Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold Channels Uncertainty Into Song

Fleet Foxes don't sit around doing nothing.
Fleet Foxes don't sit around doing nothing. Photo by Shawn Brackbill

Most of us don't do very interesting things with our time off. We might watch TV or read a book or just sit around and do absolutely nothing. Robin Pecknold, however, decided to do something a bit more adventurous: visit Mount Everest.

"I just did a trek to base camp," he says. "I just went by myself. It took like... 18 days or something, up and down, and that was probably the hardest thing I've ever done."

As frontman of the band Fleet Foxes, Pecknold makes music that might inspire one to scale mountains. When the band emerged at the end of the late 2000s, its mix of folk and rock was called "baroque pop," because even amid a wave of twee indie bands, Fleet Foxes sounded particularly ancient and mythical. After two successful albums, however, he was ready for something different.

"I just would make huge lists of things I wanted to do," he recalls. "And I would just sort of pick stuff off the list, and then one of them was 'Go to school.'"

"When I'm under stress, I withdraw from people."

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As well as traveling and living in a monastery — "I did that for like a month, but it wasn't really long enough to get the whole picture" — Pecknold moved to New York to study at Columbia. He says he thought the intense environment in the city and on campus might have served a potential album better than staying in his then-home of comparatively sleepy Portland.

Eventually, an album indeed came out of it. Crack-Up — a symphonic-rock record that mixes grandeur and intimacy so deftly that listening to it feels like crossing a vast, turbulent ocean in a tiny sailboat — was released last year. But there were times when Pecknold, like many undergrads do, felt he should do something else.

"I have thought about doing other things, and I was thinking about that at school," he says. "It's stressful to think about — if that door closes or if that faucet is off at a certain time, having to make music to keep a band going if the music isn't really there is stressful."

It's this uncertainty, aired so comfortably, that makes Pecknold something of a kindred spirit, like many of us do with our favorite artists. He makes music that feels ageless and eternal, out of another time, resistant to the petty concerns of our modern age. Even as Fleet Foxes' records have only grown in ambition and grandeur, he still grapples with his purpose and inner conflict in introspective, philosophical songwriting.

Take, for instance, a lyric from "Third of May / Odaigahara," the lead single off Crack-Up: "To be held within one's self is deathlike." In one view, it's a powerful rebuke to the nature of our era, which prizes self-sufficiency and independence, and a central signpost in the album's main conflict of the solitary versus the communal. For Pecknold, who spent many lonely days and nights in New York while at school, it can also be just a reminder not to stray too far from people.

"I think when I'm under stress, I kind of withdraw from people," he says, "which doesn't help the situation at all, but I still kind of try to keep that lyric in mind. Sometimes it's funny to sing that lyric after having spent a day lost in my own head."

Fleet Foxes. 7 p.m. Sunday, March 4, at the Fillmore, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; Tickets start at $40.

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Douglas Markowitz is a former music and arts editorial intern for Miami New Times. Born and raised in South Florida, he studied at Sophia University in Tokyo before earning a bachelor's in communications from University of North Florida. He writes freelance about music, art, film, and other subjects.

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