It’s quite arresting listening to the silence on the other end of a call with Buck Meek as he takes two minutes to think. “Buck?” I asked, thinking the line went dead. “Yeah, I’m here. I’m just thinking.” I took the space to meditate on something he touched on earlier, his description of his new album Two Saviors, about how the songs are “little prayers and visions from within the constant flux of pain, healing, and discovery” and wondered if he was praying in this moment as he sat on the back porch of his Topanga Canyon cabin overlooking the Santa Monica mountains.
Two Saviors is a coffer that holds delicate treasures. In its most tender moments, like on the slow drawl of its title track, the minutiae of a blue-collar narrative unfolds as gently as a blossoming rosebud. The dreamy comforts of “Pareidolia” are like a summer day pressed against the speakers, the raw honesty of Meek’s band painting pictures of drifting clouds in a soft Southern waltz. I listened to each song pining for the heavy Louisiana sun as I sat buckled into my Brooklyn apartment awaiting the city’s first major snowfall of the season.
If anything became apparent on my first pass of Meek’s second full length lp, it’s that great American storytelling is still alive and well. The album itself is a great American story. When Meek approached Big Thief producer Andrew Sarlo about making a record, the pair decided to spend a week on production with his band in Louisiana during the hot season. Sarlo imposed a few sanctions: First takes were paramount, and no one was allowed to hear any recordings until the last day. Headphones were banned during tracking. They took long breaks during the day to explore New Orleans and read. At night they’d play for the mosquitos and chew the fat.
But before that, Meek found himself in a state of transition from living in New York City and touring full time with Big Thief. He moved to the mountainous outskirts of Los Angeles to establish a relationship with the natural world, a far cry from the callus, metropolitan Northeast, but closer to his folksy beginnings as a child raised in rural Texas. The framework of Two Saviors was fabricated in this transformation, an attempt by Meek to “soften” and cultivate a new self amongst the bay trees and tall sycamores. | c ruddell
Aquarium Drunkard: You described writing the songs on Two Saviors as “creating talismans.” What are a few specific things that you were commemorating?
Buck Meek: Well, the first thing that came to mind was back in high school, I would often sleep in the backyard, I would just set up a sleeping bag on the lawn chair and fall asleep just underneath the Milky Way, and it just being a really sacred thing, like a very sacred and private thing for me, a relief from my teenage landscape. I wrote that into the song “Dream Daughter” just as kind of a way to remember something. I guess, in so many ways—and my friend Adrianne Lenker has spoken about this as well—songs are a really potent way to remember and to kind of eternalize valuable memories as talismans that I can return to.
That song “Candle,” there’s a line in it—realizing that I’m being followed and being afraid and calling my ex-partner essentially to find comfort and just kind of like an instinctual reaction, you know, like not necessarily appropriate. That was drawn from a real instance—not of being followed, but I did almost get hit by a car. I was just crossing the street and this dude blew a red light and was so close to hitting me, like 60 miles per hour. I had to jump out of the way, and I just immediately called this person and without even speaking to them on the phone, just to call, and there was something about that instinct that really struck me, it just felt like so, such a genuine moment, and I wanted to eternalize that for myself. I changed the context, but the meaning is the same.
AD: Would you say that, generally speaking, most of these songs, if not all of them, are also memories?
Buck Meek: No, they’re not all memories. I think that there’s an element of memory and eternalizing of memory for sure, probably there’s an element of that in all the songs, but I think that for the most part the songs were a document of a process that I was going through while writing it, and writing the song was almost like serving as a guide for me in softening through whatever that process was, you know processing loss, or in regenerating the feeling of loss into a new sense of joy. I think, again that process of softening, trying to surrender to like the softest parts of myself allowed things to merge without judgement, or to really rest without vulnerability and document that process.
AD: Was moving to LA also an attempt to soften yourself? How did moving to Los Angeles affect this record?
Buck Meek: Partly, moving to LA was just the intention of putting myself into a foreign environment, into a new and vulnerable space to give myself something to react to and to put myself out of context. It was a time in my life where my identity was shifting and it was kind of like the beginning of a new chapter and it felt very useful to put myself in a foreign context to aid that process, I suppose. So for me to be closer to nature, I was moving from New York City to a cabin at the top of the mountains and spending most of my time alone in the park getting to know the native plants and the native history here, and spending a lot of time in the ocean, and just observing nature and its poetry.
AD: When you approached [Big Thief producer] Andrew Sarlo with these songs, what about them do you think encouraged him to place such specific parameters on the recording process?
Buck Meek: You know I’ve never asked him that question, that’s a good question. I should ask him, but I would assume that—I would like to believe at least—that maybe he heard these songs and sensed that they were a season of introspection you know, like several seasons of my own in introspective process and a very deliberate, almost like healing process for myself, like coming into a new skin. Maybe to balance that element of privacy and almost concession, he wanted to create an environment that was extremely immediate and instinctual and just raw, and just move as quickly as possible and just see where that went with the players. I think also he really trusted all the players in my band to react really quickly, and I think he was probably really fascinated by the potential outcome of what would happen if we were flying by the seat of our pants a bit, especially holding songs like these that were pretty delicate, I suppose.
AD: What was an average day like working on Two Saviors in Louisiana?
