THIS MAY SHOCK THOSE PEOPLE who think they had Sam Buckingham pegged – as she is described on the always reliable interwebs – as a country/Americana singer. Parts of her new album, in particular the title track Dear John, might have you thinking TLC or Destiny’s Child, who have not, as far as can be ascertained in even the darkest corners of the interwebs, ever been confused with country or Americana.
“They are, literally, two of my all-time favourites,” says a very happy-to-hear-this-reference Buckingham from her home in the small town of Sleepy Hollow, north of Byron Bay. “I love ‘90s R&B. I think in another life, maybe, I was an R&B singer: I hear it and I just go nuts.
“Actually, the album was quite inspired in some ways by that style. I would definitely not ever say that it sounds like TLC and Destiny’s Child, though I’ll take that as a compliment.”
The ‘90s, the decade of Buckingham’s teen years, rings throughout the album beyond R&B, with bits of Alanis and even some hints of flannel rock. “It’s the album I have been wanting to make since I was 15 years old,” she laughs.
I believe it, and so I fully expect that she has some hips-silk-and-heels moves she could bust out. Don’t laugh, she does – “oh I’ve got moves!” – pointing me to the video for Something More where she and friends dance down a Byron street like they’re auditioning for a Super Bowl half time show.
But it’s not all ‘90s icons in those songs. Along with a Leonard Cohen fetish and a disturbing fondness for Phil Collins, there’s a deep- seated love of old school country – from Johnny to Dolly basically. Mind you, Buckingham is as reluctant to call herself a country singer as she is to claim herself a child of Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle, declaring “I still don’t understand what genre I am. I don’t know what kind of artist I am, still”.
“Who I was in the past has kind of dissolved. I was building this new musical identity for myself, but inside of building the musical identity I realised that I didn’t have a musical identity,” she says, before adding Solange Knowles, Kate Bush and Adele to some of the touchstones for Dear John. “It’s not even about me, and having a musical identity as an artist, it’s not about what genre I am or who I am, or what my story is, that’s completely irrelevant. It’s what is this song and what does this song want to say?”
If I can contradict her though, making musical decisions that she is not going to be pinned down, that she won’t have someone directing her, is a production decision that actually reflects her. Specifically, a woman whose past has kind of dissolved and who is building a new identity.
These new songs came in a flurry of creativity after the end of a dangerously toxic relationship, one which had had Buckingham go past doubting herself to believing exactly what this destructive force had been telling her. Including that she deserved nothing better.
Rather than blur this background to the material on an album that you could call a “Dear John letter” in 10 parts, Buckingham says bluntly in Something More that “I was sure something was missing at my core”, and she admits that she didn’t even recognise the relationship was founded on emotional and psychological abuse until a counsellor intervened.
“I had to tell the stories and I also had to tell them from a place of personal responsibility,” Buckingham says. “This gets really tricky and can get really messy because at no point is anybody ever responsible for the way somebody else treats us. That responsibility lies completely on them, that’s their shame. But the thing is we carry that shame and we carry the responsibility in an unhealthy way. We don’t choose how somebody treats us, we don’t choose what situations are thrown at us, but we do choose what we do with them.
“We can forgive ourselves for that, we can have compassion for that, we don’t need to take the responsibility for that, but we can say, all right, now, now I’m going to learn.”
The confusion, the fear, the loss and the shame, and everything that goes with that, is laced through Dear John, but so is the rebuilding of herself that Buckingham has undertaken.
“I don’t want to romanticise it – it’s fucking hard – and I count myself lucky that the experiences that I’ve had as a human, and the experiences that I’ve had as a woman are much less intense than a lot of other women have had,” she explains. “But it all adds up and it all counts.”
Beyond the easy and bordering on patronising suggestion that Buckingham is being “brave” in not just revealing her abuse but her vulnerabilities around her own actions, there’s a sense of ongoing, life-long, growth happening. Lines like this one from Whole, “I don’t need your approval, I have power”, may be the kind of thing you say to yourself over and over until you believe it, but maybe it’s the kind of thing you need to say if you are going to get out.
The danger of accepting some responsibility for what happened is that you end up blaming yourself and in blaming yourself start believing that you are not worthy of better, meaning you might fall for it again. As she says in Run, “he tells me I’m a monster too”. And that’s no surprise.
“Totally. And the thing with psychological and emotional abuse, is that they make you believe that you are horrible person and that’s why they’re treating you that way. When I was receiving a lot of counselling, in the year, year and a half after I discovered that the relationship was abusive, I learnt that so many women who experience psychological and emotional abuse but not physical abuse, say I almost wished that he had hit me because then I would know what it was.
“So many people find themselves in relationship where, like I say in Something More, I thought I was the problem, I thought it was me, I thought that I deserve this, I thought that I was doing something to create this person’s behaviour towards me. And that was such a mind fuck.”
And that mind fuck didn’t stop at the door of her old life.
“Even when I was writing the songs, and when I was in preproduction of the songs, and when I was in the studio creating the songs, I still didn’t believe what I was singing half of the time: I still was trapped inside of that mindset,” Buckingham says. “That’s how I fell for more than a year and I remember one night when I was driving home from the studio, I think it was the second last day and everything was sounding incredible and everyone was doing an amazing job, the whole process was going perfectly and I was so happy with the songs and I could see the whole album coming together, I was driving home in hysterics.
“I had to pull over. I was sobbing, my mind was flipping out, and I said to myself, as soon as this album is done, I’m going to throw it in the bin because I’m lying. The whole thing is a lie. I was battling with my version of reality versus the version of reality that I had been told for so long.”
She didn’t bin the record. She may not have been convinced of herself yet, but she wasn’t the same person that man had gone so near to crushing. She was, to borrow from Destiny’s Child, a survivor. And more.
“The core message I wanted to run through the album was don’t question who you are. No matter what anybody else says, no matter what gets thrown at you, you are who you are and you deserve to be that person and express who that is,” Buckingham says. “I was writing those songs to remind myself of that, over and over and over again. I was like, I’m going to write the album that I need to hear right now and eventually I think I’m going to believe it.”
Dear John is out now.
If you or someone you know is suffering abuse or threat, or needs assistance call 1800RESPECT (1800737732)