In Conversation: Buck Meek

How personal meditations on love and humanity intertwine on his beautiful new solo project...

Speaking to Buck Meek over the phone, it’s easy to imagine him sitting in a rocking chair on a front porch somewhere, observing the gentle drift of the world going by and offering pensive conversation to passersby as if he has all the time in the world.

He’s an old soul with a Texan twang, and he radiates a gentle warmth and openness, underpinned with a modest wisdom. His wording is careful, though not guarded; his end of the conversation is marked by frequent, thoughtful pauses, an exercise in patient construction of meaning rather than allowing platitudes to take the place of real illumination, the latter of which is surely easy to do in the midst of an album press cycle.

All this is to say, he’s a fascinating person, and as a reflection of that his second solo album 'Two Saviors' is some of the most captivating folk music you’ll hear this year (a bold claim in January, but one made with certainty).

Meek grew up in Hill Country, Texas, and spent his teen years playing blues and western swing at dances and Texan ice houses. He’s now best known as the guitar player and backing vocalist of Big Thief, perhaps the most critically acclaimed rock band in the world right now, which was born out of a musical partnership with his then-wife, Adrianne Lenker.

'Two Saviors' is partly the result of Meek’s meditation on the couple’s 2018 separation, yet it expands into a spiritual, clear-eyed and often humorous reflection on love and humanity that captures something greater than the sum of its parts. Recorded over a week in a New Orleans mansion, Meek and his collaborators fed off of spontaneity and instinct; they tracked every part live, without headphones and without hearing takes after recording them.

Chatting to Clash, Meek explains the process and digs into his approach to creativity.

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How much are you drawing from the canon of folk music and country music in your own work? Do you feel you’re creating something that is a continuation of that legacy, or is it coming from a different place altogether?

I think there’s an inherent root to that music within me, ‘cause that’s the music I was surrounded with growing up. I can’t help but integrate those melodies, and that sense of syncopation and that lilt, and the humour and complex storylines and tragedies that you find in country music – I think it’s all just embedded in my psyche from being raised in that world to a certain degree.

But at the same time, as soon as I finished high school, I took off; I lived in Boston and then I was in New York for eight years. And I was steeping myself in a much more experimental music community there, and playing in basements with all these wild experimental bands around New York City.

So in some ways, I think that my departure from Texas kind of catalysed my identity as a Texan; taking a step back from it, and observing my nature, helped me to understand it. As my spirit was guided to all these other places, and collaborating with so many different kinds of musicians – with songwriters like Adrianne Lenker, and Mat Davidson of Twain, and people from all around the world and from different doctrines – I was led to adapt my work. But at the same time, I was able to take a step back and see the core, and make the decision to honour it.

And so, yeah, at this point I allow space for that when I sit down to write. I try to honour that history, and that nature in me. But at the same time, to honour the departure from that, and try to alchemise them. I’m fascinated by the potential to rewire that sound in my own mind and voice. To see what happens whenever I throw a curveball at country music. If I throw an odd time signature on top of that old American feeling, or a more obscure, oblique narrative; filtering in more abstractions into this form that feels so natural and organic to me. That’s definitely a driving force in my writing.

How exactly do you think you pour yourself and your identity into your music?

I suppose just the daily intention to be as honest as possible. To strip away pretension, and to try to find the core, and the most honest and genuine and vulnerable place I can, to write from. I guess I really believe that that’s the most reliable, and… that’s the power plant, I think. It can be really terrifying to write from an honest place, but it gives back so much.

Do you feel you explored that honesty in a new way with ‘Two Saviors’?

I think my last full-length [Meek’s 2018 self-titled solo debut] was more of an exploration of characters in my own life. I think it was more of an observation as a whole, of the human condition, outside of myself. And also just an exercise in writing. Like, it was kind of a puzzle I created for myself, and solved, through writing that record.

Whereas this record is quite the contrary. This is more of a confession. And I suppose a healing process for myself, as well. Writing these songs was a guide through a chapter in my life that was just kind of returning to my own independence, and my own identity in some ways. And yeah, writing the songs was a huge part of that. Kind of unearthing myself from myself.

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The record’s producer, Andrew Sarlo, had the idea to make the record with several restrictions – you’d take no more than seven days, everything is tracked live with no headphones, you can’t hear any takes back until the final day. What was his thinking behind that?

I think the essential credo was just to simplify the process as much as possible, and to remove as much self-reflection from the recording process as we could. There’s so much we attempted to do to remove the physical reflections of that process, the idea being that we could tap into our instincts and into honest and immediate reactions, and adrenaline, and capturing that beating heart that exists in playing a song for the first time, and reacting to your friends in the room, and falling off the rails and then having to pull yourself back on together… To capture that danger requires a certain amount of simplicity.

