In a crowded recording studio in London, a woman’s voice unfurls from speakers, filling every atom in the air. Beyond a glass wall she’s barely visible in semi-darkness, surrounded by three musicians on piano, trumpet and viola. The song, Seven Red Rose Tattoos, is plaintive and stained with regret in the manner of vintage jazz; her voice is colossal and intimate, deep and soaring. We just don’t hear voices like this any more, somehow echoing the liquid vibrato of Scott Walker with the fathomless richness of what Karen Carpenter called her “basement”. Studio crew and colleagues are transfixed. “It set our homes on fire, watch my memories fall away,” Jessie Buckley sings. “I have seven red rose tattoos, for each of us that’s left / there’s no longer a native country, I’m on a quest to find love again.”
She and Bernard Butler – her recent musical collaborator and the man playing today’s spectral piano – are recording a moody black-and-white performance video. After they finish, collective voices declare: “So beautiful; smashed it!” Buckley, 32, could be a 90s indie or grunge kid, with her new short bob, clasps arranged on top. She dives in for a post-Covid crusher-hug, a vibrant, relaxed, unselfconscious personality given to loud honks of laughter. “I missed a hug!” she hoots as our bosoms squash together. Butler, 51 this May Day but still with the extravagantly floppy fringe he had in the 90s, offers a sturdy handshake, welcoming and intense.
It’s the day Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses UN leaders, days after evidence of civilian massacres in Bucha. The words to Seven Red Rose Tattoos, written in 2021 before all this horror began, are now unbearably poignant but also bring – as a song so often can – a sense of solace. “Oh, totally,” nods Buckley, better known as an Oscar-nominated actor than a profoundly emotive vocalist. “I hadn’t sung this song for a year until today, and those lines … it made me cry. That’s what is magical about music, it can mean so many things over time.”
She is sitting on the studio sofa alongside Butler, once of Suede, then a brief solo star at the tail-end of the Britpop scene, and a collaborator with dozens of star musicians since. Seven Red Rose Tattoos is taken from a stunning album they have made together, For All Our Days That Tear the Heart. “As artists,” he despairs of the ongoing slaughter, “all we can do is express emotion.” Buckley bolts back upright.
“I believe in humanity,” she declares, defiantly – her conversation is full of this firm emphasis. “I believe in people. None of us would be standing if someone hadn’t picked us up off the ground, in the most abstract way and also physical way, at certain times in our life. I have to believe in that. And I guess when you can affect a human with music or art or a hug, we’ve got to hold on to those things. They’re the things that will keep us sane. They do for me anyway.”
Two years ago they were strangers, paired together by Buckley’s manager who sensed they were kindred spirits. They barely knew each other’s work: Buckley had loved the Butler-produced album Old Wow by the folk singer Sam Lee, Butler had loved Buckley’s mesmerising performance, on an American chatshow, of the song Glasgow from Wild Rose, Buckley’s Bafta-nominated starring role as a Glaswegian ex-con country singer with fierce dreams of Nashville glory.
Since then, she has been a galactically soaring star, an unconventional presence in often-disturbing dramas: traumatised wife in Chernobyl, confused student in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, murderous nurse in Fargo. In 2021, she thrilled as Sally Bowles in the London West End revival of Cabaret (alongside Eddie Redmayne as Emcee, the pair winning best actor and actress at Sunday’s Olivier awards), and a sexually charged Juliet in Sky Arts’ Romeo and Juliet alongside good pal Josh O’Connor. The Lost Daughter then brought this year’s Oscar nod, with Buckley stunningly authentic as a suffocated and sensual young mother, playing the younger version of Olivia Colman’s character.
The spotlight threatens to eclipse even as luminous a collaboration as Buckley and Butler’s, and when we are finally alone, we are off to a shaky start. Earlier, among her colleagues, Buckley had openly discussed this year’s Will Smith Oscars incident (consensus: a sad night for all concerned) but now, on the record, she won’t go there. “I don’t want to give it any more weight,” she says, warmly but firmly, loth to create music-obliterating headlines: “It’s sensationalist.”
She had a great night anyway in her pink satin frock, predominantly spent “in the bar”; she was so star-struck when Colman introduced her to Bill Murray, “who I love”, that she couldn’t speak. “I totally bottled it!” She would prefer an Oscars night where “we could all just wear tracksuits, have pizza and beer, that would be a great party”.
Sitting alongside her, sliding ever-downwards, Butler’s silent demeanour is set to thunderingly bored, tolerating what he clearly thinks is irrelevant showbiz nonsense. I invite him in, and ask if he’s ever worked with an Oscar nominee before. This isn’t the right question either. “I don’t usually ask,” he scoffs. I wonder if he finds the multi-talents of his latest, exceptionally gifted collaborator, verging on the outrageous? This jovial notion is, it seems, even worse.
“Honestly?” he considers. “We meet, we write songs, we judge each other on what we can create, in the purest way. We don’t sit writing lists of talents and ticking them off thinking: great, I think we’re there now, shall we write a song? We never talk about any of this stuff. We just didn’t. Don’t.” Jessie: “And it’s great!”
I wonder if they, too, think no one sings like Buckley does any more. They are both bewildered. “I have no idea,” says Buckley, while Butler says: “We just didn’t discuss it: again, it’s about the magic in the moment. I’m not thinking: is Jessie’s voice up to the standard of Ella Fitzgerald?”
To my ears, For All Our Days That Tear the Heart might be the most affecting musical collaboration of Butler’s life, sumptuously orchestral but so intimate you can hear the very fingerprints on acoustic guitar. This brooding soundscape is both haunting and joyous, from its opening echoes of Joni Mitchell on The Eagle and the Dove, to the rousing male choir in Footnotes on the Map, to the closing, delicately yearning Catch the Dust. Buckley’s lyrics tell human stories through visions of birds, beasts and water, stories of loneliness, regret and resolution, of skins shed, buttons undone and the madness of being alive.
