Richard Buckner (Part One)

There's something wrong when Ke$ha is filthy rich and Richard Buckner had to drive a forklift to make ends meet.  It's proof that talent isn't a great equalizer.  But herein lies my ethical dilemma: I think I want Buckner to have those crazy jobs (besides driving a forklift, he's held road signs and worked for the U.S. Census), because it's those experiences and the characters he encounters there that make him a storyteller.  You can't be a writer if you don't have authentic experiences. It's why megastars like Ke$ha and Katy Perry are no longer individuals: they've become corporations who are so insulated from people like you and me that all they can do is sing about overwrought and cliched topics.

Buckner lives in Kingston, New York, not far from Woodstock in the Hudson Valley. Our conversation went far longer than I had expected, so I'm posting the first part today and the second part next week. Buckner is a joy to talk to; he's got a wonderful, hearty laugh and an intensity that reflects the dedication to his craft.  It's a cheerful intensity, though; he talks with a smile on his face at a pace that suggests that he has so much to say but only a limited time to get it out.

Buckner's new album Our Blood is available now on Merge Records, and he's on tour starting mid-August.  So I've given you two things to do: buy the album and see him on tour. I'll be seeing him here in DC with David Kilgour, which is an insanely talented double bill.

Read my interview with Richard Buckner after the video. 

What other creative endeavors do you have besides songwriting?

I write fiction, and in fact this new record was supposed to be songs as well as short stories. I was going to include the stories in a book with the CD, but my laptop got ripped off and I lost my writing. Laughs. So the album isn't what it's supposed to be, but I'll do it next time.

That's horrible!

I had just transitioned from my 50 sketchbooks of writing and was getting comfortable with my laptop and with Word, and I was really getting to enjoy writing on a laptop.  Laughs.

So short stories were going to accompany the songs?  Did the songs actually start as short fiction pieces?

You could call it that, actually. I made a record years ago based on the Spoon River Anthology.  It was a mixture of poems and instrumentals, but I wanted people to read the poems with the instrumentals.  And when I was writing the stories, I was also writing the music, but they didn't match up word wise or character wise.  You could find a thread, but it was tough.

What does songwriting offer to you as a writer that short fiction doesn't?  In other words, when do you choose one mode and when do you choose the other?

It has to do with my different work areas.  I keep my writing desk separate from my music studio.  That keeps me invigorated and not burned out, going back and forth and not spending too much time on one or the other.  I also find that writing fiction makes the songwriting better.  It's something I've always done, but not with good discipline until the last few years.  The gears are more ground down on the songwriting, and I use fiction to sharpen myself and learn a few things that will unknowingly translate into my songwriting.

Also, when I write lyrics, the ideas for the songs start as percussive work gestures, and the writing fills itself out. I take the punctuated stanza form and put it in regular paragraph and sentence form because I love to screw around with punctuation and conventional sentence structure.  Going back and forth like that keeps the style in a more fictionalized form.  Then I put it back in the song form, work on it some more and see how it fits, then put it back in fiction form.  I go back and forth then end with the fiction form. 

What do you mean by "ground down"?

I'm always trying to expand my imagery and the words within those images. It's easy to use the same word choices and images, so when I say "ground down," I mean that I'm trying to avoid going on auto pilot and using stale language.

That's probably a great way to avoid writer's block, by switching from fiction to songwriting.  You avoid the rut. I've talked to writers who, when they are blocked, choose other types of artistic expression to stay fresh.

Absolutely. For example, years ago I wrote and recorded a whole album then discovered I didn't like the direction. And when I tried to go back and work on it, I got writer's block and found that my mind was too scattered. I cured it by working on the Spoon River Anthology record, by using Masters' poems with the music.  When I came out of that, I was able to write again.

As far as the music goes, if I feel like I'm getting into a repetitive pattern, I'll do one of two things. One, I'll switch all my instruments out: I take all the instruments in my attic, bring them to the studio and put the studio instruments in the attic. Or I'll move the furniture in my studio around.  For example, on Our Blood I tried to not use the standard six string guitar tuning and instead used tenor guitars or guitars with between three and eleven strings.  They use the same chords, but when I stacked the tracks together with different chords, it created a different chord structure. One reason why I like Gil Evans as an arranger is that he's switched places of notes within the chords, octaves maybe,  where a root note that's a low note might become a middle or high note, giving it a different purpose within the chord.  So you come out with something that's a little dissonant, like a frayed rug with a string sticking out that's still a good looking rug.

 Some people like to walk away when they have writer's block, but you like to stay engaged.

Yeah, it makes you build on whatever it is you were doing, in a different way.  The only way to do that is to do something that surprises you or gets you to a different place. Anything I can do to trick myself is a good thing, since I always like to be surprised by the outcome of what I'm doing. Deadlines also work with me.  Sometimes you have to know when to jump off, to let it be what it is. You may not be satisfied at the moment, but set it aside to stew and you'll have a totally different vision.

I usually revise my writing just twice a day.  Any more than that and I'm not reading, I'm just staring at the words.

I think of it visually: when you strike a match and the first flash is the brilliant beginning.  There's a limited amount of time to take advantage of that flash. And like you said, if you work on something more than a couple of times a day, you can lose sight of what you are trying to accomplish.  But if you leave it alone, the magic will still be there when you come back, the magic of that first instinct. That's where the real nuggets are.  So even if you want to continue, you must step away.  Or at least not have that second glass of wine if you want to get to the point. Laughs.


When there's an idea or emotion you want to convey, do you think about the best writing style for that emotion, then go from there?

