Those that have followed the psych-folk scene over the years will be more than familiar with guitarist Buck Curran, one-half of Arborea (alongside Shanti Deschaine). Buck has just released Immortal Light, his solo debut. It was one of our Featured Albums of the Month very recently, and Thomas Blake summed the album up beautifully in the final sentence of his review:
With Immortal Light, Curran has successfully tapped into that natural beauty and created a slice of alt-folk that is as engrossing as anything you’re likely to hear.
I’ve known Buck personally for some years now, and we managed to catch-up in the middle of him touring his album.
I kick things off by mentioning that Immortal Light appears to be a critical landmark in the development of his music and that the album cover, showing Pluto, although a small planet, represents change, transformation, and regeneration. I mention how strong a metaphor it is which leads me straight into asking a rather deep opening question – whether it was a transformational album for him personally?
“It has been a very intense personal transformation which began in the Spring of 2014 when Arborea took some much-needed downtime from touring. During that period Shanti began pursuing a new creative path through a meditation-based project with a friend. For her, that project was a much deserved and necessary break from the relentless touring entity that Arborea had become.
“Change for myself, however, both personally and musically, had been slow and continuously evolving since Arborea started. Personal change and growth being something all of us obviously go through, but each of us perceive and respond to it in different ways. In retrospect, I was slow to recognize certain things were changing as I was completely focused on that collaborative project and also raising our two children (which we did for many years on the road). And I’ve always been writing and performing my own music, for decades now (I was especially active with a solo project in the 90’s). I recorded a lot of demos during the years prior to Arborea, but was never satisfied with anything I’d written or recorded….definitely not enough to stand behind any of that earlier work for official release. When we recorded and released ‘Wayfaring Summer‘ in 2006 I just knew things had become perfectly aligned and the wait was over. Yet all the experience from those previous years certainly gave me the knowledge I needed for producing and recording Arborea’s music and where I find myself now musically.
“So back when Arborea began to develop during the Summer of 2005…my role within music began to change as my singing happily took a back seat, as I became more focused on composing music and writing lyrics. From the very beginning, it was such a powerful and beautiful experience to work with a singer of Shanti’s caliber and natural ability. I feel the experience must have been the same for Shanti, as she didn’t even start focusing on being a singer until we formed the duo. And it was great to feel inspired by each other and to see our musical abilities growing to new heights with each album we made. As for challenging transitions, Arborea went on hiatus again as of 2016, so moving into this solo project has been very important for my creativity and survival. The image of Pluto only came to exist recently as the NASA space probe ‘New Horizons’ (originally launched in 2006) approached the planet and the edge of our solar system at the end of last year. For me, that image is very subtle and beautiful and mysterious, and with the astrological mythology of Pluto (transformation and regeneration) it was the perfect image to represent the release of my very first solo album.”
At the back of mind, I’m stuck on ‘transformation and change’ and ask how this work is so different to what he has done in the past. Buck is, as ever, very revealing in his answers requiring little probing to open up and leads our conversation into influences, some of which may surprise some of you.
“Well as I mentioned, it started during some downtime Arborea had that year. During that time, honestly, I just started focusing on myself and my own creativity. That year I wrote and recorded New Moontide and arranged and recorded the cover of Bad Moon Rising. Sea of Polaris was also written and recorded that year and came from experiencing the death of someone very dear to me, which had a deeply profound effect on many things in my life. I recorded Wayfaring Summer (Reprise) last Summer thinking it would be perfect to honor the coming ten year anniversary of Arborea’s first album ‘Wayfaring Summer’ (2006). With the original recording of Wayfaring Summer I had quickly composed it as an intro for the Arborea song River and Rapids…but I’ve never felt completely satisfied with that original recording and have always thought of that piece as something a little more expansive. Over the years, we got used to playing it live closer to where I wanted it to be, so I wanted to represent it that way and it felt like the perfect way to lead off ‘Immortal Light‘.
“For those long sustained notes in the intro of Wayfaring Summer I originally drew inspiration from Martin Simpson‘s album ‘When I Was On Horseback‘, his intro to Pretty Saro/Long Steel Rail….that combined with my early influences of BB King and Cream-era Clapton, Martin inspired me to develop my guitar playing in a subtle, vocal way…a style of playing that’s always made more sense to me anyway….as opposed to the concept of say running scales and shredding (a way of playing guitar which has always sounded funny to my ears, like someone conversing at hyper speed…not something I’ve found very attractive or beautiful).
