Kaitlin Butts’ What Else Can She Do is one of those records that arrive as the complete package– an airtight playlist of taut, fierce songs threaded together by an underlying narrative of women staring down a threshold, a stand-off epitomized by the 1950s noir cover art that delivers on its promise.
Butts’ sophomore effort is an exercise in realism, remarkable for its refusal of safe and conventional sentiments, its portrayals of hard choices, and their inevitable consequences. These confessions and confrontations are nothing new for the Oklahoma native. Same Hell, Different Devil, her 2015 debut, bleeds with tracks like “Damage I Can Do”, “Whiskey and Hate”, and “Don’t Push It”. After a few years behind the scenes, she remerged in Nashville in 2021 with two non-album singles, the spaced-out “Marfa Lights” and the lovesick “How Lucky Am I”.
With WECSD, Butts explores the darker sides of life, where once-cherished bonds are reduced to entanglements and alienation. Options exhaust themselves in the title track; family ties wilt in “Blood”; feckless optimism paralyzes in “It Won’t Always Be This Way”; the loveless spouse’s heart yearns for another in “Bored If I Don’t”. While the subject matter might be uncomfortable, it’s no doubt universal. These are the songs you sing the loudest when no one’s around.
We will get to the songs, but I wanted to discuss the cover art for What Else Can She Do. It’s remarkable– eerie, foreboding, turning the 1950s imagery on its head.
As far as the album cover goes, I really love the movie Thelma & Louise, and I always try to draw some kind of inspiration from that movie. That Thunderbird out front is obviously the one from Thelma & Louise. The backdrop is from the same areas where they took their drives on their little adventure. With “what else can she do?” I really wanted that to be the main focus for the album because I feel like each of the songs was asking the same question, “What else can she do?” Obviously, the main character of that song works at a diner, and I really wanted to incorporate all those things. Pecos [McCool] did a really great job of it, too. I think it looks dark and scary at the same time.
It aligns with how the album opens– the rumbling of feedback. It’s ominous, like a storm cloud approaching. It’s obvious that we’re not listening to a happy pop record.
Thank you so much! We worked really hard on it, so thank you, that makes me feel really good!
You released your debut, Same Hell, Different Devil, in 2015. What’s been keeping you busy in the interim? You released two singles last year– “Marfa Lights” and “How Lucky Am I”– did those give you a chance to get back into the game, get your feet wet?
I released Same Hell, Different Devil back in 2015. In between there, I had a publishing deal where I was working and writing a whole bunch in Nashville and back home by myself, just taking trips out here. I took some time to really hone in on what I wanted to say because I was really going through a lot of stuff within those gap years, and I needed time to process it and write about it. When releasing music, you really don’t have time to process your life, so that’s what I was doing in the gap years. Then I started to get antsy with it. I knew I had all these songs for so long. I even wrote probably most of them in probably 2018, 2019, so I’ve been holding on to them for so long. I knew 2020 wasn’t the year (laughs)! I was like, “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to wait until things get back into place, at least somewhat.” No one knew if we were going to live or die after 2020, so I went into the studio. We moved to Nashville in February of 2021. Within that first week, we moved, unloaded the U-Haul, and the next day I went into the studio and recorded this. It was really tough, but it was a really cool, crazy kind of experience and very, very Nashville of me too!
But then I had this album, and we were trying to get work with the label’s help and really just do it the right way. I’ve always said that I wanted to get a tour behind it and all this stuff. With Oran [Thornton], my producer, a while back, we worked on some demos. He had a demo for “How Lucky Am I” and “Marfa Lights”. “How Lucky Am I” turned out so perfect to me that I could not really imagine it any other way. That same week, I moved to Nashville and recorded my album, I also released that song on Valentine’s Day. I’d just gotten my new management, Kat Trujilo, and I was like, “Hey, I want to do this. I want to start getting these songs out because I want to be consistent and be better at that and do the artist thing again.” I started with “How Lucky Am I” and we were still working on the album, getting everything right– the artwork, the team behind it, and everything like that– and then summer rolled around. I was like, “Let’s do something fun–let’s do a remix to ‘White River’. That’s that sounds like fun to me.” Then my mom called me that day that I released the remix said, “You know, you’re doing all this cool alien stuff, and ‘Marfa Lights’ is so cosmic-y and alien-like. You should piggyback off of that and release ‘Marfa Lights’ because you have the demo for it.” I was like, “Okay,” so it all seems like a big master plan, if you’re watching it all, but it really was like, “Let’s do this; let’s go. Let’s put out these songs!” Looking back, it’s just been the biggest help in building the anticipation for this record and getting people excited for new music, so people didn’t forget about me! So that’s good (laughs)!
Was that mad dash a result of working behind the scenes for so long and starting to write for yourself again?
No, I always wrote for myself, no matter what. I wasn’t ever really writing for anyone else. There might have been a couple of times where I’d go in, but it would be mostly songwriters pairing up with me as the artist. I was just trying to really nail down the art of songwriting because it can be a 9-to-5 job if you let it. It’s a really cool thing to experience and wake up every day and do, but I don’t feel like I’m like a full-time songwriter. I don’t feel like that is my big thing.
