Starting to write songs about loss—the death of his father and the end of a long relationship—Israel Nebeker found himself fighting to define what comes next.
The singer and co-founder of Blind Pilotsays he’s always written songs from personal experience, and when he faced the most difficult period of his life, what emerged were songs of grace, remembrance and gratitude. Gorgeously rendered in Blind Pilot’s lush and uplifting folk, the songs that make up And Then Like Lions carry personal weight, alongside a perseverance that Nebeker is thankful to be able to share.
“What I wanted the album to be, to represent to me and to my family and to anyone who listens, is facing loss straight on, acknowledging it openly and facing it with courage,” Nebeker says. “That’s the strongest motif throughout the album, the places I found beauty or courage or hope in the face of a lot of darkness. That’s what I wanted to write about. That’s something that I felt I could share.”
In the five years since Blind Pilot released sophomore album We Are The Tide, Nebeker worked steadily to write songs, but didn’t feel confident with anything until he’d started confronting those feelings of loss.
“It was an eye-opening experience to go through that and it really made me rethink a lot of things about what life is and what our place is and what death is,” he says. “I love these songs for that reason.”
The first song that came was “Umpqua Rushing,” about the breakup of a 13-year relationship, which came within a month of learning about his father’s cancer diagnosis.
“That came out of doing a lot of remembering,” he says. “I went up to this little island in British Columbia to write songs for this album and I was doing a lot of thinking by myself and remembering a lot of strong memories that had defined the last decade of my life with this woman. Some of the strongest memories were trips to the Umpqua Forest and the Umpqua River. I guess I was thinking about how to let go of something like that, something that defines you. It didn’t feel right at the time to close my eyes to it all and just let it be and not think about that again.”
Nebeker says struggling with the phrase “getting over it” pushed him—in life and in songwriting—into a place of contemplation, one that carried over into the period of time he’d returned home to help care for—and ultimately say goodbye to—his father.
“How do I hold onto what I can hold onto and still move on?” he says. “Since then, I’ve come to realize for myself at least that my way through it wasn’t to close my eyes to all that, it was to embrace the meaning of the memories that remain with me and that continue to feed who I am and also let it be another chapter.”
The lion motif that carries from the cover art to the album’s final song represents more than courage for Nebeker. It’s a part of his childhood, part of his family. The cover photo is the actual flag that his mom sewed and his dad painted when he was a kid. Whenever Nebeker or his brother or sister did something great, their flags would be displayed on the kitchen wall to celebrate.
“I came across it after my dead’s death and I decided to hang it up in the studio where I was writing, as this encouragement from him,” Nebeker says. “It took on significance, the symbolism both of the lion and the reasons why I thought he might have put it there for me. One day I came into the studio and the first couple lines of the last track ‘Like Lions,’ popped into my head, and the melody and I sat down and wrote it right there.”
“Like Lions” is, fittingly, the album’s most uplifting moment. It’s a sunrise rather than a sunset, a spring that inevitably follows the bleak winter.
In the past, Nebeker brought songs to the rest of the band with just the vocal and acoustic guitar and the full six-piece band together worked on the fuller arrangement. But on And Then Like Lions, Nebeker had more fleshed-out demos by the time he was ready to share the songs with his bandmates.
“They started with a fuller sound, so when it was time to add things, they got more textured,” he says.
The final result is Blind Pilot’s richest sounding album, with more space for Ryan Dobrowski (drums), Kati Claborn (banjo, guitar, ukulele), Luke Ydstie (bass), Ian Krist (vibraphone) and Dave Jorgensen (keyboards, trumpet) to shine and add layers to depth to the songs. The band recorded again with producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Neko Case, My Morning Jacket) and enlisted Peter Katis to mix, drawn by his work with The National.
“We tend to go for lush and rich, heavily textured sounds,” he says. “What I love about The National albums is how they feel very thoughtful and a little solemn and I thought that would be good for this subject matter.”
Now, with a fresh album after a five-year wait, Blind Pilot is bursting at the seams to share the new music widely.
“I’ve been thinking about touring for many years. It’s for sure the most rewarding part of the whole process for me,” Nebeker says. “That’s when the songs start to feel real, when they become their own thing, especially when we see the music connecting with people.”
For more from Blind Pilot, check out this performance from Newport Folk Fest in 2012 in the player below.