Hailing from Knoxville, TN, folk band Cereus Bright offers a healthy blend of folk, blues, rock, and Americana. I first heard them play while they were touring the The Oh Hellos, and I was struck by their talented musicianship and thoughtful lyrics. If you like classy folk music inspired by the beauties and messes of life, or if you’re a fan of The Avett Brothers, then Cereus Bright is well worth a listen.
We’re thrilled to have gotten the chance to chat with Tyler Anthony, the band’s lead singer and songwriter. Read on for a great conversation about the recording process, music’s propensity for catalyzing community, dealing with hard transitions, and more.
Excuses: A collection of moments
Ethan Weitz: This summer you released your first full-length album, Excuses. What were the inspirations for that album? Did you have any particular goals or things you were trying to accomplish with it?
Tyler Anthony: Those songs were written over a course of four years. Some of them are among the earliest songs I ever wrote, and the rest of them cover everything in between up to the present day.
So the songs are interesting because I can see how they sort of track my development as a person over the past few years—how I’ve changed, or maybe less dramatically, what I was thinking about at those times. I’m married now, but I have songs that I wrote about my wife when we broke up, back when we were dating and stuff. And so the album is a collection of different moments over the past two years.
As we were putting this album together, we looked for some common threads. And I think for us, the narrative deals with what it means to grow up and to lose things that you once had or held to. Most of us actually graduated from college or had recently finished college during the time of the band getting together and making the album. So some of that existential crisis of “What are we doing? Who are we?” definitely laces the album, sometimes in explicit ways and sometimes in subtler ways.
In terms of goals, we wanted people to take us more seriously. Not that they weren’t, but we wanted to mature. More than anything, else we want people to connect with our music and in some way be changed or affected. And so our hope was that people would really take the time to open themselves up to the music, and really take the time to think about it.
Emily Cardé: How did the recording process for Excuses differ from that of your EPs?
Tyler: Well, we have no idea what we’re doing, in general. You know, every time you do something you’re like, “Oh okay, next time, never do that again.” [laughs]
In terms of the nuts and bolts, the process was pretty similar to our EPs in that we engineered and produced it all ourselves. It was recorded at a cabin that we rented to rehearse and record in. We did get it mixed by a pro in Chicago. My bandmate Evan and I went up to Chicago and sat with him as he mixed it. And it was cool because what we were going for sonically with the album was pretty transparent—we wanted it to sound like it was just the five of us playing, with real instruments and stuff. And his sensibilities lined up a lot with what we were looking for. So it was awesome to have such a pro, someone we respect a lot, being in on the process.
House shows and other memories
Ethan: This summer you went on a “Close-Up” tour, where you played in non-standard venues like garages and living rooms. Why did you decide on those types of venues and what was the tour like as a result of that?
Tyler: There’s something really special about the intimacy of house show that’s hard to find in a bigger place—almost impossible, in fact. You almost have to get so big that people will shut up and listen again.
We were pretty ambitious in terms of the amount of shows we did. It was a lot of work, because for the last few years we’ve been touring kind of in the venue way—we’ve got a booking agent and so there were lots of details we had stopped handling. But then by doing this, it was like, “Oh wow, we have to start doing all this stuff for ourselves again.” At the same time, it was revitalizing. The whole band had to work really hard together.
Prior to this tour, we had spent a lot of time opening, and there’s a weird passivity that can happen when you’re an opener. You travel for hours and then you play maybe 30–40 minutes. It’s just not a lot of music. You set up merch, you put in 30 minutes, and you hope you make an impact. But at the same time, you’re also not responsible for filling up a room, so you’re not promoting it like crazy for your fans, because they only get a little slice of it.
With the Close-Up tour, we now had all these shows where it was up to us to bring people in and kind of initiate a moment. It was scary but good. It was cool to see that we could do it, because we hadn’t done our own show in a lot of those cities in quite a long time—or ever.
It ended up being really special and had a lot of meaningful times. If you craft something and you’re really intentional with it, and then you are in a situation where people are listening to it and respecting it—it’s amazing, and you don’t care if it’s 30 people or whatever. Having 30 people listen attentively and engage with your music feels so much better than playing to 3,000 people who don’t really care.
Ethan: What’s your favorite place that you played at on the tour?
Tyler: One that particularly stands out was in Washington, D.C. Some friends who lived there said we could play at their house. I think we set the cap for the tickets at around 50 because it was just a normal house, but 100 people ended up coming. It really blew us away, because people were pulling their friends and they just kept showing up and kept cramming in. We were opening up the side doors so people could listen, and it just turned into an incredible party. Things like that are cool when the turn out surprises you.
Another memory: We were trying to play in Raleigh, N.C., and we could not for the life of us find anywhere to play. One of my bandmates did a post—I think it was either through Reddit or Couch Surfer—and some stranger was like, “Hey, I have a backyard you could use.” It was just this lady in Raleigh that was trying to be nice. So we connected with her and we ended up agreeing to do the show together, and then she invited all her friends in the neighborhood. It ended up raining really badly, so we all squeezed into the garage. And it was just this really cool moment: here we are playing, and we have some of our fans there, and she’s got some of her friends and neighbors there, and she’s meeting new people. I remember as we were loading up, we saw her exchanging numbers with some people that had come. And we realized she had made new friends.
