Reuben Butchart [New York]

by Christian John Wikane

18 November 2009

The former pianist for Antony & the Johnsons "awakens" with his most elaborate solo work yet.... and it features a plastic bag! Here's the story behind Reuben Butchart's boundless creativity.
Photos by
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo 

A Golden Boy Awakens

“Make a left onto Head of Pond Road. You will pass over a small bridge. Follow Head of Pond Road, after about a mile and a half, you will see a miniature windmill. Go left at the fork in the road at the windmill and the center will be on your left—#39 Watermill Town Road.”

Tacking on a two-and-a-half hour drive from Manhattan, these are the directions that lead to the Watermill Center, a secluded arts institute located on the south fork of Long Island. Founded by renowned Renaissance man Robert Wilson, the Center serves as a creative oasis for artists across all media to develop work. It is there that I first met Reuben Butchart. 

Of course, I’d heard his music well before I shook his hand and said, “Hello.” Golden Boy (2007), his second self-released album, found its way into the hands of anyone who appreciated melodies with a tinge of ‘60s soul, immersed in sumptuous string and horn arrangements. “You let your presence be known with a flash of your lashes”, he sang on “Flash and Click”, and transported the listener to some place in between 1967 and 2007. Yet Golden Boy was far from a retro-trip, even though Butchart absorbed a healthy dose of Motown through his parents’ record collection as a child. Listening to Golden Boy, it’s his prodigious talent as a singer, songwriter, and visual artist that leaves the most lasting impression. The songs are like paintings brought to life through music. 

Butchart’s ability to integrate a variety of disciplines makes Watermill Center a perfect home for him to record a new album. After applying for a residency, where his idea consisted of corralling a cadre of musicians from all around the world and working with poet John Carroll, Butchart endeavored to create a piece that advances his body of work towards uncharted territory. Magic can happen when you combine glasses half-filled with water, a banjo, a plastic bag, the evocative imagery of John Carroll’s poems, and a two-week deadline to get it all recorded. 

The journey to Watermill Center actually began in Northern California 30 some-odd years ago, when Butchart received a Wurlitzer piano for his fifth birthday. “It was a huge deal, because we weren’t made out of money”, he remembers. “It was a little short brown piano, which is still at my mom’s house. At age five, I started taking piano lessons. Right away, I was interested in learning songs.”

His innate connection with music began even earlier, when his father lulled him to sleep playing, of all things, drums. For Butchart, music was a skill that developed as naturally as language—before long, he’d mastered the alphabet and wanted to break the rules. Uninspired by the regimented process of piano lessons, Butchart sought to learn how to write songs rather than practice scales and sight read “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. He found his ideal instructor in Tom Constanten, the original keyboardist for the Grateful Dead.

“He made lesson plans around songwriting and taught me the basics of blues structures and pop song chord patterns,” Butchart explains. “We went through early rock and roll, we looked at Motown, and we looked at all different song structures. Then he came up with different exercises, like take the chord progression from an existing song but write your own melody, or take a melody from an existing song but put your own chords, and then strip out the melody and make a new melody.”  Those new melodies served Butchart well in elementary school. His chorus director taught his fellow classmates one of his compositions. He was only ten years old. 

While studying at High School of the Arts in San Francisco, where singing, theater, music, ceramics, sculpture, and painting were among his creative outlets, Butchart honed the style that evolved even further when he landed at New York University’s Gallatin School.  “I tend to use C-major minor. Some people call it jazz harmony. That’s just what my ear naturally leans to,” he says. It was through the individualized study program at Gallatin that Butchart met John Carroll, establishing a relationship that would grow and be nurtured well beyond the classroom. Butchart remembers how they were first acquainted and explains Carroll’s particular strain of genius: 

“I met him in college because I was painting, and we decided to do paintings to illustrate one of his plays, and that’s how we ended up staging it. He taught the classics and Shakespeare. He’s a dramaturge. He comes from a theater background. He’s one of those genius-y types that you can’t quite figure out. He reads a book in a day and he can quote from it for the rest of his life. He was sort of famous at NYU when he was teaching there for doing this thing called Timeline. In Gallatin—as an undergrad anyway—you study classic texts and before you can graduate you have to give an oral exam in front of the professors. To help students round up all these ideas, he would stand in front of this chalkboard for an hour and tie together everything from the Greek classics all the way through Shakespeare and Nietzsche, bringing it to the modern times and showed how all these ideas flowed from one into the next and how our ‘Western Civ’ mind has all been informed by this stuff.”

Years after earning his degree at NYU, another muse surfaced in Butchart’s world of music when he met Antony of Antony & the Johnsons. Antony invited Butchart to join as the band’s pianist, forging a friendship and professional relationship that has kept pace with the evolution in each others’ careers. Butchart explored a new dimension to his talent by working within the context of Antony’s band, a far different experience than performing his own compositions. While playing with Antony & the Johnsons, and through the small but densely populated circuit of New York City independent artists, Butchart met the musicians that later formed his core band. 

