Geffen didn’t so much refuse to release Butterfly’s second album after she submitted it in January 2006; they simply declined to offer her any guidance (except that of the vaguest kind) as she toiled away on new songs to try and meet whatever concept they had locked inside their corporate skulls. Eventually a UK affiliate of the label offered to release it, with the caveat that Butterfly should re-record the album with a Swedish producer and make it quirkier. Tired and desperate to make things work, Butterfly relented and did as they asked, only for label politics to throw another spanner in the works. At that point it was clear. The only way was out, and she spent the best part of two years working with her lawyers to extricate herself from the Geffen contract and retain the rights to both versions of her album.
Earlier this year, her tenacity won out and Butterfly teamed up with Nettwerk Records to release the original recording under her own label Situation Operation. That album, Scary Fragile, was released digitally at the beginning of June, on her thirtieth birthday. Wears The Trousers chatted with Butterfly from her home in Nashville about her label woes, her childhood in Australia, her upcoming projects and why she’ll be crumbling her own damn cookie in future.
First of all, welcome back! Last time I saw you was when you supported Rufus Wainwright at a gig in London. Your old label pulled you off that tour didn’t they? You must have been really disappointed.
Yeah, I was really disappointed. I kinda had some momentum finally happening in Europe. I had just toured there a few months earlier and it had gone smashingly well. I was really looking forward to following that up with another tour to build on that enthusiasm. At the same time I was pretty happy that the label were keen to get me in the studio to make a new record. It’s just a shame we couldn’t have done that after the European tour.
You seemed optimistic about your second album back then. How do you feel looking back on those days? Was the writing on the wall for what you’ve been through since?
Yeah I was really excited about the thought of working on a new album. It had already been about three years since I’d finished Flutterby. I dove headfirst into it. I stayed up all hours of the night/morning writing and working on new songs. It took us (the label, management and I) a while to find the right producer, one that we all felt good about and who was available and willing. We finally found David Kahne, who agreed to produce it. Unfortunately he is a busy man and he had two other albums to finish before he could work on mine (The Strokes and then Regina Spektor).
The thing that stings a little is that, in the end, I could have easily done that European tour and still had months and months to work on songs! I finally got into the studio with David in October 2005. We actually ended up using a ton of what I’d recorded at home ’cause it had a very “Butterfly” feel about it. We worked together for three months, finished the album in December and delivered it to the label in January 2006. David was wonderful to work with. He totally captured who I was at that moment and stayed true to the vision that I had for this album. With David’s help I made the album I had set out to make and was very proud of it.
What was the first hint of trouble with Geffen?
The first hint of trouble with Geffen was the silence that followed shortly after I delivered the album. Also, the label asking me to write more songs, but not telling me what they thought was missing in the ones I had, or what they were looking for in these new songs. My A&R guy tried to help push it through and make things happen, but I still suspect that the president of Geffen never really listened to the record before passing on it.
It was interesting to read that Geffen told you “people don’t like an angry woman” when that was pretty much exactly what Maverick did want from you a few years earlier – a new Alanis/Ani. It’s pretty obvious that major labels don’t even know what they want their female signings to be. What’s your take on that?
HA! Don’t get me started! Labels are always looking for little waves or big waves to catch and ride. I always thought it was the major labels who had the power that would make the waves, start something new, push some quirky artist they believed in until they broke the big time because they had the money and the contacts to do it. Unfortunately, from my experience I’ve learned that the more successful the label becomes, the more scared they are to take risks and lose money. So yeah, they tend to encourage you to be more like whoever is getting airplay that month!
I’m not sure if my label actually said it in that many words, but it was implied in a conversation that angry women weren’t cool at that moment! My A&R guy said to me, and this may be the only real solid comment I got from my label on the matter of my album: “Right now the album is a bit too ‘Bright Red’…and I think they want it to be more maroon.” What tha!?!
What made you decide to partner with Nettwerk for the release of Scary Fragile?
Well I have been managed by Nettwerk for several years now, but I have never been involved in the record label side. This is the first time we have worked together. Basically I have some big supporters within Nettwerk. Out of the kindness of their hearts, and knowing I have no money right now, they offered to help me release it digitally. Since the release on June 2, the label side of Nettwerk have come back to me and offered me a deal which would involve releasing it again in September, this time having hard copies in stores and some financial help with some touring and maybe a couple of music videos. Which is great.
What’s the story behind the name of your imprint, Situation Operation?
The name Situation Operation came from me and my boyfriend (Dawson) being hooked on the TV series ‘The West Wing’! We started calling the bathroom the “situation room”, and then when we needed a name for my studio we started calling it The Situation Room instead and renamed the bathroom to be The Oval Office. Unfortunately it would have been impossible to copyright the name Situation Room, therefore when it came to coming up with a record label name, we went with Situation Operation, which Dawson had already started using on some video projects he’d been working on out of the studio.
