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Richard Buckner
 by Jennifer Nine

If ever there was a voice made to sing out the sounds of troubled dreams and unquiet ghosts, of the restless, painful truths that will not be denied, it's the voice that belongs to California-born, Alberta-bound Richard Buckner. Strangely, it's not a breathy tenor, but a big man's baritone; stranger still, it's a baritone delivered with unexpected fragility; a deep voice that flutters and feints and skirts and slides around the music in a graced and haunted rapture.

If asked, Richard Buckner (who is not only a big man but an edgy, articulate and frequently acid-tongued man into the bargain) won't offer much of an opinion on whether his voice sounds like no one else's at all. Or how, if that's the case, it got that way, other than that cigarettes may have helped a little. If asked, Richard Buckner's not-quite-secret society of admirers (whose praise, if you could eat ecstatic plaudits, would have made Buckner a much, much bigger man) will find it hard to resist telling you that his albums are also graced and haunted by words which are just as astonishing as that voice.

All of which makes it the gentlest of ironies that the first Richard Buckner album to have anything like a proper release in the United Kingdom uses none of Buckner's words at all, even if the voice is present and accounted for. Instead of words from the pen of the wandering spirit whose previous three albums Bloomed, Devotion And Doubt and Since were stitched through with highways and U-Hauls and phone calls from Vancouver, "The Hill" sets the poetry of one Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 "Spoon River Anthology" to music. Made up of eighteen short tracks, nine of them instrumental, the songs either use or are inspired by Masters' chorus of voices, delivered as first-person beyond-the-grave testimonies - epitaphs of inhabitants of this fictional but archetypal town. From loveless marriages to crimes of passion; from suicides to syphilitics; from abused children and reprobates to betrayed wives and censorious upstanding citizens, its voices are ghostly, timeless, unsettling and strongly, often shockingly, resonant. And more than a touch reminiscent of the unquiet spirits that drift through Buckner's own work.

Still in print and on school reading lists in many parts of the US, Masters, a lawyer by profession, is relatively little-known elsewhere.
"You know what? I didn't actually get him in school either. I found him after college, laughs Buckner, who graduated from Chico State in California with a BA in English, just like everybody I liked reading. Four years reading the fucking Wasteland, he adds, and everybody I liked, I found afterwards. It was quite coincidental; I was working in a bookstore and stumbled on this anthology and kept it.

Masters was a Walt Whitman disciple, definitely. A lot of people think of him as a minor poet, and out of his whole literary career, this [anthology] was his one shining moment. It was the one piece that was about his life, entirely. Before I began recording this album, I'd already been doing songs from the new record on tour. I've had a couple of people walk up and say, 'well, I'm not a real Masters fan, but I like the songs.' But I don't like everything by anybody. You have to take it for what it's worth. I think that book's really great.

It has, he says, some of the same qualities as the work of short-story writer Raymond Carver, a clear influence on his own writing.
It's a pretty dark piece of work. He was pretty disappointed with life, and that he had to be a lawyer, and that he got started so late. I think he would have loved to be an artist. His parents were from both sides of the camps - a Northerner and a Southerner - and there was a lot of conflict in the house. He was a Jeffersonian but he was really disappointed in the shape America was taking.

There is some very political work [in Spoon River] he elaborates. You can tell from what a lot of characters are saying in the poems. Even some of the poems that are about more conservative people, you can tell what his slant is on that person based on what they're saying. Yeah, you can hear Newt Gingrich or one of those guys speak and they sound like a complete fucking idiot so it's not hard to make fun of those people.

But Masters, critically, doesn't. The effect is not, Buckner agrees, patronising or voyeuristic; there's a thread of dignity running through the tales of the sort of ordinary and fallible people that a triumphalist, myth-making society rarely gives voice to.
Everybody's speaking to themselves and talking about their lives in the terms that they lived them.

But for all the intensity of both the subject matter and the performer, the music that surrounds The Hill, performed by Buckner and collaborators Joey Burns and John Convertino of Giant Sand and Calexico, sounds far from bleak.
That kind of surprised me too, Buckner admits, because the poems are very dark. But a lot of the songs around them tended not to be that way. Even the one about Elizabeth Childers - who dies with her child inside her - has a melody which is very happy.

