In this interviewing game you get to chat to a lot of cool people, but few are as fascinating as Jonathan Meiburg. Two decades as one of our most thoughtful songwriters, his career encompasses the keyboardist in the early years of Okkervil River, which he left in 2008 after the immense success of his own project Shearwater. He's collaborated with Sharon Van Etten, Bill Callahan, Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, and the imminent hijackers of this very interview, Wye Oak. Straddling folk, country, and unconventional indie rock, his tastes may be multifarious but his poignant lyricism and achingly tight grasp for melody is completely uniform. He is profoundly interested in ornithology and mankind's relationship to nature, and his commentary on these topics is compelling, even to a layperson. We last spoke to him two years ago, before Loma began as an idea, via a (speaking unbiased) gorgeous photo essay, and this is where I pick up.

The last time you spoke to the 405 was pretty much exactly two years ago. Obviously, a lot has happened since then the start of 2016. As someone interested in psychogeography and politics' relationship to the natural world, do you think there's any particular influence that the current political turmoil has had related to the natural world you’re interested in?

In the music you mean?

Yes, and obviously the more academic and study work you do elsewhere.

Well I felt like that last Shearwater record [Jet Plane and Oxbow, released in early 2016] was about that, it was as close to being an overtly political record as I'm likely to do and it was about these very dark energies I saw in the United States at the time. The degree to which they then became prevalent was terrifying and it didn't give me any joy at all to be right about it. It was a bit spooky. I felt like the record predicted in some ways the world that we're in now. It would be easy to say that in the middle of that that I wanted to take a step back from that or look at life in a different scale, but it wasn't as conscious as that. We started making the Loma record when we were still in the middle of the tours for the Shearwater album. But I just enjoyed seeing Dan and Emily [Cross, his collaborators in Loma] perform every night so much that after a show in Belgium I said to them "let's make a record together”. So as far as politics in the US and Trump are concerned it was before the election, it all happened while we were in the process of making the record. And there's also for me just personally hanging over all this outside music. There's the book I’ve been working on for the last four or five years that's not about music at all. It's focused on the natural world. Its heroes are this weird group of birds of prey that only live in South America, and this 17th century naturalist called Henry Hudson, and what their intertwined stories and what they have to tell us about evolution, both of a certain kind of consciousness and also the history of that part of the world over the last 60 million years. So that project has really fed that interest for me, and let me both mentally and physically explore parts I've never seen. Since I spoke to you last, I've been in South America for months on end, some of it in some extremely remote and difficult places. And so that experience has helped feed the music in an obscure way that's hard to quantify, although certainly with Loma, because it was recorded in a regular house, not far outside of Boston but far enough that you feel you're not near a city, and it's surrounded by pastures and farmland and low forest and rivers, and all the sounds that you hear breathing through the record come from inside and just around the house that we were. So, I wanted to bring this feeling of a very specific place within the album, in the way I haven't done with anything of the other things I've worked on.

Yeah, I was going to mention that. All the press I've read about the album and the quotes you've given about beforehand have reiterated that the Loma record is about place in the sound and texture, and that becomes its own thematic substance in and of itself. How would you say that manifests itself, with that sound becoming the critical point of the album? How did you work on that?

I think because we didn't know what it was going to be before we began it, there was more of an attitude of listening baked into it from the beginning because we were listening not only for the sounds of the thing we're playing but the larger scale of what that album is, what's it about, what are the energies that lie beneath it and to really bring those forward you have to turn up the sensitivity of your receiver a lot. And when you do that, not to extend the metaphor too far but you start hearing all kinds of things that ordinarily you might silence. So, sometimes that went very far as we'd listen to something back and we'd have the window open and you'd hear there's a pear tree outside of the control room. The control room's just the bedroom of the house, and while we were listening back to one of the songs, I think it was 'Like Glass', there was a wind rattling the leaves of the pear tree and it just sounded so good that we went outside to record it.

With that example, and related to other sampling/recordings. was there deliberate intent to it? Did it add thematic atmosphere or was it just it sounded good and worked well in the context of the song?

This album was more of the latter than any other project I've worked on. If something worked we just didn't question it. And, we did have a few roles, one of them was, they had two dogs in the house, and if you're ever recording in an environment where there's animals or small children, you're always dreading the moment where one of them makes a squeal or crashing into something and knocks over a microphone, so we decided that if the dogs made a noise, it stays in the record, whatever it is, we're not getting rid of it. So there's a moment in the song 'Shadow Relief' where the dogs thought they saw someone coming up the driveway, and they just freaked out for a second. That's all just right as it happens, where it happens. We noticed that whenever it does happen we always liked it.

