The first thing you notice when talking with singer-songwriter Richard Buckner is how cheerful he sounds, quite in contrast to his bottomless singing voice and brooding stage presence.
"It must just be all the coffee I've had today," Buckner deadpans. Speaking from his Brooklyn apartment a few days before starting another cross-country tour, this time in support of his eighth effort, Meadow, Buckner comes across as a likable enigma, a pleasantly restless stranger searching for something that even he might not understand.
"My parents moved a lot, and I've kind of followed that trend," says Buckner, referring to his short stints in his hometown of San Francisco as well as in Austin, Tucson, Washington, D.C., and now New York. Luckily, Buckner's music has maintained a consistency that his residency has lacked.
Starting in 1994 with his first two releases Bloomed and Devotion + Doubt, Buckner gained the attention of the country and folk crowd, mainly due to his husky voice and acoustic-based songs. Erroneously linked to Texas singer-songwriters such as Butch Hancock and Townes Van Zandt, Buckner's songs share a bit of the world-weary romanticism and detailed ingenuity of those artists (and especially Terry Allen), but his true muse lies closer to alternative-rock icons the Butthole Surfers and even minimalist composer Glen Branca.
"My first records set the tone for people to call me country," Buckner says, "And I do have a lot of pedal steel on my records...But I also love listening to folks like Tony Conrad and Rhys Chatham. It's great music for writing because it's so wide open, almost meditative, always open to some happy accidents."
Buckner merges such diverse influences by actually employing an unexpected number of alt-rock stars. His previous effort, the uniformly excellent Dents and Shells, included Butthole Surfer drummer Jeff Coffey, while Meadow features Doug Gillard and Kevin March (both ex-Guided by Voices) as well as Steve Goulding from the Mekons. On earlier efforts, Buckner's backing band has included members of Giant Sand and Calexico.
"I'm just curious about sounds and textures," Buckner says. "Lucky for me that a lot of people I've admired have said yes when I've asked them to work with me."
While gaining fans in both the country and alt-rock communities, Buckner's abandonment of the standard verse/chorus/verse structure continues to set him apart from nearly everyone in either genre. While creating music that sporadically fits the alt-country/Americana tag, Buckner's verbatim recitations of his impressionistic journal entries blur the line between poet and songwriter in a way that's both remarkable and sometimes impenetrable. Yet couched within the winding prose are elements of rare and tender beauty, nuggets of wisdom concerning relationships that recall Dylan's first electric period.
"I was thinking about Dylan and how he keeps coming back to a certain phrase," Buckner says. "But that's just something I haven't learned how to do."
While sharing some stylistic elements with Jay Farrar, Buckner's work also harks back to earlier songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and Tim Buckley. Buckner's songs are linear, poetic prose somehow fitted into three- and four-minute structures that are so fundamentally simple many might not notice that nary a word gets repeated.
"Maybe if there was a dance remix of one of my songs, something might get said twice," Buckner laughs.
Yet those looking for the familiarity of an endlessly repeated chorus might miss some of Buckner's legitimately poetic phrasings. "Her," one of the best cuts from Dents and Shells, offers just one of many of the singer's wonderfully despondent lines: "When was I someone who you let inside and held onto?" On Meadow, Buckner cuts even deeper. "Last night the rain just wouldn't fall," he sings on the opening cut, "Town," setting an ominous tone for what lies ahead while still refusing to adhere to any pattern of standard songwriting
"The songs just come out of me that way," Buckner explains, "with a lot of melancholy but little use for saying the same things over and over."
Although admitting an admiration for David Berman (Silver Jews) and Bill Callahan (Smog), Buckner actually has little patience for those plying their craft in the typical, confessional style: "I actually cannot stand most songwriters."
Some might worry that such an artifice smacks of pretension or that indulging in such a style might open them up to the kind of criticism Pete Townshend received for Chinese Eyes, his long-winded solo effort. But Buckner's not showing any worry.
"Critics who have a problem need to get a copy of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and learn to appreciate other forms of art...That said," Buckner adds emphatically, "I really don't care."
Buckner is outspoken when it comes to songwriting in general, but about his own work, he is surprisingly self-effacing. "With this new release, I wanted to take my part out as much as I could," he says. "I had produced the last couple of records, and I re-hired J.D. Foster to take the power out of my hands." This is Foster's second stint as Buckner's producer, and the return to familiar hands seems to have done quite a bit to lighten the singer's mood.
"I like having J.D. around to change what I do," chuckles Buckner. "I like having a handicap."
Thankfully, the change is not dramatic. While definitely more assertive and shaded differently than previous efforts, Meadow still revolves around Buckner's poignant wordplay and rumbling pipes. Alternating between quickly paced folk rockers ("Town") and weary ballads ("Mile"), the biggest change might well be the more dynamic guitar of Doug Gillard, the lone sideman from Meadow to accompany Buckner on this tour.
"Doug is a really good player as opposed to me," Buckner says. "Usually, it's just me in my pickup truck, and now I have to make some room."
Buckner has also added room for some decidedly pop-friendly hooks in songs such as "Kingdom" and "Lucky," the latter being a jangle-filled nod to the Byrds. The new material continues with Buckner's tried-and-true theme of pulling up stakes and getting away from just about everything. It's a theme that Buckner consistently returns to, in song and in real life.
"A lot of the songs on the new record were things I've had a while but decided to leave alone until now," says Buckner. "They represent a wide period of my life."
Interestingly, the complete collection of these songs has yet to be heard by the artist himself.
"It usually takes me a couple of years to listen to one of my records," Buckner says. He then pauses for an instant, the first time he has taken a moment to consider his words.
"When I do get around to listening to this record, I'll probably hear some things that will alarm me," he says, almost laughing, betraying a little of the serious side that had thankfully taken most of this particular day off.
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