Elizabeth Butters
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Elizabeth Butters

New York City, New York, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2004

New York City, New York, United States
Established on Jan, 2004
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"Elizabeth Butters"

This 10-inch release marks the vinyl debut for one of the 25 "most stylish Bostonians of 2008," but never mind her devotion to old-timey outfits, it's the music that will make her a star. The incomparable Butters remakes some of our nation's oldest songs—her a capella version of "Cherry Tree Carol" revives the Christmas carol from the dustbowl dustbin.

Of all the songs here, "Henry Lee," previously covered by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, might be the most recognizable. She sets it in a reverbed distance, her delicate drawl poised over a whispy saw and fluttering mandolin. On "99 Year Blues," she sings "Give me my pistol / three rounds of ball / I'm gonna kill everybody / I don't like at all." I don't know enough folk music, but I have never heard anything like Ms. Butters, and I hope it stays that way. - The Weekly Dig


"25 Most Stylish Bostonians: Elizabeth Butters"

Age: 23

Job: Musician (singer, Appalachian dulcimer, guitar)

Residence: Somerville

Your music and the way you dress evoke the 1930s. What from that time most appeals to you?

I liked the way things looked. I have a real romanticism about open roads. My favorite movie is "Bonnie & Clyde." In my shows, everything is from the '30s and '40s, but I also have bathing suits from the '40s, records from the '50s and early '60s - 33 r.p.m., because I don't really like 78 r.p.m.

What sorts of clothing appeals to you?

Certain types of collars. Peter Pan collars, bib collars, dotted Swiss fabric, organdy.

Where do you shop?

Café Society in Brookline. I've been going there since I was 14. I really like the women in that store. I also go to antique stores in New Hampshire and Vermont with my dad. I like all kinds of old stuff; I'm lucky my parents do, too.

Do you think something has been lost in terms of style or the way we live today?

I think everything is disposable. I don't think our grandkids are going to log into our e-mail accounts to find what was there . . . Before, things were good. In the '60s, there was great recording equipment. You can erase everything now.

What are some items you'd never part with?

I always use a quilt with a wedding-ring pattern that my great-grandmother made in the '30s. I also have a picture of my great-grandfather sitting on a paper moon from the 19-teens. . . . I have an Art Deco holy water bottle from the '30s. I'm not religious, so I don't know why I like it so much. - The Boston Globe


"Ear Candy"

Swaying waltzy tempos, the provincial mysticism of a singing-saw’s howl and the tin pan clattering of a banjo that can coax a curlin’ smile. This East Coast-based songstress (age 19) seems transported straight from the gravelly roads of 1930s American Folk, with dust-blown suitcoats and pedal picking. Her timorous voice, combined with vernacular-nodding contractions, is heavy on the back-to-the-Old- World thing but should fit well with lazy summer afternoons. — Jeff Milo

Worth a listen: "Hard Time Coming" - Real Detroit Weekly


"Elizabeth Butters"

Elizabeth Butters doesn't feel like she fits in this time period. Her answer to this quandary is an aesthetic and aural leap backward—not to the '90s, or the '80s, but much, much farther. Butters says that she identifies most strongly with the 1930s, when Ford Model T's still rumbled and paved roads were at a premium.

Butters, only 22, has been collecting records from that era since she was 13, specializing in what she describes as "obscure, creepy, sad and strange" material. For the last two years, she has been performing that same material, in faithful rendition, while dressed in period clothes that she calls "dignified and authentic attire."

During a recent performance at Somerville's PA's Lounge, she played in a diaphanous blue, high-collared ankle-length dress. Her hair was held atop her head by a matching ribbon. David Goligorsky, her musical accompaniment, wore a buttoned coat, dress pants and shoes. Their nine-song set was composed almost entirely of pre-war murder ballads. Goligorsky played musical saw while Butters sang and played dulcimer and acoustic guitar. If you ignored the crowd and PA's brews on tap you could have convinced yourself Prohibition was still in effect.

Butters was nothing but demure. She and Goligorsky sat while they played, and between songs Butters fidgeted with her microphone and made disparaging comments about her performance. But despite their understated presence, they held the audience in rapture. There is something mesmerizingly incongruous about Butters' slim, prim countenance imploring her audience, "How came my blood to be on your shirt sleeve?"

She does not write new material, rework traditional songs or modernize their language; even her high falsetto voice sounds like it might have been borrowed from someone decades dead. She owns hundreds of vintage dresses and collects cigarette cases, holy water bottles, compacts and other antique memorabilia. Butters' fixation with the era is more macabre than romantic. When asked, she is quick to say that she doesn't think things were better in the '30s—race relations especially—but believes that, "if I lived in the '30's it wouldn't be my fault when I wasn't happy."