How did the frogs and cicadas on the album come about?

Yeah, well the frogs were just down the hill where the stream crosses the road there, and sometimes in a big summer thunderstorm they'll be a flash flood and you're trapped there until the water goes down. We would walk down there and these frogs are just singing up a storm at night, so I would go down there with Dan and we recorded it. There are a couple of cars that would pass us by and I'm sure they must have looked at us and thought "what are they doing". We just knew that that was going to go somewhere in the record, and it's a bit random at the beginning of that song and it seemed to work somehow. And the cicadas were another example of something we heard while we were working on the song and we just stopped everything we were doing to go and grab it. And it was just outside the window again. We just walked to the tree, and recorded them for 30 seconds and brought back the recorder, dropped the card into my laptop and we kept it in there. We ran through this strange filter unit that we used for a lot of effects on that song to give it a plus that was in time with the song, and then we kind of made a shaker out of it.

Do you have a favourite recording from across the record that spatially well? A favourite field recording from in this album, I mean?

There's a moment in the song 'White Glass' in-between the first and second verse where you hear all these weird bird calls that are kind of eerie. Up the hill from the property, someone’s got an aviary with hundreds of parrots, all different kinds; big macaws and parrots from Madagascar, and parakeets. They sing this chorus every morning and evening. And there are roosters on the other side of the property, so in the morning you hear the roosters go off and then you hear the parrots imitating the roosters. And then after a while the parrots would really get going, and that was just a sound that was always there in the background, so we made sure we included it in the record. And combined with the thunder it has this alien, menacing quality to it that I love.

That's one of my favourite parts of the record. It’s so incongruous with the melody, it works really well.

Yeah it seems like it belongs there, and also the dog solo in the song 'Sundogs', the recording Emily made where the dogs run past the microphone from left to right.

Can't beat a dog solo in my opinion.

Also, the chair solo in White Glass. There's this horrible scrapping, squealing sound that sounds a little like someone blowing into saxophone or something. It was actually the sound of a chair as you pull it across the cement floor. It made this wonderful squeaking sound and so we put a track of the chair on that, record and it stayed in.

That must be the first recording of a chair solo in music history.

I don't know if it's the first, but certainly one of a few and I'm proud to be part of that.

Commenting on interacting sound, one of the coolest sounds is the contrast of your voice and Emily's between the lead and backing vocals.

There's a few, on 'Joy' there's some backing vocals from me, and on 'Black Willow' all three of us sing together. But mostly I was trying not to be a vocal presence in it because I thought that was a thing for Shearwater, and I really wanted this to be different. The idea was always that Emily was going to be the voice of this. The song "I Don't Want Children", there's a funny story about that because when I wrote it I did a quick demo vocal where I just sang the exact melody and phasing there is on the song, and Emily just used that as a guide and sang over it. We found out at the end that we liked it better if we left a little of my vocals in, so it's actually there, but you only notice if you take it out. You can't distinguish it, so it's a strange combination of mine and Emily's vocals. And we slowed her voice down a bit on almost the entire record, which happened first as an accident, but we liked the effect so much, and Emily especially liked it, that she identified with this voice more than her normal singing voice that was recorded. It was just another way to remove that a little bit from her and help her create this hybrid character that wasn't her or me.

Ah okay, so it just folds itself into the rest of the album.

Yeah it just seemed right, so we decided to make that the approach we were going to use and not question it. It's a funny combination, as I'm talking to you, I hadn't realised it was that pervasive to the record. But I guess it was a combination of being intentional but also noticing if something worked that then just sticking with it without trying to prove why it was working.

I read somewhere that this was the first time you've written for someone else lyrically.

Yeah, but this was the first time I'd ever done a whole record for someone else to sing. It was fascinating, and I was really afraid I wouldn't be able to do it.

What was it like, the dynamics of it?

