Rayland Baxter

All Ages
Tuesday, May 14
Doors: 7pm Show: 8pm
Live At Rio Theatre



Tickets $29.50-35

For the making of his fourth album If I Were a Butterfly, Rayland Baxter holed up for over a year at a former rubber-band factory turned studio in the Kentucky countryside—a seemingly humble environment that proved to be something of a wonderland. “I spent that year living in a barn with the squirrels and the birds, on my own most of the time, and I discovered so much about music and how to create it,” says the Tennessee-bred singer/songwriter. “Instead of going into a studio with a producer for two weeks, I just waited for the record to build itself. I’d get up and go outside, see a butterfly and connect that with some impulsive thought I’d had three months ago, and suddenly a song I’d been working on would make sense. That’s how the whole album came to be.”

The follow-up to 2018’s critically acclaimed Wide Awake, If I Were a Butterfly finds Baxter co-producing alongside Tim O’Sullivan (Grace Potter, The Head and the Heart) and Kai Welch (Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull), slowly piecing together the album’s patchwork of lush psychedelia and Beatlesesque pop. In addition to working at Thunder Sound (the Kentucky studio he called home for months on end), Baxter recorded in California, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington, enlisting a remarkable lineup of musicians: Shakey Graves, Lennon Stella, several members of Cage the Elephant, Zac Cockrell of Alabama Shakes, Morning Teleportation’s Travis Goodwin, and legendary Motown drummer Miss Bobbye Hall, among many others. In an especially meaningful turn, two of the album’s tracks feature the elegant pedal steel work of his father, Bucky Baxter (a musician who performed with Bob Dylan and who passed away in May 2020). Thanks to the extraordinary care and ingenuity behind its creation, If I Were a Butterfly arrives as a work of rarefied magic, capable of stirring up immense feeling while leaving the listener happily wonderstruck.

Baxter’s debut release as a producer, If I Were a Butterfly bears a dazzling unpredictability that has much to do with his limitless imagination as a collector and collagist of sound. “Sometimes the bullfrogs in the pond outside would pulse in a certain tempo and I’d apply that to a song, or I’d hear a bird chirping and it would inspire me to add harmonica in a particular place,” he says. “I could be walking around this massive building in the middle of the night and the air-conditioning would turn on, and it’d give me the idea to include a synth part that holds a similar note. I’d wait for those moments to happen and whenever I tried to force anything, the music usually rejected it.”