If you have headphones, and a perfect mix dialled in for you, and you’re isolated behind soundproof glass, and you’re listening back to every take, and attempting songs over and over again to try to nail them perfectly – which is a totally valid and beautiful process in itself – there is a certain amount of self-reflection that pulls you out of that dangerous moment. And so often in making records together with Andrew Sarlo over the years with Big Thief, we’ve discovered that nine times out of ten, the first or second take of a song is the one we end up choosing, after spending hours repeating a song to try to find the right feel. The first take is the one that felt the most alive. And so, the central idea for Andrew Sarlo was to try to create an environment that [created] the feeling of a first take, throughout an entire week of recording.

And so yeah, it just removed so much of the barrier of self-reflection. But it was pretty simple. It’s nothing revolutionary or fancy. If anything, it’s just returning to a simpler form of recording, akin to probably the beginning of recording technology, whenever people just didn’t have time or money or the resources to dig too deep into it. They’d just show up with their guitar and play their song into a microphone, and go home.

And you recorded it in this old mansion in New Orleans – how much does the atmosphere of your physical location sink in when you’re making a record?

I think it can make a huge impact on a recording if you’re open to it. I’ve always been fascinated by the potential to open yourself to an environment in the recording process, to allow space for it to seep into the takes. But to a certain degree, there’s a decision in that. Because the studio environment can be very protected, and even forensic at times.

I think part of how we chose this location is we just wanted to find a space with very thin walls and single-pane windows. We found this old house in New Orleans, on the corner of Royal and Desire, just a block from the Mississippi. It’s a space where you can’t ignore the environment, it’s right there with you. You can hear the train moving through from time to time, and you can hear the tugboats on the Mississippi River pulling their horns, and no matter how hard you push the air conditioning, the heat makes its way through the doors.

And the house itself is certainly haunted, and also charmed, with a couple hundred years of magic there. So we definitely chose a place that would make an impact on our spirits that week.

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There’s a very dreamlike feel to 'Two Saviors'. Was that the mental place that you were in while making the album?

To be honest, the recording process itself felt very lucid. In some ways, more than any other recording I’ve ever been a part of, because we were just so present with each other, and there was no division. It felt very lucid, and full of joy. We all trust each other deeply, as musicians and as friends, and then we just put ourselves in a room together with no divisions. So the recording process felt very lightweight, and very much awake.

But the process of writing the songs was certainly a journey through many realms of my own dreams, and layers of lucidity, and realms of my consciousness. So I would imagine that the songs themselves being captured in the recording are somehow unconsciously representing the dream states that they were born from. It seems that pain is a heavy presence and influence on the album.

What was the process of feeling that pain and translating it into the songs on this record?

Well, the more I write, I discover that writing a song or materialising an emotion in any form, any medium, is a powerful energy transfer. You can externalise and remove that feeling from your chest, and then into your hands, and you can hold it and look at it and turn it and see it in a new light and put it on a shelf, and to a certain degree accept it. And so I find the writing process to be probably the most healing process for my own self-reflection, of any emotion.

So, yeah, this album was a process of externalising a lot of pain, on some levels, and also transforming that into a new sense of joy, and understanding. Because at the same time, I think that pain and joy are very closely related, and they feed each other.

Adrianne Lenker and I were married, and we were separated, I guess three years ago now. I was certainly processing that to a certain degree in writing these songs at first. And then, simultaneously moving into a new chapter in my life, of experiencing a new joy and a new curiosity. And that momentum, on some levels, was begun by pain, or loss. But I think that writing this record certainly documented the arc of that.

It seems your songwriting has this real connection to nature – are you drawn to writing about those ideas?

Yeah. For so many reasons. One of them being I love the phenomenon of humans naming things in the first place. There’s a superficiality to that, but there’s also a depth to it at the same time, because there’s so much power in language, and so much power in the shape of sounds. It’s hard to know if the sound empowers the object, or vice versa.

I’m fascinated by the idea of how humans have named nature; named birds, and plants, and that relationship. It can be so absurd on one hand, but also so deep, and so many of these names just really make sense. You couldn’t imagine a different one. So I certainly am incentivised by that, as a practice of my own. I try to name things myself, just to tap into that. I think observing nature and trying to integrate it into my own human experience is somehow illuminating. I spend a lot of time in nature, and the observation and any moments of stillness that I can find in nature, generally, provide me so much insight into my own selfish, small and wild human experiences.

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'Two Saviors' will be released on January 15th through Keeled Scales – order it HERE.

Words: Mia Hughes
Photography: Josh Goleman, Chris Sikich, Robbie Jeffers

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