Rayland Baxter

with Liz Cooper and FRIKO
Friday, March 24, 2023
Doors 7 | Show 8
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For the making of his fourth album If I Were a Butterfly, Rayland Baxter holed up for over a year at a former rubber-band factory turned studio in the Kentucky countryside—a seemingly humble environment that proved to be something of a wonderland. “I spent that year living in a barn with the squirrels and the birds, on my own most of the time, and I discovered so much about music and how to create it,” says the Tennessee-bred singer/songwriter. “Instead of going into a studio with a producer for two weeks, I just waited for the record to build itself. I’d get up and go outside, see a butterfly and connect that with some impulsive thought I’d had three months ago, and suddenly a song I’d been working on would make sense. That’s how the whole album came to be.”

The follow-up to 2018’s critically acclaimed Wide Awake, If I Were a Butterfly finds Baxter co-producing alongside Tim O’Sullivan (Grace Potter, The Head and the Heart) and Kai Welch (Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull), slowly piecing together the album’s patchwork of lush psychedelia and Beatlesesque pop. In addition to working at Thunder Sound (the Kentucky studio he called home for months on end), Baxter recorded in California, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington, enlisting a remarkable lineup of musicians: Shakey Graves, Lennon Stella, several members of Cage the Elephant, Zac Cockrell of Alabama Shakes, Morning Teleportation’s Travis Goodwin, and legendary Motown drummer Miss Bobbye Hall, among many others. In an especially meaningful turn, two of the album’s tracks feature the elegant pedal steel work of his father, Bucky Baxter (a musician who performed with Bob Dylan and who passed away in May 2020). Thanks to the extraordinary care and ingenuity behind its creation, If I Were a Butterfly arrives as a work of rarefied magic, capable of stirring up immense feeling while leaving the listener happily wonderstruck.

Baxter’s debut release as a producer, If I Were a Butterfly bears a dazzling unpredictability that has much to do with his limitless imagination as a collector and collagist of sound. “Sometimes the bullfrogs in the pond outside would pulse in a certain tempo and I’d apply that to a song, or I’d hear a bird chirping and it would inspire me to add harmonica in a particular place,” he says. “I could be walking around this massive building in the middle of the night and the air-conditioning would turn on, and it’d give me the idea to include a synth part that holds a similar note. I’d wait for those moments to happen and whenever I tried to force anything, the music usually rejected it.”

A perfect introduction to If I Were a Butterfly’s elaborate sonic world, the album-opening title track begins with a recording of a Baxter singing at age four, then drifts into a delicately sprawling reverie ornamented with so many lovely details (lavish flute and cello melodies, radiant horns, the hypnotic harmonies of Lennon Stella and Baxter’s girlfriend, Sophia Rose). “I liked the idea of the first voice on the record being me as a little kid, not knowing where I’d be today,” notes Baxter, who embedded newly unearthed audio clips of himself and his older sister Brooke all throughout the album. Graced with the combustible guitar work of his bandmate Barney Cortez, “Billy Goat” kicks up a potent tension with its restless grooves and hot-tempered gang vocals. “It’s a breakup song about being with someone who’s on a different life path—one side wants to influence the other, and inevitably you part ways,” says Baxter. From there, the album takes on a feverish momentum with “Rubberband Man,” a delightfully frenzied track channeling a wild and giddy freedom. “There’s rubber bands all over the property at Thunder Sound—in the earth, in the concrete, used as insulation for the studio,” says Baxter. “I took a mishmash of images in my head and it turned into a song about staying flexible, rolling with the punches.”

