It begins, as an increasing number of locally produced musical goodness does, in Banff.
Actually, technically, it begins with a directional departure for Calgary roots songwriter T. Buckley — his wanting to steer slightly away from the more straight-up country-folk sound he’d been cultivating in this city with the T. Buckley Trio for the past decade.
“I was wanting to get away from the more trad-sounding stuff and wanted to explore some of those other influences that have been influences of mine for a long time,” he says, while sitting in a Kensington Starbucks. “Guys like Van Morrison and Jackson Browne and all of that kind of stuff.”
Which now takes us into the Rockies and that mountain town, and the fertile artistic grounds known as the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. It was there, in March of last year, that Buckley found himself with that idea and some ideas for new material, and a couple of weeks as part of the Centre’s songwriting residency.
He was also, he says, there with a mind that was open to any experience or idea that was offered to him.
“It was such a wonderful thing and there were so many great writers that were up there as participants in the residency and a whole bunch of pretty amazing cats that they brought up to mentor us, so to speak,” he says.
“I think it was good, it brought a breath of fresh air into where I was at the time and just opened me up to the possibilities of where I could go with writing my music and approaching it. I’m thrilled that I decided to take that risk and try that out.”
That includes a suggestion from someone who knows of what he speaks — producer and recording engineer Howard Bilerman. The one-time drummer for Arcade Fire and man with credits on albums for acts ranging from Basia Bulat, Tricky Woo and Wolf Parade to Leonard Cohen, was one of those mentors the songwriters were teamed with.
Buckley laughs sheepishly. “I had no idea who he was really before I went up there.”
Bilerman was charged with recording the demo sessions for the residents, and prior to hitting the studio for three hours, he sat in Buckley’s hut on the grounds to hear what he had, offer some production notes and come up with a plan.
After hearing one of the tunes the artist played for him, Least A Man Could Do, Bilerman had the suggestion that Buckley do away with the guitar, and strip it down entirely, recording it with an organ and drum machine for a more atmospheric sound.
“Part of the reason of going up there was to be open to those kinds of things and get pushed in different directions,” he says, noting he had to consciously dismiss his knee-jerk reaction of skepticism. “So, yeah, sure enough, when we are done recording it I was super inspired by it and that was the catalyst for then wanting to like, ‘It would be cool to make a record with this guy.’ ”
So he did. And on Friday, Oct. 19, Buckley will drop his fifth album Miles We Put Behind with a show at Festival Hall.
It’s a lovely roots record imbued with blue-eyed soul and ’70s adult contemporary sensibilities, with Buckley’s typically honest, heartfelt songs given a warm and loving treatment that pulls them to the fore. It’s a progression rather than a departure. And a welcome one for both the artist and longtime followers.
It was recorded at Bilerman’s Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal this past February, with an impressive collection of players that the producer had assembled, but, again, which the musician was walking into blind.
“I dropped in with my guitars not knowing (anyone). Everybody seemed cool when I talked to them in advance, but you never know. And of course they were all great, great people and great players and it exceeded all of my expectations. So it was really cool.”
And while musically those players helped fill things out, it’s the songs that shine on Miles We Put Behind.
Buckley is at his finest, dancing between the emotional and solemn to the “quirky” that is the tune Twilight Diner. Here we once again return to Banff — or rather, have Buckley returning to Banff, which he did for another go later in 2017.
Once more he took himself out of his comfort zone, opening himself up to new experiences, this the act of cowriting. He and fellow Alberta roots stalwart John Wort Hannam, who had also been up there for that original residency, began writing a couple of tunes together, eventually bringing Grammy-winning Nashville heavy-hitter Don Henry — at the Banff Centre for another reason —in to help them with one of those tracks.
“We kind of essentially tricked him into writing a song with us,” Buckley says of what would become the moody, slice of life/pie track Twilight Diner.
And as good as it is, perhaps the song that resonates the most, for Buckley particularly, is one that has its origins in the mountains, although not those mountains, and not in a positive way.
The bittersweet, shimmering Kira’s Song was written as a “tribute to a dear friend that we lost far too soon” in an avalanche this past January while she was back-country skiing in the Kootenays.
He wrote the beautiful song almost immediately after the news, while his wife went out to be with the parents of her friend, help them deal.
“She was just one of these people who was an incredibly bright spirit, and ‘lived life to the fullest’ is almost an understatement for her,” says Buckley, who performed it at the woman’s celebration of life at the behest of the family. “To see how much it meant to those who were closest to her, her family and others, it was a special thing to offer something that could help them remember her or help them heal, I guess.”
(Photos courtesy Sebastian Buzzalino — Unfolding Creative Photography.)
T. Buckley releases his new album Friday, Oct. 19 at Festival Hall.