“It’s been quite an inspiring journey for me” - Bernard Butler talks his collaboration with Jessie Buckley
The pair’s collaborative album ‘For All Our Days That Tear The Heart’ has been shortlisted for the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW.
The first time Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler ever spoke to each other, Buckley was halfway up a windswept, torrential mountain near her County Kerry home. Over a shaky FaceTime connection, the pair soon bonded over their shared love of the rugged, ancient beauty of the Irish wilderness, discovering that they had both shared special childhood days on Kerry’s Valentia Island. The ice was well and truly broken, and by the time Buckley was first sitting in Butler’s home a few months later, they were fast friends and - before long - musical collaborators.
For Buckley, the Oscar-nominated star of Fargo, Chernobyl, The Lost Daughter and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, music had always been an inspiration. Having come second in the BBC West End talent show I’d Do Anything, before her turn as an aspiring Scottish country singer in Wild Rose proved, her vocal credentials are not in doubt. Butler, meanwhile, has been a driving force in British music for three decades, first as a founding member of Suede, and then subsequently as a producer for Duffy, The Libertines, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and countless others, as well as being part of McAlmont & Butler and The Tears.
Before long, the pair’s meetings in Butler’s London home became more and more regular, until they had written an entire album of material, which would become ‘For All Our Days That Tear the Heart’, now shortlisted for the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW.
We caught up with Butler to talk about the unique nature of this collaboration, what sets Buckley apart from every musician he has ever worked with and how the disciplines of acting translate to music.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW! What does it mean for you and Jessie to be included on the list?
It’s a mark of integrity, which is very important to me in my work, and the way I go about my work. It’s a mark of respect. But most of all, it means that somebody bloody listened to it! That’s the best thing really, somebody listened to what you did. It’s the cliché, but we don’t do what we do to win things or to be nominated for awards, it’s not why we create stuff, but we acknowledge that when something like this happens, you’ve made something perhaps that stands out in a different way. Honestly, I put the same work into every single thing I do, and I have done all of my career – the ones you’ve heard, the ones you haven’t heard, the ones people like and the ones that people think are shit. You put the same devotion and passion into everything. Sometimes you get thanked and sometimes you don’t. For me personally, to get this nod at this point in my career is a nice thing, I’ll take it as an accumulation in a way. I’ll take it for all the ones that no one heard! This one’s for all of you.
It must feel like a validation for the two of you deciding to launch into this project together too?
There’s no doubting that meeting Jessie has been extraordinary. She’s an extraordinary human being, she’s had a big influence on my life in the short period that we’ve known each other. The beauty of what I do is people do just knock on your door one day and you get to know each other and you go on a little adventure together. It’s no surprise to me that this one stands out, in a way, because it’s been quite an inspiring journey for me. There was a standout feeling that something was different. One of the things that’s different about this is that I’m named as one of the artists on the record – about half-way through, Jessie just said, ‘You know, I want this to be our record, not just my record,’ which was really lovely, because it was a mark of us becoming friends and her trusting me. From that point on, it became a deeper experience.
You’ve assembled a rich back catalogue of musical collaborators, but this must be among the unlikeliest so far?
I often get people coming to me wanting to do a writing session, that happens to me a lot, and it’s often to work with a twenty-year-old gorgeous artist, and the manager tells me that he wants me to work with them and give them a sound. And I always want to ask why, have they not got a sound? It’s so condescending to young people. I tend to veer away from all that. Partly because I’m not twenty and gorgeous. So, when the Jessie idea came along, I was really intrigued by her, partly obviously because of her day job, and partly because I wondered why she wanted to make music.
When we met, she didn’t talk about wanting to make a record, she just wanted to create something. Even after we’d finished making a few songs, she didn’t want it to come out, she just wanted the process of making them. She’s the most absolutist creator I’ve ever met, and I work in that way too: put your neck on the line, do it for real, do it for the real reasons, don’t expect to get paid, don’t expect to be heard, and if you’re prepared to go that far, then I feel we’re doing something good. I’ve never met anyone who wants to just create.
“The main thing about Jessie is that she has an amazing open spirit to creativity, which is just a dream. She wants things to be open and unscripted.”
— Bernard Butler
As we understand it, you both knew each other’s work before you ever met?
Yeah, I knew who she was. I’d seen Chernobyl and I really liked her in that, and then I saw Wild Rose after seeing her sing a song from that on an American chat show. I think the only thing she knew about me was she was looking to find a collaborator to create some music with and a mutual friend suggested me. I don’t think she knew anything about me, but when we first spoke, she told me that she knew ‘Old Wow’ by Sam Lee, which is a record I made about five years ago. That took me back a little bit, because I could count the people on one hand that have listened to that record, but it’s probably in the top three records I’ve ever made, and nobody’s ever heard it. For Jessie to pick up on that one record was quite a big thing for me, so that was very interesting.
How quickly did you know that the connection you had was going to work?
We were able to talk very easily for hours right away. I really liked her company. The way we talked, it wasn’t a kind of conversation I’d had with another artist before. We just drifted very quickly into quite abstract and deep conversations that were questioning everything. Jessie always brought photographs, Francesca Woodman is a New York photographer from the late 70s who took beautiful photographs in motion, and she became a big inspiration. After our first actual meeting, she was texting me very abstract lines, not of poetry but of thought, and she suggested we meet again. I started assembling these lines into some form and started thinking about them as lyrics. That was kind of my job, to put together these pieces and try to imagine them in a musical form. After the second meeting, we had the song ‘I Cried Your Tears’ and after the third we had ‘The Eagle and the Dove’.
Were you having conversations about musical direction or styles or genres?
Not at all. Everything was about lyrics. All of the demos that we had made on an iPhone were all acoustic guitar or piano and no microphones. We sent each other playlists and stuff, but it was just stuff that we liked. Roberta Flack was a big thing for us, particularly her first album ‘First Take’, there was a lot of Nina Simone stuff. Fred Neil and Tim Buckley and Pentangle were all coming up quite a lot too.
Is there any sense that her skills as an actor bring something different to the role of singer or musician?
I don’t think so. What is interesting is on the one hand her inexperience - and I say that in a kind way - because it doesn’t show of course, but she just hasn’t done all the studio and sound work and all of that that I’ve been doing for years, and that brings a brilliant simplicity and naïveté to her approach. She just wants to create, she’s not interested in any of the technical aspects at all, and that’s hugely impressive. And the second thing is, when it came to recording, I’m used to recording take after take – it’s not unusual to do seventeen takes of a vocal, but Jessie would send me one. And I guess in theatre, if you’re on a stage, you sing the song, and that’s it. You don’t think about doing it fifteen times until you get it right, you just get it right every time. That’s just your mentality. And that is really so impressive, so great. But the main thing about Jessie is that she has an amazing open spirit to creativity, which is just a dream. She wants things to be open and unscripted. She often talks about this with films, how she loves it when there’s no script and you get to improvise and just purely create in the moment. And that’s what she brought to this too.
Is this the end of the collaboration, or can we expect more?
At this point, I don’t know. I can’t tell you. We have this run of shows in the summer, and then Jessie is off into film-land again for a couple of months. I don’t know what happens after that, if I’m honest. I should be lucky that we had these moments at all.
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