Name: Anna Butterss
Occupation: Bassist, composer
Recent release: Anna Butterss's Activities is out via Colorfield.
Recommendations: Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” and Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”
Other artists on Colorfields include Larry Goldings, Abe Rounds, Mark Guiliana, and Benny Bock.
[Read our Larry Goldings interview]
[Read our Abe Rounds interview]
[Read our Mark Guiliana interview]
[Read our Benny Bock interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Anna Butterss and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I first started playing music when I was about seven, initially learning the flute and then switching to the upright bass at age thirteen.
My parents are big music lovers and we would sing together as a family, which led to my participation in various choirs for probably a decade. I loved the feeling of being in an orchestra or a choir, of being surrounded by sound.
My interest in jazz came when I started playing the bass, and I was struck I think by what that music feels like rhythmically.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
I don’t experience music visually like that at all. Instead I feel very strong physical and emotional sensations that make it hard for me to sit still. I sometimes find it uncomfortable listening to music, especially live music, and not being able to join in.
I guess I try to identify those sensations when I’m working on music so I know where to go - I follow the sounds that physically move me.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
My musical interests have broadened over time, and at this point in my life I try not to box myself into any one genre or scene.
In terms of searching for a personal voice, that’s something I think comes naturally with time and experience, rather than something that I’ve been consciously looking for.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
The only thing I will say about identity is that I spend my life trying to be more like myself, which encompasses so many realities and experiences.
I think the different aspects of that self come through in my music, or at least that’s what I’m aiming for.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Trusting that if an idea speaks to me it will speak to other people as well, and it’s okay if it doesn’t speak to everyone. But at the same time, pushing myself into places that are uncomfortable to let new things grow.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I am interested in a music of the present. Art naturally expresses elements of the historical and cultural moment in which it is created.
I try to make things that are new, but rooted in a time and place, which to me is the present moment.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
My upright bass is a beautiful 1930s instrument made in Germany.
I’ve spent the past 18 years exploring the bass in a fairly methodical manner, and that feels like my voice. Everything else is new to me, so I’m enjoying the energy of being bad at something and not caring so much.
I just bought the RD-8 drum machine and I’ve been messing around with that. Most of my record was made that way, through exploration of unfamiliar instruments.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
At the moment I’m on the road a lot, but if I’m home I’ll start with coffee, breakfast and a run. I take care of any emails and then spend some time on a creative pursuit - lately I’ve been working on some tracks cutting up live recordings of myself and adding drum machines and guitars.
I don’t necessarily practice every day but I do like to be thinking about music, listening and playing around with ideas. I used to play more in LA but I do that less now. I try to spend time with my friends - we’re all traveling a lot so I prioritize it when I’m at home.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
The song “Ben” from my album “Activities” started with the bassline, which has a weird pattern of two bars of four and then a bar of two. I wrote it years ago but never found a way to make it work so I brought it back for this record to see if I could get somewhere with it.
The first A section doesn’t really have a melody, so adding a contrasting B section with a strong melody helped shape it. I left room for bits of improvisation around that B melody, for guitar the first time and then saxophone the second time. The second A section has this freaky arpeggiated melody that gets loosely displaced each time and creates some tension, and we added to the build by fading in the drums.
The song is a feature for my friend Ben Lumsdaine but I wanted the whole song to build up to the last section which would be the real drum solo. I wanted the transition into that section to feel pretty jarring so we added a synth doubling the bass line, which is further enhanced by an overdrive pedal that I accidentally left on. The synth melodies in that last part were improvised and that whole section intentionally has a loose and wild feeling.
We had made the whole song before we brought Ben in and we didn’t let him listen to it first, wanting to capture some of that energy that comes with a first take. It wouldn’t have been the same if he’d heard it first and thought about what he was going to play.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
Each method has its advantages.
Collaboration of course brings in ideas that you wouldn’t have come up with yourself, which is always going to push the music in a different direction. That can be really exciting, but there is also something I enjoy about having total creative control over a piece.
Activities was very collaborative, and since then I’ve been playing around with working on music by myself. It’s interesting trying to push past the limitations of my own ideas.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
Music plays a different role in the life of each person, of each community. I try to make music that reflects how I see the world, with the hope that it adds something interesting or positive to other peoples lives when they listen to it.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Those experiences are universal and inevitable. For me it’s less about understanding them and more about accepting them.
Music has given me a way to sit in those big emotions and really feel them, whether it’s through playing, writing or listening. It’s another avenue to process grief that feels more instinctive and direct to me than having to deal with words.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
I’m sure there is a lot of fascinating literature on that topic, but it’s not something I’ve spent much time thinking about.
On a fundamental level both fields are about exploration, discovery and excitement.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more “mundane” tasks?
A difference to me would be that when I’m making a cup of coffee I know what I want the result to be. When I’m making music I want to be surprised.
I don’t think that’s an inherent difference though, more of a personal preference.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
No, I don’t. I’m sure there are many beautiful explanations for this, but I like to live in the mystery of it.