No, because I don't think I try to convey anything.  For me, songs are like word puzzles, and I want to be surprised by the outcome.  I want to let them develop on their own, and a lot of the time I don't even know where the stories are going. I just let them flow.  As they go from form to form, they shape themselves in a way that I can't control, and I find that the outcomes are a lot more satisfying because I end up doing things I wouldn't normally do in both forms.  It keeps the subconscious part of writing closer to the surface for me.

Has writing fiction made you a more disciplined songwriter?

That's hard, because at best I only have a vague idea of where my writing is going to take me. The fiction writing gives me a better understanding of where the tail is in my songs, and it helps me avoid being the snake that ate its own tail. You have to keep going so that you come to a point where its like pulling an arrow from you skin that won't come out. If you try to pull it out and it's bad, you get to the point where you can only pull it out so far. You have to stop and move on.

What I'm getting at is the idea of writing as a 9 to 5 job.  Can you do that?

That's exactly how I work with words and music. I wouldn't be making records or writing songs if they hadn't come out with those little 4-track home recording machines in the late 70s.  The real thrill in making music was not knowing what I was doing, making mistakes, and learning that those mistakes weren't mistakes, but were really instinctual things I was doing for a reason. They had a place. I look for those opportunities. 

As far as my routine, I get up in the morning with my pot of coffee and go to work, whether it's at my writing desk or in the studio.  I blink and it's ten hours later, and I'm very satisfied. When I'm not touring, my day jobs start right when my real work hours start at home. When I'm at work and it's 7am in some warehouse and I'm driving a forklift, I can't sit down with my pad.

Every day, I get up and want to write.  And when I'm done writing or making music, I really wish I could take a pill and go to bed.  I hate the last hours of the day when I know I've done my work and I can't do anything else because I don't have any other hobbies besides reading, which I like to do in strange hours anyway. I like to stay up super late, or get up at 4am to read. That's a time when the cats aren't going crazy, it's quiet, and no one is calling or knocking at the door. It's the one time I can have complete peace with the world.  

Do you wait for inspiration to strike, or do you go find it?

If you wait for it to happen, it may not happen for years. You have to sit down with the blank page in front of you. If nothing else, write eight hours of crap.  Take whatever direction you have to take to get something on paper. Suffer through it.  I mean, if you are a writer, what else are you going to do?

People who write for a living understand that their writing process lasts the entire day, and it doesn't just happen when they are writing. It happens, for instance, when you are driving that forklift.

And that's the worst thing!  You go for a walk to stimulate that creativity, then you're two blocks out and get a great idea.  You have to run home to write. That happens to me all the time. I have to cut my walks short.

I like hearing about how others create. I saw this one documentary about a composer a few years ago, and in one scene he's just sitting on his couch, staring off in the distance. And he tells the interviewer that he's working.  He says, "Because things are happening in my mind.  The stream of water is underneath us; can you see it right now?" 

All of those day jobs you've had: how have they contributed to your creative process? I'd imagine that the time spent holding a sign at a construction site is a good time for reflection.

Absolutely. Most of the time I tour by myself.  I drive myself and do everything alone. So my passenger seat is my desk.  It's where I put my voice recorder for my melody ideas. Sometimes they make absolutely no sense; I might have the root note in my head and I'll hum a melody that has no anchor anywhere, and I get home and wonder what the hell I was doing. I always keep a pen and notepad in my pocket, or my voice recorder in my car, at all times. When the match flash is there, there are nuances that won't be there later, and you have to capture them. 

The times when I pick topics to write about are times when my mind is free to wander, and that's why I have to think that the jobs you've had are such fertile times for thematic and topical exploration.

The jobs were a pain in the ass in a lot of ways.  They took away from my real work, but oh my God, the characters and stories in that world! The stories of the people I worked with are nothing I could never have come up with. And I think maybe I was doing more fiction writing around the time when I was doing those screwed-up jobs because I was witness to some serious human conditions, things that I could not make up. Just so bizarre.  It's the theory of chaos; things build upon each other and there's no way you can control it. And it not only helps you see things, it also helps free you up because you realize anything is possible at any moment. A plane could hit my house now. Those things happen all the time to people, and the shape of their lives is changed forever. Their stories, their admissions, their reactions to each other's admissions were all very useful to my writing. So my job is to put that down in a way that my word choice will enhance their stories as much as possible.

That's what makes you a good songwriter: your interaction with the world and its characters.  And not to sound like an old man, but I wonder if the amount of time people spend with their heads buried in their smart phones or iPods diminishes that interaction and makes for less meaningful storytelling in songwriting.

Absolutely.  That's exactly what happened to me in the last five years or so.  I was touring and working a lot aloneI love being alone, and I can stay in the house for days at a time, just working, without leaving. But I realized after doing that for a while that my social skills had diminished.  I ended up doing a film score, and I really didn't leave the house.  I wasn't doing as much writing, since it was mostly instrumental.  And I noticed that my live shows were changing dramatically, from standing onstage talking and playing and having a much more vibrant experience to being completely shut down. It got to the point where I was doing entire sets all as one piece and barely saying a word to the audience. No breaks or interaction.  That can be good sometimes, because you end up taking chances in your music when you are really focused.

When it came time to work the day jobs again after a few years of not doing them, I don't know what they thought of me.  They probably thought I was some freak who didn't speak to anyone except to say yes or no. After a while I opened up because I was forced to interact with people. Slowly the stage shows are opening up for me, largely because of the interaction with people on those jobs.

But I know what you mean.  You want to have some alone time where all you do is think and focus, and pretty soon you're so deep you're at the bottom of this cavern wondering where you are.

Read part two of my interview with Richard Buckner here.

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