Edmonton songwriter Tyler Butler is a firm favourite here at Wake The Deaf, with both his album Winter King and the very recent EP Violence receiving high praise. He very kindly agreed to answer a few questions on his music and writing process and we’re pleased to share it below.
Hi Tyler, hope all is well in Edmonton? We’re pretty excited about the new EP here at Wake The Deaf. How did Violence come about?
Jon, Edmonton is just fine now. Winter descends upon the city, but the true cold has not yet struck, and I explore the river valley in comfort, enjoying the snow and frost.
Violence is a collection of country songs I worked on for a few months before I went to Grande Prairie in August to play at Landisfest, which is a little festival by La Glace Lake on a bit of farmland. I stayed with the families of my friends Ashton and Courtney, a lovely couple who play music as Goose Lake. We recorded my vocals and guitar for Violence live off the floor in a shed behind Ashton’s house, then overdubbed the organ and slide and harmonies in his basement. The whole process took 13 hours. It is the first time I have let someone else record one of my albums, but the three of us had a great musical chemistry, and we ruined a lot of good takes by laughing.
Place is very important to my recordings, and I struggle to think of a better memory this summer than spending time with my friends around Grande Prairie. If you listen closely, there are all sorts of indicators of where we were and how much we are enjoying ourselves.
I’m completely illiterate musically so this may be a naive questions but how much does instrumentation influence the writing? Have you ever found a particular sound which conveys a mood and written a song around that? Or is it much more tailored to already written the lyrics? I’m thinking of in particular of ‘Waxwing’ on Winter King, where the relentless repetition and gradual quickening really puts across a sense of desperation which supports the lyrics perfectly. I guess I’m asking if the words are the cause or effect on the sound of a song.
Pairing sound with the tone of my writing is always a bit of a challenge. Sometimes an idea finds a few homes before it feels right. In my performances, delivery is always subject to narrative. Winter King was the first album I recorded live. The vocals and guitar are the same track, the same single microphone. In a song like ‘Waxwing,’ the urgency and speed are essential to the story, but not planned as such.
We used a few more microphones on Violence, but the tracks are still live. I believe great art emerges from limitation – the bleed of my voice into my guitar track, the cramped shed, the timeframe. The limitations of our setting are very much a part of the story of this record.
How complete are the narratives when you write a song? Do you get a good line that you think would be effective and build up from there? Or do you have a clearly defined story which you then to condense into the much more abstract collection of couplets and so on?
There is always an overarching narrative at the core of the song, and certain lines and images stick out in that story. I think the perfect story provides enough detail that you share the images I had in mind, but you fill in the details.
That said, Violence is also an attempt to free myself from writing too abstractly. When I wrote Winter King, I focused on developing a strong poetic voice by digging into mythology and language that was very loaded with meaning. I write in a way that makes it is easy for me to hide behind suggestion and metaphor, but I think I can write most powerfully by expressing myself clearly.
What are the biggest influences on your song writing? I guess it will be a whole host of things (including personal experience) but is there a particular medium which provides you inspiration? Do you find what you are listening to or reading at the time has a noticeable effect on what you produce?
Robert Kroetsch, who I had the honour of meeting right before he passed, remains the biggest influence on my writing. Patrick Lane is another poet I really look up to. Mary Wood is a great poet here in Edmonton and we work on a lot of writing together. But folk music is about bringing your friends’ songs with you: I sing a lot of Zach Lucky’s songs, I sang one of Mike Tod’s songs in Calgary two weeks ago, I sneak a Jom Comyn song in once in a while when he is not looking. They all write about Canada in a way that is a little different than mine, but important and beautiful.
