Singer/songwriter Matt Butcher is a man of contradictions. He's a British native who favors Americana. He funds his recordings and tours by making salads at a vegetarian restaurant in Orlando and then gives his music away through free online downloads and no-cover performances. He wears a rose tattoo on his chest in memory of a grandmother who "really like roses but hated tattoos. So I don't know where that leaves me."
Actually, the musician has a number of tattoos, including Haida tribal symbols for perseverance and freedom of spirit. "I really want to be one of those slightly haggard old men with all these faded tattoos because whenever I see them I think, 'Man, that guy's got some stories,'" Butcher says. Presently, he's far from haggard orold — he's 26 and waifish; edgy in front of the mic in worn jeans and mussed hair ,but also compellingly lovely. But Butcher does have stories.
Me and My Friends, the musician's 2008 solo debut, came after the demise of his rollicking Southern-rock quintet The Heathens. A keen departure from that band's self-coined "dickstompin'" sound, Butcher's solo work is less about winding up the crowd and more about really saying something. "To me, the words are super important. The words have to be there for the song to take flight," he explains. "I consider myself a storyteller."
"So let's drive out of town, get stoned and get lost and turn around. And we will find our way back to a happier state of mind," Butcher sings on the sweeping waltz-noir title track of his album. Each track brims with night, rain, mournful horns, phosphorescent strings and anguish so polished that it shines.
Butcher started playing guitar in his early teens, cutting his teeth on Beatles tunes. "I don't think I took myself too seriously at first," he says of initial songwriting attempts. "The lyrics to one of my first songs were, 'This kid just wants to rock, smoke pot and throw rocks and cops.' I like to think I've evolved since then: Now I prefer the writing to the music."
Thoughtfulness is apparent in Butcher's writing; so is life experience. "Most of the songs on Me and My Friends were written during a troubled time of alcohol and drug abuse," reports Tampa Bay Times blog Soundcheck, which quotes the musician as saying, "I got sober in 2005 and things have been looking up since then." But where introspective albums can easily digress into self-indulgence and sentimentalism, Butcher manages, for the most part, to steer clear of those pitfalls.
Not every track is personal ,and the musician has the good sense to tuck heart-on-sleeve emotion into catchy melody. "Grey Skies, Green Shoes," with its hand claps and jangly guitars, skillfully disguises the plaintive notion in lines like "A love seat ain't no good when one person leaves" and "Why do we lose the ones we love?"
No doubt Butcher has those bleak days that give rise to such questions, but his professional life seems to benefit from friends found rather than lost. Like a fortuitous connection to The Avett Brothers, formed when The Heathens opened for the then-unknown N.C. band at a Florida show. "There were 175 people and probably a lot of them were there to see us, because we were the bigger local band," the musician remembers. "Scott [Avett] and I kind of hit it off and I've kept in touch with them over the years. Since then I've probably opened for them 20 times."
At Orlando's Anti-Pop Music Festival, an event which pairs local and national acts, Butcher was booked along side Conor Oberst — he of the sad-yet-edgy, angst-riddled-yet-ironic songs. Of that experience: "In my encounter with him, he was really sweet and went above and beyond what he needed to do for me. Which was nothing."
And, most recently, Butcher made a video with The Everybodyfields' Jill Andrews (now also a solo act). The singer/songwriter sounds slightly embarrassed admitting that "I think I sent her a message through MySpace." But that led to the two dueting on Butcher's "Giving My Sadness a Name" (watch the video at vimeo.com/7609350) and performing a number of shows together.
That song, "Sadness," is a haunting Romeo and Juliet-made-modern tale that Butcher says came to him as he was falling asleep one night. "I popped out of bed and wrote it in 15 or 20 minutes." Other songs, like a murder ballad he just finished for his in-progress sophomore release, take years to complete.
But even with all that effort at stake, Butcher says that making albums as money allows and giving listeners free digital copies "kind of feels like the only way to do it." The same is true for his many free shows, like this week's BoBo Gallery performance: "People are so inundated with music that I want to make it really easy for them to come out get a feel for what I do."
who: Matt Butcher (with local opener Maggie and Her Mistakes)
where: BoBo Gallery
when: Thursday, April 8 (9 p.m. Free. mattbutchermusic.com or bobogallery.com)