Rayland Baxter maps melodies like a hopeful scout surveying an ever-expanding territory of sound. A legacy artist (his late father Bucky Baxter was a multi-faceted guitarist whose resume includes Steve Earle & The Dukes, Bob Dylan, and the Beastie Boys among others), Rayland managed to avoid the lure of the stage for nearly the first three decades of his life, instead focusing on athletics and outdoor pursuits before answering the call. The proverbial duck to water, Baxter glided onto the scene with 2012’s Feathers & Fish Hooks with subsequent offerings Imaginary Man (2015) and Wide Awake (2018) plumbing sonic and lyrical depths, and in 2019, Rayland paid tribute to Mac Miller with the largely self-produced Good Mmornin, a leg-stretcher of an EP that heralded the next evolutionary bender If I Were A Butterfly.
Gestating across a pattern of pre-COVID months and into the thick of the pandemic and beyond, Baxter’s Bufferfly manipulates genre and sound reminiscent of final-phase Beatles and ever-chimerical Bowie. It’s a mixtape of the artist’s life, a reach back and a hurl forward that comes across equal parts adventure and therapy, and like the titular lepidopteran, chronicles Rayland’s “becoming.”
“That’s what we’re doin’,” says Baxter during an early afternoon phone call, woodpecker keeping time in the background. “Fifteen years ago, I was livin’ in Israel with my dad’s best friend and he was kinda like my mentor of songwriting as a listener and a fan. All he had was Bob Dylan DVDs and Leonard Cohen DVDs and albums, and that Bob Dylan documentary where he says, “An artist is always in a state of becoming.” Zooming out, a human, we’re all becoming— even on our deathbed. There’s always the next chapter.”
For this installment, Baxter set up hearth and shop in Franklin, Kentucky at Thunder Sound Studios. Often described as an “abandoned rubber band factory”, the description belies the location’s world-class recording space, living facility, events venue, and overall pastoral allure amidst 100 acres of Bluegrass beauty offering all the amenities of artistic freedom Rayland could conjure. It was an immersion that nearly left him out of the global loop.
“When I moved into the studio– January 17th of 2020– we had rented the studio for almost two months. March 10th was our last day, and I was driving back to Nashville on March 13th, callin’ one o’ my best friends like, ‘What’s goin’ on, dude?’ He’s like, ‘Bro, you need to get in your house– it’s quarantine!’”
With no prospect of touring and no immediate call from his label ATO to issue an album, Baxter found an opportunity to indulge in a dream recording experience for If I Were A Butterfly.
“It was at the third phase of it when I was there for a year,” recalls Rayland. “There was no time limit, and comin’ out of it, that was ideal incubation for an artist of any kind, whether you’re a chef, a painter, musician, or a mechanic. All of these things were at my fingertips and I was allowed to become more of a defined me in that time. It’s the first record I’ve made where I leaned on myself a lot, thanks to the encouragement of guys like Shakey Graves and my friend Wes Schultz in The Lumineers and my dad– I love recording with producers, but this was my time to do this thing. And just with my friends, the other producers, Kai Welch and Tim O’Sullivan– my buddies! There was no pressure!”
The title track and album opener mines family home recordings– a four-year-old Rayland singing– before easing into arpeggio, soft drum beats, and reverb, Prince-like guitar flourishes, and headphone discoverable Easter eggs that persist throughout.
“We always refer to it as walking down a hallway after hours of your elementary school mixed with the Labyrinth and the walk through the maze,” says Baxter.
Highlights among Butterfly’s ten tracks include the Waits-ish and autobiographical “Tadpole”, the almost Gregorian “Violence”, Sgt, Pepper-y “Dirty Knees” with its trumpet and claim that “the heart is a beautiful instrument”, and the deceptive funk of “Buckwheat”, a master blend of strange poetry, cadence, and commentary.
“My dad’s nickname is Bucky– but it came from Buckwheat ’cause, in the ’70s and early ’80s, he had an afro of curly hair! They called him Buckwheat, and then over the days, it turned to Bucky or Wheat. So that’s the beginning of the song. And, “Hey, doctor…” Doctor is [Dr. Andre Waissman], who l lived with in Israel,” reveals Rayland of the song’s origins.
“And then ‘I got an ol’ mean monster man sittin’ on me’– there’s your George Floyd dispute that was happening right around May of 2020. Keep in mind, back in February, we had just recorded the music to that song, there were no lyrics, there was nothing. We’d just started groovin’, my friend Austin came and played his cello, and my buddy Josh Martin, we were all just vibin’ out on this beat.”
George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer occurred on May 25th, 2020– the same day that Rayland’s father unexpectedly passed away.
“The dogs in the chorus– those are all my dad’s dogs from childhood. Chester, Chapel, Fiona, Moondog, and Willy with the one eye blue. I was layin’ in my van one night, and that just fit in the beat of the chorus,” says Baxter. “The bridge of that song, that’s about a dream I had the morning my dad passed. Before I knew he passed, he came to me in a dream. I was in Hawaii, and he was glowing white.”
For those curious as to how Baxter intends to carry the mosaic of If I Were A Butterfly on tour, the artist himself admits the challenge– but also embraces it.
“I knew that it was gonna be a little tricky when I was makin’ the album. To really pull off that album live, to sound similar and present it as though it is the album happening, I would need twelve people in the band,” says Baxter. “[But] a song should exist in all forms. It should exist as a poetry reading, a chapter in a book, the President of the United States should be able to read it and it makes sense to somebody, or with a symphony and anything in between. It might sound a little different than the record, but it’s gonna pump in a whole new way!”
As far as how the songs fit around the rest of Baxter’s catalog, new and longtime fans can expect an experience curated for the moment.
“I got all colors of the spectrum in a set from Feathers & Fish Hooks and “Willy’s Song”– it’s almost too much at points! Some nights, we gotta lean a little heavier on the quieter stuff, and some nights we wanna take “Young Man” and play it for twenty minutes! “If I Were A Butterfly”, usually, we start the set with that song,” says Baxter. “It’s a whole new thing like comin’ out o’ the cocoon!”