Afterword by Robin Pecknold

Growing up, I loved the most basic, antipoetic lyrics. Lyrics about wanting to hold hands, how the times are changing, being a jealous man, being very sad sometimes, being in love with a girl. My teenage mind marveled not at the words themselves, but at how impactful they became when paired with inventive instrumentation and canny melodies, how layers of meaning and identification would alchemize when a lyric collided with arrangement, timbre, delivery, tempo, key, and meter. I liked phonemic choices and elisions that seemed butter smooth, sanded to a finish. I liked judicious use of internal rhyme, alliteration, and anaphora. I liked lyrics that were emotionally rich but technically invisible, no hanging syllables or Germanic consonants, like paintings that hide their brushstrokes. I liked lyrics that weren’t trying to sell a false promise or an easy answer. And above all, I liked coherent, sturdy, undeniable melodies, the metric ton of horsepower a good melody could infuse into any well-set lyric. Now, at thirty-six, past retirement age in Rock Years, I still feel the same. I’m not sure if we really change as we get older. Maybe we just get confused for a while by something or other, and eventually circle back to wherever it was we unselfconsciously began—a bit wiser, a few more questions answered.

I’m honored that Tin House and Faber have published these words, but I’m also a bit embarrassed, because I don’t really identify as a lyricist, or even as a writer. I do make time most every day to sit down, sing into a microphone, and seek out song ideas, but I never sit down to write lyrics. I only ever “write” words while actively singing; the lyrics always start as a confused cloud of vocalese gibberish. Over the course of hours of searching repetition, this gibberish congeals around one or two repeated sounds, utterances that braid well with melodies I’m simultaneously trying to find. Those sounds inevitably suggest a handful of possible phrases; those phrases suggest concepts; those concepts suggest elaborations and refutations. It goes on like this, order arising from chaos, until there’s a finished lyric that reveals some emotional truth I didn’t at first intend to share, and often don’t consciously understand. Maybe this is how the process works for real writers, too, but it never feels like writing to me. It feels more like discovering something.

If a bottle of water in a freezer is clean enough, the water will remain liquid; to initiate the freezing process, ice crystals need a speck of dust or other impurity to attach to. Similarly, in finding lyrics, there’s usually one word or phrase that floats in, sticks, and catalyzes a chain reaction. I remember sitting in the dark in our old Seattle recording space, the same dingy triangular room where Nirvana made Bleach, singing and playing into a broken PA, writing the song “Helplessness Blues.” I was repeating a strummed chord, finding that trancelike space where my songs come from, tracing the jutting arc of the melody and singing “something something believing . . .” over and over. The rest of the lyrics arose out of the implications present in that word “believing,” a word that itself arose randomly in the process of finding the melody. And in the years since, whenever people have shown me the lyrics to “Helplessness Blues” tattooed on their skin, I always think back to those gloaming hours singing nascent gibberish in the dark; it’s a marvel that lyrics born so randomly could come to live permanently on a forearm or a clavicle.

Or in a book! Compiling and notating the lyrics here was maybe the first time I’d read them together, and one thing I kept noticing was the preponderance of question marks. I counted eighty-eight in total, about two per song, and one per key on the average piano. This reminded me of how fundamental the asking of questions has always been to my songwriting—not just with words, but with the music itself. Creatively, I’m most excited when the song I’m working on seems to be posing an interesting question, when it embodies some combination of elements or conceits that hasn’t been attempted in exactly that way before. A question could be micro or macro; it could be teasing out unexplored implications of other beloved music; it could be strictly lyrical, strictly musical, or both. To me, a song is “good” if it is asking interesting questions. And a song is “done” when those questions are no longer confusing the song’s maker.

Wading in Waist-High Water: The Lyrics of Fleet Foxes is out now in hardback and for ebook.
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Fleet Foxes

Featuring over 50 song lyrics alongside never-before-seen insights from Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold, Wading in Waist-High Water is an intimate look into—and resounding celebration of—musical craftsmanship and care.