The epic struggle of gaining and maintaining sobriety can lead to an equally epic transformation. In singer-songwriter Matt Butler’s case, a debilitating drug and alcohol addiction inspired a career in music and landed him in the heart of a social justice movement—playing for inmates in the country’s most dangerous prisons.
After seeking recovery, Butler released 2016’s Reckless Son, a deeply personal collection of acoustic tracks. Spinning brutal and beautiful tales of pain and redemption, the album drew comparisons to the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, Sturgill Simpson, and Leonard Cohen—all iconic troubadours also skilled in telling stories of pain and redemption through song.
Having grown up on the Upper East Side and lived in the East Village for many years, Butler is a city boy through and through. When he stopped drinking, he says, he moved to the more relaxed West Side, where the trains aren’t “spiritual battlefields” and a nearby French bakery provides indulgence in the form of his favorite pastry.
What Should We Do?! spoke with the native New Yorker, and Butler gave us a glimpse into his new music, what it’s like to perform for inmates, and his obsession with almond croissants.
What Should We Do?!: You’re going to Los Angeles to record—will it be a new record?
Matt Butler: Yes! I’m recording a five-song EP with producer Kato Khandwala, someone I’ve been wanting to work with for a long time now. He’s worked with this band from France, The Dukes, that I really enjoy. They are much more of a rock-and-roll band, and my music is more roots and singer-songwriter-y, and so I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen. And he had very, very insightful notes on my music.
WSWD: Have you ever worked with a producer in order to purposefully add a dimension to your songs or to bring out a certain part of your sound?
Butler: No, not like this. I used to be the singer of a rock band [Reckless Sons], and we had some experience with a few higher-level producers, who at times applied their sonic signatures to what we were doing, but I haven’t until now worked with someone who wanted to reach into the bones of the songs as much as Kato did. It took a lot of willingness and open-mindedness on my part to let him do that.
WSWD: Sometimes in the creative process you have to “kill your darlings” and let go of your ideas, though it can be scary.
Butler: Definitely. It’s scary and it’s exiting, too. Some of the stuff he came back with, I thought, Wow, that’s great—I would’ve never seen it that way! For me, it’s the advantage of being humble enough to collaborate.
WSWD: Thematically and lyrically, your last album, Reckless Son, was very intimate and raw. Are you still in that moment, writing from such a personal place, or will these songs be a departure?
Butler: What I’m writing now is the next step. It’s related. I mean, I didn’t start writing a record all about…
WSWD: The Kardashians?
Butler: Yes, exactly! Reckless Son was primarily about alcohol and drug addiction, and as a result, it put me in a lot of interesting venues. Last year, I started to perform in prisons. I’ve played about 40 or 50 shows in jails and prisons around the country so far—six of them were on Rikers Island. So my new music is influenced by what I’ve absorbed from all those experiences. What I’m writing now is less my story and more other people’s stories.
WSWD: How did your first gig in a prison come up?
Butler: I was asked to write a song for a documentary, Generation Found, which is about recovery high schools meant for kids who are struggling with drug addiction. Being involved with the film, I was thrust into this world of advocacy and social justice, connecting with people. On Facebook, I saw something about a guy in a Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (SHARP) in Albany. And I sort of asked casually, “Hey, I wonder if I could go in and sing some songs for them.’’ And my friend responded, “I know the sheriff!” So I thought, OK, I guess I have to do that now! I met Sheriff Craig Apple, who is a real cool dude and an open-minded individual, and he was very excited about the idea. For the show, he got all these local networks to film and cover it, then the news clips got around on social media, and it snowballed from there. So people working in advocacy and penal reform started hiring me for different social justice events all over the country, and they’d ask me if I wanted to visit the jails while there. It culminated last summer, when I was asked to do a tour of large state prisons in Ohio that ran therapeutic communities. That was life changing.
WSWD: It must have been so intimidating, the first time going into a prison.
Butler: It was an adventure! They are exactly what you would think. They aren’t surprising, like, Oh hey, come on in, take your shoes off and relax! But the shows were incredible, and the response was unbelievable. I’m singing songs about my own experience as a recovering addict and alcoholic, and it’s stuff the inmates can relate to. A lot of times the show ends up in a big conversation with everyone, and they can get pretty wild!
