When plans for following up 2018 album Miles We Put Behind by recording again in Montreal came crashing down, there was only one thing singer-songwriter T. Buckley could do: re-group. The thing was, with two daughters under five at the time, a spouse going flat out in a key position during a major transition at her job, and all gigs and bets off due to the pandemic, regrouping don’t come easy.
Luckily for Buckley, and for listeners of new album Frame by Frame, released Nov. 5 on Fallen Tree Records, regrouping snuck up on the musician as he “bubbled up” with a musical cohort and the idea of recording at the National Music Centre in Calgary, with this new cast of musicians, arose.
The album’s 10 songs amplify the skills showcased over a decade ago when Buckley won the Calgary folk fest’s songwriting competition, skills further honed during time spent apprenticing with Nashville songwriter Don Henry (Ray Charles, Kathy Mattea). The tracks are river rocks, polished to a beautiful sheen without compromising their core essence.
“I kind of have to start by getting out of town,” Buckley says from his Calgary home when asked how he writes songs simultaneously stripped and rich. “I find with family life and everything else, it’s crazy, and I don’t seem to work super well when it’s an hour here and an hour there or whatever.
“Even if it’s just a few days that I can string together where I can get away and relax, and open myself up to just what I’m doing for the next few days. I find that for whatever reason my head space, a shift happens, and I’m a little bit more receptive to things that I might want to talk about or write about.”
If he’s in the city, Buckley also uses his voice memo and notes apps on his phone to sing or type lines that come to him, then goes back to that when he gets those rare days away to himself. It’s a method that works, as evidenced by Song Unbroken from the instantly and sweetly familiar sounding Miles We Put Behind. It’s a song begging to be in a movie or TV soundtrack, or in the soundtrack of your life. “It’s the one song I’ve ever had that somehow managed to sneak its way into national (play on) CBC. And it stuck around there for quite a while. It was in the Top 20 list and that’s not an easy nut to crack.”
Perhaps Buckley should have said it’s the one song … so far. Several tracks on Frame by Frame would be comfortable in that Top 20 list as well, even though there is a different feel to this album than its predecessor. “You’re never really sure when you start out generating material for the next thing you’re going to do, but it seemed to me the material coming out when I was starting this record was a little bit more on the introspective side of things. There were a few tunes that went a bit darker than I have on past records, which was a bit nerve wracking but kind of exciting, too, because it kind of seemed that I was maybe tapping in to something that I maybe didn’t know was there prior to writing material for this record.”
We talk about songwriting as a place to be brave. “Could all that stuff resonate with you, even though it feels incredibly private? If then, everyone else can see themselves in it, too? And I think that’s ultimately the goal of writing, too, you want people to be able to put themselves in there and their own experiences and have it mean something, too.
“A prime example, a tune on there called Holding my Place — which is also the most stripped-down tune on the record — looking at the justice system and how it fails a lot of people. I think the tune is trying to walk a mile in their shoes and find that empathy and what that would feel like.”
The stunning, ebon track rings true as Buckley drew on his experience working as a youth counsellor with young offenders for a local organization. Lines like “Hate conquer love was all I’d ever seen/More easy to drown than swimming upstream” cut to the essence of those lives in under a dozen words.
“That was a pretty heavy one for sure. Definitely, as I was writing it, I remember feeling that sort of thing we referenced earlier, where it’s coming through me a little bit. (I) tell the story, not that it’s my story to tell, quote unquote, but it’s something being around we all can relate to.”
Some of the tracks on Frame by Frame began when Buckley was in residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. “You’re in a residency with a bunch of people who are doing the same thing, and you’re talking about songwriting all the time, and there’re people up there like Kevin Welch and Kim Richey that you can bounce stuff off all the time.
“I also think maybe that made me a little bit bolder to try some different things, too, and not be scared to chase some stuff up and down. In the past, I might have been like, this is too much or a bummer or something.
“You kind of get a little braver and say, ‘Well, fucking finish it, man. It’s a cool thing, so keep going.’ ”
T. Buckley plays the Frame by Frame album release show Nov. 20 at Ironwood Stage.