Into Scottish Creatives: Rory Butler
Scottish singer-songwriter Rory Butler is certainly creating a stir right now and having opened for the likes of Richard Thompson and shared a stage with Paul Weller and Lucy Rose, it’s easy to see why. An appearance on the BBC Quay Sessions led presenter Roddy Hart to state Rory is the most exciting Scottish talent to emerge in recent times. Comparisons to John Martyn and Jeff Buckley have been made and with new album Window Shopping due for release in July, it’s set to be one of the albums of the year. Rory kindly took some time out to speak to Into Music about the album and his music.
You come from quite a music-orientated family. Can you tell Into Music about that and how this subsequently influenced and shaped your own musical journey?
Until I was six years old there were two families living in one house, the basement of which was a recording studio. The parents had all been in the same band for a few years before, and then ended up making other people’s records as well. To be honest my personal memories of that time are kind of in black and white. In my imagination it was a very cool environment to spend my early years, fiddling with reel to reel and experimenting with the new space echo before I could walk. In reality I was probably upstairs dribbling with all the other kids. I do remember what was a very heavy, probably very necessary soundproof door into the live room which would take two of us to open. Whether I remember whole lot about it or not, it remains a really important part of my life and of the community that I grew up in. A lot of the adults that I knew growing up, and that I now know as an adult were people who spent time in and around music and the recording of it. Not much has changed in that respect.
You’ve spent time as an artist moving between Scotland and London. What impact has that had on you, both in terms of progressing your career through meeting artists/people involved in the industry but also in terms of your life experiences which you’ve used to translate into your music?
Even with this upbringing I was never full time in music until I moved down south. I went to university in Glasgow and then, a little unsure of what to do after that, worked as a labourer for a year in Dumfries. So the decision to call myself a musician and moving to London happened simultaneously, which I think effected my early experience of the place and how I remember it. I had never even been there before I moved. It was just somewhere I had read about in John Martyn’s biography, filled with legendary song writers passing joints in pubs in Bethnal Green.
So I went from being a labourer in Dumfries to being a lodger in east London overnight. It was a taste of what it was like to be part of a music scene bigger than my friends and family, further away from home than the city centre. It was very different feeling to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Every night there are hundreds of representatives from every limb of the music industry whose sole job it is to look for new artists. Eventually I came to know and work with some of them. It was all about building and being part of a community of people with making music in common. Changing environment is a really big part of making music for me, the London scene was a really big one.
I note on the new album that you’ve collaborated with Crispin Hunt (ex Longpigs singer and renowned songwriter). How did that come about? Also, can you expand a bit on how you personally approach songwriting?
Crispin was dragged along by a dear mutual friend to a gig I was playing one night in Camden. Luckily he quite enjoyed it and so invited me over to his studio to have a go at a co-write. It was something I had never done before, and the thought of sitting opposite someone in a room faced with writing a song was very unappealing. There are times in some co-writing sessions which are a perfect real life picture of the nightmares I have had about them. Fruitless hours spent humming utter rubbish right into the face of a total stranger. Definitely an environment where my own insecurities get the better of me. Writing songs is for me about the space and the environment you’re in though, and Crispin made this initially weird one much easier. I quickly learned that this was everyday stuff for him, and loads of other great songwriters, and once I had learned to let go I could see how much this kind of process could benefit songwriting. Within a few sessions we had written Cigarettes in Silence and Window Shopping, the two co-writes on this album.
Writing songs alone is a really different. More often than not they gradually happen over days and weeks, forgotten about and then remembered later. Quite often songs begin as instrumentals. I spend a lot of time in open tunings randomly fingering the fret board until something happens to sound worth pursuing. Once that has settled in, I might sing a melody over it. It can be interesting to just improvise a melody over a guitar part you’ve written and then not listen to it until hours or days later. Likely it will be nothing like you remember it, and parts of it might become the start of the finished melody. It’s pretty important that I have no idea what chords I’m playing or in what key. Either that or I pick up the guitar and have a song within forty five minutes. But not very often.
The new album, Window Shopping is due to be released on 1 July 2020. As the date moves ever nearer, do you have a sense of trepidation/nerves on how it will be received or are you more relaxed/excited about getting it out there for the public to listen to?
