Elizabeth Butters is an NYC based musician, originally from Concord, MA. Elizabeth “suffers from nostalgia and false sympathies of the past”, though she has realized she would have felt out of place in any era. Her sweet and delicate vocals, simple guitar playing, and dulcimer create raw and beautiful folk songs. Her take on murder ballads of the past suits her so well, you might think she was born to do it. She’s a picture of class and beauty, in style, personality, and in her music. I spoke with Elizabeth about these things and more:
AD: When did you become interested in murder ballads? Did you learn guitar to
specifically play murder ballads?
Elizabeth Butters: I became interested in murder ballads as a middle and high schooler. I’ve always been very fascinated by serial killers and horror movies- I watched The Shining weekly when I was ten- and becoming entranced by songs of murder seemed like a natural progression. I didn’t learn the guitar to play murder ballads. I learned the dulcimer first, when I was sixteen, and for the first year or so after that I mainly played instrumentals.
AD: Your beautiful wardrobe and overall aesthetic suggests that you belong in
a different era. I’ve heard you say this as well. What is it about this
era that makes you feel out of place?
EB: I don’t know whether I feel out of place in this era or just out of place in general. I’m not sure I’m ever going to be in-step with the process of settling down, which is something that was expected of people more in the early twentieth century than now.
One thing I get particularly tripped up by is what I and many others view as the disposable culture caused by the Internet and digital technology. I became preoccupied with documentation when I was about fourteen, following the news that my grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I was very convinced that I needed to make scrapbooks, record voices, and write everything down so that I had a resource if I started to develop dementia.
My dad was sort of a star athlete in high school and college and his Grandmother saved all of his clippings. I have them now and I look at them from time to time. I’m sad that no matter what I do, nobody will have made or saved clippings of mine when I’m older. I think that for an artist it is more difficult to feel one’s achievements now that paper trails are becoming more and more spare. Less and less of what we’re working with is palpable and more of it’s invisible. Getting a write-up or a song on the Internet for instance feels very fleeting. For me it’s easy to feel lost and want to give up in this type of culture.
In terms of clothing and general aesthetics, I do believe that things were made better visually and made to last longer thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Dresses flattered the feminine silhouette better and even the simplest design displayed a great attention to detail. Film had wonderful contrast and color in a way that’s rarely, if ever, reproduced in the digital medium. In terms of music, it’s not a random coincidence that the records from the 50s and 60s sound so great- there were better producers who knew how to use the equipment. I could go on and on but I won’t. . .
AD: I know you consider yourself a writer before a musician. Are you writing
anything right now?
EB: I’m trying to write a short story about a pet mail-order frog I had as a child, named Fizz.
AD: What’s your favorite way to express yourself?
EB: I think I best express myself in the objects I collect and the way I arrange them in my room- I guess it’s sort of like art therapy? Other than that, I think talking gets a lot across.
AD: You’ve been in some films, including a documentary about murder ballads
called “American Murder Ballads.” What was that experience like for you?
Do you see yourself doing more in the film world?
EB: I’ve loved working in films. It’s great to be part of a team and to work with a director whose vision you trust. When I’m working alone, I fall easily into long bouts of laziness and inertia and end up setting things aside for later until later becomes never. Collaborations are a great way to get things done while (hopefully) having fun socially. I also find that being somewhat confined is good for the creative juices.
AD: If you could live anywhere, where would you go?
EB: There are many places I’d like to travel to- like Yellowstone National Park – but in terms of living, I’m a homebody. My dad has a house in New Hampshire, built in 1784 up on a hill in the forest, where we’ve been going since I was born. I think that’s the place I’d like to end up, especially if we’re able to get horses.
AD: Dream collaboration?
EB: I’d love to meet Jean Ritchie first and foremost, and then I’m not quite sure, because famous people can be very intimidating! Some of my favorite photographers and musicians are people I’ve already met, like my friends Jason Eskenazi, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, and yourself. I’d really like to act in a period film or TV show- maybe someone out there has a connection?
AD: Do you have any original music or plan to make some in the near future?
EB: No, however I’m working on a couple of projects, one of which is an album of spooky traditional children’s songs which I plan to title, “Songs for Brave Children.’
For more about Elizabeth Butters, or to listen to/purchase her music, please visit http://topmagicrecords.com/artists