What’s your songwriting process? Is it a situation where you wake up and start writing, or is it more informal?
Each time has been pretty different. If I’m going through something, I always try to write down things that people are saying and actual phrases that I think are interesting on my phone. Then once I’ve had time to sit down with it, or I feel some inspiration about it, I’ll try and sit down and finish as much as I can about it and get as much as I can on paper. I try not to rush anything, but some things just flow out within a couple hours. I wrote “blood,” my last single, with Angaleena [Presley]. I want to say it was one of my first-ever cowrites. It was my first trip to Nashville, and I got to write with one of the best! We wrote that within four hours, and it felt like a really cool therapy session. Then I got to leave with a really cool lifelong friend! But yeah, it’s never the same for me. Some people are really good at drilling them out. Cleto [Cordero], my husband, is really, really good. He’s very consistent in just waking up every day and writing something.
How do you go beyond writing about the one-dimensional female characters that people are used to encountering in pop culture, whether it’s in songs or Hallmark movies?
Every one of these, I feel like I can feel myself in one of their shoes– I’ve been there. For instance, with “Jackson”, I feel like everyone’s been with a nice guy where they don’t want to break their heart, but they’re not happy with them. She’s obviously a girl that wants to leave her husband. She’s just waiting– she’s not sure if she’s going to make it to the finish line with this guy. With “Bored If I Don’t”, it’s a girl that’s going to cheat on her husband– that’s not something that I would do– but it’s just putting yourself in other people’s shoes, but I do feel like I’m in each one of their shoes at one point.
Did you write with a theme in mind? You have a variety of stories, but they feel like they’re from the same collection. They’re threaded together in some way.
So, the theme was– my whole kind of existence in life at the time– my parents were going through a divorce, and I was seeing all the dark sides of that and how hard it is to go through a divorce. Even with someone that’s not terrible, I’m sure it’s hard, but it gets nasty; it gets really awful and scary. That whole time, everything I was going through was very, very sensitive, and I just wanted to get it down on paper. But I didn’t have a theme– that was just my life. At the end, whenever I wrote “what else can she do”, I was like, “Okay, there’s a theme to all of these.” I wanted to leave off some of the songs that I have in the bank that I wanted use on another record, but I really wanted to keep, for this, stories of, not necessarily from my point of view, but just what I’ve seen in the people around me. I was like, “Okay, there’s a theme here. I didn’t mean for it to happen, like everything else. But here it is.”
Do you believe there’s a level of female empowerment in these stories?
I think so. I really do. My friend Thomas Mooney asked, “Do you feel like all of these girls are on the cusp of doing something– they’re right on the edge?” I said, “Yeah,” but I think you can sense the power behind what they’re about to do, and they know what they’re doing is hard. They’re trying to push through the hard times, but they’re right on the cusp of moving on or leaving.
Do you have plans for these characters? Do you think about what’s going to happen to them after the song is over?
If it came in the form of a song to me, I guess I could. That’d be a good next one, one about forgiveness. It would be cool to try that on a couple of those characters, but some of them are just so completely made up that I don’t see it. Like with “What Else Can She Do”, I feel like she’s going to be in that little space forever.
Given the personal nature of your songs, do you have family or friends who ask, “Is that song about me?”
(Laughs) Oh, they all know what songs are about them, for sure! I have my uncle, who’s wild and crazy, who said, “Finally, this is a song about toxic family members, and it’s not about me!” (Laughs) It’s kind of a running joke– yes, they all know!
I guess it’s not too bad of a fate to be memorialized in a song...
I think the people that I don’t write kindly about aren’t in my life anymore. If they didn’t want me to write the way that I do about them, they would, should have treated me better.
You’re in Nashville these days, but how was growing up in Oklahoma an influence?
I’ve always listened to classic country, like ’90s stuff growing up, but outside of that, I didn’t really know that this whole Texas scene was a thing until– or even the Red Dirt music scene– until I was 18-years-old. A lot of people grew up hearing Randy Rogers and stuff on the radio, but in Tulsa, we got pretty mainstream stuff. Then I went to high school, and my friends started showing me Red Dirt music. Then when I turned 18, I went to college, and I got hooked up with this gig in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the Gypsy Cafe Music Fest, which is the original spot where Red Dirt music took place. I got introduced to people like Mike McClure from The Great Divide, The Red Dirt Rangers, Cody Canada, Stoney LaRue, all those really great people. They all pulled me in and said, “Play a song for us.” They were so welcoming to that scene. Watching them over the years, you can really tell a difference in that Oklahoma scene. Their music is a little bit on the weird side. There’s nothing mainstream about it, but it’s all about the songs with them. You can definitely pick out an Oklahoma song if you’re listening to a random playlist.
