Nine Songs: Jules Buckley
“Funk and soul were genres I got heavily into in my late teens through raiding charity shop vinyl, it's a language I know really well. If there was a university course on it, it would probably be the only possible qualification I’d have to be a teacher.”
To say that Jules Buckley is a busy man right now is something of an understatement. Ahead of the release of his debut record The Breaks and interspersed between multiple days, countries and Ubers, our conversation about the pivotal songs in his life is fragmented by numerous appointments and errands. As he explains the process of creating his debut, he stops mid-sentence to struggle with something at the other end of the line. “Sorry!" he laughs, "I’m just getting changed at the same time. You must be starting to think I’m perpetually on the go! But it’s just a bit of a mad week.”
70 albums deep, Buckley’s discography is an impressive soup of collaborations, which aside from operating as Heritage Orchestra’s co-founder, encompasses partnerships with the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Michael Kiwanuka and Massive Attack. The Breaks marks the first record in his sweeping collection to feature his own name on the album cover, this time teaming up with long-time collaborator and producer Chris Wheeler, Heritage Orchestra and Ghost-Note on the 15-track album. “For me" Buckley pauses to add, "it feels like the right time to finally start putting out my own imprint as an artist and contributing my little bit to the musical world."
Our conversations coincide with the run up to Buckley’s 17th BBC Prom, where he was appointed Creative Artist-in-Residence with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2020. This time, he’s joined by art-pop and spoken word artist Moses Sumney, who features at the top of Buckley’s Nine Songs selections, which also takes in other artists he has collaborated with, including the likes of Paul Weller, Scott Walker and Quincy Jones. Buckley's picks celebrate the classics and the greats, as well highlighting elements and patterns that he draws parallels within his work today. A strong sense of The Breaks concept seeps through his choices, a display of the tracks Buckley felt would best suit an orchestral treatment, and not just of the classical kind.
The Breaks pays homage to one of the four pillars of hip hop - breaking - amongst MC-ing, DJ-ing and graffiti art, focusing on drum breaks sampled from early recordings of funk, jazz and soul, and which would in turn spawn the advent of hip hop. Buckley reflects on his fascination with breaks, reminiscing on the 2019 BBC Proms where he worked in conjunction with Heritage Orchestra, Ghost-Note and the Soul Mavericks - one of the best breaking crews in the UK. That Proms’ aim was to shed light on music from the late 60s and early 70s, featuring a collection of funk, disco and soul which both inspired and were fundamental to the origins of both hip hop and breaking. "We dug through hundreds and hundreds of tunes, because a break can be anything from just a four-bar drum loop, to almost an entire classic tune."
With so many compositional elements to manage and contend with, Buckley explains The Breaks creative process began by stripping individual tracks down to the bone in order to decipher their best breaking elements before they were revived into a new, full arrangements with careful key and tempo selection. From there, an overall arching flow of the whole record was chosen. "It’s a little like if you were composing a piece and someone said ‘It’s got to be 20 minutes long’” he tells me. “You’d figure out a way to provide enough light and dark, that it lifts and drops down at the right points. So you really dissect it quite forensically.”
Rich in cosmic grooves, syncopated, multi-layered rhythms and nostalgia, The Breaks finds its inspiration from the best of breaking and imbeds them into a new orchestral portrait. "What’s really cool about taking this sort of old music,” Buckley explains, “is that if you went to any kind of house party with a box of records, your choice of what cuts to put on, in what order and how much of those cuts, that would have an effect on the flow and the mood of the party. So, we haven’t taken this music and turned it inside out and reimagined it, in my opinion it's quite a faithful homage to a scene through a continuous flow.”
From The Breaks to his Nine Songs choices and his BBC Proms residencies, a clear pattern emerges. Buckley is not only an artist with a healthy disregard for the conventions of genre, but one who has a relentless craving for the groove.
“I first was introduced to the world of Moses a couple of years ago through John Calvert, whose artist name is BCBC, and since then I’ve basically been chasing him around, asking to do a gig together. This track is from his latest album græ, and what struck me about græ and Aromanticism, his previous album, is that the step up in the imagination and the production within the songs was so vast.