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Thoreau had Walden Pond. Kerouac had Big Sur. Rayland Baxter? He had an old rubber band factory in Franklin, Kentucky, and it suited him just fine. As one of the hardest-touring artists on the road today, Baxter’s spent most of his professional life in transit, but ever since he was a kid, he dreamed of creative seclusion someplace lonely and isolated, somewhere he could sit still and devote his every waking hour to writing without interruption or distraction. When the opportunity finally presented itself in late 2016, the Nashville native pounced. “I packed everything in my van and moved to Franklin for three months,” says Baxter. “It was the fist time I ever got to be alone and focus solely on songs like that. All I did was write, write, write all day every day. I was obsessed.” By the time Baxter emerged, he’d penned more than 50 tunes and crafted a detailed blueprint for his spectacular new album, ‘Wide Awake.’ Deftly produced by Butch Walker, the record infuses Baxter’s easygoing, soulful sound with British Invasion melodies and rock and roll swagger, marrying lean, muscular songwriting with adventurous, inventive arrangements. It’s a cutting, insightful collection, one that takes a sardonic view the violence, greed, and division that seem to define the modern American landscape. Rather than point a finger, though, the music holds up a mirror, offering a sober reflection of the times thoughtfully bundled in bright, infectious hooks. There’s no judgment here, only keen observation, and Baxter implicates himself as much as his neighbor through it all. “This is an album about decision making,” he explains. “It’s about being a human at the crossroads. Do I do good or do I do evil? Do I lie or do I tell the truth? Am I going to be happy or am I going to be sad? All of these questions and emotions are things I see in myself, and they’re the same things I see in everyone else no matter where I go.” Baxter’s built a career on capturing those sorts of timeless, deeply human sentiments, bringing colorful characters to vivid life with equal parts humor and pathos. His debut album, ‘feathers & fishhooks,’ was a critical hit praised by Interview for its “well-worn maturity,” while NPR described “Yellow Eyes,” the lead single from his 2015 follow-up, ‘Imaginary Man,’ as “close-to-perfect.” Stereogum dubbed the record “an impeccable sophomore break-out,” and Rolling Stone hailed its pairing of “whimsical narrative with often deceptively complex arrangements.” The music earned Baxter festival appearances from Bonnaroo to Newport Folk in addition to tours with an astonishing array of artists, including Jason Isbell, The Lumineers, Kacey Musgraves, The Head and The Heart, Shakey Graves, Lauryn Hill, and Grace Potter. “The six months leading up to the release of ‘Imaginary Man,’ that was the first time I really started playing electric guitar and performing with a band,” says Baxter. “We did my first headline run and toured that album for a year-and-a-half, and the experience really opened up this whole new sound for me. It helped me figure out more of who I was as an artist and a songwriter and a traveler and a human being.” It was with that newfound sense of self that Baxter entered Thunder Sound, the abandoned rubber band factory-turned-studio in the cornfields of Kentucky that would become his home for three months of intensive soul searching and songwriting. “I blanketed the windows so no one could see inside,” he explains. “I laid a mattress down next to an old Wurlitzer so I had somewhere to sleep. I had a guitar, a desk with a lamp and some paper and pencils, and that was it. For fifteen hours a day, I wrote.” When it came time to record his mountain of new songs, Baxter relocated to Santa Monica, California, where he wrangled an all-star studio band that included Dr. Dog’s Erick Slick on drums, Butch Walker on bass, Cage The Elephant’s Nick Bockrath on guitar, and piano wizard Aaron Embry (Elliott Smith, Brian Eno) on keys. A producer and artist equally at home working with massive pop stars and indie stalwarts, Walker immediately embraced Baxter’s vision for the album, and the result is a sunny and altogether charming collection. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you’ll find it’s populated by a cast of characters who project a vision of the good life as they struggle to keep it all together behind closed doors. On the punchy ‘Casanova,’ the singer reckons with debts he knows he’ll never be able to repay, while the volatile “Amelia Baker” charts the narrator’s descent into near-madness as he pines for a starlet perpetually out of reach. “We have this society where we’re obsessed with celebrity and living on the top of the mountain,” says Baxter. “But what’s at the top? Maybe it’s a lonely place to wake up.” Late 2016 was a particular tumultuous time in the country, and though Baxter did his best to isolate himself from the outside world while he wrote, it was inevitable that some of the chaos would seep in. On album opener “Strange American Dream,” a chiming piano and spare Motown groove give way to lush harmonies and unexpected melodic twists as Baxter sings, “I close my eyes and realize that I’m alive inside this strange American dream.” Meanwhile, the soaring “79 Shiny Revolvers” finds him reflecting, “you really wanna save the world, man / well, I wanna save it, too / we can blow ’em away / the American way.” While ‘Wide Awake’ offers plenty of broad, wide-angle