“I was also fortunate enough back in 2006 to have briefly owned the very guitar that Martin Simpson used on ‘When I Was on Horseback‘…which I used on the first two Arborea albums Arborea. That guitar also influenced my work as a guitar maker and inspired the two acoustic guitars I made and used on ‘Immortal Light‘.”
Amongst his many influences, Buck also lists the likes of Davy Graham, Robbie Basho, and Sitarist Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. There are more that I recall from a late night chat we had a few years back when Arborea stayed with us whilst on tour. Back then he recalled albums and tracks like he’d just listened to them, a knack he proves to still possess. I mention that they all seem to have an eastern influence except Martin Simpon’s work which seems to reflect this less so. I then recall a mix he did for Folk Radio UK and that he’d chosen to include a track by Martin and Jessica Simpson…he’s immediately transported back in his mind to Norfolk, Virginia in the 90’s.
“Martin and Jessica regularly toured through Ramblin’ Conrads, the folklore/guitar shop in Norfolk, Virginia that I worked at in the early 90’s. The shop was also a venue and so many legends of American and British Folk music toured through there over the years. Being there every day was a real working education in the history of folk music from around the World. It was also there that I discovered the recordings of Sandy Denny and June Tabor. So I was equally aware of Simpson’s work with Tabor when I first met Martin and Jessica. The influence of Jessica’s poetry on Martin’s work during those years was very profound….and for my preference far more mystical, haunting and emotive than his work with Tabor. Meeting them and seeing them perform together was cathartic for me…their approach to original music and their interpretations of traditional music. It gave me and immediate direction for where I wanted my music to go…and the original inspiration for Arborea.”
Taking my point about Eastern music and Martin Simpson he pulls the music from his mind and reveals more…
“Listen to Wholly in My Keeping from their 1987 release on Topic records ‘Truth, Dare, or Promise‘ (re-issued on CD in 2000 via Fledg’ling Records)…it’s a much overlooked and a beautiful album! As for Martin’s playing…there are instrumentals like Greenfields of America from his album ‘Leaves of Life‘ or James Connolly from ‘Cool and Unusual.’ They are both instrumentals, modal slide pieces that have underlying sustaining harmonic drones, which gives the music incredible mood and a defined Eastern feel. With Martin’s use of modal and minor alternate guitar tunings, there is a common thread there that links music from around the World together. Much of ‘Leaves of Life‘ is actually made up of Martin’s acoustic guitar arrangements of Vocal Airs which Jessica taught him. And of course, Martin is heavily rooted in American blues music, which I also come through. I took some brief lessons from him in the early 90’s. Martin’s concept of using a slide to enhance the vocal timbres of the guitar along with the otherworldly sitar playing of Nikhi Banerjee have had a great impact on how I’ve developed my own guitar style.”
I know that nature has always been a strong influence in the music of Arborea. I mention that the Androscoggin River appears to have been something of a conduit for his thoughts and transforming those into music on this album. He reveals that water itself is a huge source of inspiration.
“The presence of water….rivers and oceans, even the endless ocean of space has always been important to me. I feel endless inspiration from being near water, or physically swimming in it (I also love to body surf in the ocean). River unto Sea from ‘Immortal Light’ was initially inspired from a day trip to a river in the Wicklow mountains in Ireland. I was with Shanti and my other musical partner Adaya (a brilliant musician from Switzerland). I finished composing the piece when I returned to Maine and through a series of trips to my favorite spot along the Adroscoggin River (which was also a vital source of life for tribes native to that area most likely for thousands of years). That spot along the Androscoggin has always been an inspiration. I usually don’t have an instrument with me when I’m there…but every time I’ve been, music arrives in waves in my mind, and then I find myself running home to transfer the music in my head onto the guitar, harmonium or flute. I actually prefer to compose music away from my instruments. A lot of music has also been made on walks in nature. For me, music is more of visionary process.”
I move onto Robbie Basho, an influence that deserves personal attention as Buck has released two tribute compilations (Vol.I We Are All One, in the Sun: A Tribute to Robbie Basho | Basket Full of Dragons: A Tribute to Robbie Basho Vol. II) and organised a tribute concert to help raise funds for the making of the film Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho. I’m pretty certain that Buck has played a part in the rise of the late Basho’s influence on a number of musicians. I start with a question which in hindsight is not an easy one – “What is it about Basho that draws you personally and how would you describe that draw to someone unfamiliar with his music.” He doesn’t shy away…he not only answers it (despite initial reservations) but touches on a side of is music that surprises me still further…his singing.