There is this idea of needing to be vulnerable in order to heal. But a prison in and of itself is not a place to be vulnerable.
WSWD: Spending so much time in prisons—does it make you want to be extra good and stay out of them?
Butler: Yeah…yeah! Jail is a crazy place. And so many people there end up going back once released. The recidivism rate is really high. It can be grim to think about. So it’s an amazing thing to bring music inside. There is this idea of needing to be vulnerable in order to heal. But a prison in and of itself is not a place to be vulnerable. There’s a real irony in that. I feel it’s an opportunity and honor to take that on; to try to create, if only momentarily, a space for them to feel vulnerable so as to initiate some piece of their own healing process.
WSWD: Speaking of a healing process…living in the city can be stressful. As a lifelong resident, you definitely must understand that. So what would your ultimate, perfect day here look like?
Butler: Most important, I am moving slowly. I travel a lot, and when I’m here, I’m always running around, so the ultimate luxury is to move slowly and not have to be somewhere at a certain time or check my phone. The ultimate day has to be highly improvisational; a day that just follows a thread that unfolds. One of the great things about NYC is that you can allow the city to lead you.
With all that said, I would start the day at La Bergamote, a French bakery on Ninth Avenue that’s really close to where I live. It has a lot of great things, but I always want the almond croissants with a little powdered sugar on top. These pastries are a very deep and very restricted pleasure of mine. I’d get one of those and a coffee and walk over to Hudson River Park, which is one of my favorite places in the city. The river is a very special and spiritual place for me. I ran the New York Marathon twice, and each time I trained by running up and down the West Side. I just really love being there.
Then I would walk and make my way over to Café Mogador on St. Mark’s Place. The parents of my friend Danny from high school own it, so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I would order the eggplant tahini appetizer and a Turkish coffee and get really wired. I’d spend about three hours there, outside at a table on the sidewalk in the sun. After that, I’d want to hear some music—music that is totally different from the music I make or that I usually hear. And I’d go to a museum or a cultural center like the Rubin Museum. I love going there.
WSWD: All New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with the city—it’s the glue that binds us. What do you hate most?
Butler: How crowded it is, with too many people! Oh, no, wait, that sounds very curmudgeonly. How about this: I hate how overstimulating the city can be—it’s too active, too hectic, there are too many noises. OK, that is less antisocial sounding.
WSWD: All of this is true and you shouldn’t apologize. What do you love most about it?
Butler: Ironically, the same reasons I hate the city are the same reasons I love it: the level of activity, all the incredible stuff going on, the 24-7 availability, the hectic and intense energy. I love it and use it. If I didn’t live in New York, I couldn’t live in another city. I would have to go somewhere radically different, like a ranch in the middle of nowhere.
WSWD: What era of the city do you wish you had lived through?
Butler: The 1970s. As nasty and grimy as it was, I’d want to be a part of the punk rock music scene of the time. CBGB. Warhol’s Factory. Seeing the Ramones play. It was such a cool moment. Growing up, I was so obsessed with the punk era. Same with movies of that time: Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and Mean Streets. I was so pumped about that time when I was a kid.
WSWD: How about your favorite season in NYC?
Butler: Spring! Because it feels so liberated after the winter oppression. And it can feel remarkably calm, as it’s the light at the end of the tunnel. I get into the rhythm that things must go fallow for a while, that there’s a time to plant, a time to harvest. Spring feels really thrilling since everything is coming to life, and you feel the amazing possibility for new life. It makes me want to buy almond croissants and coffee and go to the Hudson River.
Rockwood Music Hall
196 Allen Street (between East Houston and Stanton Streets)
Wednesday, July 18
Doors open at 8:45 p.m.; show at 9 p.m.
Matt Butler’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Farinella on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side. But it’s a square—not a slice!
The original JG Melon, also on the Upper East Side.
Il Mulino in the West Village.
Café Mogador in the East Village.
Coffee Shop Union Square.
Place to take out-of-town guests?
A Yankees game in the Bronx.
Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side.
The Strand in the East Village.
Max Laniado—Visio Dell’Arte in Chelsea
Organic Modernism in Chelsea.
Restaurant with your mom?
Alice’s Tea Cup for tea.