Our pick for the song of the year almost didn’t make it onto the new Fleet Foxes album, but one of the songs wasn’t working out in the studio, and the band needed a replacement. Singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold had been asked by a British magazine to interview Graham Nash and had been looking back at Nash’s songs from the ’60s when musicians were responding to the Vietnam War and all the social changes that were happening at the time.
“The idea of writing a topical song came up, but I wanted to do it from my own perspective,” he says of what would become the title track to Helplessness Blues. “It was like an exercise in writing a personal song—a topical song that was more about my own experience.”
Sickened by the oil spill and the financial crisis, he wanted to write a song about “how those things are happening before you can even know they’re a problem,” he says.
As soon as the melody came, the first half of the lyrics followed right after, an unusual experience for the Seattle native. A couple of weeks later, and the song was complete. “I was also listening to a lot of Pete Seeger,” he says. “So the end part was supposed to be a response to Pete Seeger’s ‘If I Had a Hammer.’”
In the end, though, it turned out to be a song searching for meaning. “You want to think that you’re here for some reason besides just eating a bunch of food and then having kids and then dying,” he says. “There’s something that you can do while you’re here that matters. And I don’t think everyone gets the opportunity to exercise that or to explore that.”
While the song has resonated with his audience, it also helped Pecknold find some of that meaning for himself. “Music that maybe connects with people is a great thing to do,” he says. “It helps you feel like what you’re giving to them isn’t just entertainment.”
But while he still enjoys singing it, something so explicit isn’t likely to find its way on the next album, whenever that might happen. “I think that the lyrics of the next thing will be pretty different,” he says, “but I don’t know if they’ll be further in the vein of that song. I feel like [‘Helplessness Blues’] sort of scratched that itch for me, so I don’t know.”