Meet Brandy Butler: A Philly-born songwriter who rediscovered her voice abroad
“I don’t think of it as a breakup record,” says Brandy Butler. “I think of it more as my journey through learning how to let something come, and then let it go. Letting go of things is like everyone’s struggle on so many levels.”
The Inventory of Goodbye, the latest full length project by Philly born, Zurich Switzerland based singer-songwriter and her band The Brokenhearted is a harrowing journey through a cycle of love, loss, heartbreak and rejuvenation. Touching on soaring rock an soul, twangy country-blues and cinematic retro-pop, The Inventory… is a colorful and diverse listen.
From the bittersweet pop ballad “Crying” to the heart-wrenchingly sparse guitar epic “The Hardest,” Butler’s hushed windswept vocals breathe life into each of the album’s dark, emotionally dense love songs. We caught up with her before a trip to South Africa to film a video and spoke with her about her youth studying Jazz at UArts, new music and building a new life on another continent.
The Key: For starters, could you give a little insight into your musical background? How / when did you start on this journey as a musician / songwriter?
Brandy Butler: I grew up in a very artistic family. My father was a former musician, both my parents educators, and in their free time they did community theater. I saw a lot of great concerts as a kid, went to a lot of musicals, had a lot of lessons in lots of different artistic disciplines and in the end ended up at the University of the Arts as a jazz flute major. After jazz school, I quit playing jazz (a long story) but after a few years, some of my friends from jazz school asked me if I’d be interested to play flute in their band, and that’s how everything started for the songwriting part. I was playing flute in this band Saigon Slimm and writing my first songs privately. Eventually I asked if I could sing a song a wrote, and before I knew it, I was the singer of this band.
TK: So, you were working and playing out in Philly during this time?
BB: Yeah, I was working during the day as an Elementary Music Teacher up in West Philly, and then two to three days a week we’d be rehearsing with Saigon Slimm.
TK: Nice, Saigon Slimm and your music education work. Around what year was all this going on?
BB: I left Philly in fall of 2003, so it was like 2001 to 2003. Actually 2002
TK: Oh wow. And you left Philly to live and work in Switzerland?
BB: I left Philly because it was the right time to. I had always wanted to go to Europe and travel and I was in this place where a lot of things had ended — job, relationship, I quit the band. So I left to really go and travel, to spend time with me and find out more about myself. I also was running away from some of my emotional stuff, but that is the long version…..
TK: Word. It was time for a change / new scenery?
BB: I just thought, if I don’t leave now, I never will
TK: Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned personal stuff and a desire to travel but I’m curious, did music factor into your decision to move abroad? Obviously, there’s a long and rich history of black musicians going to Europe and finding successes that they may not have had in the states.
BB: To be honest, not at all. I wasn’t going to Europe to make music. I was going to understand myself better. The music part all came later.
TK: How did the music eventually come back into play? Was it a calculated move to embark on a musical career in a new place or was it something that you couldn’t avoid / get away from?
BB: The first eight months I was in Switzerland, I didn’t try to meet anyone. I just worked for a family taking care of their children, and in my free time I was practicing and writing and travelling. After those first eight months, I saw a flyer for an open mic, and decided to go and sing in front of people again. It definitely sparked the fire again. From that first open mic, I got my first job as a background singer on a big tour. After I had that one job, i thought, if I can have this job already, I am sure I can have more, so I quit my au-pair (nanny) job, moved in with my then-boyfriend, and kind of just waited. Eventually requests started coming in. Then I said ‘well, I’ll just stay here as long as I feel that I am getting opportunities that are richer and more varied than what I would get in the US.’ And well now it’s been 13 years.
TK: Wonderful. If you’d like, I want to switch gears and talk about your new project?
TK: Ok, listening to The Inventory of Goodbye, the first thing that I noticed was this dense, emotional weight behind the songs. Could you talk a bit about the writing process behind this record?
BB: Dense. I like that. So, when I decided to do this album, I started with the thought that the album should tell the story. At that beginning phase, the story wasn’t actually “finished.”I had written some songs, and they were basically sound impressions of my memories of certain points in the story. And so I started to think about how I could make this all cohesive, and I fell back to my experience in the desert and how many different shades a day in the desert has. So I drew this big arch on my wall and wrote sunrise at one end, and midnight at the other, then I wrote in the other phases: mid morning, high noon, late afternoon, etc. And I wrote some adjectives what each of those moments felt like. From there I started to place the songs that I had along that line, and what I had just fit. I was really just missing the end. And as i moved through the transition of letting the person finally go, it came. “CU” was literally the last song I wrote, together with my bassist.
TK: I really love the arrangements and instrumentation on the record as well. At certain points it recalls Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra, other tunes remind me of the Ronettes or the Supremes. Could you share some thoughts on how you put this record together sonically? Was was the recording process like?
BB: Sonically it started with “Crying.” I was actually in the middle of another album I never released. I was doing covers, and trying to find my way to the dense stuff through other peoples texts. I started with jazz songs, but eventually i started to try and use pop songs and someone recommended “Crying” as a song they thought I might interpret well. The guitar player of my current band, Robin, he was pushing me the whole time to try and find a more authentic me in the music. He kept saying, the stuff you are making is good, but it could also be The Lion King Soundtrack. He is Swiss-French; I think that was his way of saying that it was too commercial. So I had two friends from Philly, George Burton and Wayne Smith Jr., who were on tour with Sun Ra’s Arkestra. When they stopped in Switzerland, I asked them if they wanted to do a recording together.
BB: So the 4 of us went into the studio, along with my co-producer, armed with some vodka and jokes, and out came this massive version of “Crying.” I felt changed in this moment, and I knew it was the right direction. So I sought out local musicians who were sensitive and emotional like me, were fiercely talented and authentic and who would risk it all for the right moment. Once i found them, we holed up in Berlin for two weeks and just recorded the album pretty quickly. We rented out a grungy studio, I rented us an apartment all together, and we became a unit. It was such a special experience.
TK: Damn, vodka, camping out in the studio with bandmates, reminds me of my 20s. Lol
BB: Hahaha. Except I am 37 with a kid.
TK: Do you have anything coming up — a tour, new projects etc. — or any final thoughts?
BB: I am mostly touring in Europe at the moment, but i am working on the US for the fall. As for final thoughts, I miss Philly. Always.