New single, Indigo Sky, is the first of a series of new music.
Shawn Butzin reveres songwriting as a kind of expedition, and fulfillment is the arrival. In this case, the finished song. Fittingly, a recent release was titled Adventures; also, several of the songs on his debut album came to fruition while he was clearing his head outside, traversing long hiking trails. The lead single, “Indigo Sky,” was primarily inspired by the majestic vista of a purple-hued Michigan skyline that he glimpsed on a drive. (But he pulled over to safely park before he started writing).
“I’m big into nature if you can’t tell,” Butzin said, holding back a self-aware chuckle. “I’m definitely into the outdoors, camping, hiking, all that good stuff. I’ve been to almost every National Park in the country And, so I think that all stuff does kinda resonate with me as far as my lyrics go.”
Butzin grew up in a small town nearby Saginaw, but wound up calling Traverse City home. On the morning of our conversation, he was working on music with his current cast of collaborators over in Grand Rapids. Most interviews, not all but certainly most, will strategically implore an artist to open up about their goals and aspirations. When you’re in realms of rock or country, the typical anticipation might be that the artist may be chasing wide notoriety and the glamour of record contracts and tours. But that’s not the case here….
“At first, I wasn’t even planning on performing. All I really wanted to do was just to write an album and put it out there, and let that be.” His 2017 debut, Northern Trails was a suite of songs that were infused with catharsis, poignant memories, and the necessary ache of big life changes. They were, essentially, a wringing out of a writer’s soul in melodic-form. These songs, just like the songs on the Indigo Sky EP are meant as a narrative of the journeys of life. And each song he finishes is like a new arrival at a refreshed state of mind.
When Butzin casually uses the word ‘rural’ to describe his small-town stamping grounds of Chesaning, MI, he qualifies that with: “…some of the teenagers would drive their tractors to high school.” But aside from the bucolic climes, the expansive fields, and the big sky vistas, Butzin said that, “I’ve held onto that small-town feeling. I keep that inside of me. It’s a place where everyone’s down to earth and very friendly. I’ve lived elsewhere, like inner-city Denver and some time in Brooklyn, but I’ve always held onto that small-town feeling.”
Over the last four years, Butzin has been developing his signature sound, blending the rustbelt resolve of country, the storytelling whimsy of folk, the rich tones and the wanderlust aura of Americana, and the grit-and-kick of rock ‘n’ roll. “And I suppose I’m probably somewhere right in the middle of all four of those genres. I know that on the Adventures EP, every single song on that one sounds different And I guess that just comes from me being a fan of music, all types of music. I don’t like to label myself as one particular genre. I like to keep it open to whatever I’m feeling at the time I’m writing.”
Butzin said that he’s got six new singles to share and he’ll be premiering each successive month, throughout the autumn and mid-winter. “And on these new songs, I’ve really been focusing on that finger-picking style. Just to switch it up, ya know? The last couple albums were really rhythmic and strumming on my parts, and this time, I wanted to challenge myself and break out of my shell a bit.” When reflecting on this style of guitar playing, Butzin brought up one of his many influences, the late John Prine. “I just love his storytelling.”
And storytelling is really what Butzin’s been focusing on lately. “Yeah, that’s where my heart’s at: storytelling. I feel like a good song doesn’t always have to be full-on drums, bass, or keyboards, so there are even a couple new tunes where it’s just me on the vocals and an acoustic guitar. But what I’m singing about is more focused on me instead of leaning into fictional storytelling. The new songs coming out are all based on my experiences, my emotions, my stories. I think I’m just trying to be more upfront about myself and opening up a little bit more as a songwriter.”
Butzin was able to complete these songs while social distancing. He was aided by Mark Lavengood on the dobro — a talented journeyman musician, along Andrew Dzierwa, a long time colleague of Butzin, on the keyboards. Greg Baxter, a bassist and audio engineer who’s also based in Grand Rapids, produced the songs and helped facilitate a piece-by-piece approach to building the tracks, as each musician would record separately and then send audio files by email.
Butzin said he was sincerely grateful for all three of these musicians’ contributions to the tracks. “I can hear something in my head, but when we go into the studio, it always turns out to be something different. And I’m always a-okay with that. When you get more minds together on a project, it opens up the doors, and you realize that it’s always better to have a more collaborative environment, like a team. The more minds on the music, the better it can be.”
And, to go back to the idea of an archetypal artist who’s just hustling for acclaim, that’s a refreshingly egoless take on things. “I just tapped the 40-mark, so I’ve already definitely let that ego from my 20’s and early 30’s go. You grow older, you learn, you get wiser, you’re more mature. I just want to make music and put it out there and for everything to be a fun atmosphere (for the band) and I want the music to be solid, and good.”
Keep your ears peeled for more new music from Butzin: one new song will be dropping each month in the seasons ahead. In the meantime, he’s definitely considering a couple of live streamed virtual concerts as the weather gets colder.
“I am hopeful that we’ll get some kind of grasp on things to the point where we’ll have musicians, and even the fans of music, able to go back out there to some lives shows. I think we all need a little escape for the time being.”