Moving down to Texas, you get some more of those big hard-hitting, classic country bands, which for me, helped. If you try to take in that Oklahoma inspiration and focus on your songs, and then you go to Texas and figure out how big bands have these awesome radio hits, you morph it into what I wanted to be, which is kind of both– a little bit mainstream, a little bit weird and dark at times. Then I really got involved in Nashville. I think Nashville gets a bad reputation sometimes, especially if say the name in Texas, but there’s some really, really good writers here. They know how to get something on paper. There’s a real strategy to it. Sometimes, that’s not the best thing, having a strategy or a formula, or anything like that. But with having a way to get your thoughts on paper, they’re really good at articulating it.
When you’re in writing mode, do you still listen to music, or do you have to operate in silence, in a vacuum?
Oh, I feel like I probably write in complete silence. I would get too distracted unless I’m trying to write something that’s in the same kind of groove of something else. Before I go into a write, I probably know what hooks I’m trying to pitch, what places I want to go down. Guitar-wise, I kind of want to have something in mind, so I’ll try to listen to stuff in that same genre and to get some groove and inspiration ideas because I’m not like an actual guitar player, not like Shreddy Krueger (laughs), but I try to draw inspiration from listening beforehand, but I don’t think I could do it as I’m writing.
In your songs, you place your characters in these impossible, no-win situations. “Bored If I Don’t” comes to mind– I would say most people side with the character who wants to leave her husband because she’s no longer in love, but not many people would be willing to admit it. What’s at stake when you write songs like that?
I just want to capture that feeling because it’s not talked about. I kind of like talking about things that no one wants to talk about. It really irks me when I feel like things are off-limits. I think it’s the rebel child in me that’s like, “No, we’re going to talk about this right now.” Or, I want to have this feeling to have a light shown on it because it’s not unique to me– it can’t be, right? Then whenever I release it, especially with “Blood”, I really did feel like what I was going through was unique. I think you can see it from not just family– you can see it from anyone that makes you feel like crap when you’re around them. I think that it’s hard to talk about. There are songs that I hear, and it’s like, “Oh my God, I thought it was just me that felt that way.” And then you hear it, and it sticks you right in the gut– and it’s a really good feeling. I just always want to implement things that no one wants to talk about into my songs– because it feels good to me. It may be uncomfortable for everyone else, but I like to do that.
You afford these characters the dignity and empathy they deserve. Where does the compassion come from with a song like “She’s Using”, where other people might write off or abandon someone who’s an addict?
Well, it just comes from love. I love the person I wrote that for, and I just wanted her to come home. I just watched and read so many things about substance abuse, and you realize that [addicts] are never just assholes that just want to do what they want. There’s a million reasons why they turn to that. They were put there in that circumstance. I look at that person and I think, “There was no other way that she could have turned out because of her circumstances.” She was going to go down that road– her dad left, and all of these things. When you’re looking at this person, and they’re left with these choices, there’s no other way that she could have turned out. I think that if you look at someone, and you just feel pity or you think that they’re shameful, there’s a million things going on there. It’s not just what meets the eye, and if you can’t see that, then something’s wrong with you, not them.
What do you hope listeners take away from home from this record?
I hope that they listen to it and feel like they’re not alone in anything. I say that in my letter to the listener. Whenever the album’s out, I have a little letter to them, and I just hope that no one feels alone. If they’re going through a divorce, abuse, substance abuse, infidelity, all these things, I just don’t want people to feel like they’re alone in it.
You mentioned that you have some songs leftover from these sessions. Are you already thinking about a new record?
I’m hoping as soon as I can get the money back (laughs) because recording is so expensive, and I want to do music videos for this album! But yeah, I have a whole album that’s ready for the studio. I have a really cool concept and an overall theme for that one, too. It’s a lot more upbeat and brighter because I feel like I am on the other side of things now with what I was going through back then. But yes, I have a plan (laughs)!
I only ask because I wanted more songs (laughs)!
The way I looked at it is that I know that seven songs isn’t quite technically what people would call an album, but with these, I wrote them in a certain time frame, and I didn’t want to disrupt that and just add a couple more songs. I could have put “How Lucky Am I” or “Marfa Lights” on this, but that doesn’t tell the story I want to tell. I just didn’t want to disrupt it. I hope that me releasing these singles and then the album, I hope people know that I’m on the stream of releasing now, and I’m going to be working on the next thing very soon.
I agree. I think it exists as a perfectly realized whole, the theme, the art, the way the album begins and ends with the feedback and noise. The album closes with your cover of in the pines”, followed by some all-hell’s-breaking-loose chaos…
I’m glad that you got that. That makes me feel good! Yeah, I wanted it to start really ominous, so people get the tone of the album, right off the bat and know that it wasn’t like this, “Hey, boys! Howdy! We’re drinking beer on a Saturday night!” (Laughs) I knew that I really wanted it to be, “This is going to punch you right in your heart. If this is what you’re going through, keep listening.” And then I wanted to end it with complete chaos because my whole life was chaos– it was wild and crazy!
I told the guys in the studio that I wanted the ending to be long. That ending went on for probably two minutes longer than it is on the album because they really drug it out. I loved it, but I was like, “We’ve got to at least chop it in half,” but I just love how it ends. I really wanted to tie a bow on it at the end. I hope that it encapsulated the whole album, front to end.