Like Buckner, Masters' best moments come in an economy of phrasing, as in the story of Tom Merritt, who meets his end confronting his wife's young lover "standing / scared to death, holding his rabbits / And all I could say was 'Don't, don't, don't' / As he aimed and fired at my heart."
Yeah, he says so much there without saying it, agrees Buckner. He doesn't say, well, he's just been rabbit hunting, he's standing there holding his gun and I sneaked up on him - he doesn't say all that. That's one of the things I love about the poems. A lot of people, one of the problems they have with Masters is he was a quick writer and he didn't go back and retouch; he wasn't into editing, he'd just write it right down. But you know, Kerouac was like that too and I think that's a really admirable way to write... though I'm pretty heavy on editing myself, he admits.

Fitting free verse into song structures would seem to be a difficult task, but according to Buckner, its growth was organic.
The whole thing started with me with the book in a hotel room and a guitar and just seeing what would happen. I wasn't even planning on writing one song, let alone an album's worth. I was just kinda screwing around and I noticed that some of the poems went in a certain way that made sense to me, and it just started happening. It was more like an experiment when it started out, seeing if I could do something with those poems because I just loved them so much. Especially the couple that I started with. The songs are the stories of eighteen characters, and there's only nine poems. And there's hundreds of poems in the book itself, but not all poems lend themselves to songs and not all the poems are great poems either. Or some of the poems are great poems but they sound stupid when you try to make a song out of them. But the weird thing was that the ones picked, I didn't pick them because they would make great songs, I just picked poems that I liked. And out of those, most of them became good songs. It appears that a lot of the poems on this record were based on people who were very close to him, his family, and characters based on himself.

So what happened was I had the nine songs. I went home, back up to Canada, Buckner, who now lives in Edmonton with his wife, Penny-Jo, a painter, café owner and sometime drummer for the Maybellines and lately for Buckner himself.
I had two months off [the road] and I rented this little office space in this old office building and I said,' right, when I go home, I really want to do this.' I'd had this idea in my head for four years and I wanted to get it out of my system. I'd been gone for nine months and I was glad to be home but I ended up over in this office night and day. I had this eight track that I'd gotten from MCA [with whom Buckner's "mutually unsatisfactory" two-album deal expired after 1998's Since] and I put everything on it that came out. Anything. Even if it was a piece of shit, like a three note line. And in some cases they became songs with words and in some cases they became songs without words. But whatever came out I kept.

Of the recording process, he says, What happened was I made a mockup of this record at home, which was going to be my model when I went into the studio. So what I had built up at home, because I'm not a drummer or a bass player, was all hand percussion and keyboard bass and that sort of thing, and so I was building mockups of orchestration using eight tracks of E-bow. And I went down to Tucson with this mockup and I told Joey and John, 'well, here's the thing: I have a no bass, no drumkit rule on this record', he laughs, conscious of the irony of undertaking a no-bass, no-drum record with a bassist and a drummer. I knew they were two guys who could handle it. So I told Joey, just use arco bass and cello, and I told John that I just wanted orchestrated percussion, hand percussion and any kind of weird noises he could come up with. And so what I ended up doing was I hired these guys and just for kicks, I brought my eight track down with me, 'let's just put it to two-inch tape and see how it sounds,' and a lot of what I'd done at home sounded really really good. I have one good microphone. I'm by no means an engineer. It was completely accidental. But when we put it to tape, it was like 'oh my god, let's just use most of this.' So I ended up overdubbing the arco bass and cello and then had John add real percussion over the half-assed percussion that I'd done.

Like Buckner's previous collaboration with Burns and Convertino, Devotion And Doubt, The Hill was produced by J.D. Foster.
I really needed his input, he insists. No matter how much you have done by yourself, you still need somebody's outside voice. Of course I had no money to do it. I found the cheapest studio in the country that took credit cards and charged it, and then JD flew down on his frequent flyer miles and all I had to pay for was his expenses and a hotel. And John worked for free and I gave Joey a couple of bucks. It was a super duper cheap record.

They were, he says of his collaborators, the only people I thought of. I mean, you don't know what a record's going to sound like until you start working on it, even in the demo stage. But it's just the idea of the freedom of random recording - which you see on their records and stuff we've done together, too. That's got to be one of the reasons you work with people. You want to go in there and have a lot of stuff happen. And there was definitely a lot of random stuff happening when I was recording at home. The stuff we did, and the way I record now, is a direct result from recording Devotion and Doubt. That session influenced my life a lot and the way I think about music.

Using someone else's words, Buckner says, was strangely unproblematic.
In fact, it was a relief. Another reason this was a good time to do this record - besides not being on MCA, because they never would have put this record out - was that I'd been writing songs for a long time and I think I needed some sort of mental break that would allow me to write songs... I don't know if I'm in the process of changing styles or just confused with the kind of direction I want to take with the writing right now, but I wasn't really prepared to get completely involved. Even though I have an album's worth of my own songs right now. But I think I needed sort of a creative distraction. That's what the gift of this record to me is, and I think it's helped me with my own writing in a way. Not write, yet not dry up my writing. And it was a very interesting exercise, working with pieces that weren't meant to be songs.