In 2002, Butchart released his debut, the self-produced Dusk. Recorded entirely by himself with co-production by Steven Bagley, the album fused together electronic sounds with the R&B style Butchart naturally gravitated towards. Five years later, Butchart followed it up with Golden Boy, which brought with it an embellished sound and more elaborate arrangements, the polar opposite of its predecessor. Unlike Dusk, Golden Boy had a band for its backbone—John Bollinger on drums, Jason DiMatteo and Jeff Langston on bass, Joe Pascarell on guitar, and Butchart accompanying himself on piano. The songs were developed over the course of a year at different gigs around New York City before they were fleshed out in the studio. 

Through a mutual friend, Butchart met Noah Simon (Bill Frisell, Greta Gertler, Susan Tedeschi), who was enlisted to co-produce the tracks. By the time the album was completed, Butchart and Simon brought in 23 musicians, including the core band, a horn and string section, and some guest artists. Butchart and Simon recorded an exquisite set of songs that revealed Butchart’s adventurous ability to seamlessly—and creatively—match lyrics to melody. 

Highlights abound across the 12 tracks on Golden Boy—the melodic soul-pop of “So Much Soul”, the sprawling soundscape of “Northern California”, the music-box waltz of “Belle of the Ball”, and “All There Is to Tell”, a haunting duet with Antony. Butchart conjured the lyrics of the latter through a direct transcription of a dream. He recalls: 

“I don’t usually write down dreams, but I wrote down this dream.  The writing of the words that I wrote down in the dream became the lyrics, like, verbatim. I didn’t have to fudge them to fit into the melody. I was on a beach that stretched forever. It was almost like someone had Photoshopped the beach so that it would continue endlessly. It was a Dalí kind of beach. I was there with my sister, and we were wrapped wrist to wrist, and I don’t really know what that means, but that’s what was going on. It was a feeling of danger, like we’re trapped but also inseparable, like best friends. That was the image in the dream, but it also kept alternating—it was me and my sister, or sometimes it was me and my friend Antony, because I think of Antony as my sister in some ways. When it came time to do the song, I kept singing the chorus myself, and I didn’t like what I was doing, and I felt like getting Antony to do it because he’s in the dream anyway, and he does a great job. He’s an amazing singer. That’s where it came from.”

“My baby… my sister… my heart… my muse… my laughter… my solace… my dream”, Butchart sings towards the song’s softly dramatic ending in an emotionally charged falsetto. The sister he’s singing about, Tricia, figures in many of the songs on Golden Boy, including the escapades he describes in “Come and Play” (also inspired by the birth of his niece) and “Cartoon Heroes”.  His fondness for his sister is palpable in the songs. Butchart explains, “We just grew up as best friends. I guess other siblings fight a lot, but we really took care of each other. Our parents divorced, and we took care of each other.  We could finish each other’s sentences. We just know each other very well. In some ways, even though she’s my sister, I feel like I was a part of parenting her. We’re only a few years apart, but I just love her.” 

Despite the exceptional musicality of the album, Butchart faced challenges in getting commitments from labels in the US to release it. The stew-like nature of the album bewildered labels who needed an easy formula to plug Butchart into. “It’s funny that they’re called labels, because they have to label stuff,” he says.  “I was really fortunate in meeting a few people with good connections, and they got Golden Boy to some high-up people. It wasn’t for them. Is it adult-alternative blah blah blah, or whatever it’s called? Is it art music, or is it indie, whatever that label means?  People couldn’t classify it.” Eventually, Butchart self-released the album, though it found a label home on Rallye in Japan. 

In a sense, the Watermill Center residency reoriented Butchart away from commercial considerations and rejuvenated his creativity with a more improvisational structure after dealing with the category-based mindset of the major record labels. He arrived at Watermill with eight songs after working with John Carroll for six months prior to the residency. Upon arrival, Butchart and his team of musicians set all of the equipment up on a rubber floor. They recorded, arranged, and engineered the songs on their own. The only part of the process not done on the premises was mixing. Ultimately, Butchart sees what he calls “contemporary art songs” packaged as an actual book. 

The residency also challenged the way Butchart writes music for songs. Working with John Carroll marks the first time he’s set a poet’s words to music. (When writing his own songs, the lyrics generally follow the music.) “Each person has their own voice, their own way of speaking, their own rhythm, their own phrase-length”, he explains. “I’m writing music using John’s language meter. It caused me to change the way I made melodic phrases, and even change the way we structure these songs. These songs aren’t typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge and fade out. Mine aren’t either, but these go even further”.

Carroll’s sensibility is steeped in nature, spirituality, and humankind’s relationship to life and death. “He’s an ex-hippie who used to live on a commune in Vermont,” notes Butchart. “He’s very open and very expansive, but also very honed in on detail, almost in a filmic way. Every poem could be a movie with hard-edit cuts to flashbacks and flash-forwards.” 

Tentatively titled Nameless and Awake, the Watermill sessions find Butchart moving forward in an unconventional, yet artistically nourished direction.  Says Butchart, “Dusk was like a few guys putting their hearts into doing everything themselves with a computer. Golden Boy was a full band and almost an orchestra where everything was very planned and arranged, but performed with real acoustic live instruments. This new record is real live acoustic musicians, but with more of a sense of improvisation”.

Awake as ever, this golden boy forges ahead on a luminescent path.

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