It would be fairly accurate to say that Tyler Butler is a poet first and a musician second. Listening to his music is akin to reading the Romantic poetry of William Blake and Percy Shelley.
One of my friends shared Tyler’s music with me during a late summer road trip. I instantly felt winter creep into my soul, and the memory of long cold nights seemed more real than the warm summer air all around. Tyler’s slow melodies are laced with melancholy, and his lyrics are teeming with folklore. His album “Winter King” transports you to the heart of his cold hometown of Edmonton, Alberta.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Tyler, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about his artistry and the lore that goes into his music.
Emily Cardé: Tyler, how did you get into writing music—specifically folk music?
Tyler Butler: I started writing music when I was 18, after high school. I had been writing poetry for some time, and I had sung in choirs. But as I started getting into artists like Iron & Wine, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and J. Tillman, I was inspired by musicians who had a very poetic, lyrical focus. So I set out to learn guitar. I’m still learning.
As soon as I started to learn guitar, I was captivated. I learned by writing—trying different chord structures with poems that I’d written. This led to a lot of un-listenable and atrocious early attempts at songs (to which I subjected friends and family at length). When I started performing, I fell in with a supportive and talented group of musicians. We took every opportunity to play and helped each other learn to write and perform and record. The decision to make music came from this deep passion I’d awoken for writing and performing songs. This same passion fuels my decision to keep making music as long as I can. I want to make music my whole life.
Emily: Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
Tyler: My friends. We have such a tight-knit community of artists here in Edmonton. I am surrounded by talent and encouragement. My former record label, the now-defunct Old Ugly, was a collective swirling with talent. My friends push me to create my best work.
Emily: Tell us about your creative process. Do you have a normal routine for songwriting?
Tyler: My first step is to write every day (although sometimes I struggle to maintain this habit—it’s the hardest part of songwriting). Songs come quickly. You need to be ready to capture them when inspiration strikes: you need to practice writing and accept the good and the bad. I usually start with a story, and try it with a few different musical structures until one seems to fit.
In terms of recording, my process is evolving. I was very solitary for a long time. In the last record, I finally went to a studio and brought in other musicians to create and fill out my sound. In my future work, I hope to strike a balance between the two: collaborate without sacrificing the intimacy of a solitary act, a home studio.
Emily: “The Stranger (A Death Foretold)” seems heavily influenced by folk story tradition. How much of your lyrical content is drawn from folklore, and why is that?
Tyler: “The Stranger” is a subversion of the murder ballad form. Murder ballads are often tales of morality, with clear lessons. In this song, I want the listener to question the righteousness of the narrator’s actions, and in turn to question the concepts of prejudice and masculinity.
In my album “Winter King,” I borrowed more heavily from folklore. The concept behind “Winter King” was to create a mythology around Edmonton’s winter. It’s a dark, cold place to live, with a wild stretch of forest through the middle of the city. And the year I wrote “Winter King” was especially bad. The cold is an isolating force. It changes how you live, how you spend time with people. I borrowed from Scandinavian and Irish mythology, and invented some of my own symbols. This is all integrated with imagery from my own life to give a sense of what it’s like to live here.
Emily: Could you share a little more about some of the myths and symbols you created and borrowed for the album?
Tyler: Two noticeable symbols that I borrowed are named in the titles of the first two songs of “Winter King.” Barghest is a monstrous black dog, the sight of which foretells your imminent death. The character in the song “Barghest” is pursued by a hound, the shadow of death.
Morana, on the other hand, is a Slavic goddess associated with winter and death, but also in some ways with rebirth. Traditionally, effigies of Morana are thrown into rivers to mark the beginning of spring. The song “Morana” explores this duality by contrasting Edmonton’s winter (the choice to construct a home, to experience the wildness and impassibility of the city) with images of love and birth.
The album anchors itself in Edmonton: waxwings and sparrows, the dangers of riverside construction, letters to friends. The image of the winter king—an antlered man who inhabits the river valley, and the original album cover—isn’t overtly discussed until the final song (of the Yer Bird release). But the winter king, to me, is the coming together of those two ideas: borrowed mythology and local reference.
Emily: You didn’t release any new music between late 2012 and the end of 2015. Were you also taking a break from songwriting during that time—and if so, why?
Tyler: I tried on a few hats in that time. For some time I performed songs from my album “Violence” with two vocalists, my friends Marlaena Moore and Dylan Howard. I also wrote a few never-recorded songs with them. I had written much of “Handsome Friends” a few years before, and I performed them with different variations of the band before hitting the studio.
But my focus also fell in other places. I work at a university in Edmonton, and threw myself into my work there. I play recreational league hockey and put a lot of my competitive energy into that. I committed to travelling for pleasure, instead of focusing my travels around opportunities to perform.
I love making music. I want to make music my entire life. In the gap between the last two releases, I worked on striking a balance in my life that lets me make music without burning out or losing my desire to create.
Emily: How do you think your sound has changed since you released your first album in 2010, and where do you hope to go from here?
Tyler: Technology has changed so much since I started making music. There’s a free, professional recording studio in the library here in Edmonton! I hope to record my next solo album there.
Musically, I’ve evolved from hunching over a broken tape recorder in my kitchen to recording in a studio with a band of talented (and handsome!) friends.
From a writing perspective, I try to avoid hiding behind metaphor. I try to be brave, to put myself out there. I hope to continue to grow in this regard in my new music. But I also keep writing very romantic songs about sailors, so who knows. I’ll go where my imagination takes me.
Emily: What do you want your audience to feel, understand, or take away from your music?
Tyler: I want my audience to enjoy and be inspired by my poetry. I also want my listeners to listen with a critical ear, and be inspired to question to the world around them.
Emily: Do you have any new music in the works?
Tyler: Yes, always! I am slowly working on new material. I’m travelling more and scribbling notes in the margins of my books, in apps on my phone. I hope to always have new music in the works.