When it's pointed out that the marriage of Literature with a capital L and, for want of a better word, rock music is usually dire - spectres of doomy spoken-word outings and postrock noodling spring horribly to mind - Buckner laughs out loud.
Yeah, because most people can't pull it off. You know, a lot of people try to be clever and shit, and a lot of times it just doesn't work.

Now thirty-three, Buckner began his recording career in 1994, rather later than many of his peers. Did he ever think he was too old to be beginning?
No. You know, the main thing I regret is that I didn't grow up in a family of creative people. I think if my parents had been artists or something, it would have happened much earlier for me. I would have had a lot more confidence in my artistic side. I'd been painting and writing and drawing and playing music from a very early age but I didn't have any confidence because there weren't people around me who supplied me with that kind of confidence. It's not about their being non- supportive, it's about not understanding. And even when I first started putting bands together I was probably twenty and it was just that I didn't have the confidence. A lot of it's about trust, trusting yourself and trusting other people, and I didn't have that. It wasn't until I moved to San Francisco where there were people around who gave me a little bit of support that I finally decided to do something. And when I think of the songs I was writing when I was younger, I'm actually kind of glad that I didn't put a record out because I'm sure I would have been embarrassed by it now. That's it - the whole Rilke argument in [his] Letters To A Young Poet: don't ask me what you think you should be writing or feeling, just get the experience and you'll do it. You'll do it when you're ready to do it."
Is it a matter of growing in self-knowledge, or of honing one's craft? "There were definitely points in my life that brought my writing to life. The writing I was doing in college, I was definitely writing in an experimental style that did not please my professors at all and I had numerous fights and low grades as a result. I think the writing itself might not have been amazing but I was definitely searching for a style that I hadn't seen anywhere else. And it wasn't until my mid-twenties in the mid-Eighties, when it was really hard living here in the States and it was pretty much a depression even though they wouldn't admit it, I moved out to the East Coast away from everyone I knew, and had an experience in my life that kind of spiritually blew me apart. You can't do anything unless you have the experience. There are people floating around dressing in the clothes and living in the life, but if certain things haven't happened to them it will not allow them to think certain things.

The matters of class and economic situation - the great taboos in American discourse - are, he agrees, a factor in his worldview.
It's funny, I was just talking to someone about this yesterday. I'm working in a studio right now with a bluegrass band, producing their record. We were talking to the engineers, and one of the interns is a real young guy and he's talking about MP3s and the people behind all that, and he's like, well, these companies, they're not making any money off it. And I was like, what are you fucking talking about? You think people are doing this for nothing? If people weren't making money off this, they wouldn't be doing it, because that's the nature of the beast. And it all has to do with the people you hang out with, so if you're hanging out with a bunch of fucking dotcom cruisers, you're going to be like that, whether you like it or not. Whether you see yourself like that or not, you're going to become that. Like when I was on MCA, he elaborates. In order to survive in the MCA world, I had to come up with a series of scams to get by so that I could survive the experience. And luckily I don't have to do that anymore. You have to survive in whatever circumstances you're in, o you should choose your environment very carefully.

And yeah, I'll definitely trust somebody who came from a rougher background than a trust fund kid in a second, Buckner adds. Because there are certain experiences they just have no idea about. Like, have you never not had money for food? Have you ever sat there being hungry and had to watch somebody else eat? Do you know what it's like to sleep in the street? That's a huge experience and it stays with you the rest of your life, and that's something that people who have money never know and can't even imagine knowing. They think about it, but they don't know.

They say that anger eats away at you. Yeah, but it eats away at what? It eats away at the shell of the person you are and gets down to it. I mean, I dunno, he shakes his head, and adds savagely, hopefully all this shit's going to blow up pretty soon and we're going to have a major fuckin' economic breakdown here, 'cos I think a lot of people deserve to have it happen to them. And I think a lot of good will come from it. Ninety per cent of people are just walking fucking corpses, and it's going to take a very severe situation to wake them up. I have a couple of nephews up in Canada, and they're, you know, computer age kids, and I see the way they're living, compared to the way I lived, and it's very different and it's very alarming.

