Kevin Buckley really isn't so hard to pin down. He's a fiddler, a guitarist, an Irish folk musician, an old-time picker, a singer, a rock & roller, a producer and one of the least pretentious and most consistently crafty songwriters in St. Louis. He slips between the hard-to-master world of traditional folk and the hard-to-catch and harder-to-make-catchy world of indie pop. At the age of 33, he makes it all look and sound easy by virtue of his sterling talent and years and years of musical study.
Since the mid 2000s, Buckley has been recording and performing under the name Grace Basement, a pop counterpoint to the folk work he's done with friend and fellow fiddler Ian Walsh. His new Grace Basement album, Wheel Within a Wheel, comes as close as to an ideal synthesis of those two forms, sounding like a contemporary and Midwestern answer to Fairport Convention (but far less electric) or Bill Fay (but far less obscure).
Buckley and a big-band version of Grace Basement will have a CD release party for the album on Friday, May 3 at Off Broadway. Over coffee on a brilliant spring day, Buckley traced the paths of the wheels that drive his music.
Roy Kasten: What was the original concept for Grace Basement?
Kevin Buckley: I'm afraid to admit there wasn't much of a concept. First and foremost, it was an outlet for original songs. Grace Basement has weaved in and out of that idea, but it's come back to that. It's something different from the career I've established as a folk musician. Looking back, it's just about the songs really, recording at home, enjoying that vibe and process.
Do you adopt a different personality when you're working on Grace Basement records and songs?
I don't think so. In that way it's been difficult to separate things. At shows, I try to do things differently, but with the actual process the lines blur. On this record, it's about being in these two different worlds: Sometimes they're cool with each other, sometimes they're not. Sometimes they oppose each other completely.
You don't feel like a different person or musician?
No. It's all tied in to what I do. The values and interests can conflict, if that makes sense. In the folk world, where I do a lot of work, the emphasis isn't on creativity; it's more on authenticity and technique. Different things are emphasized, but on the other hand, with rock, technique is seen as lame. But you do need some technique; you don't want to suck.
This record feels much more like a fusion of those two worlds. If those values conflict, this record is about how to resolve them. The song "The Almoner," for instance.
That song could be on a straight-up folk record, something I might do with Ian Walsh. But I thought it would be bad ass on this album. You don't hear that kind of song in a rock environment. It's just a way to mix it up, to challenge people who are into indie music.
I was doing this "write a song every day for 21 days" project, and that song is from that time. Then the next day I wrote a completely poppy rock song. The process is completely random. I don't have a lot of control over it. I try not to limit it. That can be a bad thing. If you focus on one thing you're supposed to get better at it. That's not going to happen with me.
Tell me about the doo-wop arrangement of "The Way to Be", the first song on the album.
I wrote it on the bass. I was trying not to do conventional rock songs. I wanted to do chilled-out, bare, simple arrangements. I can kind of go overboard with that stuff. What's the most bare bone thing I could do? Bass and vocal. It's almost like a duet because some of the notes harmonize. I don't listen to doo-wop, so I don't know how that got in there.
Click through for more of our interview with Buckley and a streaming track..
With some records there's a central event that shapes them, consciously or subconsciously. Was there such an event for this record?
Getting married had a big role in this record. It was both positive and negative. It's the whole "wheel within a wheel" idea. There are all these swirling things. Getting married is a wonderful, beautiful thing. But there are more morbid aspects, losing people that you love, getting older too, realizing that mortality is out there. There's a melancholy quality to all of that.
I think there's a nice mix on the record. Some songs get a little dour, but there are moments of completely opposite emotions. "Water Flowing Over a Mountain" has death imagery, but what I was trying to get across was elation, those moments of intense joy. If you had that all the time, I'm not into that. Joy wouldn't mean as much if you had it all the time.
Were there any touchstones for this album?
I had a folder of records I was into as references, and they sound nothing like this record sounds. The first Paul Simon album was one of those. I really like that one. The early '70s, folky, singer-songwriters, too, even though this album didn't really go in that direction. And I always have The White Album there, and Tim O'Brien, who I love.
What will the band be for the CD release show?
It's my attempt to do things differently, keep things fresh. The last show we did at Off Broadway, we maybe played two songs from the new album, and I've got this whole other rock record that will come out later. But there will be about eight people in the band. Sometimes I get lazy, throw together a four piece band. But for the CD release, I'll have Jesse Irwin and Maureen Sullivan; they'll be singing so we can do the vocal parts. Greg Lamb will be on bass and Jill Aboussie on drums, and they'll also be singing. Caleb Kirby, Margaret Bianchetta's son, he does jazz gigs, but I pulled him in to have another drummer, to have a bigger rhythmic sound. Dave Anderson and Ian Walsh will also be playing. There won't be a huge emphasis on the electric guitar. Dave will play that, but I want to focus on the vocals. And we'll play a lot of songs. There's only two bands on the bill [Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine opens], so there should be some surprises.