Buck Meek: It was Andrew’s idea to essentially try to recreate the feeling of a first take because in the years we have made records together—Andrew’s produced all of the Big Thief records—in all the records we’ve made, it seems that after spending an entire day playing a song twenty times, trying to perfect it, we often end up returning to the first or second take, and while it may be rough and a bit woolly, it often somehow holds this vitality that the exercises of minutiae and perfectionism fail to hold and so I think his philosophy for this record was to try to elucidate that feeling of a first take. The method that he created was to wake up and play the songs through once in the morning, almost like a set of music, only once or twice at most, and then take a long like seven or eight hour break in the day, like a siesta, and just explore New Orleans and read our books. Then in the evening we’d play the songs through once again. He also didn’t allow us to use headphones, we had to sit very close to each other, communicate with our eyes, and we weren’t allowed to hear anything back until the last day, so there was basically very little reflection other than the walls, and somehow I think that captured this vitality and danger of a first take, because every time we would sit down to play we’d completely reset more or less, we had forgotten what had happened that morning.
AD: How did you feel listening back to the recordings for the first time after production had wrapped?
Buck Meek: It was so joyful honestly, it was like a total surprise because it all happened so fast and it was such an instinctual thing that it was like hearing it for the first time. They really represented the spirit of our friendships I think, and the very lucid feeling of our love for each other and the joy that we find playing together and they didn’t really seem to have the weight that self-reflection can provide, there was kind of this easiness to them that felt really good to hear.
AD: In what ways do you think Louisiana and the Mississippi river affected this record?
Buck Meek: New Orleans exists in this constant state of entropy, it’s just eating its tail in this wild flux of growth and decay. I think it’s very much like the creative process in that regard. The walls are very thin, we recorded in a house which is just like old single-paned windows and we could see the tugboats over the levee. Something about that environment I think helped us just let go and surrender to just the natural process of growth and decay in a creative endeavor, you know, and forgive ourselves for the flaws and celebrate the beauty of sound.
AD: What about the song “Two Saviors” stuck out to you as a title for this record?
Buck Meek: [Long pause] Something about the conflicts that arise in the pursuit of transcendence and the compromises that are required, the choices that are required and like the secret symbols for mythologies that serve as guides through that.
AD: I feel like “Pareidolia” is such an eloquent way to start this record, a word that encapsulates the overarching dreamy quality of this collection of songs. I see each of these songs as a specific instance of pareidolia, like each story is the fleeting, hazy image of a memory that I once had but never actually did. You have this mystical approach to storytelling.
Buck Meek: My grandfather was probably the greatest storyteller that I know. He was raised in Northern Louisiana and spent a lot of time in New Orleans worrying about my grandmother who was also a beautiful storyteller. They were both English professors for like 25 years. He’s just a premiere rascal, such a bad boy, and he was just always getting into trouble, and had this beautiful, slow, southern rolling drawl, and would like add three syllables to every word, you know, like “w-aaa-tah” instead of “water.” He grew up telling me some of the wildest stories. Also, my father’s an incredible storyteller, another rascal. I actually wrote this recently in an essay that I wrote for Duff Thompson in reaction to his recent release Haywire, but my grandfather [Charles] told me this story recently where he was five or six years old and his father was in the kitchen drinking with his friends and playing poker. His mother took him upstairs and told him to climb on her back and she crawled out of the window of the second story and then climbed down the rose trellis on the side of the house to escape, essentially. As she climbed down the first trellis, her body was just completely cut by the thorns of the roses and she was just bleeding all over and telling Charlie to hang on, you know, and then they got in his sister’s car and took off to Monroe, Louisiana. His life is just full of stories like those. My friend Luke Temple is another incredible storyteller.
AD: Who are the songwriters that are great storytellers?
Buck Meek: I was blessed to end up at the Kerrville Folk Festival maybe when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, which is a songwriting festival outside of Austin on the Quiet Valley Ranch, and for 18 days every year since 1972 songwriters from around the world gather to share their stories and their songs around campfires. I was brought there as a sixteen year old by a friend and just completely opened my mind to the living library of song and found myself around campfires with people like Brian Cutean and Steve Fisher and Darlene Raven and so many incredible songwriters, Slim Richey… they have a million songs, all these folks who are just in the woodwork of our country and who come out to share. That’s what really first opened my mind to it. I grew up in a town called Wimberley, Texas which is half an hour outside of Austin and a lot of the old outlaw songwriters like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Butch Hancock from The Flatlanders, seeing those people sing their songs as a kid really opened my mind as well.
AD: Have you ever sought out to write something for Big Thief that ended up making it onto one your own records, or vice-versa?
Buck Meek: For the most part Big Thief has been Adrianne Lenker’s, as in fueled by Adrianne’s songwriting. She and I have a pretty deep co-writing dynamic, and we’ve always written together since we first met in 2012, and we actually started as just a duo, sharing our songs, and co-writing, travelling as a duo, and then that evolved into Big Thief. But whenever the Big Thief band came to be we consciously kind of divided our songwriting projects for a time, so that’s when I really built my own band and Big Thief became more of her songwriting project. In the last few years those lines have started to fade and I’ve contributed to some Big Thief records and a handful of songs we’re playing now, but it’s never been so clear as like, writing a song for my project that ends up on a Big Thief record. I started my own project in kind of a private space, although she sent me that first verse of “Candle” just in a text message and I finished the song, the second verse, third verse, and chorus and everything, just from like a text.
AD: She texted you out of the blue with a little poem?
Buck Meek: Yeah, we had taken a long break when I first moved to California and it was actually the first thing, she reached out and sent me that first verse. It was a beacon.