Their connection was instantaneous. Buckley, from Killarney, south-west Ireland, the eldest of five in a boisterous and creative household (dad a part-time poet, mum a vocal coach/harpist), had no idea that Butler’s parents are Irish, from Dún Laoghaire. Inspiration ignited not only through music (notes swapped on Nina Simone, Beth Gibbons, Talk Talk, Patti Smith, Gram Parsons, Pentangle), but painting, poetry, flamenco dancing, caravan holidays in Ireland and one book in particular, Maurice O’Sullivan’s 1933 memoir 20 Years A-Growing, an ode to remote living on the Blasket islands, off the coast of County Kerry, a favourite book of Butler’s for 15 years and the all-time favourite of Buckley’s gran.
Buckley had rarely worked like they did, creating something new from nothing – the Wild Rose soundtrack mostly featured covers, and her interpretations of musical theatre numbers go back way beyond Cabaret to her 2008 breakthrough on Andrew Lloyd Webber-helmed talent show I’d Do Anything. “I was scared, it was raw, exposing,” she says of her start with Butler. “I was sitting on a man’s floor who I’d never met. I never thought we’d even make a song, let alone an album.”
“You ask for an awful lot of trust,” adds Butler, of his lifelong collaborative process. “I’m afraid, too. If [there’s] not fear, then you’re just jogging, aren’t you?”
It’s a wonder Buckley had the time to make music at all (she is, she laughs, a “do it all” person), also completing two intriguing films last year, back-to-back: Men, a high-concept horror movie populated by menacing male protagonists (all played by Rory Kinnear), and Women Talking (with Frances McDormand, Ben Whishaw and Claire Foy), the story of a Mennonite colony bedevilled by sexual assault. Instead of being tormented for months by scenes of toxic masculinity, she says she saw opportunities to learn, and has been drawn throughout her working life to dark and even frightening stories.
“Well, there’s frightening things happening,” she notes, ruefully. “I’m a pretty joyful person but when I want to understand something more, I’m not afraid to go wherever it requires me to go. There’s so much hoodwinking going on around us that I want to know the belly of the beast. It’s in all of us.”
Butler was a sensitive young man who found much of the 90s toxically masculine: to him a boorish, boozy, druggy celebration of what he called earlier this year the “rock’n’roll caricature”. A prodigious guitarist, he joined the fledgling Suede, and frontman Brett Anderson, at 19 and stormed away at 24. After some bombastic, peaks-and-troughs solo releases he finally found his identity in his 30s as a creative foil, working as a producer, songwriter or guitarist with artists ranging from Duffy and Sophie Ellis-Bextor to the Libertines and the Cribs.
“I had a very heightened experience when I was young,” he says. “People always said, ‘You’re too sensitive’ and I was, ‘Sorry, no I’m not’. Now I say, ‘Yeah, I’m fucking sensitive, yeah I’ve got senses!’ I feel them, express them and I wouldn’t be doing this for 30 years if people weren’t picking up on them. I’m happy that element is respected more now. I teach young people as well and that’s one thing I look out for, introversion and sensitivity, and really protect people who have that. Because I … wasn’t [protected]. But fuck it. I did all right. I’m incredibly lucky. To be here right now with Jessie, doing this. And anyone from that generation, who stamped down that expression and is now not getting that, more fool them. I win.”
Buckley cheers: “Yeah! It comes through in the end.”
Does he have any connection whatsoever with Anderson these days? “I don’t have any … time,” he replies, a small smile dancing on his lips, “to connect with anything I made beyond two hours ago.”
Buckley contemplates her own chaotic 20s, which came in the wake of two supposed teenage failures: rejected for a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and runnerup aged 17 in I’d Do Anything (the search for an unknown Nancy in a West End run of Oliver!). She moved to London where she sold cereal on a market stall, and spent two years routinely ignored as resident jazz singer in the Mayfair nightclub Annabel’s. Finally accepted by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she graduated in 2013, and by 2016 had starred in the BBC’s adaptation of War & Peace. Spooked by tabloid headlines when she and her co-star, James Norton, ended their two-year relationship, she has been protective of her privacy ever since, and recently moved to a “mad old house” in Norfolk built in the 1600s, where she’s always finding dead butterflies indoors.
“I had ups, downs, breakdowns, like everyone, as I probably will many times,” she says. “I fell off stage on the first night of Cabaret. I got back up, finished the show, had a panic attack, came back the next day and did it all again. Those moments, they are what make you.”
I ask Buckley if, when she sings, that’s the real her as opposed to the “acting” her. “I’ve no idea what that is,” she says. Butler is having none of it, either: “We’re all operating on all levels – when I’m hunched over a piano it’s not just ‘there’s a C sharp’. I’m performing.” But that’s really you – you’re not pretending to be a piano player, are you? “Er … yeah!” Laughter ensues.
“Aren’t we all pretending all the time?” Buckley muses. “But even with acting, I want to experience something real in that moment, not something I’ve created. It’s an amalgamation. So it is me.” You’re not wearing a cloak, then, of someone else? “No!” she beams. “I don’t wanna put anything on. I wanna take it off. I do. You bet!” She leans forward, makes two fists and pummels them on to her thighs. “Oh, I way prefer to live life with danger and darkness and character, and wildness and stories and ancient things and new things,” she declares, vibrating with passion, as her musical partner looks on in admiration. “And put it all into you and just see what comes out, y’know? Fuck it. That’s it! What are you doing wasting your time with anything else? Love, and live and do it all and …” She pauses, and ends. “Don’t be afraid.”