The Folklorish and Affectionate Wisdom of Buck Meek
We sat down with the singer, songwriter and Big Thief guitarist to talk about the comedy of human mythology, the pursuit of reciprocity and his latest record, Haunted MountainPhotos by Shervin Lainez Music Features Buck Meek
“Kissing only with our eyelids, butterflies entwining, laid down in a field of dead lilies, felt our lives begin again,” Buck Meek sings at the end of “Mood Ring,” the opening track from his third studio album, Haunted Mountain. The record is, in many ways, like a renewal for Meek, who has—maybe almost too subtly—been churning out curious, warm and profound solo work since his self-titled debut five years ago. To many, he is the six-string abstractionist who grooves like he’s undergoing an exorcism while shredding in Big Thief. For those of us who made a home within the world of Two Saviors in 2021, we know Meek as a storyteller at the forefront of sonic mysticism and heavy, endearing, familiar and accessible poetics. On Haunted Mountain, his rolodex of love and loss expands, intertwines and survives.
For as busy as Big Thief seems to always be—given that, in 2019, they put out two full albums and, in 2022, released their 20-song opus Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You—it might be surprising that Meek has, somehow, found the time to put out two studio albums of his own in the years between. But much of what he creates under his own name doesn’t get workshopped while he’s taking the stage with Big Thief every night. “I have a hard time writing when I’m on the road,” Meek tells me. “Because, touring is pretty intense.” He’s created a regimen for himself while traveling the globe, always prioritizing his “basic hierarchy of needs.” “I try to spend most of my day just taking care of myself—going on walks and reading and talking to my lady on the phone, catching up with family,” he adds. That laundry list of self-care, too, can be found all across Haunted Mountain—which is a big batch of songs that cater to the humanities of joy, grief and, above all, transcendent, gravitational and boundless love.
Though Meek does find inspiration in things he encounters while touring, much of Haunted Mountain came together on his property in the Santa Monica Mountains—in-between Big Thief itineraries, as he continues to build a life with his wife Germaine Dunes. Meek and Dunes met four years ago in the Netherlands and spent a long time apart from one another, exchanging letters and reconciling in Europe for a while before settling down together in Southern California. It’s where he is now, during our conversation, sitting in a darkened room illuminated by a side-table lamp and the stalking afternoon light peering in from just beyond his camera. It’s around noon where Meek is, and he’s celebrating the day’s onset with a cold beer. Wood-panelled walls envelope his couch-situated body; the cool-as-a-cucumber charisma he exudes on stage is flicked on at home, too.
There’s a garden outside, where Meek wrote a large portion of Haunted Mountain—because there’s no cell phone service on that part of his land. “I just wrote for five or six hours a day by the garden,” he tells me. He’s not much of a notes app guy, preferring to carry a notebook with him everywhere, jotting down ideas when he gets them. But he typically constructs a song via guitar first, in that Paul McCartney, Get Back-ian sort of way everyone on Twitter made a fuss about two years ago. “I’ll try to start from a subconscious place and find a melody on the guitar and start mumbling words—almost just word sounds. Once I have an idea, once I have some words that feel good, I’ll start to develop that into a narrative—at which point I’ll put out a notebook,” Meek adds.
Much of Haunted Mountain is a high-fidelity population of love songs told in various colors—a starker contrast from Two Saviors, which had a much more subdued productional grit to it, an intentional move made by producer Andrew Sarlo in an effort to reflect Meek’s own transitory circumstances. “Writing Two Saviors was a process of overcoming a loss in my life, the loss of a relationship,” Meek says. “A lot of those songs were guiding me through the grieving process and starting to rediscover my independence and gather my strength. Andrew’s stipulation for producing that album was to do it in New Orleans in a house, very lo-fi, to capture that feeling of being underwater, to be going through this rebirth.”
While Meek calls Two Saviors a rebirth, the same can be applied to Haunted Mountain, too. In 2021, the guitarist took to the prestige of NPR’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert series—which he performed in the back of a van in some vast, untraceable desert hideaway. He played a song called “Undae Dunes,” which he contextualized by saying he was “in love with a woman who may be an astronaut, someday.” Perhaps no one beyond Meek himself knew it then, but it was the first offering of what Haunted Mountain would become: A real genuine portrait of innocence told through the euphoria of affection and every shape it takes. “I really tried to surrender to earnest love songs and romantic love songs and songs with love for your mother, love for a friend, for a mountain, etc.,” Meek adds. “I wanted to capture that in the most hi-fi environment possible, to reflect the feeling of openness that I was trying to get out in the songs.”