musings, some of its most arresting moments arrive bundled inside deeply personal memories and snapshots. The heartfelt “Everything To Me” is a tender tribute to family (Baxter’s father Bucky, who played pedal steel with Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams among others, contributes to the record), and the laidback “Let It All Go Man” is a reminder that there’s beauty in simply being alive. “I actually started that song two years ago on a trip to South America,” says Baxter. “I was sitting on the porch of a house in this little town in Colombia, and I was all alone playing a gut string classical guitar, just staring out at the ocean and the beach in the middle of the night. It made me realize how much unnecessary stuff we hold on to, all the grinding away we do chasing success and money and missing the big picture. It made me realize what an incredibly beautiful gift it is to be human.” That empty South American beach may have been a world away from the rubber band factory in Kentucky, but for Baxter, the effect was the same. The solitude offered a chance to observe, to reflect, to grow, to appreciate, and most importantly, to write.
John-Robert’s quietly thrilling, intimately earnest songs reflect the young artist’s most salient qualities: He’s reverent, humble and—at the same time—ambitious. His heart-on-sleeve lyrics reflect his journey from small-town boy to big-city singer, songwriter, and producer. And his music, effortlessly flowing from sparse bedroom folk to sweeping modern pop, captures all the vivid emotions that popped up on that road from his tiny Shenandoah Valley, Virginia hometown to his current homebase of Los Angeles. Honesty and vulnerability have kept John-Robert grounded even as his star has risen out west, where he was signed at the age of 19 by the taste-making Ricky Reed, the Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter known for aiding Lizzo’s rise. “I admire people who are way above my level,” says John-Robert in a characteristic mix of deference and drive. “I’m just trying to hop onto that tier and be one of their contemporaries.” He’s on his way. From the outside looking in, there’s a sense that John-Robert arrived—in pop, in L.A.—fully formed. Since making his Warner Records/Nice Life debut in May of 2020 with the Bailey Barely Knew Me EP, he’s garnered millions of streams, a handful of remixes, and Instagram love from Camila Cabello for the stripped-down gem “Adeline” alone. He also recorded a breathtaking rendition of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” for the Recording Academy’s “ReImagined” video series and duetted with alt-pop inspiration Alessia Cara on Ricky Reed’s hypnotically groovy “Fav Boy.” His beyond-his-years depth and thoughtful approach to pop has inspired Reed to call him "a transcendent, once-in-a-generation singer and songwriter.” John-Robert’s recent “Healthy Baby Boy” is the start of a new chapter that makes good on that cosign. The poignant single reflects on the cycles of life, love, and loss with meticulous close-up detail. A young friend dies while another gives birth, all against the backdrop of our hero waving goodbye to his folks in Edinburg, Virginia, and fighting homesickness and anxiety as he pursues a dream 2,500 miles away. A natural storyteller, John-Robert sonically paints this coming-of-age tale in soft sepia tone before letting it burst into color. The song “sounds like a mystical carnival,” he says. It’s also the sound of his life and music evolving in tandem. “Healthy Baby Boy” references BB guns and gasoline—when John-Robert wasn’t getting into small-town trouble as a kid, he was making music. He started singing early and got a guitar for his 12th birthday. A troubadour out of time, he’d do both open mics and YouTube covers. By 15, he was learning production on GarageBand, and finding his voice—literally. “I was trying to mimic my favorite vocalists,” he says. Considering that list includes Sufjan Stevens, Doja Cat, Jeff Buckley, and Childish Gambino, “It took a while to find what I sounded like.” After graduating a year early, John-Robert was granted a scholarship to Berklee School of Music. Instead, he made an early trip to L.A. to work with a different producer. Within a few months, he was back in his parents’ basement, nursing his wounds after a deal failed to materialize. “It got really dark and I felt frustrated and betrayed, like life didn’t owe me anything,” he says. But he found a sense of purpose by returning to what he knew: writing his own story, recording his own music. He vowed to send himself a demo of a new song at the end of each day. “That really kept me going, because I knew that if I didn’t exist, this piece of work wouldn't exist.” Those pieces became Bailey Barely Knew Me, a chronological document about growing up that also shows John-Robert growing into his sound. It opens with a fingerpicking ballad that spotlights his honeyed croon and Appalachian roots (“Adeline”), and gets bigger and bolder with each track, spanning from silky bedroom-pop to dreamy psychedelia. As he prepares his next release, John-Robert hints at expansion. “The hunt for something musically challenging and expressive in a new way keeps me going,” he says, teasing experimental guitar tunings, “crazy production,” and some intriguing influences (surf-rock, post-punk). But wherever he travels, John-Robert carries his most powerful and grounding asset with him: his songwriting.
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