As a cult figure singer-songwriter with a solitary, enigmatic persona, Richard Buckner isn't exactly a household name. He makes haunting, beautiful records driven by sound as much as song every few years, and mostly by himself. He tours small clubs and living rooms to scrap together a living, and otherwise exists on the fringe of the music world, save for a small, devoted following.
But, for a few days in early September, at least in the indie-music press world, Buckner's name was on the tip of everybody's tongue. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver had an unusual press conference where he played his highly anticipated new album 22, A Million, ahead of official release and took questions from a few dozen journalists. He listed Buckner as one of two dedications on the album and named him as a primary influence, saying, "Richard Buckner has 13 albums and every one of them is perfect. Lyrics can be more flowing and more impressionistic. [I] found myself falling into a land or a dream and suspending disbelief more listening to his lyrics. Sounding things out and find out what it means later. [He] gave me the courage to write like that."
It's six weeks later, and the brief flurry of interest in the makings of Vernon's record has subsided. Buckner says he didn't notice much outside reaction personally, but was still touched.
"To me, it's just a very generous compliment to someone," he says. "I mean it's a nice thing to say, but it's a really generous thing to put on a record."
And as it turns out, Vernon and Buckner met here in Charleston, as best Buckner can recall. Vernon was between bands and playing guitar for Michelle Malone, who opened for Buckner at the now-defunct Village Tavern in Mount Pleasant.
"This was 2005 or 6, I think, and I had just gotten email for the first time," Buckner recalls. "One of my first emails ever sent was to Justin. He wrote me, and I wrote him back telling him I couldn't really afford to take anybody on the road with me right now, but you're great, hopefully at some point we'll be able to play in the future. And he wrote back later in the year, 'I'm starting this project called Bon Iver, dadada.' And I didn't hear from him for a while."
Somehow, none of this is surprising, least of all Vernon's devotion to Buckner. Both are dedicated tinkers and experimenters who love sounds and exploring new sonic territory, even as their gorgeous voices — Vernon's shivering falsetto, Buckner's deep, earthy rumbling — and contemplative, impressionistic lyrics tend to drive casual interest and fandom.
"The only reason I'm even doing this now is because they invented four-track Fostex cassette recorders in the late seventies, early eighties," admits Buckner when talk turns to his creative process. "My whole thing with music has nothing to do with songs or arrangements; it had to do with screwing around at home with home recording equipment and making weird sounds. It's always been about sound with me, not necessarily writing songs or stuff. Even before I made my first record, that's what I was into."
Like Vernon, Buckner first rose to prominence with an acoustic, more traditionally song-driven record, 1994's Bloomed, before embarking on a journey toward more singular and adventurous records driven by an array of effects pedals and keyboards rather than collections of songs.
"I find sounds that are interesting enough to me to marshal along these songs out of sounds. It's always been that way for me," he explains. "A long time ago I probably did sit down and wonder what I'm supposed to write about, but I don't now. I just get in there and stuff happens."
Still, almost all of his records end up featuring a handful of memorably crafted tunes, like "When You Tell Me How it Is," from 2013's Surrounded, an album that Buckner composed with an electric autoharp and octave pedals. The song weaves fragmented phrases and questions on the strength of his forceful intoning, even as the drone-filled accompaniment behind him shimmers and wavers.
"Often I'm seeing how far you can take an impression of a word, to see what the word really means or twist it around into something else," says Buckner. "That's the fun part of songwriting for me. And a lot if is just, as the years go by, trying to figure shit out. Pulling the layers back and seeing what's under there. That's the only reason I write the word parts — figuring stuff out in my head and putting words together in a way that explains things in my head without telling a real story."
The approach has the advantage of making his songs less a matter of analysis or personal connection for his audience; instead they function almost as talisman, evoking something more abstract and specific but nonetheless primal and important for them.
"My personal story doesn't need to be told; it's just the little grains of sand from my life here and there that enter in," he concludes. "Hopefully it's open enough that people can attach themselves to."