Here and Now: Alberta songwriter Mariel Buckley unveils stunning, naked second album

Oh God! Ooohh God, friends, give it up. Give up your pretenses, give up your sick pride. Give up your moments of shame, and give up the secrets that keep you from connecting your soul – your real soul, not the one you dress up for daily display – to the soul of another. Listen to Calgary-raised songwriter Mariel Buckley’s second album, Everywhere I Used to Be, and let it all go.

Give it up while listening to opening track Neon Blue, where there’s sawdust on the floor, a broken bathroom, and a parking lot to piss in, but, “No matter how much I drink here, it never seems to get me drunk.” Give it up for Whatever Helps You, when, with naked voice, a rhythm track, and sparse instrumentation, Buckley writes a novel: “You come to the window, let the night paint you blue/You sparkle in starlight, and it tears me in two …” Ah, holy fuck, just give it up.

It’s an album that hunts down the footprints Buckley left from first album, 2018’s Driving in the Dark, and devours them, stomping out deeper tracks in the snow, dust and tears from that journey and veering into virgin territory on the way through the subterranean, sombre forest of the superego. Speaking from the road in the back of the caravan while travelling to a gig in Winnipeg, Buckley’s straight-shooting style echoes the album’s intimacy. When asked how she drops gutsy, blunt lines with the casualness of someone saying hello, Buckley doesn’t hesitate.

“Well, I’m fucked. I think it’s one of those strange things where the more you do it, the more comfortable you get at maybe revealing a little bit more. Because I think the last record maybe had a little bit of that edge to it, but I don’t think in the songwriting I was prepared to be as literal as I am on the tracks with this one.

“There’s a lot more personal narrative and there’s also — I find that uber specificity is also a style of songwriting that is relatively new and that I’ve kind of gravitated towards — so, it was also an exercise to push myself to be a little bit more vulnerable, so I’m glad it translates that way. That’s certainly what I intended.”

And while a song like Love Ain’t Enough (“Thought I saw you in the back of my car/You were combing your hair in my mirror, I was falling apart/But the moment faded, I was alone at the wheel/Every day I’m trying to forget how that feels”) could make Springsteen weep, production by Marcus Paquin helped these truths stay out of their own way. Buckley discovered him while expanding her musical range by working at Blackbyrd Myoozik from 2016 to 2019 when she heard his production on The National’s Trouble Will Find Me album.

“It was really cool. I kind of picked him pretty intentionally because I think on the last record we did a pretty good job of hitting the sort of country-rock/Americana side, and we purposely left things like pedal steel out of it to keep from being pigeonholed as too country. And with this record, I really wanted to have strong signalling for country, so pedal steel was essential, but I wanted a guy who wasn’t a country fan. And who wasn’t necessarily producing country records and would have all these ideas, ideas that I might myself might have had or that we both would have together. 

“I wanted somebody who was going to have totally weird different ideas and who would push me to do something different, so I picked him after listening to a bunch of his records at the record store, and he kind of came in and we made what I call a syth country record, which is really fun.”

It must be nice to just call up the man who worked with everyone from Morrissey to Arcade Fire and have him produce your second album. “I did have to pitch him a very little. I sent him the songs and he was like, ‘I love them!’ but, you know, yeah, I sort of like to think that anyone you want to work with is within your realm. You just have to have a batch of songs ready to go and show them that you’re ready to make a record and ready to put down the money for it. But, that’s what I like to think, anyway, I could be totally out to lunch.”

When it came to having money to put down, in 2019 Buckley picked up just over $100,000 by winning Project WILD, a commercial artist development program from local radio station WILD 953, which came in handy. However, as for artist development, it’s doubtful the windfall knocked her inner guidance system even a smidgeon of a degree off her inner true north, a north including memories of scoring coke outside a Circle K, of staying in a shitty relationship after you should be long gone, of waking up and not knowing how you got home. In short, classic communal outsider memories.

“For a lot of that sort of darker stuff it helps to be either totally alone or even in a foreign place where I can’t kind of get distracted by shit that’s looking at me in the house that I need to get done or whatever.

“Certainly, a lot of the more heartbreak narrative stuff is almost entirely from personal experience, especially on this album for sure. It’s mostly just stuff that I’m trying to get rid of, if that makes sense. You know, people have to move through stuff in different ways to let go of it. I think that song writing for me and for a lot of other people is a kind of catharsis, so certainly a lot of them start off with something that’s just lived in my brain or my mind for a long time I’m trying to get out.”

Some of the heartbreak in Buckley’s life included the loss of a close friend in an accident when they were in Grade 10, leading to lots of weed and booze, and to her not attending Western Canada High School except for classes she liked, like advanced placement English. Some of her favourite literature includes Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, and works by Cormac McCarthy and Timothy Findley. Exploration of her queer identity was also a factor.

When asked about childhood and her relationship with brother T. Buckley, a celebrated songwriter in his own right, Buckley recalls her dad’s massive classic vinyl collection and burning mixed discs for every mood starting around her twelfth birthday. She grew up in Lakeview across from Grey Eagle Casino, apparently beside the house where Jann Arden grew up. “I think the thing, it’s pretty funny, people forget that Tim and I are almost seven and a half years apart, so, we didn’t do a lot of musical growth or exploration together. He was moved out when I was 13 or 12 — a lot of my formative time with music which was right around that same time he was already gone.”

While Buckley’s dark times have been fruitful, producing a song like Hate This Town (“Buying cocaine outside the Circle K, who cares if it kills me anyway?/What’s the point of staying clean for Christmas?”) she has taken charge of her narrative. “That was obviously a pretty dark sort of period, (especially) that specific incident I was referring to — although I would say that everyone has bought cocaine at that Circle K I think at least once. 

“I stopped doing that stuff a few years ago now, and I still smoke weed. I love weed, but it doesn’t run my life in the same way. And I still drink, but I drink about half as much as I was before the pandemic. And the reason is I think I could be a person with lots of addiction problems, but I spent a lot of time in the last two years in therapy, and working on myself, working on trying to control myself, working on other ways to feel healthy and try to feel those endorphins and what I was looking for.

“It takes time, and I don’t think it’s a straightforward thing. I don’t think it will be the last time that I have to, you know, check myself with it. But, anyone who’s had any kind of weirdness in their life or their childhood knows that it’s an everyday thing. You’ve got to just take it as it comes and do your best. It doesn’t always look the same as on other days.”

Mariel Buckley’s album, Everywhere I Used to Be, was released Aug. 12; a supporting tour will occur in October.