Two Saviors employed a motif recurrence of eye imagery and the double-entendre of vision and its fallibilities—most strikingly in “Two Moons,” when Meek sings “Eyes behind eyes behind her eyes, I know them from before. Maybe night skies golden, maybe desert doors.” While it was a badge of guidance or, perhaps, a doorway out of grief, they return again on Haunted Mountain as tokens of a love born from growing out of loss and into a rewarding, mutual adoration. “Our first kiss felt like home, with tears in our eyes,” Meek sings on “Didn’t Know You Then,” “And now, one thousand kisses later, each one feels like the first time.”
Haunted Mountain was produced by Mat Davidson (who also plays pedal steel) and performed by Meek and his longtime coterie of collaborators: guitarist Adam Brisbin, drummer Austin Vaughn and Buck’s brother Dylan, who plays pianos and synths. Adrian Olsen also lent his modular synths and mixed the record in two weeks. This group has been fashioning sketches into sonic skyscrapers since Buck Meek four years ago, and they’ve helped transform Meek’s songwriting in ways that go beyond what he’s accomplished in Big Thief—where he’s a soul beating inside a large, wondrous body of musical convergence, rather than leading his own crew.
“They’re some of my best friends. I feel really close to them, and we’ve been together for so long,” he says. “Adam is my guitar hero. He has this polarity. He’s so dexterous and has a sharp ear, but he’s also really wild and colors outside the lines at the same time—which I love. Everything Mat sings and plays just makes you want to cry immediately.” Having his sibling as a part of the band, too, is a priceless memento Meek carries with him—especially since a few of the Haunted Mountain tracks are greatly inspired by their parents. “[Dylan is] one of the most incredible musicians alive, and I think he’s a genius,” Meek adds. “It’s always really tender, making music with him.”
Haunted Mountain is one of the cleanest sounding folk records of 2023 thus far, and you can thank Davidson’s production cues for that. Rather than retread the work he did with Sarlo on Two Saviors, Meek and Davidson embraced high-fidelity with open arms—capturing the intimacy of the spaces that rest in-between the notes, surrendering to slower tempos and revealing the granular details and subtleties in each song. “One of Mat’s big, big insights was to sit with each other in silence,” Meek says. “He encouraged us to not talk in the live room, to not reflect on the songs and the takes with logic or with our words. Instead, he wanted us to just enter the live room and play the songs a few times and then leave and talk outside.”
That approach is a road less-traveled in recording spaces, certainly, but it deftly contributed to the brilliance and organic beauty that spans the entirety of the album. Haunted Mountain sounds like it was made by five dudes performing in the same room together, as opposed to the sum-of-parts, distanced vibe that greatly defined Two Saviors. Both modes are great and have their rewards, but there’s something utterly splendid about seeing Meek, the guy who’s played guitar and sung harmonies on some of the most distinctive and stylish folk-rock albums of the last decade, adopt that destiny for himself in his own musical devotions. When he talks about how the oneness and freedoms of Big Thief’s song-making processes, how he can be supportive while also holding individuality and employing finesse, that has now taken shape in the Buck Meek band, too.
“You learn to trust your body and to trust your instincts and to trust each other,” he says. “You might do a take when you first get in there, and everyone’s loosening up and everyone’s finding their way into the song—and I’ve found that, sometimes, if you analyze that immediately, you can create some stigma. Even if you know it’s true, it disempowers the potential for those things to fix themselves. In not talking about it, a lot of the thoughts that I had ended up ironing themselves out instinctually after a couple of tries. Everybody else, we were all moving towards the same thing. Our bodies knew what to do.”
