Most people can only imagine what it must be like to fight a battle to overcome alcoholism. Imagine also what a daunting task it must be, upon winning that battle, to stare down the past and write a series of soul-baring songs about the experience. Singer and songwriter Matt Butler has done both, and he and his growing legion of fans are the better for it.
Butler’s new album, appropriately titled Reckless Son, has just been released to rave reviews, and his live performances are drawing the same. We had a chance to chat with Butler by email and he was very candid in telling us about the joys and difficulties of making Reckless Son. The Manhattan-based performer’s commentary below is given exclusively to AXS.com.
AXS: Your debut album Reckless Son represents your triumph over alcoholism. At its worst, were you unable to function as a musician, perhaps even being without a guitar?
Matt Butler: At my worst, I was unable to function at all, let alone as a musician. My active addiction derailed my creativity, my ability to have working relationships with other musicians, my personal relationships with friends and loved ones, my ability to earn a living; the list goes on. Reckless Son took a tremendous amount of sustained effort to write and to record and it also involved a ton of collaboration and teamwork, neither of which I was capable of until I got sober. In that way the album is certainly a triumph, but the disease of addiction is something that never goes away. In recovery, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be honest, and I believe I wrote a very honest album. To me, that’s a triumph.
AXS: It must have been tough to revisit certain situations during the writing of Reckless Son. Is there a song on the album that was particularly wrenching for you to write or get recorded?
MB: The whole process felt like warfare at times, but I’ve never felt more engaged in anything in my life than I did when I was making this album. All the writing was equally as painful as it was insightful, but to answer the question I would have to pick “Good Friday,” a song about an incident between my mother and myself. The story behind the song probably kicked up the most shame of anything on the album, and it was also the very last thing we recorded. We had been recording and laboring and stressing details for such a long time and in a very tense and highly caffeinated way, and it seemed like the thing was just never going to get finished. After I sang that last vocal I just broke into tears in the control room. I cried for a long time in front of Ben Rice, the album’s brilliant and very patient producer, and afterwards told him that that was it, the album was done. I just knew it in my gut that something had changed and it was time to move forward.
AXS: You’re playing a record release show for Reckless Son in mid-September at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. While clearly you’re at the point where you’re able to perform at venues that serve alcohol, is it a little frustrating when someone who doesn’t know the story offers to buy you a drink?
MB: Ha! No, not really. In a situation like that someone is just trying to be friendly and they don’t know that I have a problem with alcohol. Sometimes it’s worth making a joke out of it and it’s healthy to have a little fun at my own expense. The music is so intense that I try to be a little more lighthearted and self-deprecating playing live, just to balance things out!
AXS: While your past will likely always influence your songwriting to some extent, are you finding that your songwriting inspiration now comes from somewhere else? Does the sentiment of Reckless Son closing track “Can’t Keep Looking Back” in a way apply to that situation?
MB: I appreciate the question, and this is something I think about very often. “Can’t Keep Looking Back” is a song I wrote specifically about the loss of a close friend, but that song was definitely chosen as the closing track for a reason. Writing this album was something I felt I absolutely needed to do if I was ever going to write anything else ever again, but I think perspective is a fluid thing, and mine has already changed so much since finishing the record. I learned a lot writing Reckless Son and I intend to build on it, but I’m so excited to draw creatively from my very, very new experience of life. I have an upcoming single due on Sept. 30 called “Just One,” a song I wrote for a feature documentary called “Generation Found,” and I think the song demonstrates a total shift from where I was when I wrote Reckless Son. It’s the next step!
AXS: You just saw Bruce Springsteen in concert and you’ve acknowledged him as a favorite player and influence. Watching his show, was there a particular thing that struck you, any epiphany about something to incorporate into your songwriting or performance?
MB: This is a gigantic question! Watching a true master like Bruce perform 4-hours-worth of songs that an entire stadium knows every word to is a pretty powerful experience. But watching Bruce, as captivating and as enthralling as the show is, just reinforces to me that his kind of artistry is about so much more than entertainment. He’s a channel, a conduit, this unbelievable storyteller that people need in order to reconnect to themselves. As a culture, we have always needed the stories and the storytellers and we always will. Watching a show like that makes me feel honored and grateful to be a part of that tradition.
AXS: Speaking of influences, you can hear a little Neil Young, some Gram Parsons and even a bit of Buck Owens Bakersfield twang in Reckless Son. Are there influences on display in your music though that are not as easy to discern as these?
MB: I love this, and I love that you can hear those guys on my record! Around the time I started writing the album I played a side stage gig for Neil Young at Jones Beach and clearly that show rubbed off a little as well. A lot of the narrative and storytelling aspect of the songs, as well as the western feel, came from Townes Van Zandt. Steve Earle too; I just got lost in the whole landscape of Heartworn Highways. Arguably the biggest influence on the album was Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern.” That album came into my life at the exact right moment and helped me realize what I wanted to do. Another album that took up a lot of space in my internal world was “Living with the Law” by Chris Whitley. Leonard Cohen was super present as well; to this day I’m almost always listening to him. There’s so much! And there’s so much more!