Butters' career goals are as modest as she is. She would like to go on a tour of nursing homes and prisons, and release a full length vinyl record. The prison tour might not happen, she admits, but the record will. In mid-February she is traveling to Kentucky to record the songs in her repertoire. She doesn't have a record deal for what she produces yet, but she is less concerned with that than excited by the prospect of recording on antiquated, analog equipment.

When she's finished with the recording she will return to Somerville, resuming her job as an archivist at Club Passim, her radio show on Wellesley's WZLY and a schedule of performances that will take her through the end of March. Able to perform regularly without soliciting for shows, Butters and Goligorsky could easily be stars of the new folk revival. The only problem with that prospect, for the traditionalist Butters, is that, "if there were a Folk scene now, everyone would be congregating around their computers." - The Weekly Dig


Discography

"Elizabeth Butters Sings Folk Blues for Appalachian Dulcimer and Guitar"

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Bio

One part Bonnie Parker, one part Maybelle Carter, two parts Addie Pray (or, as a friend more concisely described her, "the adorable singer girl with the shotgun"): that's Elizabeth Butters.

Elizabeth performs mostly traditional and folk songs, but has an untaught (and probably unlearnable) ability to take old sounds, make them sound new, then make them sound old all over again, by threading them through her own identity, which is deeply rooted in the past.

Some people react to folk music—or even to the mere term itself—as if if they'd like to re-enact Belushi's response in Animal House. But this ain't your "I Gave My Love A Cherry"-type stuff. Vocal histrionics are often passed off as soulfulness, but at the heart of Elizabeth's plain-tone singing you'll recognize genuine passion.

Though her repertoire shows a strong mindfulness of mortality, she never comes across as morbid. And how wouldn'tsongs of melancholy, mayhem, and murder—whether plaintive blues or Appalachian murder ballads and death songs—be augmented by the agreeable incongruity of a guileless, honey-caramel voice?

The sorrow you'll hear in that voice is real, not forced or fake, and Elizabeth's love of the past is in no sense a pose. Affectation just doesn't seem to be in her nature. (Her MySpace name, winslowhealthandhygieneseries, should give you some indication of her preoccupations.) The antiquarian and documentarian impulses she pursues began as a bulwark against her fear of a (hypothetical) onset of dementia, as if Elizabeth wanted to leave herself clues she could use to mentally piece herself back together. She strives to be faithful not only to a period's music, but also to its look. She brings to her work an archivist's love of authentic clothing. Even her Halloween costumes are vintage. Her whole demeanor and presentation approach performance art (but in a good and genuine way).

Despite Elizabeth's obviously heartfelt wistfulness, listening to her sing is the opposite of depressing. If you're like me, she'll often make you smile and laugh. Some old philosopher once said something or other about the reconciliation of opposites, and listeners to Elizabeth Butters are likely to find themselves fascinated by the tension between her cheerful, unaffected voice and the seemingly morose and gruesome subject matter of some of the songs. Her enunciation and her New Hampshire accent give her an apparent innocence, even on, for example, the blue notes of "Crow Jane." Elizabeth has said she'd love to be a circus trick rider, and her voice somehow pulls off the trick of simultaneously riding Innocence and Worldweariness, who might want to travel in opposite directions but instead are guided wherever she wants them to go. It's no surprise that this is the voice of someone who collected old records as a child, and who would grow up to share stages with Jim Kweskin, Spider John Koerner, Peter Stampfel, John Cohen, Jeffrey Lewis and others.

Elizabeth brings something fresh to each arrangement, and she is not timid in her interpretations. Her slowed-down treatment of "Swing and Turn," coupled with her straightforward reading of it, give the song's playfully odd lyrics an almost eerie cast, and in her rendition of the a capella "Skin and Bones," the part that's traditionally meant to be scary is funny, and instead it is her humming that comes across as chilling. If she were singing at a medicine show, I'll wager many of us would buy whatever patent remedies her voice advised us to. There's a seldom-acknowledged artistry to the choosing of songs to perform, and I'm tempted to say that if these songs could sing themselves, this is how they would sound.

Elizabeth Butters is a special voice, like no other performer I know, folk or otherwise. Anyone who has the idea that I'm giving out too freely in my praise is invited to take that impression as a challenge to give Elizabeth Butters a listen.

(Doc, DeuceOfClubs.com)

Elizabeth's debut album, recorded in Covington, Kentucky with the Soledad Brothers' Johnny Walker, was released on Detroit-based Top Magic Records in early 2010.