Ask Buckner, married for the second time and happy, with a home (rather than just a storage space) for the first time in years, whether he's worried about becoming too comfortable. And he says, Yeah, I know what you're talking about. But for me personally, I'm so fucking suspicious of everything I don't think I could ever be that comfortable. Even when I was on MCA, I wasn't that comfortable then. If you grew up or lived through certain things, there's no way you could ever be comfortable. Even if you have money coming in, you can't ever be, because you know what it's like without. I think about this a lot. I think about people who were once great and no longer are, like Leonard Cohen. People who used to be able to write and no longer can write. And I wonder what happened. I'm sure he didn't expect that to happen to him.

Buckner fans frequently claim that his songs - beautiful, bleak, yearning, bereft - are of comfort. Is that knowledge pleasing to him? The reply is firm and immediate.
No. You know, the only reason I write is that I'm trying to figure things out in my own life. It comes from there. I'm trying to comfort myself or something.

Does it matter that your music matters to others? Once again, Buckner is adamant.
No. If that matters, I think I'm in big trouble. Absolutely not. I don't give a fuck, he adds, for emphasis. And I tell people that too. They start telling me, 'Well, you know, I thought this, I didn't think this.' He shakes his head, laughing. You know, I don't want to know this. Keep this shit to yourself! It's not important to anybody. Especially me. So keep it to yourself.

Softening a little, he qualifies, Look, if I'm talking to somebody I'm not going to be a dick and say, 'hey, I don't want to hear what your favourite song is.' But if people get too deep into it, I have to say, 'Listen, this is not what this is all about. You know, take it for what it's worth and that's it. If it means a lot to you, great.

Surely there must be some songs which say something you want to say to someone else; surely there must be some people you want to hear a song and take a message from it. Buckner laughs, as much mocking as self-mocking.
I think it's kind of a cowardly way to tell somebody something you want to say to them, don't you? Like, ah fuck, give me a fucking break. Is that what you're doing, you're sending me like a secret note or something? Fuck. That's my whole problem with computers. People can get on there and write whatever they want and not leave their own name. You fucking coward! God damn. Put your name on there. If you're going to say something to somebody, so when you make these little glib nerdy-ass comments, we'll know who it's coming from, we can get down to business and see what your real fucking problem is.

But your songs have to do with real people, surely.
Yeah, absolutely, they're full of characters. There are definitely real people in them. It's like Spoon River - those poems are composites based on different people, or a couple different people rolled into one. And it's different experiences that make up one story. But there's not one thing that shapes anybody - four different things that happen in a day and three different people you run into and that shapes a certain night. If songs were purely factual it would just be embarrassing.

Surely there's always potential for embarrassment in Buckner's line of work anyway. He snorts.
Usually every night when I'm performing onstage, at some point I think, like, 'isn't this fucking weird?', I'm up here on a podium hollering and people are looking at me. This is a really weird fucking way to make a living. Or not, as the case may be, he adds wryly. And it is weird. You're up there facing a couple hundred people and they're facing you and you're up there hollering.. When you put it in those terms it's strange, and after doing it for nine months of a year you're like, 'God, I can't believe this is what I do with my time.'

I keep myself aware of the sounds I make recording, and I don't pick bands based on the need to change a sound per record but it's mostly the result of me trying to keep myself interested in what I'm doing. I want to keep going in every time and have a very interesting and confusing time and come out with something that I didn't expect to make. I want to create that situation for myself as much as I can. Either by hiring people I've never played with before, or by hiring people whose style is much different to mine. You want to create a situation where you are confounded, so that something will happen that you didn't expect, says Buckner, who, to MCA's bemusement, used Tortoise's John McEntire and Gastr Del Sol's David Grubbs, amongst others, on Since. Otherwise, he asks what's the point?

Ask Buckner if he is aware of the uniqueness of his singing style, or whether he patterned his singing on anyone else's, and the shrug is audible.
I don't even know how it happened. Trying to figure out what your own voice sounds like is always weird, because you can't get on the other side of what you do. You can't tell how your music affects other people at all. There are things that I've done that I can't believe people like, but they like them so [shrugs] it's like, 'okay, that's cool.' I have a storage space down in Bakersfield, and a couple of times a year I go down there and I check in; I go see Buck Owens play at the Crystal Palace, down the street is Zingo's, this truck stop-style lounge with chicken fried steak and whiskey. And next to that there's this overpriced Best Western with the most fucked up karaoke bar in the world with the same depressing woman in there singing Wind Beneath My Wings every week. And some real freaks come in there. Like this one guy came in, Jim Bob, in this mailman outfit, and the music was The House Of The Rising Sun but he made up his own words and he was rolling the mic around in his hands like it was a dick or something, and he was singing these made-up Biblical lyrics to it and then stormed out. So I get up there and I sing a couple of songs and every time I sing, the karaoke guy is like, 'Alright, and there's Rick with his, uh, unique style....' Whoever gets up there, they pretty much do the song. But I get up there and do my own ... whatever. And they're like, 'Ohhhh. Alriiiight. Anyway... NEXT!'

