With their highly-anticipated second album Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes have crafted the year’s most beautiful album, a 12-song collection of indie-folk pastorals featuring laid-back acoustic guitars and gorgeous, CSNY-style vocal harmonies. But for frontman Robin Pecknold, writing the follow-up to their breakout debut wasn’t just a labor of love — it was an all-consuming head trip.
In the May cover story in SPIN, the 25-year-old opens up about writing the record during one of the most tumultuous periods of his life. He was in the midst of a breakup and he imposed upon himself undue pressure to match the breakout success of Fleet Foxes’ first LP (400,000 copies sold and counting). “My relationships and experiences were all colored with this voice in the back of my head saying, ‘You should be working on songs right now,'” Pecknold tells contributing editor David Peisner.
To write the album, Pecknold locked himself in a rental house outside his hometown of Seattle — but the bucolic surrounding of Port Townshend, WA didn’t help his creativity. It only made things worse. “I ended up living there full-time just because me and my girlfriend were breaking up,” he says. “[The house] was all wood, which is cool in theory, but the wood is expanding and contracting all day. Falling asleep there the first day was the worst feeling — the shutters are popping and the whole house is just super loud. There was no way we could record anything there.”
Fleet Foxes re-convened in January 2010 to finish the record, but as his band members reveal, Pecknold wasn’t confident in what he’d written and recorded so far and wanted to continue making major overhauls.
“He and I would go for lunch and it was the only thing he could think about,” says guitarist Skye Skjelset. “He’d be like, ‘What do you think about this? Really? You sure?’ I’ve had this same conversation with him so many times through the process: ‘Calm down. It’s good. Go for it.’ When he got stressed out, I’d just see him close his eyes and watch his eyes just scatter like this [Skjelset flutters his fingers across his eyelids].”
Pecknold’s way of dealing with this pressure was to burrow in deeper. As he puts it, “Making music can be this really self-involved, toxic process. I’ve ended up letting it define me and take over my life in a lot of ways.”
The turmoil continued throughout the rest of last year — Pecknold even announced on the band’s Facebook page that they were headed “back into the cave” to continue work on the album.
Eventually, the band emerged with a stunning collection, and Pecknold’s confessional lyrics show he has grown up to become one of music’s sharpest new poets — a Robert Frost for the indie set. On the title track, he confesses, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you’d conceive / And now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
Still, if it was up to Pecknold, he may have never even released Helplessness Blues. “It was getting to the point where either we were going to finish these few things that needed to be finished or we were going to scrap the whole thing, and I think I was the only person with the energy to scrap the whole thing,” he says. “But if everyone in the band is like, ‘This is great,’ I need to learn to trust that they’re telling me the truth.”
Get the full story on the making of Fleet Foxes new album in the May issue of SPIN, which hits stands on April 19.