How’s the arrangement working out for you so far, now that the album’s out there? Would you advise other artists to take the same route?
Well, it’s different for everybody. It depends on what you want from your music and where you want to take it. I had always wanted to take it to the masses and sell millions of albums and be famous! I’ve dedicated more than ten years to that dream and that approach, that’s why I signed to a major label. But over the last few years my priorities have shifted. They’ve shifted because I’ve seen how damaging it has been to my writing and my love of music. I tried very very hard to hold true to my music, but in the end that “gonna make you famous” side of the music industry beat me down and I found myself empty of inspiration and wondering what I had to offer. I’m done with that way of doing it. From now on I have to have the freedom without the compromises. I will only work with people who understand that they will get the best work out of me if they give me the space to do it. It is more important that I hold onto my newfound love of music and make as much music as possible until I die.
Sure, I’d love to have a hit album or two in my life time, but that is certainly not my goal anymore. I just want to do the best I can do and if something blows up, great, but I’m not holding my breath anymore. I’m getting on with making music. So, for me, right now in my life this arrangement of me releasing the album myself (with the help of Nettwerk) is perfect. It means things are on a much smaller level in some ways, so I may not reach as many people as I might do on a big label, but it’s not about that right now. Who knows what’ll happen in the future. I’m still open to finding a great record label to call home. But right now I’m just focusing on staying creative.
The music industry has changed so much in the six years since Flutterby first came out, and demands much more from artists in terms of personally reaching out to their fans. Are you very conscious of this paradigm shift, and has it changed the way you operate as an artist?
Yes, I’m very aware of the shift. But I love the interaction online with my fans. Hearing nice comments about yourself every day when you check your email? YES PLEASE! It’s great! I love being able to reach out so easily and let people know what’s going on. Keeping that balance between being personable and keeping parts of your life private, that’s the tricky part. Sometimes some mystery is good!
How have your fans reacted to the new album after waiting so long for it?
So far I’ve heard great reports! People are saying it’s a great record to drive to. I’ve had some nice reviews on iTunes which is always nice. I’m sure there’s some people out there that are disappointed that it’s not quite like Flutterby. So far those people have been very polite and not told me about it!
I read that one of them bought you a piano. That’s some gift! Did you feel weird about accepting it?
How do people find out this stuff? Yes, a very sweet fan of mine wanted to buy me something in the hope it would inspire me and give back some of the joy my music had given to her over the years. It was an incredibly generous gift but I wasn’t weirded out by it all. I thought it was really sweet. She somehow found the exact piano I had been looking for on Craigslist! (For the gear geeks out there, it’s an Acrosonic Console piano.)
Facebook, Myspace or Twitter – what’s your favourite?
Right now, Twitter. It’s quick and fun and super easy, plus you can post pictures! And it’s linked to my Facebook so it takes care of that at the same time!
One complaint some critics had about David Kahne’s production on Regina Spektor’s Begin To Hope was that it ironed out some of her quirks, and Polydor felt your original recordings of Scary Fragile were “too American” for the UK and needed more quirk. Presumably you didn’t agree with them?
That’s weird that people would say that about David Kahne’s production. I know David to be the kind of person who thrives off quirky people, being one himself! I didn’t agree that the first version of Scary Fragile lacked quirkiness. I think the first version (the version I’ve now released) has plenty of quirkiness. Far more than the second version ended up having! The production is bigger and louder and brasher than Flutterby, but that was also true to who I had grown to be in those years since finishing Flutterby. I think the UK label were wanting another Flutterby, not realising I was actually very pleased and proud of the album I had just delivered.
It must have been so frustrating to be asked to re-record the whole album again. Will the UK version ever see the light of day, or are you just going to put it all behind you and forget about it like Fiona Apple seems to have done with Jon Brion’s original version of Extraordinary Machine?
Yes, I was so disappointed that the UK label didn’t want to go with the first version. I was exhausted and confused before we even started recording the second version. I was frustrated at the lack of direction I was getting considering I felt like I was making this album for them. There are a handful of songs, though, that came out of that time. Songs we recorded just for the second version. In fact, I’m in the process, as we speak, of working on my next album which is involving me (by my own choice) re-recording some of those songs off the UK version, but giving them some balls this time! No song gets left behind! I’m not prolific enough to be able to do that!
Do you think Scary Fragile is, in general, an angrier, harder-edged album than Flutterby?