So I hold those memories near and dear because they affected someone’s life. Having those concerts allowed people to all share in something magical and out of the ordinary. It catalyzed friendship or neighborliness, and that’s both beautiful and lasting. We could stop playing music tomorrow, and those people that had made new friends will still have those friends.
Ethan: There are so many great things about house concerts. We’ve only been to a few, but we are completely sold on them. They are the coolest.
Tyler: It was funny sometimes. Some people still didn’t quite get it, or if they did get it they didn’t emotionally get it, so they would show up and be like, “Eh?” And there’s almost a learning moment for the first 15 minutes of the show, but then by the end they’ve settled into it. And that realization is so beautiful: “Woah, I’m listening to real music right in front of me!” It’s just so pure and real and here.
The honesty of folk storytelling
Ethan: I was watching an interview where you described folk music as a medium for storytelling as opposed to just a musical genre or style. Could you talk about that?
Tyler: I think for some people who have grown up around folk music or have it as part of their tradition or heritage, folk does mean the sonic element as well as the storytelling element. They are intertwined, in a way.
But for us, that element of storytelling and honesty—that is what folk music is all about, and it’s what we really latch on to. Even though sonically we’ve kind of evolved to being a little different from what traditional folk music might sound like, we still find ourselves really guided by those sensibilities. We have the same goal: to tell a story. And to be fair, a lot of music does that, so I don’t want to sound all high and mighty like we’re doing something different. But I think that some people like making music for pure entertainment, and that’s the distinguishing factor for us. We want our music to tell a story.
Ethan: What is the most meaningful Cereus Bright song for you personally—and why?
Tyler: Oh wow, that is a really good question—it’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is. You love them all for different reasons.
Ethan: Maybe you could narrow it down to just songs on the new album.
Tyler: Yeah, I could say my favorite on the new album. They are all meaningful to me, but I really love the song ‘Excuses.’ I’d been writing a lot of songs with the goal of playing them live, like, “Oh, we need this song that’s more upbeat.” Because when we first started touring, we began writing new stuff that we thought we could play to get people’s attention. I like ‘Excuses’ because it was the first song after that season where I was kind of able to step away from the pressure of having to write a song with a lot of energy. It was really formed in the studio, and I was able to write something that was unlike anything I’d written before. It’s quiet and slow and haunting and vulnerable and I am really proud of it.
And the recording of ‘Excuses’ turned out amazing. Sometimes it can be hard because you have this intangible idea in your head of what you want a song to sound like, and it doesn’t always get there. Unless you have all the resources in the world, you can’t always take the time to redo it—sometimes you just kind of have to roll with it. ‘Excuses’ was great because it felt like it hit the target that we all had for it. Going back, I wouldn’t change a thing—and you know, as time goes on, that’s hard to say with a lot of songs.
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Emily: What is the hardest thing you’ve ever gone through, and how has that affected your music?
Tyler: I grew up in a very conservative Christian household. So that was a big part of my story growing up, and I even worked for church for a long time. But then I had something pretty traumatic happen with the church community that I was in. And it hurt me and wounded me and kind of pushed me away from that world in a pretty dramatic way. It was such a big part of my life, and so all of my relationships, my career, my family, all my friends, the way I spent my time—everything was attached in some way or perceived in some way through that lens. So when that break happened, it was a pretty formative transition. I had to do reevaluate all these areas of my life that I used to have an “answer” for. So that has been pretty intense.
As far as how that affected my music, it has definitely shaped the content—I don’t know about the sonic element. If you go and listen to songs like ‘Hindenburg’ or ‘Nothing Yet’ where that struggle shows up, you can see me asking some of those questions. It’s not in every song, because we try to write songs that go across the spectrum of your life. There are days that you want to cry and days that you could dance the whole time, and there’s everything in between.
On a different level, there were a couple of break-ups that definitely rocked my world. I haven’t had a big tragedy like a lot of people have—I haven’t lost someone to a big accident or to death in a super traumatic way. But when they happen, breakups feel like the biggest deal in the world. Whether you’re 16 or 18 or 21, they always hurt incredibly; it feels like everything is falling down. In fact, when I first started Cereus Bright I was definitely propelled by a breakup. I was actually starting to do music around that same time, and I needed ooze and vent those feelings and emotions somewhere. So that breakup definitely propelled me into music more than I would have been otherwise.
Why Cereus Bright?
Emily: What is the origin of your band name, ‘Cereus Bright’?
Tyler: The Cereus is a desert flower that only blooms at night. When I first stumbled across it, it struck me as a really powerful metaphor for growing and blossoming in the most unlikely of scenarios. So that was kind of a symbol of hope for me: that even when things feel impossible or unlikely or empty or hopeless, the thing that you want the most—the beautiful thing, the good thing, the true thing—can still happen and exist.
So I wrote a song along those lines, but I felt like the name was bigger than just that one song. I was just like, “What if we called the band the name of the song?” It just had something that seemed a little bigger, and what it stood for us was special to us.
I would say in this day and age, a lot of artists avoid being positive because it’s not very cool or sexy—it goes against the trend of the moody artist. But I’m glad that we chose a hopeful name like ‘Cereus Bright,’ because while there are days and times where we haven’t felt hopeful, by being part of us, the name serves as a reminder. We are striving to be hopeful even when it doesn’t come easily.
All photos courtesy of the band.