I think I have all of those things going on. Strangely though, I think I cared a lot more about how it would be received in the lead up to recording it than I do now that it’s done. The anticipation of recording an album of material I had written over years was quite heavy, and whether people thought it was good or not was a big part of that. Now that it is done and I’m pleased with it, that seems not to matter as much to me for some reason. Now I think about that, it’s actually a huge relief. I feel like I’ve done an awful lot of gigging and writing for there still to be no album for people to take home and listen to in their own space. It feels so good to know that will be happening from now on and am already itching to do the next one.
Thinking about the album and the songs on it, what are the key themes running through it?
I suppose if there is a thread that runs through the record it could be ‘screen time’. There’s a lot of stuff on the album that came from resenting the impact of TV, Media and Social networking on everyone’s life. There’s a lot of great songs out there about addiction. The needle and the damage done. It feels like one of the most powerful addictions that has gripped the world recently is to the screen.
Not all of the songs though. Lynda’s Cafe is a kind of elegy to small music venues closing down in the UK. In this album there hasn’t been much room made for love … it is in there somewhere though. A kind of unsung hero amidst a fair amount of exhaustion and anxiety.
Even though lyrically the album isn’t particularly light I really tried hard for the record not to sound too introspective, if it’s possible to sound like that. I wanted the music, the grooves and harmonies to sort of poke fun at the darker lyrical side of the album. I wanted this to be something you had to listen to and think about, but also be something you could put on in the background whilst cooking or having friends round.
In terms of recording the album, I understand you have quite an intuitive approach, with the band having to learn the songs by ear.(Incidentally, this was the exact same approach Captain Beefheart deployed on the eponymous Trout Mask Replica album). Can you expand on what this approach entails in the planning/recording phase and ultimately were you satisfied with the outcome?
Wow. I wasn’t familiar with that record so have stuck it on while having a think about this. Amazing. The guys that played on Window Shopping were very much the ‘intuitive’ kind of players. There was very little discussion about what was to happen musically. We played the songs a handful of times together, tried a few things out and then went into the studio for four days and recorded them live one after the other. Three of us, guitar, double bass and drums. A very simple way of making albums, which suited me to the ground. Before playing the songs with these guys I had never played the material with other musicians. So the sound of the songs in the studio was as fresh to me as they would have been to someone who had never heard them. That’s a very enjoyable experience when you are recording with such good players. We recorded it in a beautiful studio in London called Konk (set up by The Kinks in 1972 and has seen such luminaries as Richard Thompson, Bee Gees, Elvis Costello and The Stone Roses record there). Loads of old gear. Being a sucker for the 70’s I did want the whole experience to have a vintage feel to it…Konk was perfect for that.
Visually, the album artwork by Cameron Watt is very striking. How did this collaboration come about and did you explain what you were after with Cameron or leave with him to come up with ideas for the cover?
The artwork by Cameron Watt is really special. Cameron lives in Sweden but we know each other from our roots in Dumfriesshire. I’ve loved his paintings for years and asked him on a whim if he’d be interested in painting the album sleeve. It’s fantastic. The idea was to satirise the ‘selfie’. I sent him a picture of me taking a selfie and I left him to it. It was an easy decision to ask him to do an animation for the first single, Tell Yourself. Working with Cameron was very much like working with the band. Everyone just does what they do and hopefully whatever comes out is something memorable. I think it has been, I’m really lucky to have him on board.
Ordinarily, artists will tour and do launch events for a new record release. We are in strange times at the moment due to Coronavirus. When all this is over, can we expect to see you out and about playing the album live and will this include dates in Scotland?
Indeed. It is strange not to have a well-defined live aspect to the release of this album, particularly when live is my real strength. There is a tour booked in November and I am hoping that by then people might once again be able to get out to shows. So many of my friends have been hit very hard by the live side of the industry being so badly affected by the virus. People are suffering all over the world though, and what is really important is that as few people as possible lose their loved ones. Love of music has only been reinvigorated. More than ever people are needing their music, so in some ways it’s nice to be putting it out there at the moment.
Thinking back to all the gigs you’ve attended, which one stands out the most as really memorable and why?
Lots of unforgettable ones. My favourite shows are the small intimate ones. Though I did go to see The National once at the 02 in London. During the encore Matt Berninger came running out into the crowed and ruffled my hair. Then he ran away again.
Window Shopping is released on 1 July 2020 on Vertical Records and is available to (pre)order here.