Never before has Meek’s own songwriting arrived in such a dynamic way, either. The seeds were planted on his EP with Adrianne Lenker nearly 10 years ago, and then on Buck Meek and Two Saviors in the last half-decade, but Haunted Mountain sews them into kaleidoscopic incantations. His approach to narrative is very much akin to the work of poets like Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, waxers who wrote of moments as they unfolded with embellishments that served the beauty of relatable plainness. Meek’s work, like O’Hara and Koch’s, is intimate; tapping into a song like “Paradise” or “Where You’re Coming From” is like stepping into someone else’s conversation mid-way through. He wants the listener to step into his world, but with the hopes that we’ll live through it in our own unique ways. Early in his attraction to music and lyricism, he found a haven in John Prine’s approach to that kind of scene-setting. During our talk, he sings a line from “Far From Me,” too.
“‘Ain’t it funny how a broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring,’” he intones into the Zoom space. “There’s something about conversational songs—dialogue in songs—that instantly puts me in this mindset to read between the lines, to listen deeper and fill in the gaps. Because, as soon as there’s two characters in a song, it’s inferred that there’s a lot unsaid—but there’s this whole relationship that has led up to this conversation, there’s a lot of context that is not spoken in the lyrics. You have to fill in that blank as the listener. It’s a structure that makes it easier for me to project my own meaning into that relationship.”
You can find that accessibility scattered all over Haunted Mountain. I was drawn to “Lullabies” for that very reason, as Meek interpolates his own rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” into a ballad written in service to his unyielding love for his mother. Years ago, my own mother would sing that song to me whenever I awoke from a nightmare or whenever I was sick. It was the lantern that brightened those young streaks of darkness, and it’s vividly mirrored in “Lullabies.” Beginning with her labor and sprawling all the way into apparitions of angels and stock-brokers in “a faraway and distant land,” it’s a delicate pension paid to the tapestries woven from the interlocking energies of joy and grief; an ode to giving a piece of yourself away so another person can live.
“The sacrifice that a mother gives must be so deeply empowering,” Meek says. “There’s a sense of purpose in that giving, and there’s also a deep sense of loss—and, somehow, those things are so intertwined. I think that you could say the same thing about any human relationship, because there’s always an inherent loss in our mortality. The closer you become to someone, the harder it is to let go—whether that means breakup or death, the evolution of someone’s life. You can’t have one without the other.”
Haunted Mountain, in turn, is about many cruxes tethered to the same, unwavering kismet: To talk about love and honor it kindly, to write love songs for wives, mothers and friends, to understand the polarities of what exists beneath the surface of that love. “The reward or the idealization or the romance of love, that’s the incentive—whether it’s biological or spiritual,” Meek adds. “The actual work that’s required to achieve that or maintain that sustainability over the course of your life with another person, it’s so hard. It’s the hardest thing. But the actual work is also so beautiful and so uncharted and it’s a never-ending process, to actually sit with each other and sit with ourselves and to suspend our projections and our fears and our judgement and our assumption of each other and to, actually, pursue reciprocity.”
The ways we aim to examine and articulate the buoyant and messy and divine fruits of our romances is a fluid, evolving undertaking. Such is the humanity of growing older just as we are creating our art. I ask Meek whether or not the love he set out to capture the grace of looked different by the time he finished the record, to which he offered a bountiful and succinct truth: “I think we fall prey to those idealizations at the beginning of love or at the beginning of a friendship or at the beginning of a song or a new chapter of our life or a tour or a movie,” he says. “I think we’re all blind to the full spectrum of what it really means to go through something—it’s probably programmed into us to actually pull us into it to begin with. Maybe we would all just be at home if we didn’t have that blindness to begin with. I think, with every song or with every relationship, my understanding of what it really means to me changes over the course of writing it or experiencing it.”
The connective tissue that holds Haunted Mountain together resides in the title. Meek grew up in Wimberley, Texas, almost 600 miles away from the Franklin Mountains—the range that overlooks the pecan trees of Sonic Ranch in the Western Texas border town of Tornillo, where the record was put together. While the titular mountain in question is the recurring structure of Mount Shasta in the Cascades, you can feel the lifeblood of the Franklins rushing through Haunted Mountain and its tracklist, too. Its erosion and the bedrock and summits and valleys are what drew Meek to adopt pastoral, folkloric images of their volatility and enchantments. “There’s danger and instability and constant entropy in the mountains that you can’t ignore, and I feel humbled by that and alive in the presence of that danger. I feel very small and insignificant—which is refreshing,” he says.