“Not sure I am capable of answering this question directly. But hopefully, this gives some insight. I feel Robbie Basho is one of the most vital pioneering artists in the history of American steel-string acoustic guitar and folk song. Basho worked very hard during his life (composing, recording, and touring), and I feel his music is just as important as the work of his direct contemporary John Fahey. Historically speaking he was right there alongside Fahey, UK guitarist Davey Graham, Sandy Bull, Joni Mitchell, etc, and during those years he was really pushing the musical envelope and heavily expanded the vocabulary of what was then known possible with the acoustic steel-string guitar. He explored musical colours and moods present in the classical music of Northern Indian, Japanese and Persian music, and Native American cultures (and to a far greater degree than any of his contemporaries).
“Basho adapted those musical voices from around the world to create compositions and recordings that still sound progressive and alive to this very day. It’s also amazing to realize how early on he was using low alternate tunings…initially being inspired by the recordings of sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar (recordings that would deeply change his musical path and aesthetic forever). And I would encourage people to dig deeper into Basho’s singing and song-form…it’s had an even greater impact on my music than his guitar playing. There are few singers who have sung with as much power and emotion and captured that on record. With this second tribute, I honestly feel now that I’ve done as much as I can to honor and share his music and help continue his legacy. And Steffen Basho-Junghans (read Harry Wheeler’s review of IS here) in particular has worked for decades to share Basho’s legacy with his labor of love that is the online Basho Archives (a wealth of information, photos, and free downloads of rare Basho concerts). Hopefully, in time Robbie Basho will be given due credit for his life’s work and finally be recognized as an innovative player and composer alongside the World’s greatest acoustic guitarists.”
Struck by his thoughts on Basho’s singing this naturally gravitates towards his singing on this album, one that has a deep focus on prose poetry and songwriting. I ask what pulled him into this new territory but he reveals that this influence has always been there.
“As with drawing and painting, writing poetry has been something I’ve been doing since I was a child. My early influences were Dylan Thomas and John Keats. In my twenties, I became exposed to the poetry of Rimbaud and Jack Kerouac and Japanese poets like Ikkyu and Basho. There has never been a separation between my poetry and music…it goes hand in hand. A reason I’ve also deeply appreciated the artistry of Jimi Hendrix. Combining these elements provides music with a much greater emotive experience. A lot of lyrics that I’ve written for Arborea….which became songs like Red Bird, Dance Sing Fight, A little Time, After the Flood Only Love Remains, Dark Horse, etc. developed directly from my Poetry.
I noticed that on his new tribute album to Basho (Basket Full of Dragons) he was credited for the artwork. A zen-like painting…a new pursuit? I ask…
“ah no, definitely not a new pursuit. My father was always drawing when I was a child, so I picked up art when I was very young, even before music. In 1996 and 97, when I lived in the Wicklow mountains of Ireland I did a lot of painting with watercolors. In 2000 (16 years ago) I bought a set of Japanese brushes at an art shop… influenced a little by my love for Japanese Haiku poetry and also the liner notes of Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’, where Bill Evans talks about how the music on that album was influenced by the art of improvisation that exists in a particular style of Japanese painting. I also consciously decided at that point to only use one shade of water colour…lamp black, as it gives you the deepest shades of black, yet you can also work the color into the lightest shades of grey. I instantly connected with this one particular brush in the set I bought. That brush is incredibly light weight and the brush hairs have the perfect shape. The flow of creativity with that brush has always been constant and I’ve made over several hundred paintings to date in that style (including the painting used for the cover of ‘Basket Full of Dragons’. I clearly remember my very first night in 2000 with that brush…I made over twenty large 18” x 24” paintings in one sitting. And no two paintings with that brush have ever been the same, so the flow of creativity in that medium feels a direct conduit of pure creativity without any objective thought involved…spontaneous, free flowing and endless.”
I also notice that Basket Full of Dragons is released on Obsolete Records, a label that’s new to me. I’m hoping that he’s going to reveal it’s his own label. He has a keen ear for new music and the compilations he’s been involved in have always been outstanding. His answer did not disappoint.
