Buck Meek Of Big Thief Shares The Songwriting Process Behind His Fantastic New Solo Record

Buck Meek has made a name for himself as a crucial component of Big Thief, one of the most celebrated bands of the current era in music. But he has also found time to forge an extremely promising solo career. His second solo release, Two Saviors, arrives this week (Pre-order Two Saviors), and finds him hitting new peaks with a loose-limbed musical approach and strikingly idiosyncratic songwriting that welds together nifty wordplay (the leadoff track, “Pareidolia,” references the concept of perceiving specific patterns in otherwise formless sights or sounds), quirky characters, lovely imagery and confessional revelations.

Meek recently spoke with American Songwriter to discuss the process of making Two Saviors, touching on how he put his band together, how he combines the instinctual and the cerebral when he writes, and how moving across the country gave him the proper perspective to process all he’d left behind. Here are the highlights of that conversation. 

In an era when a lot of artists take a good deal of time between recording, you’ve been a part of four Big Thief records and are now releasing your second solo album, all in a span of about five years. How do you account for that rapid pace
We’re just always writing. We’re experiencing so much life, because we’re travelling so much around the world on tour and meeting so many different characters and having so many different late-night long conversations. We’re experiencing so much life that it just naturally filters into a lot of new songs. It’s always been the way that I process my experiences. So the more I move, the writing comes along with that.

This record has a really loose feel, like the music wasn’t planned or schemed to death, and it’s all the better for it. Was that in part about the chemistry you had with the players?
Yeah. I tried to put together a band that I could just trust to fly by the seat of their pants, to play improvisationally and to react without too much preparation. I just picked some of my heroes. Adan Brisbin on guitar and Austin Vaughn on drums and Matt Davidson on pedal steel and bass and my brother Dylan Meek on piano. All of those players are just so intuitive, have such a sharp ear and such a wild dichotomy of American roots music, combined with a wild experimental edge that they’ve all nurtured. I tried to just pick the right players and throw them a bunch of curve balls in the studio, a bunch of new songs that they had played very little if at all, and just hear what happened.

How did the quick recording process feed into that approach?
That was my friend Andrew Sarlo’s approach. When I approached him to do the record, it was his idea that we just only give ourselves one week in a house in New Orleans with only dynamic microphones, just sit as possible to each other and play without headphones and without any kind of reference, without listening back to the tracks until the very last day. To really just put ourselves in the headspace of just playing music together without the reflection of recording.

A lot of these songs just drop listeners into the middle of the action, and it almost forces you to listen closely to orient yourself. Was there a specific influence that brought that into your writing?
I’m sure that there are influences. I’m not pulling that from anything consciously, although I’m drawn to that in the music that I listen to and the books that I read. I love authors like Faulkner. I love artists who are so specific with their writing that it leaves a certain amount off ambiguity for the listener to project their meaning onto it. I find that often to be the most generous way, and somehow also it can be such a clear guide, even though it’s unclear in a way. It leaves you spaces to experience your own vision through it. That’s what’s always resonated.

These songs are also what you might call episodic, in that a lot of different things take place that feed into the main themes of the songs without necessarily connecting to each other. What is it about that style that appeals to you?
That’s just what comes naturally. I feel our lives are often a progression. There are so many ties from one chapter of our life to another. And so many ties between the characters that pass through our lives and between our loves and our friendships. I suppose I just strive to be honest with that in my writing, because I think that it’s important to recognize the past and how it ties into whatever your present experience is. There are characters that reemerge in my writing. Sometimes they change shape. I try to honor that nature that we all share.

We mentioned these specifics and these stories. But you also have a knack for bringing in a direct line that really cuts through all that and gets to the emotional side of things. Like on the title track and the line, “I know no home.” Is it important to occasionally ground your songs in that manner?
For sure. There is the dichotomy of these more abstract and ambiguous impressionistic words and phrases that just feel and sound beautiful and just push you in a direction of emotion without so much logical direction, combined with a really simple and literal description of some earthly element. I think those things combined can really create an environment in writing. They can kind of paint the whole picture, between the ephemeral and the invisible and the tactile. That always provides a physical space for me to inhabit in writing. That’s how our experience as humans is. Often, it’s this combination of the physical with the emotional or these unseen forces. And those two things alchemize to become something else entirely. They become whatever our experience is and they empower each other.

The imagery throughout these songs is always unique. Are you an observant person by nature or can you conjure the descriptions when you need to? 
I think attention is a choice. Attention is an intention. I think attention is power too. There’s always more to see. So I definitely practice living with attention. And, as writers and humans, it’s one of our greatest resources. Just our capacity to see and to feel. I definitely try to make time for that. Often when I’m writing, that’s the first place I start, is just to sit and just document what I see without a filter and without needing to explain it to myself even. Whether that’s observing myself emotionally or observing something in the outside world, I think the first step is just opening your eyes and heart and then just taking notes.

That plays into these observations about nature that really permeate these songs.
I think it was just a natural reaction to my life at the time I was writing these songs. I had been living in New York City for seven years. And then I moved to Topanga Canyon, to the Santa Monica mountains north of Los Angeles, living by myself on the top of a bluff there. I was spending most of my time alone in nature, so I think it was a natural opening for me, having spent so much time in the city, spending so much time with characters, either in the city or on the road, and then suddenly being for the most part in solitude and nature. And coming into touch with this whole new environment, with the chaparral forest out there and this whole new breadth of wildlife.

For me, that year that I spent writing this record, I was going through a lot of emotional renaissances in myself. I was redefining my independence and spending a lot of time just meditating on my existence, but within this vessel of nature. I think those two forces combined created this third alchemy. Like my experience of a beautiful bird, while processing some internal human experience, becomes this whole thing unto itself.

The phrases and wordplay on this album are always surprising. Are you one to just go with a kind of stream of consciousness with things like that, or are you a heavy editor to get just the right feel from the lyrics?
I try to start my songs with an instinctual approach. I try to just mumble and let words form in my mouth like marbles and try to find beautiful sounds that feel right. Like my songs usually begin that way, the first verse or two. The form is usually roughly drafted by my instincts. And then at some point that kind of runs out. I get distracted or I run out of time or I have to go to sleep. And I wake up in the morning and I’ve lost that initial spring. At which point I observe it from a new perspective and then edit it. 

I definitely try to solve this puzzle that I’ve created for myself in a dream state. I find a lot of value in the editing process too, because it’s almost like collaborating with different parts of yourself in a way. Sometimes songs just come out in one breath, and they feel sacred enough in that way to not touch. But often I find the editing process to be very valuable, just to hone in on the geometry of the song. I do really enjoy creating this geometrical asymmetry in my songs, finding lots of internal rhymes and slant rhymes, kind of playing games with myself to create this balance. Which is probably just for me (laughs).

These songs sometimes feel like the narrator is making these observations to and asking questions of someone who isn’t there to respond, and that’s where the heartache sneaks in. Is songwriting your way of connecting with people, both those who might no longer be with you and those you haven’t yet met? 
I think I am fascinated of the phenomenon of a question. Asking a question of myself sort of, but in the form of a conversation through song. Often just asking the question itself brings some sense of understanding or resolution. Or maybe even the lack of understanding can be comforting. Just vocalizing the question can be healing or illuminating somehow.

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