Mariel Buckley is Driving in the Dark: Her Country Family Helps her Steer

by Carey Rutherford

Black and White seems like suitable colouring for Mariel when she sings onstage at the 2018 FolkFest. Image courtesy of photobyego.

Some accidents are not only happy, they are positively confounding. Witness MUSICAlive! popping down to a Stampede breakfast to Hear a Calgary country favourite of ours, Tim Buckley, play on the mall, and meeting the similarly talented Mariel Buckley (his sister), also singing and playing some sweet alt-country guitar. And then, when visiting the Calgary Folk Festival’s media tent a month later, Mariel walks up and says “Hey Carey: Mariel Buckley!”

And after arranging the following interview the next day (in July), MUSICAlive! attends a Bow Valley Music Club event for totally unrelated performers, and run into Tim buckley again! Except he doesn’t seem to recognize us, and (being legally blind) I can’t figure out why.

“Oh,” he exclaims, “You mean T. Buckley! that’s my son! We probably shouldn’t have named him Timothy as well,” he laughs, shaking our hands and being generally congenial

Now, we’re looking for Buckley grandparents . . .

Mariel performed a session at the Calgary FolkFest with Sara Shook and Lee Ann Womack, which seemed as good a place to start asking her about performance, “country music” and her place on the stage: was it a jam; did you have songs co-ordinated; how does that work?

“It’s sorta go with the flow: it’s not coordinated (ahead of time) very much at all. It was pretty collaborative, and you know, the people who were onstage (with me) for that session are monster musicians: they’re not going to play . . . something wrong. If you tell them what key you’re in, usually they’ll find a pocket to sit in.”

Mariel and MUSICAlive! discuss the fact that, though she will mention to her collaborators if she’s thrown in some “weird” key changes, what they’re doing musically is not generally reinventing the wheel. Like folk and rock, the general trend of country music is a recognizable set of chord changes and instrumentation: otherwise, it wouldn’t be country!

However, the Festival program says that Mariel is “challenging the boundaries of country music”, and we ask: What’s that about?

Mariel & the 2018 band at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, cutting a swath like an International Harvester! Image courtesy of Nfolding Creative Photography.

“You can very obviously hear where (the album’s) going with the vocal and the melody. But I think if you had never heard it before, a couple of them sound like country songs but then, they do a little shift, that may be tricky.”

We ask innocently: And where’s that shift going?

“I don’t know . . . I don’t have any formal training, so when I write a song I’m not counting: ‘’Oh well I should chart it this way because the drummer will be pissed that I have a half . . . ’ I don’t care!

“Generally I will write it, I will arrange it, I will have it pretty much booke-ended with the way I want it to be played. And then the instrumentation and otherwise I’ll leave up to a producer I’m working with on a record.”

Mariel has been performing with parts of her band for several years, but her new recording propelled them into becoming a 5 piece since May of this year. When MUSICAlive! asks her why now, she of course resorts to the stereotypical artistic intuitive response, and then takes it to the ridiculous extreme:

“Well I just had to Feel FEEELings!” And we laugh. “I think with my influences, and the people I’ve been listening to . . . you shift how you want to deliver your message . . . I felt that the songs themselves when I wrote them, because I always write them without a band, kind of had a bit more angst, and (while) I CAN carry any of my songs on my own, (a bigger sound) is a different way of commanding people’s attention, and it’s a different kind of people that I want to talk to.”

MUSICAlive!, contemplating Ms. Buckley’s shift from country string trio to 5-piece electric band, asks if the change from singer/songwriter (whether country, folk or rock) to a band, is perhaps a shift from the more internal music to a more external music, simply by the need for it to be performed by a group as opposed to a solo artist?

“Definitely. . . You should be a writer!” (more laughter)

We ask Mariel what she hopes to get from her appearance at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, or if there’s even a specific reason?

“It’s a huge opportunity to be asked to play because it’s a farther reach, in one weekend: because there’s so many people that attend; so many kinds of people. It’s invaluable because , you’re being put alongside, in my opinion, great world talent, so you’re getting a nod: (because you’re performing here as a local artist).

We clarify that Mariel’s first album, Motorhome (2014), has been followed by this year’s Driving in the Dark, and we ask her what the most unexpected pleasure of performing at the CFMF has been this year.

“Honestly, it’s always a bit of a dice roll playing those (collaborative) sessions, because you just never know! You don’t know how comfortable someone’s gonna be with you playing on their stuff, or vice versa. But the nicest surprise . . . has been that, every workshop, everyone has been just pleased as punch to try, and it’s been successful! I haven’t heard a bum note yet!I’m sure there HAS been, but . . . it’s been a great learning experience just to see how tastefully you can work with that many musicians onstage, and it never becomes noisy.”

Final thoughts?

“I know I’m trying to say something. I don’t truly know what it is yet, but (pause) I’m not trying to make anything easy for people to digest.I don’t have any interest in small talk:I have a pretty foul sense of humour, and I really like making people uncomfortable . . . but I like to sing it in a nice way. It’s delivering something to someone in a bearable fashion, but with maybe a little bit of a darker undertone.

“I’ve been feeling really lucky the last couple of years. The whole time I’ve been making music it’s kinda been one person after the other having my back, pushing me forward (like her brother and their mutual producer, Derek Pulliam, and other musicians), and I’d like to acknowledge that. . . As my buddy Mike says, ‘If you’ve ever seen a turtle on a fencepost, chances are he didn’t get there by himself.’”

‘Nuff said.