Singer/songwriter Jolie Holland penned the first two verses and the chorus of “Haunted Mountain,” along with four other songs on the record altogether, and you can see their kinship and appreciation for each other’s shared love of poetry and music and nature bleed into the work they make together. The song, much like the album as a whole, is an examination of how, if we begin to respect the world around us and form a symbiotic connection with it, only then can we go all in on hope, loss, joy, grief and growth. “It made me think about our relationship with nature and how we haunt it with our colonization or with our spiritual agenda—our exploitation of natural resources, which made me think about our relationship with love and our relationship with each other, as well,” Meek says. “Humans are to the mountains as we are to love.”
Meek works often through love with a deluge of mythology and naturality and spiritual forces across Haunted Mountain. It’s the richest part of the work altogether, beyond the sonic construction of the songs themselves. On “Undae Dunes,” he muses on UFOs and spaceships, singing “Years flew by with enigmatic beauty, but every night he’d think of Suzy. Red sky filled with rockets, Jim still flies with a silver locket.” On “Lagrimas,” he ushers in nods to sorcery and vintage, otherworldly safekeepings in order to find reconnections with a dead loved one. “Saving my tears in a bottle, saving my nickels and dimes to give to the old necromancer who knows how to read and write,” Meek sings. “Dip your quill into my well, tears fall as you write. His wings will carry my words so heavy to the sky.” In his world, sincerity is evergreen and beautiful, the first real step towards achieving authentic bonds with the people and places you set out to love.
There’s an intentionality behind the playfulness on Haunted Mountain, and it’s something that Meek taps into often—unraveling its integrality in friendships and romances, exploring the freedom and flexibilities of childlike wonder in healthy relationships. “For me, it’s almost like a joke,” he insists. “I think it’s so beautiful and hilarious how we mythologize our lives and how we create fantasies. I think, to live and to transcend our human experience with religion and with mythology, with storytelling, with our emotions, every last one of us is drawn to exaggerating. It helps us, somehow, transcend. There’s a playfulness to it. I think that is really important to me and in love.”
That playfulness transforms into sentimentality and the preservation of memory on a track like “Cyclades,” where Meek sings of a story his father once told him—only to let it unravel into a rumination on how we tap into our own vaults of history, how we might begin to tug on the threads that built the DNA of our lineages, futures and presents long before we were born. It’s not nostalgia so much as it’s a fondness for trust and the magnifications we make of our own yesteryears.
“There’s too many stories to remember, too many stories to tell,” Meek sings, aptly, in the chorus. The version of “Cyclades” we encounter on Haunted Mountain centers around how his father—while living on Mount Shasta in his early 20s—took his motorcycle around a corner and happened upon a herd of elk taking up the entire road. “He was way too close to break, so he just closed his eyes and threaded the needle through these elk, miraculously, and made it through to the other side,” Meek says. “I was trying to unearth this idea that our lives are this culmination of so many unfinished stories and untold stories, that the line between mythology and history is so thin. The fact that we even exist is a product of so many near-death experiences or so many very small chances.” I think what “Cyclades” represents is the thesis of Meek’s approach to musicianship as a whole. Initially, he’d written a song with three different verses about three different tales recorded in two takes that were impossible to choose between. At the behest of Mat Davidson, Meek took a 30-minute break, re-wrote the lyrics and then returned to the studio and nailed the final cut in one take.
I listen to Prine’s “Hello In There” after I get off of my call with Meek, paying close attention to the “And all the news just repeats itself, like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen” line more than ever. As the years blow by, I’m certain Meek could add a hundred more verses to “Cyclades.” Perhaps that’s the beauty of our paths toward mortality and finality, that our lives continue to be written and filled with secrets and fables and truths. The charm and delicacy of it all is not so much that we have too much to tell, but that we get to share some of ourselves with the people we love and the people who love us back. Two years ago, Buck Meek sang these words: “I need to be alone, to know my home.” Now, he arrives at the center of these 11 songs locked in arms with the people and places and things he loves: his wife, the cosmos, the mountains, his bandmates, the promise of tomorrow. The world is a damning, unforgivable place. But, on Haunted Mountain, we get a version of it that is handsome, co-dependent, massive and worth moving through.
Watch Buck Meek’s Paste studio session from 2018 below.
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.