Well, I tried to write lyrics that seemed they would be something that my imagined version of Emily would sing. I asked her what her range was, and she didn't know, so we sat down at the piano and were like "how's this note?" So, I could get some sense of where might be comfortable for her to sing. Then I tried to write something that would be in keeping with either what I know of her or how she presents herself. The interesting thing was, I know Emily better now than when we started working on this, but then I didn't know her very well at all. And so, I didn't feel like I had to be true to the actual version of her, it was just sort of trying to triangulate towards a point that it would seem natural for her to do, but it was coming from my imagination. But then I gave the lyrics to her and ask her "how do you feel about this", and if she was having trouble with a line. Emily is a very interesting person. She's a visual artist. She didn't play music at all until she was 19 or 20, so she's not as... I'm kind of a hyper-verbal person and that's not her approach to the world. But she's very attuned to textures and the overall feeling of things. She approaches sound like it's a visual medium. Any time you’re making a song with Emily, you give her an instrument and she’s playing it in a way that always fits the song, and it's never something that you'd think of. This is absolutely true. Any time we wanted something, and we couldn't tell what was necessary, we'd give it to Emily and she would play a part of it that just was not something I would have thought of, and it was wonderful to have this creative energy there that you knew was going to be different from yours.

Your time at Okkervil River; that group has a lot of love songs, and you also write songs about the natural world and about metaphysics. What's the difference between writing a love song and writing a metaphysical song about the natural world?

I don't write songs about the natural world. I think it plays into them but it's just part of life as I experience it and as most people experience it. In a way, they're all love songs. But I know what you mean in a different sense. I mean, Will [Shelf] writes in a completely different style than I do. For him the lyrics come first, but for me it's not that unimportant, it almost never comes first, it's like second for third. What's important is an emotional state of some kind is revealed and illustrated by the song, and then the lyrics are a question of trying not to disturb the feeling that's already there, or not trying to mess with it too much, or dictate what it ought to be. I'd like to throw that to the group. Do you know that band Wye Oak?

I do yeah!

They're actually in the room with me, they're doing a show in Manhattan on Friday, this huge symphonic thing

Jenn Wasner [half of Wye Oak]: Hi!

Jonathan: The difference between writing a love song and writing another kind of song?

Jenn: That's juicy. I don't know, I've never written a song that's not a love song in some way shape for form. I think it's possible to hyper intellectualise and make something that's interesting, but then you're dealing with the realm about feeling and like emotional wizardry

Jonathan: Some people are really good at that.

Jenn: I don't know, there's a pretty limited palette to work with if you're trying to pull people's emotional heartstrings, and there are a few ways to get into that headspace, and love is one of the quickest and easiest and most sure things. It's like a portal and it's something everyone's experienced. You know, fear and love are kind of it when you're talking about broad strokes.

Jonathan: Also, there are some singers where you just instantly feel like you're them when they're singing. It seems like they somehow got in and inhabited you, and I think Emily has more of that quality in her voice than I do.

Jenn: Her voice is so relatable. Because her overarching thing, she's not a singer or a musician sort by type. I think a lot of my favourite voices are that way. Less trained and therefore more immediate.

Jonathan: She'd be a sensational country singer. Like I've heard her sing country songs and she's amazing. But that's not what she wants to do.

Andy Stack [other half of Wye Oak]: I guess the love song question, I feel like when I've written a love song it hasn't really been about love, and that's how most songs end up. You feel like you're writing about one thing but even if you don't know it actually you're picking at something else.

Jenn: For me it's the reverse, I think I'm writing about something else but then I always write about love.

Jonathan: With the Loma record, in the background of the record there's this breakup [Dan and Emily broke up during the album's production]. And that was something that we didn't discuss in an overt way, but it happened partly though the record. But because you're trying to reach out through these different energies, it really works its way in when you write these songs, in some subconscious way it made its way into the record. In the same way, the political climate of the US made it into the last Shearwater record. And it can feel like you're predicting the future but it's not, it's an area of your consciousness. I think that state of being, they weren't written as breakup songs but that energy is in there. And when you're in that breakup you're very alive. You're in this moment of tension between who you are going to be and who you have been and they're pulling you in opposite directions, and that's a powerful place to write a song from.

Loma is out now on Sub Pop Records and you can listen on all streaming platforms. They're touring the British Isles soon, and tickets can be bought here.

30 May – Brighton @ The Hope

31 May – London @ The Lexington

1 Jun – Bristol @ Rough Trade

3 Jun – Manchester @ Gullivers

4 Jun – Leeds @ Headrow House

5 Jun – Glasgow @ Hug and Pint

7 Jun – Dublin @ Whelan’s (upstairs)

8 Jun – Liverpool @ Buyers Club

9 Jun – Oxford @ The Cellar