Rayland Baxter press pic 2022

Rayland Baxter’s new album If I Were a Butterfly opens with his voice, though not how you’re likely used to hearing it. A young Baxter is singing a song called “If I Were a Butterfly” in that joyous, unself-conscious way only kids can, alongside his sister, with the recording gently fading into the album’s title track.

That glimmer of youth is fitting for where Baxter is in his life. The much-loved Nashville-raised musician is not the same person he was when he made his 2018 album Wide Awake. In the intervening years, he has toured extensively, endured a pandemic and spent a year living in an old rubber band factory. Most significantly, he lost his father Bucky Baxter, a celebrated pedal-steel player whom the younger Baxter calls his “twin flame.”

Once he wrapped up touring after Wide Awake, Baxter began poring over his notes and voice memos, which he used to capture melodies, images and song ideas while out on the road. He began piecing those bits into songs in the fall of 2019 while living in a basement apartment in Inglewood, during an especially prolific three months.

“That’s when I hunkered down in my basement … right there by Nikki Lane’s store [High-Class Hillbilly],” Baxter explains. “And I stayed down there for three months, pretty much through New Year’s. I remember watching the fireworks, walking up from the basement into the backyard. And I was there for three months. I counted at the end of it, and I wrote like 130 songs.”

In mid-January 2020, Baxter packed up his things — he outfits his living spaces with an easily movable assortment of artwork, instruments, lyric notes and other pieces of inspiration, calling it “Camp 49” after a beloved spot in Nova Scotia he visited with his father — and moved into a space at Thunder Sound Studio in Franklin, Ky. He recorded for two months and made his way back to Nashville, only to find out that the COVID-19 pandemic had thrown the music industry into free fall.

“The day I drove back to Nashville was March 13,” he says. “So I call my buddy Eric Masse, who I did my first two records with and has just been, like, a rock of a friend. He was like, ‘You don’t know what’s happening, do you?’ I’m like, ‘No, what the fuck is going on?’ He’s like, ‘Dude, that shit is real.’ It’s not like we didn’t have internet up there. I just chose not to [look]. I chose to watch Dances With Wolves on repeat.”

In May 2020, Baxter’s father died unexpectedly. Two years later, that event still has him feeling somewhat unmoored, but grieving cracked Baxter open personally and creatively. He explains the experience brought back the “golden light” he only occasionally felt within himself before. He also had what he calls a “very important spiritual moment” the night his father passed away, sharing that the elder Baxter visited him in a dream to tell him goodbye.

“When I woke up at, like, 8:30 in the morning, I found out he had passed after I had the dream,” he says. “I think my dad knew that I would not take it well if he didn’t get to say goodbye.”

After bouncing around the country — Los Angeles, then Austin, Texas, among other locales — Baxter landed back at Thunder Sound, where he lived by himself for a year with occasional visits from friends and collaborators. He finished the album during this period of solitude, a fitting balance to the highly collaborative studio sessions he’d had at the album’s outset.

Baxter’s most recent prior release is another project informed by grief, an excellent 2019 EP called good mmornin, on which he pays tribute to the late, great rapper Mac Miller, who died a year earlier. On the EP, Baxter and his band tackle seven songs by Miller, whose intricate arrangements and introspective lyrics lend themselves well to Baxter’s own sensibilities while also offering room for loving interpretation. Baxter imagines he and Miller could have been good friends, and asserts that the experience of recording his songs — and working through their arrangements with his band — made him a better musician.

“I learned a lot about where my mouth should be at a microphone,” he says. “And how much I can lean on my voice to get a point across. And I learned how to quickly direct a band to get to something that I was feeling good about and moving back and forth to. It was good training wheels.”

Armed with this new knowledge, Baxter entered recording sessions for If I Were a Butterfly with greater confidence in his ability to navigate the studio. He co-produced the LP — his first time producing a project — with Tim O’Sullivan (Grace Potter) and Kai Welch (Molly Tuttle), before eventually spending time alone with the songs. A who’s-who of musician friends joined the trio in the endeavor, including singer-songwriter Lennon Stella, Alabama Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell and iconic Motown percussionist Mz. Bobbye Hall. His late father contributed pedal steel to the record, too, making for an especially meaningful contribution in the wake of his passing.

The resulting album is Baxter at his most ambitious. The tough-to-classify psych-folk of his earlier releases is outfitted with heavier rock influences and unorthodox, pleasantly surprising flourishes of gritty psychedelia and cinematic strings. “Graffiti Street” pairs Baxter’s knack for crafting hooks with pedal steel and a Rubber Soul-esque riff, while “Billy Goat” is a spacey, stomping take on a breakup song. Single “Rubberband Man,” a nod to Thunder Sound’s history as a rubber band factory, is melodic rock at its finest. It’s his fullest artistic statement yet, one that manages to show the full breadth of Baxter’s interests and influences across a taut 10 songs.

“My goal as an artist is to create something that cuts through all sides of the spectrum, and right through the middle of the road. And I think it’s very difficult to do. At least, what I consider a record should be perfection to some to some extent, you know? And I don’t know if it’s a perfect record. I don’t know if a bunch of people are gonna like it. It’s not even down the middle of the road. It’s just like a very unique portrait. And it sounds the way I am.”

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