My voice? I dunno. Why do some people walk funny? It's just the way you are, you know. I don't really think about it. The only thing I've done that means I thought about my singing was, before I recorded 'Since', I started smoking because I wanted to see what it would do to my voice and it did things that pleased me. So that's the only thing I did to my voice.

Of living in Edmonton, Canada's most northerly provincial capital city, Buckner insists, I fuckin' love it. It's great. It's way better than America and it's cheaper. Everything about it is nice, except crossing the border. It's bad both ways. It's like going into Turkey. When I get searched, it's usually people with blue hair or tattoos that get pulled in there. I mean, last time I went through they said they were pulling over everyone who was alone in their car. That's profiling. Or anything different about you. 'What do you do? You're a musician? Get out.'

Is he happy, at last, to use the word home?
Yeah. I haven't had that for a long time. I was on the road for a couple of years. It's good to have a place to go back to. I was anxious to find a place; not having one frazzles you. I didn't really realise what a freak I'd become. There are certain things that happen to you when you don't live anywhere that I'm still recovering from. I was just noticing in this recording studio last night how I kept all my stuff in one place. I didn't feel comfortable leaving all my stuff all over the studio. It always had to sit back in one area. I have to keep track of everything at all times. I'm still not used to having a home, he admits. I still keep all my stuff in one room. We have our bedroom and my wife has her little studio room and I have the basement that I work out of. But I never take stuff upstairs; I keep it all in one place. I have to have it all around me, because I'm still not used to the comfort of letting stuff fly around.

By default, the world at large, when it considers Richard Buckner, considers him an alt.country artist of sorts, with folk and rock leanings. But on more than one occasion, Buckner's quite pointed comments have made it clear that he bridles at being lumped in with the No Depression herd. The reason is as simple as the retort is brief:
I just hate clubs. Whether you're talking about a fraternity or a church, or whatever, I just hate clubs. I think it's part of the mindset that leads to nationalism and that kind of crap and it really creeps me out. I just like to be on my own, and I don't really like many people either. There's nothing so terrible about those particular words per se, but it becomes a bad thing when people corral you and you don't have any control over it.

As for musical peers, he says, the only thing I really have in common with anyone in the musical scene is with people like me, who are struggling to survive and keep doing this without having to quit and work at a Jiffy Lube. I did a few tours with Alejandro Escovedo, and we've become friends over the years. He's fifty now and he's been doing it at the same level as I am for years. We make the same money, which is not much; we play the same clubs; we can't get publishing deals, and there's a small number of people who like our records and come to the shows. But we can't move on past a certain level. It's not really frustration I feel, it's more like just simple curiosity at how that could be. And yes, maybe you kind of need people around you to validate that in yourself. Like, no, there's not really anything I'm doing wrong. It's just the nature of things.

I'm not angry, I'm totally happy to break even at doing this, because that means I can keep doing it. The only thing that makes me angry is the fact that it's so common to get ripped off: you go to a club, the club makes two grand and you make five hundred bucks. That fuckin' angers me. Or that you give your record to a label in Germany and you never get paid for it, even though you know they sold out. That angers me. The obvious ripoffs. Being a musician is the most ripped off of all professions. I mean, the business of making money is killing everything. Literally. Everything. Spiritually and physically. That's just what you have to contend with and keep fighting. There's a few clubs here, like the Bottom Of The Hill in San Francisco, which is one of the few clubs in the country that gives me a fair deal. I walk out of the club with the money that I made. But it doesn't happen very often. It's a pain in the ass, it's very disappointing, but you have to keep doing it and fighting for your rights.

There's a particular sound in Richard Buckner's voice as he says this: proud, weary, fierce, combative, but not without human kindness. There's a particular sound in his voice as he sings, too, as those who love his voice and words know and as you may have yet, to your ravishment, to discover. As The War Against Silence's brilliant essayist Glen McDonald said in reviewing Devotion And Doubt, Richard Buckner's is a voice which is not so much like other mournful singers, "sad on the way down" as it is "sad on the way up, as if the idea that misery isn't merely inevitable is only a thought he's had recently, and sadness is thus the first rung to cling to on the ladder toward everything else." Still climbing up The Hill we all inhabit but inevitably climb alone. Still climbing up that hill, and the next one after that.

CWAS #6 - Autumn 2000

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