I don’t feel like Scary Fragile is angrier. It’s definitely got a harder edge to it. I think through all the touring I did in support of Flutterby, my voice and guitar playing got a lot stronger and I was a lot more confident with my feelings and voicing them on this second album. I don’t remember feeling angry though.
Do you still relate to the emotions in all the songs, even three years after finishing the record?
It’s actually kind of embarrassing how well I can still relate to my own songs years later! I would like to think I’m making progress in my life and learning from my mistakes, but apparently I do a lot of going around in circles!
Parts of ‘I Found Out’ seem directly relevant to what you’ve been through with Geffen – have you always had prophetic tendencies?
I wish! That way I could avoid all the bad parts.
I read you outed Sarah McLachlan as a champion burper after touring with her. Any surprising facts you can tell us about your Ten Out Of Tenn tourmates Erin McCarley and Katie Herzig?
Well, let’s see… Okay, here’s an interesting fact about Erin McCarley, Katie Herzig and myself. When we took the Enneagram Test (the free one online [here]) we all turned out to be number threes. So now you know that! You’re welcome.
Can you tell us a bit about growing up in Australia? Who were the native artists who inspired you?
I loved Australia and growing up there. I loved running around, building treehouses, playing in the dirt, plus I have great sisters so we were always playing games and being silly. The big Australian artists I grew up listening to were INXS, Midnight Oil, Crowded House, Deborah Conway, and later on I really liked Big Heavy Stuff and Blue Bottle Kiss. Gosh, it’s been a while!
Do you get back to Australia often? What’s your fanbase like there?
Sadly I have not really gotten back to Australia since going solo. I went back for a brief tour in 2004. I loved it, it was the first time I’d played there as a solo artist. The years that I did tour Australia over and over it was with my sister Becca’s band, The Mercy Bell. I was the bass player for that band for many years. I would love love LOVE to get to Australia more often to tour, especially now that I don’t have the label saying what I can and can’t do! I think they thought Australia was a waste of time and money, which of course was very disappointing to me! In fact, the last tour I did there I paid for myself because they wouldn’t give me tour support (money) to make it happen.
Are there many other Aussies living in Nashville?
Yeah, I’m always bumping into other Aussies here in Nashville. We are travellers, us Aussies. We are everywhere, you can’t get away from us!!!
Have you written much new stuff lately?
I’m writing the new album already, demoing new songs and ideas. Really hoping to have it ready for a release next year. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Can you tell us a bit about your side project Elle Macho’s new EP?
Elle Macho is this super fun side project that started about a year ago with two wonderfully talented friends of mine: David Mead (guitar and vocals) and Lindsay Jamieson (drums and vocals). It’s a straight up three-piece rock, pop and roll band! I get to play bass guitar extra loud and share lead vocals with David. It’s been so refreshing and inspiring to be in such a band. The writing has come easily with all of us generally working on songs together. It’s just been so fun, and for a while there fun was something I had lost in my music making. Elle Macho just finished recording our first EP (working title Es Potential!). We are hoping to release that later this year. Playing live with Elle Macho is a blast.
I’m also looking into the world of film scoring. It’s early days, just putting the word out there. But it’s been a childhood dream of mine to score films.
You’re able to play a huge range of instruments. Are there any you’d like to learn but haven’t yet? What’s stopping you?
I wish I could play strings and brass stuff. I always hear parts for them in my music but I’m all squeaks and honks when it comes to playing them myself. I think I’ve always been a little intimidated by those instruments because I associate them with needing to be able to read sheet music, which is something I still haven’t sat down and mastered yet. I’m very aware though that this may be something I need to learn if I want to get into scoring films!! Also, I think those particular instruments are kinda expensive and weren’t really lying around the house when I was a kid, which is how I learned to play everything else.
You turned thirty on the day your album was released. Did it feel like a major watershed moment for you?
It’s weird, it really only struck me on the actual day what was happening…ya know, the big 3-0! I don’t really like having to say it out loud that I’m thirty, but deep down I am so happy to be thirty. I feel like I’ve finally grown into my own skin! I have a line in ‘They Say You Grow’, one of my songs on Scary Fragile, “My dreams are bigger than me / How will I get there? / Who will I have to be?”… Well, I now finally feel like I’m big enough and strong enough to make things happen. I’m ready to do this, no more stuffing around!!
It felt very weird to quote myself just then by the way.
Finally, if you had to choose one song from your whole repertoire as most representative of your personality, which would it be?
That’s hard because there are many sides to this Butterfly Boucher! I’d have to say ‘I Found Out’. It has the loud, rushing “I found out” section, and then the other part telling myself to slow down and just enjoy what I have…then it breaks down into a dreamy, mischievous bridge and then off to the races again!