Toward the end of 2009, Fleet Foxes' lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold was offered a solo slot on Joanna Newsom's tour. As a fan of the progressive, indie harpist, Pecknold considered it an easy decision.
The difficult part was figuring out what songs he'd play without the other five members of his band.
Fleet Foxes had been touring with the same set of songs from its "Sun Giant" EP and self-titled album, and Pecknold wanted to write new songs for the Newsom tour. The challenge was to create bare-bones songs outside of Fleet Foxes' lush aesthetic of heavily layered vocals and grandiose instrumentation, the Seattle group's comfort folk zone.
"Opening for Joanna Newsom and having to play alone brought the need for one melodic voice and one lyrical voice," says Pecknold, who performs with Fleet Foxes Friday at
The new material became the foundation for Fleet Foxes' second album, "Helplessness Blues." Released in May, the album came nearly three years after the band's breakthrough full-length album. The writing and recording process was trying, Pecknold says, because of touring requirements and recording delays — all of which added to the pressures of delivering a strong sophomore album.
"There was a lot of pressure to make something that was a good follow-up, [something] that we'd want to tour [with] for a period of time," he says.
"Helplessness," a complex and at times daring album of rich folk-pop, received near-universal acclaim, thanks in large part to Pecknold's renewed focus on lyrics and melodies. Pecknold says the time had come to build on the band's trademark sound.
"The first record, we tried to do something with the density of [Beach Boys'] 'Pet Sounds,' but we didn't have the musicality to do it, so we put a lot of vocals" on the tracks, he says.
Fleet Foxes' vocals remain one of the band's most distinctive traits. The sublime four-part harmonies recall Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with their clean and soaring arrangements. Is such a calling card both a gift and a curse?
"I think it's an interesting aspect of the band," Pecknold says. "But personally, it would be fun to mess around with something that didn't have any harmonies or lyrics or vocals at all. If we keep doing it, we need to do it in a new way, something more technically innovative."
Pecknold is interested in new ways to release material, too. With "Helplessness," Fleet Foxes fulfilled its contract with its record label, Sub Pop, and Pecknold is planning to expand on the industry's standard business model.
"We'll probably do individual songs in addition to albums, so for that sort of thing, it's just easiest to put out yourself," he says about selling tracks online.
When to expect those songs, or new Fleet Foxes material in general, is anybody's guess.
"We haven't really talked about it," Pecknold says. "I've been writing a bunch of songs. All of that will become clear. Once there are some things to show, [they'll] be shown as soon as possible."
Touring is first on Pecknold's agenda, but that doesn't mean new concepts and songs aren't coming to him. He says there are "things in the works" — not necessarily as Fleet Foxes projects — such as "a really quiet album, a really loud album and instrumental stuff." It could be a sign Pecknold is continuing to evolve as a songwriter.
"I think being a musician, or even not as a musician, it's good to ask why you're doing it every once in awhile," he says. "I feel more in control."
If you go
Fleet Foxes performs Friday at
, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Doors open at 6 p.m. The Walkmen will also perform. Tickets are $25 for law seats; $40 for pavilion seats. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.