“It is my label and a life-long dream of mine. Though I have other very gifted and important people who are working with me. Starting the label and after 5 albums with Arborea (with the addition of the first Basho tribute and the Leaves of Life compilation) released through several independent labels, I felt it was really time to finally develop something on my own. Though ‘Immortal Light’ is a split release between Obsolete and ESP-Disk’ (who is releasing the vinyl edition). It’s been great also learning that musicians who I deeply love, like Charles Mingus for example, did the same thing. It gives me a lot of inspiration to understand that other artists who I’ve admired (throughout history) did the same thing. It really gives the artist complete artistic freedom.”
He can tell I’m excited by the prospect and almost answers my next question before it rolls off my tongue when I ask whether there are new artists in the pipeline for the label. I wasn’t prepared for the number of artists he reeled off.
“Absolutely! I am fortunate to be working with some amazing musicians like the brilliant experimental singer Adele H from Italy who’s songs are based entirely around her voice. Adele accompanies herself with underlying landscapes of harmonized vocals and percussion that she creates using a loop station. Her music has a very primordial feel that is especially powerful and beautiful to listen to during her intuitive live performances.
“Adaya is a brilliant songwriter-musician from Switzerland who I first met on tour with Arborea in Ireland at the end of 2014. During that tour, we met her by chance during a storytelling festival and she ended up traveling with us to the mountains where we stayed with some very close friends of mine. During those days Adaya and I did a lot of improvising together with acoustic guitars and I immediately realized then that I’d found another musical partner for life. After leaving Ireland, I stayed in touch with Adaya and we ended up having her support Arborea’s shows in Switzerland during our European tour during the Spring of 2015. I also lived for a time in Switzerland later that Summer and Autumn and I began playing electric guitar in her band. During this past Winter, I was fortunate to have had the time to record textural electric guitar tracks for most of the songs for her forthcoming album which we hope to release through Obsolete Recordings next year.
“Adaya very much reminds me of a young Sandy Denny…she has that kind of natural talent…a great voice, she writes beautiful original songs, arranges traditional Irish songs in a unique way, and prodigiously plays the guitar, banjo, mandolin, harp, flute, medieval bagpipe.
“I’ve also just released some singles (and hopefully a full album down the road) by the brilliant Nashville-based wife and husband duo The Rushings (Stacey and Laws Rushing). Stacey has a great voice and they both harmonize beautifully together (listen below). Their music has an emotive and nostalgic Southern Gothic vibe. I recorded them this Summer, in the kitchen of their house in the hills outside Nashville. The songs are essentially field recordings, though on the recording of Lovesick Mess, when I got back to Maine, I recorded and mixed layers of electric guitar parts around the core recording. Some other artist I’m talking with: American acoustic guitarist and banjo player Andy McLeod, acoustic fingerstyle guitarist Paolo Novellino from Italy (a collaborator on the second Basho tribute), UK based guitarist Ben Tweddell (of Twelve Hides and Thistletown) Ben is also on the new Basho tribute and I’ve collaborated on his instrumental Deir El-Malak from his new album ‘Twelve Hides’ (listen here). Steffen Basho-Junghans and I are planning to do an improvisational instrumental together. Another dream of mine is to collaborate with Jessica Radcliffe (ex Jessica Simpson), and we’ve discussed the idea. It would be such an honor. We just have to find the time to get together.”
My honest response to this revelation? Watch this label!
Every time I talk to Buck there’s a feeling of regret when it’s come to an end. He’s a fascinating individual that I have a lot of time for and there’s always more I’d like to talk about. At least I have even more to look forward to…I thank him for his time…it’s always a pleasure.
“Thank You so much for interviewing me about my new work and for the continued support of my music over the years.”
We’ll be bringing you more soon on Buck and his new label.
Meanwhile, check our album review of Immortal Light here: www.folkradio.co.uk/2016/08/buck-curran-immortal-light-review
Immortal Light is available now via Obsolete Recordings
Order it now via Bandcamp: obsoleterecordings.bandcamp.com/album/immortal-light
Basket Full of Dragons: A Tribute to Robbie Basho Vol II was released on Obsolete Recordings, it features the likes of Chuck Johnson, Twelve Hides, Glenn Jones and Matthew Azevedo and more. Available via Bandcamp and Obsolete Recordings.