Words by David C. Obenour
Activities is the solo debut from multi-instrumentalist Anna Butterss. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard her though. With a primary focus on bass, she’s played or collaborated with the likes of Makaya McCraven, Josh Johnson, Phoebe Bridgers, Aimee Mann and more. Which is only relevant within the context of establishing that yeah, she can hang.
She can more than just hang too. A lot more. Her solo debut introduces Anna as a deft songwriter. With the help of producer and Colorfield label head, Pete Min, the twelve songs navigate a range of genre boundaries and instrumental emotions with fluid ease. Started as merely an exercise in the studio, the results deliver as much as they hint toward.
OS: Activities was born out of a one-day session that evolved into the finished album – can you talk more about that day? What about it resonated with you so deeply that lead for it being the genesis of your solo album?
AB: On that day Pete [Min] had asked me not to bring in any material, and he wanted to kind of demonstrate his process to me. He asked me to pick a tempo and then pick four chords, which we made into a loop, layered some guitar and drum synth sounds and ended up with the first section of “Number One”. We agreed it needed a contrasting section, so I found some new chords and a melody, and the song started to really take shape for both of us. By the end of the day we had it sounding pretty good, and I felt like a door had been opened to a new process of creating music for me. Pete and I agreed that there was more to explore for us both working in that process, so we decided to keep going.
OS: You’ve been featured on a number of amazing wide-ranging recordings, but when it came to releasing music under your own name – what considerations did you have for the sound you wanted to capture?
AB: I was really certain that I didn’t want to make a jazz record, or that if there were jazz elements in the music – which there definitely are – that we filtered them through a different lens by way of presentation and production. I wanted to explore the sounds that caught my attention and drew me in without thinking too much about how the record would be received, I guess trusting my instincts. Having spent so many years thinking about different ideas without having ever made my own record, it felt like I had a lot to draw from.
OS: Can you talk about the photo of you on Activities cover? What made you choose it?
AB: The cover is funny to me because right after I decided on that photo I shaved my head and now the person in that picture seems very distant. I like the directness of the photo, that I’m looking straight at the camera without trying to hide, in a way. That’s the feeling I had when making the record, that I was revealing something about myself for the first time.
OS: As a multi-instrumentalist, was there a central instrument you approached the songs with or did it vary? When you’re in a sense collaborating with yourself, do the songs evolve differently based off the order of instruments you engage?
AB: I tried to vary it because I do find that the starting instrument shapes the direction of each song. It’s hard at the beginning because nothing sounds like a good idea when you’re not hearing the full evolution of it. Once I get another couple of instruments down I start getting excited and I can hear where I want the song to go but at the very beginning when I’m just playing one chord over and over on the guitar it’s hard to trust that something good will come out of it.
OS: You talk about feeling more comfortable expressing yourself through music, to you what were some of the most cathartic moments on Activities?
AB: Reasonable Death and Do Not Disturb were both very cathartic to make, because I was trying to transform very specific experiences of grief into songs to kind of externalize the feeling. I spent a long time in the studio’s live room improvising on upright bass and Pete had the monitors off so he couldn’t hear what I was doing. I was working through those feelings with myself and the bass, and it was frustrating but ultimately I’m happy with what I achieved in both those pieces.
OS: Though often personal in its creation, music always elicits unique responses from the creator and listener – perhaps even moreso with instrumental music where the message is less direct. Knowing of you personal expression infused in these songs, how do you consider the many different ways songs may hit listeners?
AB: I love that about music, that the same song will feel really different to each listener, and that the experience of listening to a song is influenced by what is happening in the world and in your life when you listen to it. I had to trust that if my songs resonated with me and Pete that they would resonate with other people too, even if it’s not as direct as someone listening to a song and understanding exactly how I felt when I was making it.
OS: You also use vocals, though not words, as an instrument on the album. How do you see their inflection or addition for songs?
AB: I love to sing but I have never spent any time learning how to write compelling lyrics. I think there is something very intimate about the sound of a human voice, which is why I was drawn to that texture. It’s something I want to explore more in the future.
OS: Do you think we put enough value on instrumental music? In the age of endless looped Youtube videos of “chillbeats” does that add or detract value to it?
AB: I could see “chillbeats” maybe leading people to associate instrumental music with background music, which is what those videos are designed for. But on the other hand, there is a ton of instrumental music that is made more for active listening, and I think that can coexist with chillbeats.
OS: Can you talk about Pete’s influence on the album?
AB: Pete’s influence is all over the sonic world of the record, given that we made it at his studio and he also mixed it. He suggested specific instruments or textures to experiment with, and also showed me how to use various synths, pedals and drum machines. The process we worked with of improvising and then stitching parts together is central to his concept for Colorfield records. He was also particularly good at hearing how to solve a problem when I felt stuck on something.
OS: Having gotten your debut out there, how do you imagine the next Anna Butterss album will evolve?
AB: I’m not sure yet. There are a lot of ideas from Activities that I want to explore more deeply, as well as other things entirely. I like the idea of writing music and then recording it with a band, since that didn’t happen at all on this record and playing live is at the heart of what I do. On the other hand, I’m kind of drawn to just hiding out and making a whole lot of weird music on my own. We’ll see!