In its searching reflection on love and loss and striving for transcendence, If I Were a Butterfly reaches a quietly glorious intensity on “Tadpole”: a piano ballad threaded with childhood memories at turns oddly tender (catching frogs and crawfish in a nearby toxic creek) and nightmarish (hearing the gunshot when an across-the-street neighbor took her own life). And on “My Argentina,” If I Were a Butterfly closes out with a piano-driven and painfully raw outpouring, its starkness intermittently broken by soulful strings and gospel-esque harmonies. “One time at the studio I stayed up all night and played that song maybe 100 times; we ended up using the last take, which was recorded at about five in the morning,” says Baxter. “It’s a song that represents the thoughts one might have about a perfect love life, and I love how it ends the album in a big angelic cloud of reverb.”

For Baxter, the act of self-producing such a sonically and emotionally expansive body of work proved both exhilarating and arduous. “It really wore me out to spend all that time alone at the studio, editing the hell out of this record; my heart definitely suffered,” he says. “But I also had the guidance of my dad, who was in my dreams all the time—if I was moving too fast, I’d hear him telling me to slow down.” Another profound influence on the album-making process: the 2018 deaths of Baxter’s close friends Billy Swayze (a musician whose parents owned the rubber band company that became Thunder Sound) and Tiger Merritt (the vocalist/guitarist for Morning Teleportation, who worked with Swayze in constructing the studio). “Billy and Tiger had been going up there since 2015, and finally they turned it into a legit recording studio,” he says. “It’s a very special place to me, so they’re two of the four angels I decided to dedicate this record to.”

Even in its most somber moments, If I Were a Butterfly wholly fulfills Baxter’s mission of imparting a certain purposeful joy. “It’s been a weird few years, but I think the big picture is for us to just exist and find love and be loved, and try to see that all the daily bullshit is simply bugs on the windshield,” says Baxter. “I hope that this album makes people feel the way I do whenever I listen to my favorite records, and that it gives them a platform to dream on.”

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Liz Cooper

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On the porch of her one-time Nashville home, Liz Cooper had a multimedia project that combined two of her loves: lips and cigarettes. She painted her own lips with red paint and kissed a canvas two or three hundred times, later dotting them with the detritus left behind in ashtrays by her friends. An overlap of intimacy, indulgence, cheekiness, and sensuality, the piece complements Cooper's roiling second record, Hot Sass. Over jagged, frenetic guitar parts, Cooper sets expectations aflame with the record's title track. Her songs unfurl like smoke spiraling off an incense cone late in the afternoon, with Cooper pushing deeper into psychedelic openness, punk ferocity, and beyond.

Hot Sass marks multiple departures for Liz Cooper: from her nine-year home of Nashville, from her band addendum of the Stampede, from any genre-burdened expectations she'd accumulated over the years. After heavy touring in support of 2018's Window Flowers, where her songs stretched out in live settings, she felt constricted by the Americana-adjacent associations that the Stampede carried. So with her bandmates' blessing, she dropped the moniker, pursuing sounds and songs that let her chase the inspiration lent to her by the likes of Courtney Love, Lou Reed, and David Bowie.

In Burlington, Vermont, Cooper and her cohort -- Ryan Usher, Joe Bisirri, and Michael Libramento -- recorded Hot Sass at Little Jamaica, the personal studio/private residence of producer Benny Yurco (Michael Nau). The intimacy of the space and the players' provided a wide-open approach to Yurco's live setup for rolling forward with minimal takes, a sensibility abetted by a whole lot of psychedelic mushrooms consumed in the process. Cooper recorded her guitar parts from the kitchen and living room while Usher played drums in a bedroom.

Completing Hot Sass, Cooper realized she needed a change of scenery from her longtime home of Nashville, where she'd lived in a freewheeling house of itinerant artists known as the Pennock Palace. She settled in Brooklyn at the beginning of March 2020, and found herself confronted with the new challenges of staying still as touring ground to a halt.

"I'm learning more about how to take care of myself -- just facing the darkness head on that I've been running from by being on tour and being so busy my whole life. It's taught me more about what kind of artist I want to be and what kind of person I want to be," she says.