“Virile” is such an incredible piece of work. It really is a yin and yang track. Some of the verses are kind of menacing but small, and it sounds like something’s about to unleash. But then when the chorus drops, the beat finds this momentum and growth. It’s a great demonstration of his vocal range, which goes from the faintest, softest, gentlest tones to this really high pitch style. It’s not quite screaming, but it feels like there’s a banshee-esque element to his vocal work. The drum production is really fresh. I can’t speak highly enough of this track. We’ll finish arranging it next week for the BBC Proms and I’m really excited! So this is top of my list for everything right now.
“One of my favourite reasons for collaborating with other artists is to see how their mind works. For example, working with Jessie Ware and James Ford, one of the best producers in the world, on Ware’s most recent record was really cool. The way that they worked as a team was so creative and they gave me a lot of space to do my own thing. I felt like I was really contributing.
“I think arranging is composing, but it’s composing in a different way. You’re adding ideas and elements to other people’s music. You don’t have the core idea, you don’t have the structure, but you’re helping them build their house in a way, and you do leave an imprint in that. That’s been a process that I really love and it’s the same thing when we go to The Proms with Moses Sumney.
“A question I’ve been asked a lot over the years through my work is ‘How do you define this artist?’ In some ways, that stems from the presumption that orchestras just play classical music. But with Moses Sumney, his album comes from so many places, that of course only he can really as a voice tell us what that sound is. But for me as a listener it’s one of the best examples of modern music, in which he took a sledgehammer to any genre - all the barriers are gone. That’s beautiful, that’s the future right there.
“He somehow manages to take music to the limits across many sides of the playing field and he never oversteps the mark. It doesn’t sound too theatrical, it doesn’t go too cold. He has a fine sense of the balance of the required ingredients. I think the work that both he and his producer have done together on græ is standalone. I find it a real shame that COVID came along when it did, there were so many artists that released great albums and were just starting to tour in that period. It was a wave that left us all on the beach stranded, wondering ‘What are we going to do now?’”
“I found this track when I was putting together a concert that was an homage to Nina Simone and one angle of the concert aimed to explore some of her lesser-known works. I was digging around through all of her albums, listening, and probably going crazy in the process. I stumbled upon “Dambala”, which was covered by another artist. This song just struck me, it was such a powerful song with such a clear message and narrative.
“Her vocals are so unique. With this recording, she left it all out there - every crack in the tone and every linear melodic decision was perfect. It’s a very moving and relevant song, even now. We put it in the Proms that year, which was I think two summers ago in 2019, and it was really cool to play that piece. It’s also really cool when you come across an artist who you know lots about, and then you discover these little gems that were hidden away. She obviously had such a huge body of work too.
“Simone definitely had a profound impact on me, by holding up a mirror to what’s going on and reminding you as an artist of how powerful the voice can be. And also to stick to your artistic guns, to show what can happen if you don’t and what can happen if you do. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons through exploring Nina’s work and life.”
“This is a classic. “Higher Love” is a bit like how The Beatles often would have a ‘Paul’ verse and a ‘John’ chorus, and this is basically like a John verse and a Paul chorus. I remember being a kid and when it came on the cassette in the car, I thought ‘Fucking hell - this is amazing!’
“His voice is amazing, because he’s come from that Blues background. It has that ‘80s uplifting feel but it’s also a bit sad, the verse is a bit melancholic, then all of a sudden - ‘Boom!’ - the chorus kicks in. I’m not really bothered about the chorus to be honest, for me it’s all about the verse. When it goes back into the second verse it’s as stark a contrast as it could ever get. I could listen to it all day.
“I discovered this track when it first came out, so I guess that was around 1986. If you’re a kid and you come across an artist like Steve Winwood, in the same way as giants like Paul McCartney or Elton John, it’s interesting, because you join their journey later on. You didn’t know that there was so much before, so it’s nice as a listener how you can enter at a certain chapter. Then later in life you return and start digging through the crates and start finding their other music.
"It was the same thing for me with Elton John, because my parents were into his music. Going back you think ‘Fucking hell man, on this first album you released a track with a nine-minute intro?!’ That’s really inspiring for any artist to find out - how uncompromising an artist was, doing their own thing and not worrying about what people thought.
