BY SEAN EGAN | At 30, Matt Butler can finally look back with clarity at his time on a destructive path taken by many a musician given to the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle. Four years after spending his salad days as a Lower East Side rocker in the throes of addiction, Butler has emerged stronger, with a set of songs that grapples with his past and tracks his redemption.
“I’ve been writing songs and performing in bands my whole life for the most part, since I was a teenager — and I simultaneously struggled with drugs and alcohol from about the same age, and these were two very concurrent themes in my life,” Butler explained on the phone from his home in Chelsea. “The album was sort of like the after effect of, the result of, a lot of work that I had done processing my experiences of what I had been doing for the past few years of my life when I wrote it, and what my life was like at that moment — living and breathing and surrounded by these really, really intense stories. And most of that album is, for the most part, autobiographical.”
The album in question is Butler’s solo debut, “Reckless Son.” Direct in its message and brimming with pathos, the LP toes the line between rock and roll and folk-tinged, acoustic-based singer/songwriter material. In its plainspoken, poetic vignettes, it most vividly calls to mind Bruce Springsteen (“a big hero of mine,” Butler noted), as Butler tracks the precipitous lows of addiction, as well as his climb back to sobriety.
Released in late 2016, the record and accompanying performances have garnered enough goodwill to land Butler a March residency at the East Village’s Rockwood Music Hall. It’s a long way to come for Butler, who, prior to releasing the record, was working as a copywriter after a string of post-rehab odd jobs, and struggling to decide whether to even pick music back up again. “I was at a crossroads of my life,” he said. “I think if I was going to write or do anything creative, it’s just a thing that I had to do in order to move past it.”
Move past it he did, writing catchy and candid tales with himself at the center, full of friends and flames experiencing the manic highs and consequences of substance abuse, a coke dealer with a “Jameson grin,” and plenty of religious and familial imagery. “It was so interesting, the experience of trying to mine [that] for sort of an authentic truth,” the singer commented. “I mean, I was like drunk for 10 years straight, man. So much of it is just impressionistic.” Still, these aren’t, nor did Butler ever intend the album to be, a series of “drunkalogues.”
“It just took a lot of work, a lot of recovery work to get the perspectives that I needed in order to [get through] some of the inauthenticity and some of the self-pity that I had felt, and a lot of the anger,” Butler said of his creative process, and drudging up his darker days for his art. “I needed to get through those things in order to write the album that I felt sort of embodied the true spirit of what I wanted to say, which had much more to do with gratitude and humility.”
That sense of gratitude stems from the support system Butler discovered after reaching out for help with his addiction. By the time he checked into a Caron Treatment Center in April 2013 (caron.org), his father was fully convinced he’d get a call announcing his son’s death, Butler revealed. Over time, through those he encountered during recovery, and healing his relationship with his family (who “never left,” Butler gratefully recalled), he was able to conquer his demons.
“Every time I took a little baby step forward, there was somebody right behind me ready to catch me if I fell,” Butler said. At this point, sobriety has done much to help shore his music career. His extended Caron family still supports him, and he noted that the publishing deal that led to “Reckless Son” sprung from a serendipitous gig played at the Freedom Institute — his outpatient rehab facility at the time. But, that’s kind of how things have worked for Butler; wherever he goes, people react to his music’s openness.
“It’s really, really validating as an artist, as well, to be able to play music that people respond to so tangibly. There’s a lot of laughing and crying at a lot of these shows,” Butler noted. “You release your song and then it’s up to everyone else to have their experience with it. You want to honor that every time you perform it” — something he hopes to do at his upcoming Rockwood gigs.
“This is just this other extension of this second life that I’m having,” Butler summarized. “It really feels that way — like AD and BC. It’s just a whole new life as a musician, and this is just kind of the next phase of it.”
Matt Butler plays at Rockwood Music Hall (196 Allen St., btw. E. Houston & Stanton Sts.) on Wed., March 1, 8, 15 & 22 at 8pm. No cover, 21+. For artist info, visit mattbutlerofficial.com. Follow at facebook.com/MattButlerMusic or on Twitter @mattbutlerband.