But now, Hot Sass is crackling into public life, charging forward with Cooper's revitalized creative energy. Her Nashville confidant Daniel Yocum, a painter and friend who collaborated with her on the music videos for Hot Sass, first encouraged Cooper to pick up the practice for herself. She's finding new mediums to explore in paints and pedals, discovering even more exciting, untamed space to be herself.

Where did the concept of "hot sass" come from, and how did it become the central focus of your record?

It's something that scares me. It's another part of myself that I'd never really show. It's something that pushes me that goes hand in hand with me not hiding behind a band's name anymore. It is this other side of me, this wild side.

I feel like it is this madness that I've been more comfortable with accepting and like, this fucking attitude that I do possess that I've been hiding from. It's this confidence and sexiness, it's something that I've always been very afraid of. It's me learning about what kind of woman I am and It's not pretty all the time. It's not this thing that you can put in a box. I'm inspired by women who speak their mind, and who don't give a fuck what people think about them.

There's a sense of restlessness that carries across the record, and right after you finished it, you left Nashville for New York. How did that feeling make its way into the songs?

A big thing about touring is how you're not really able to reflect, you're just so in the moment all the time, and you're always surrounded by people. I am an introvert, and I feel like I have to refuel by being by myself, which is literally impossible when you're on the road. I was exhausted. But I think it's also a lot of growth and just learning about myself and trying to be confident. I've always struggled with my confidence and self worth, and facing that.

What was your approach with beginning to write Hot Sass? Where were you trying to push yourself musically?

Really what the beginning of it was, was, very organically and naturally, I met Benny Yurco, who is a fucking creative genius. I just texted him one day, and I was like, "I want to make a record with you." And he was like, "Let's do it." So really that was the beginning push for me to be creating with an artist that I really respected. I knew I had to really bring it for him and for myself.

I wrote this album on the road and any chance I could find, so in between soundcheck and the show, I would hide in the van, or I would write in motel bathrooms. Whenever I'd get home for however long, which is not usually very long, I would just dive in and write.

As soon as we got to Benny's, it was this complete safe haven. All of us trust each other so much, and we let our guards down completely. We flew through recording these songs and tracked the drums, the bass, guitar, and vocals all live. There was no intention besides just making the best song and without any ego.

You spent a few years touring pretty heavily, even by a lot of musicians' standards, and you recorded most of Hot Sass live as a group. How has it been going without that kind of in-person energy for the last year or so?

This is the longest I've gone without playing music my entire life. It's been really important for me, because music is my spirituality and my release, and I've never not had it. To take that away has been a total withdrawal, and an incredible emotional roller coaster to be in an unfamiliar city with that.

It affected me a lot. I know that I needed that break, because it made me learn more about myself: "Okay, well, if I can't just chase this thing all the time, who am I without music? I'm still learning."

What has picking up painting meant to you over the last few years?

I've just been finding my voice with it just like music. And I definitely have ideas of how I want to push boundaries with it. It's just another way to expose my insides which scares me but also makes me feel whole and healed. I love to paint because I don't feel any pressure from myself or from anyone else. It's just fun and it's pure. Purely expressive. If I make something that is horrifying and super shitty, I don't care. You move on, and you learn from it. And that's it. Daniel [Yocum] is the one that really made me fall back in love with it. We push each other, and we're gonna do some collaborations with visual art beyond videos, see what we can dream up in the painting world.

What do you most want to get across with this record?

I'm not sure if there's anything specifically that I'm aiming to get across. I'm still processing these songs. Still reflecting. And I think that's the thing -- Hot Sass is just a stamp in time of what was happening in my life. I just want to continue making art that displays myself, the moments, and the people around me.


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FRIKO, one of the brightest of a suddenly overflowing local scene which includes Horsegirl, Ohmme, DEHD, Free Range among a longer list of excellent artists.  The ebb and flow of Chicago indie seems to cycle every few years … diffuse and disjointed, then all of a sudden potent and consequential!