I get the impression that many of your songs are set in an older time, some sort of simpler age. Is this how you see it? Even if you don’t envisage the songs necessarily in the past, there is a definite isolation in your lyrics, a removal from the trappings of modern society. It’s a perfect way to capture feelings and emotions, signifying intimacy through simplicity. I was recently reading an interview with the filmmaker/writer Brit Marling and Susan Sarandon where they hypothesize that any real ‘classic’ love story these days has to be written in the past as there are no longer the traditional sorts of obstacles present in a contemporary romance (I guess especially in music as writing about neurotic people with complex anxieties and so on is difficult in the relatively succinct medium of a song). I was wondering whether you consciously thought in this way? Or does your style come naturally?
I certainly value simplicity in my stories, the straight-forward expression of desire and love, a direct relationship between work and fulfillment. I agree: this is a removal from the trappings of modern society, although not necessarily a foray into the past. That interview is very interesting: my stories often reverse the ‘classic’ love story – my male characters are very vulnerable, their emotions and desires are on display, as prominent as their strength. And my female characters can be strong and demanding.
This album is a critique of western masculinity. I live in a place where masculinity often means taking up the most space, being the loudest, having the biggest truck. I think the working characters on this album, and the shift in the sound toward country music provide a critique of this masculinity, showcase a lifestyle in which work is constructive, not violent.
Brit Marling says in that interview, “the bravest thing you’re ever going to find is people deciding to be intimate with one another. I mean really intimate, not just sexually intimate.” What a fascinating and true statement. By making my characters vulnerable to each other, I think I create a strong sense of intimacy. And by displaying my own desires, not shrouding myself to the same extent behind the poetic voice, I make myself vulnerable, allow the possibility for intimacy between myself and the listener.
How difficult (or otherwise) is it to be successfully creative in modern society? I recently saw Evening Hymns play and Jonas Bonnetta was describing the making of their latest album where they basically isolated themselves in a cabin in the middle of winter for weeks. This sounds perfect but I couldn’t help wondering how people manage to do this sort of thing (not to mention month long tours and so on) around going to work and paying rent. Would you say study/employment limits your potential as a musician or a writer? Or are you glad to have something aside from music to fill your days?
Art is a product of work. The creative spark and the hard work required to create art are very different processes. I am always thinking creatively, writing down lyrics as they come to me, humming melodies into my phone. But I make time to work on my art: I write daily poems, I schedule time alone to write with my guitar in hand, I practice with my band.
And as I have said, great art rises from limitation. The way the creative mind navigates obstacles either internal or external fascinates me. The constraints upon an artist – budget, time, talent – these are as much a part of art as the narrative or medium. I would rather make the most of what I have than make waste of excess.
Do you ever see yourself in a position to make a living through your art? Would you want to?
I love making music, and I will make music the rest of my life. But I want to do so in a way that is sustainable. I don’t know if music will ever provide my sole income. I don’t know if it can. There may be a point when I raise a family, buy a house, need health care: could music alone provide for me? I want to position myself so that I am still making music in 20 years, 50 years. I work full time at a university here in Edmonton and I tour on my vacations. It’s a balance that is working for me right now.
Finally, what are you listening to right now? Could you maybe give us 4 or 5 artists we should be hearing? It doesn’t matter if they formed thirty seconds or thirty years ago, whatever you are enjoying.
I listen to mostly Canadian artists: The Wooden Sky – I saw them perform at the Royal Alberta Museum recently. Fred Squire might be my favourite artist right now. Nick Everett and Mike Tod are on constant rotation lately.
And Barna Howard released a great self-titled record that I am enjoying very much. He’s from the USA, but let’s not hold it against him.
Thanks go to Tyler for putting so much time and effort into this, I think the result shows how much he though about this. Violence and Winter King are available from Tyler’s Bandcamp page. Make sure you check out the video above which is a beautiful short film by Dylan Rhys Howard and keep an eye on Cabin Songs, a new folky side of Old Ugly, that Tyler runs. I am told they will be releasing some lovely music in the new year. Also I’ve added links to all the acts he mentions in the interview so you can explore them at your leisure.
I hope you enjoy Tyler’s answers as much as I did.