“I feel that more now than I did 10 or 15 years ago. I feel clearer in what I want to produce now. That might be because I was leaving education and you need work, so you join the rat race and all of a sudden you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. You’re working for the man! I’m in a privileged position, I know that and I’m grateful for that. But some of my friends, even 20 years ago, didn't compromise. They thought, ‘Fuck this, I’ll work chopping down trees or whatever, as long as I don’t have to compromise my music’. I wasn’t really that fussed about what I worked on at the time, I just wanted to work.
“When I was at college there was a feeling for me - and I think for many people that went to study music in higher education - of ‘What the fuck do I do next?’ You went into these lessons as little ninjas, you would practise all the moves every day for six hours, but no one really told you what to do with it. So I didn’t really know how that all would work after studying. My first professional work came when Heritage Orchestra were mixing our own record in a studio and a producer was walking through and got in touch to ask if we wanted to write some strings for a record. That was the opening really. It never occurred to me that that’s how we could find it, but ultimately that’s often how it does.”
“This track recently gained traction didn’t it? Someone did a remix of it and it came to the fore. For me, this was always a banging track. Again, it wasn’t my record, my dad used to play the record it was from, with “Maneater” and all those hits. That stuff was an example of great production, post-disco, electro-pop production, that was full of really fun, really tight grooves.
“The drums and bass on this song are amazing. It’s also got this synth patch that’s arpeggiating down while the bassist is playing this staccato line. It’s a great feel-good tune and it’s great that it’s got another life now. I read an interview with one of the guys from Hall & Oates who thought it was so cool and that they had no idea it had resurfaced.
“I think that great artists like Hall & Oates will always get a renaissance. When a classic artist is lifted up by subsequent generations that’s a really beautiful thing to see. For example, what Mark Ronson did with George Clinton’s music, and you see it again and again. It’s such a respectful thing to see in music and at the same time, it’s really inspiring.
“But that wasn’t why I chose this track - I chose it because it’s a really wicked track in my life.”
“No one else has picked this before?! I worked on a project on Scott Walker’s music with Scott, Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker, John Grant and Susanne Sundfør about three or four years ago. We were focusing on his first solo albums - Scott 1, 2, 3 and 4 - so I wasn’t really listening to any of his more recent stuff.
"At a certain point, I started researching everything that I could on Walker and even after that project I was so moved by his work that I basically found this track through a discussion from Damon Albarn. I was amazed listening to it. Oh my God, this is truly one of the most amazing tunes I’ve ever heard.
“It’s so dark and lyrically he was a genius. It’s a very moving piece of music that it’s hard to put it into words why it’s so good. I think the string playing is fraught, it’s static, but it’s fraught because he’s making them play extremely loudly and sustained for a long period of time. In a way, it’s putting them on a physical limit, which is very hard to sustain in the studio. That’s one element, but the other is that it’s such a beautiful melody that if you don’t cry somehow, you’re not human.
“This was also at a time when Walker was super experimental, so it’s almost surprising to hear a track so lyrical and haunting. In some ways that track harked back to those early solo albums that he’d written long ago. He was an artist that never looked back, so it was interesting to compare those as well. At that time, I was almost a music historian on his work, because I was breaking it down and putting it to paper. I’d love to hear that track covered but I wouldn’t ever want to hear anyone else sing it. So that’s that!
“Musically this song reminds me that sometimes the simplest things have the most impact - that’s an impact of the lesson that it’s had on me. It reminded me that even though some people think that all of the great melodies have been written and all that bullshit, there’s always another great melody around the corner, that’s going to break you into a thousand pieces and leave you destroyed on the floor.”
“I’m not really sure why I’ve put “Better Man” in here, but I figured I should include a Pearl Jam track from my teen years, as they were my most favourite band. I guess there’s a thread running here that I like melancholic songs.
“Eddie Vedder is another vocalist who has such a unique timbre. I really love the organ section in this piece - how it gives the song this haunting, post-romantic, fallout feeling, but the band’s still rocking out. It really takes me back to the times of bands playing in garages, thrashing around. I’ll always have a space for Pearl Jam’s music, that’s for sure.
