and not about myself as a personality, because I was watching this cult of personality just destroy the country, really tear it apart. This person that was really unqualified for the job they were seeking, just by intimidation or by appealing to people's fears or base instincts, he was cynically garnering support, and I just felt like I didn't want there to be a Trump-esque quality to the album, so I made it very personal, and something that you had to seek out. It wasn't a stump speech. It made me excited to do the opposite or something counter to that.
"I also feel like you can react to political events without expressing political events. I hear a lot of people just talk about lyrics or something, but those things aren't always expressed just in lyrics. It's even just the voices being paid attention to, it's the sounds being used or the influences being drawn from, or the ethos being conveyed in different scenarios. The music is as reflective of culture and politics as anything that would directly reference those things.
5 Not Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty
A lot of people probably wonder about the relationship between these former bandmates; Pecknold's offerings on the subject are sparse. "I don't have anything to say to him right now," he says. He hasn't gone out of his way to investigate further either. "I have heard [Father John Misty] in passing, and I'm proud of him for doing his thing, but I don't really have a strong attachment to what he does."