Interview with Brandy Butler

Brandy Butler - Photo Credit: Fiona McPherson

Brandy Butler – Photo Credit: Fiona McPherson

It’s so good to chat with you about your music and the meaning behind it.  Speaking of which, when thinking of the phrase ‘Truth in art’, what does this mean to you?

I think that is a loaded, big phrase. There are lots of truths, and lots of different kinds of art, so it’s hard to be all-encompassing and yet specific. However, I think personally, my approach to creating truth in art is creating a body work in which you are the vessel, or even better yet, a mirror, to engage an audience. I want people to identify with whatever I create and feel like it’s familiar… as if it could be their own.

I read in another interview you recently did that your new album, The Inventory of Goodbye, marks a real transition for you, not only as an artist, but also as an individual. Can you explain what you meant by this?

At this point in my life as both a person and as an artist, I am the most ‘me’ I have ever been. I grew into myself during this process, with a lot of growing pains albeit, but I made it.

Do you think you would have arrived at this place artistically anyway if you had not experienced heartbreak in your life?

I think I would have. Before this heartbreak that I’ve gone through, there was another kind of loss that I experienced that was also very big and caused huge changes in my perception of my own experience. I already had to start the practice of letting go before the story of the album came.

It must take such courage to display your inner emotions and be so vulnerable on a record…

I shed a lot of tears. I listened a lot of times to Dinah Washington singing “This Bitter Earth” and Ella Fitzgerald singing “I Loves You Porgy” and Billie Holiday singing “I’m A Fool To Want You”, and this all convinced me that this place, the edge of resistance, this is where the magic is.

Was writing this material a cathartic experience for you?

It was deep for me to identify that the real topic of this album is about letting go. Heartbreak in terms of being dumped, for lack of a better word, is just one kind of heartbreak. Loss is loss across the board and it is part of the journey to be able to accept and allow, and then to be able to let go in whatever context. What was the most cathartic for me was to be able to identify what letting go of this particular person sounded like. I wrote a bunch of other songs that didn’t end up on the album, but they still all sound unified.

And how does it feel to hear the finished album now?

It feels so right. When I listen to the recording, I feel like I captured every moment so perfectly. It sounds just like I felt.

And what about performing live? I assume that when you perform this material, you have to step back into a very intense emotional space and, in a way, relive what was a personal trauma.

I in no way look at this experience as traumatic. It was, to be honest, one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. I am generally a very sensitive person. I feel things intensely. So to feel this depth of sorrow was a gift. I had never felt sadness that went so deep, and felt so endless. I let myself go, and when I finally touched the bottom and came back up for air again, I felt life so clearly and so strongly. Joy was absolutely five shades brighter than it had been before. That being said, it is a fine balance between letting myself touch those spaces again, and not getting lost in them.

After the first show, I opened myself up and I was weepy for a week. After that, I created a box full of mementos around this experience. When I start the show, I open it and I take the things out. I invite the feelings. When I finish, I pack everything back in the box and I close it. It helps me a lot, this process.

The instrumentation and the arrangements on this record are captivating. Can you tell me about what the writing process was like and who these talented musicians who brought your sound to life are?

My band consists of Robin Girod on guitar, Rodrido Aravena on bass, and Domi Chansorn on drums. There are some guest appearances strewn throughout the album, but this is the core. Basically, I came to the band with some sketches I had made on my phone or with Garage Band. A few songs they helped me to finish. The whole album we arranged together with the help of my producer, Dominik Burkhalter.

I handpicked these musicians because they were the perfect mix (at least in my mind) of structure, creativity, and chaos. I needed musicians who’d be willing to throw it all on the line in a moment, to get the right feeling, but I also needed the stability to know that they would support me the entire time. The five of us went to Berlin, Germany to record the album, and we lived together in a small apartment, and we became a unit and we built this sonic experience together.

There’s a dusty patina to the album’s sound, as well as a strong Americana twang at times.  Was this a deliberate sonic choice, or did it just come out this way?

I think the strong Americana twang wasn’t deliberate. I am as fucking “East Coast for life” as you can get, however I was also in the desert during a large portion of the time, so of course there was that inspiration as well. I definitely, after I got out of the desert, realized that when I was heartbroken, I found myself feeling so thirsty so often. My lips were parched. Sometimes, in its heaviest moments, I felt like I was breathing dust. I wanted that feeling to permeate the album at just the right moments.

It’s interesting how you navigate all these different musical spaces: from the vulnerable singer-songwriter territory, through earthy soul music, and then American roots music that is very unique.

Thanks! I am most definitely the sum of my many parts. I love to listen to Ella Fitgerald sing “Lush Life” just as much as I love to listen to “Songs in the Key of Life” just as much as I am obsessed with the concept of folk music and its purpose in bringing people together. It’s nice to know that the listener can hear all these sides of me so clearly.

Since you’ve been living in Switzerland for a while now, I’m curious if there are any Swiss influences in your music at this point?

I can’t really say because I think it’s always hard for me to understand what people think being Swiss is from an outsider’s perspective. I mean, there is no yodeling or alphorns, if that’s what you mean. But my life and my community are here in Switzerland. Some of the people who I love most on this planet, who also happen to be my band members, are all here and we are all part of the Swiss music scene. So, I guess, yes.

Has living in Switzerland changed the way you approach music in any significant way?

I think living in Switzerland has helped me to expand as both a person and a musician so much. It is here that I am constantly reminded of all my faults, as well as all of my potential. I’ve made the worst house tracks here, and at the same time, I’ve also made this album. Being here just keeps me on my toes.

Could you drop an anecdote about one of the songs off of The Inventory of Goodbye? Maybe something that we should know about, but if you don’t tell us, we might not be able to figure it out.

While I was in my phase of heartbreak, I had a specific intention; that once I got to the desert, I would write this person a letter from the desert. I would sit in the middle of the Mojave and write this emotional letter and send him some sand back, and in my mind, he would be so moved that he would realize it was a mistake. As soon as I touched down at LAX, I rented a car with my best friend, and we drove straight out to the Mojave. We drove for a while through LA and out into the desert, but when we got onto the old roads that lead you back towards the ‘park entrance’, something had changed. We were on this long road and it just kept going and going and going. We were driving on this road for at least an hour, and not a single car passed, and it didn’t look as if we had even moved. The road literally ran straight into the skyline.

We decided to get out the car and take some photos of myself. I ran down the road towards the camera and jumped in the air. I felt so incredibly free on this road, all by ourselves in the middle of nowhere (By the way, it’s one of the most beautiful photos of myself that I have). It was on this road that I realized that my only option was to start to let go, whatever that meant. Letting go is organic, but also really hard, and I had been so pressed by my heartache that it hadn’t been possible for me to even consider that yet. From this specific moment came the first song on the album, “Let you Go.”

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