“I must have been 14 when this first came out. I was at school and I had a Walkman, so on my one kilometre walk to school you had to listen to music. It made you listen to whole albums, one half on the way, and the other on the way back. I was listening to bands like Therapy? and Sepultura and the cool thing was that you’d gone to the shop and bought the cassette. So you had to check it out. You couldn’t take it back and you had to get inside it, for good or for bad. That was brilliant, because it taught me to try to listen to the point where you start to go a few levels deeper in the music. In some ways I use that in my work today.
“I think the listening habits that we have now are much more short-term. We flick between tunes on Spotify and jump around so much, we find something we think is boring and so we move on. I always felt that Pearl Jam were a band who would always have some banging tunes and then they’d always have a couple of crap ones. So you have to listen through the album and get past the crap tunes to reach the gems. For some reason that made the good songs even better. You’re giving yourself a little reward for sticking out the rubbish.”
“I’ve worked with Quincy Jones since 2016 and we’ve got an ongoing orchestral project together. I think Quincy is pound for pound the godfather. For an artist that came through Basie and Ella, and has had such a huge impact on pop music production, this track is a really good example of that
“You could say that there’s a similarity between elements of this track, and the verse of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, in terms of the fact that it has a slowly ascending modal device that underpins the melody and the lyrics. That’s something that I really love in music. James Ingram is sadly not with us any longer, but not many singers have that low tenor, baritone timbre. Ingram really had his own sound as well and if you listen to that track again, it takes you back to a really specific time. I remember I was really young when that tune came out, but I can remember it being on at caravan park discos as a kid.
“Funnily enough, the synth sounds and the drum production in that track are now in fashion. For me though, I love breaking down how this song was put together, looking at the components and why it works so well. It’s another case of less is more. They stripped away all of the elements until it was as light as possible, and it runs so smoothly. What I take away from this track is how if you chip away at the stone, if you keep honing your craft, you can take things to such a high level. It’s something that I aspire to in my work.”
“Chaos A.D. is the album. It’s so funny pulling out a track like “Refuse/Resist”, because I started out as a trumpet and piano player, working through all the classical and jazz traditions. But at a certain point I managed to bargain with my parents to get a drum kit - which they were really generous in helping me with. At the same time my buddy got himself a bass and another friend of ours was a really great guitarist, so we all got into heavy metal and thrash, and somehow I got really tipped to Sepultura.
“Today, for the first time in years, I listened to this song. It’s funny, because there’s this unified bass and guitar riff which runs throughout a lot of that genre of music - then in the middle there are these drum fills and I remember repeatedly practising those from the beginning of this track. I don’t think I’ve listened to that tune for about 20 or 30 years, but it’s really cool, it’s amazing! I mean, Sepultura, what can you say? Epic, no nonsense pedal to the metal music. It’s great, I absolutely love it.
“I never had any money as a teenager, so it would have been impossible to see them live. I think by the time that I did I was more into disco and non-thrash at that point. I don’t even know anything about that scene anymore, I’m completely out of touch with it, but some of the playing is so virtuosic. I should get back into it.”
“This tune was one that I’d arranged for a concert Paul and I performed together about two or three months ago. It was amazing working with him because he’s a total legend and a total dude. He’s got the energy of a 25-year-old in terms of making music, it’s something that’s truly remarkable and long may that continue. It was great to be surrounded by that energy when we were working together.
“In the process of putting the show together I was looking through all of Weller’s music across his whole career. “English Rose” is from The Jam, but it’s such a red herring within The Jam’s catalogue. That’s why we played it - because it’s not what you would expect from them at that time, or from Weller even. I can’t be 100% sure, but I believe he didn’t put the lyrics on the album because he felt it was so different.
“I think that song, as part of a journey of his music, had an impact on me of how poetic and how important the lyrics are within a song. I’ve always been a melody person. I’m terrible at lyrics, but someone like Paul really is a poet. I think there’s also something crazy about when you listen to the music of an artist that we know so well now, and you go back to when they were so young. Their voice and delivery are so different - that’s a different person and a different Paul, you know?
"I hold these experiences dear, I’m really grateful to have had them and to hang out with him was just amazing.”