Everyone knows how tough it is to be a teenager. Popular wisdom reinforces the idea that, from age 13 to 16, young people turn into sullen, recalcitrant, smart-ass hellspawn, making themselves and everyone around them miserable.
But as anyone who's lived through his mid-20s can attest, puberty is a cakewalk when compared to the emotional crises that emerge with the blossoming of true adulthood. If you're lucky, you've got parents around to help you through the teen years (or bear the brunt of your hostility). At 23, you're on your own.
"The early 20s is really kind of a weird time," says Orlando-based singer-songwriter Matt Butcher. "Everything is dramatic. It's rough, you know? You've been indoctrinated with certain belief systems from your parents and you've gotta decide which ones mean something to you. A lot changes, and not all for the better."
Now a wizened 25 years old, Butcher has been part of a successful band — the now-defunct Heathens — and is embarking upon a solo career. For him, a lot of the changes he went through during his early 20s were not for the better. Though he can look back on them now as a learning experience — and as inspirational fodder for his new solo album, Me and My Friends — he wasn't nearly as philosophical at the time.
"It was very tumultuous," says Butcher of the recent past. "I got sober Nov. 29, three years ago. I was drinking, taking drugs. I was mostly into taking pills, drinking, smoking weed. It wasn't a hugely decadent thing, but it was every day and it was really dulling me. And I've just got an addictive personality.
"But after cutting that out, for the first couple of years, I `still` wasn't really dealing with the issues of why I was doing it in the first place. So some of the stuff on the record deals with that, too. Where I used to be the guy who was out every night at the bar, now I'm home, still not knowing how to interact with people very much."
The music on Me and My Friends will take listeners by surprise. As opposed to the rollicking tunes Butcher performed with the Heathens and his engaging and upbeat live performances as a solo artist, the album takes a startlingly dark turn. From the first notes of the opening title track, Butcher sets a somber and introspective mood. With atmospheric instrumentation as spacious as it is unobtrusive, the songs are propelled by Butcher's lyrical delivery — which, though still possessed of a powerful melodic sense and a little bit of alt-country twang, is less concerned with getting you to sing along than it is with getting you to pay attention.
"It's definitely a dark record," says Butcher, "and I think a lot of that came from … for the past couple of years, my life was pretty dark and self-destructive. A lot of those songs were written during that period, and I really wanted my first album as Matt Butcher to be very honest."
Although it's an unabashedly inward-looking album, it's not so darkly indulgent that no glimmers of light can be found.
"There is some hope," says Butcher. "I'm feeling much more upbeat now about my life and my friends and the direction I'm going."
One of those friends is pedal steel guitarist Tom Cooper. The musician played a role in reinvigorating Butcher's creative spirits after the Heathens' acrimonious split.
"Tom is a big part of this record and a big part of my life personally," says Butcher. "When the Heathens broke up, I wasn't really sure if I wanted to keep playing music because I thought that `the Heathens` was something that would go on for longer than it did. But he was very encouraging of my songwriting, and he was very essential to me over the past couple of years. In fact, I lived with him and his wife until just very recently. They supported me so I could put all my money into paying for the record."
And while the album reflects on a darker period in Butcher's life, it's the future that he's focusing his energy on now. With live shows that bask in an energetic, homespun intensity, Butcher's next creative phase looks sunnier.
"I take what I do seriously, but I don't take myself seriously," says Butcher. "Even though these songs are personal, I don't want to come off as super-self-involved. Especially with the cats I'm playing with now. They're such good players and there's such a great vibe that I feel like when we're at our best, it's spiritual.
"It's weird," Butcher concludes, "Yeah, it's a bummer record, a late-at-night record. But I'm happier than I've ever been."