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Summer Music Series: Father-Daughter Band Bitter Pill

Billy and Emily Butler of Bitter Pill play a show.
Jessica Gero
Billy and Emily Butler of Bitter Pill play a show.

Billy and Emily Butler are part of Bitter Pill, a New Hampshire band that Billy describes as a play on R&B — "rhythm and bluegrass." Their new album, Desperate Times on the New Hampshire State Line, combines classic folk elements with spoken word and poignant lyrics for a unique sound. The duo sat down with All Things Considered host Peter Biello for NHPR's Summer Music Series.

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Peter Biello: Thank you both very much for speaking with me.

Billy Butler: Absolutely our pleasure.

Emily Butler: Yeah, thank you.

Peter Biello: So, let's start by talking about this album, Desperate Times on the New Hampshire State Line. Both of you sing on this album. So I wanted to start with you, Emily. What song in this album do you most enjoy singing?

Emily Butler: I think my favorite to sing is "Alone." I throw a little bit of theatrics and drama into it, and it's really fun.

Peter Biello: Ok, well, let's hear a little bit of "Alone."

"Alone": "Spider webs and squeaking floor dust bunnies and creaking doors. Listen closely, you can it moan. I love this house, I love this home."

Peter Biello: Emily, what theatrics do you include when you sing this live?

Emily Butler: For this one, I really like to take the mic off the stand and throw my arms around. And when I get to "utterly alone," I really [sing] "I'm utterly alone." Really hold it out.

"Alone": "I am utterly alone."

Peter Biello: Billy, you've described Bitter Pill's music as a play on R & B, "rhythm and bluegrass." How do you think those styles come together through your songs?

Billy Butler: We try to write what inspires us. You know, we never really sit down to say, like, "This is what we're writing." It just kind of comes. And all of those influences, I think, come through pretty much in every song.

Peter Biello: Well, I asked this question of Emily, so I'll ask it of you, Billy. What song do you love singing?

Billy Butler: "Tom Waits" is probably my favorite, it's a spoken-word piece.

Peter Biello: Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned this one. I want to play a little bit of it. We're going to have to bleep some of it for our audience. But it's worth listening to because it stands out. So here's a little bit of "Tom Waits."

"Tom Waits": "Am I a man? I'm not just the outline of a man smoking too many cigarettes while pining the lost virtues of Generation X and blaming this new generation for their lack of vision, work ethic and taste. Back in my day, we had rocks and we liked it, goddamnit, get off my lawn with that commercial st. Pop rock is a candy you suck on when you need a fake and sudden rush."

Peter Biello: A lot going on there, Billy.

Billy Butler: Yeah, there's a lot going on in that song.

Peter Biello: So, where does an inspiration for a song like that come from?

Billy Butler: It comes from Tom Waits. I find myself identifying with him on many levels. And I'm such a huge fan. I mean, it's an homage to him and his style and the style of beat poetry. The song comes from a show I wrote called The BrechtTones, and it's about a beat poet, and it just fits so well into Bitter Pill's esthetic. You're like, "We're doing this song."

"Tom Waits": "...grinding out my own plays and saying my own lines, marginalized, criticized, vocalized, soberized, romanticized, aggrandized, immortalized. Skid Row Romeo on the forefront of obscurity. I'm the coolest mg balladeer anywhere. You don't care what you want. I make my own for myself and all of my friends. I'm a problem child..."

Peter Biello: So, tell me a little bit about what it's like to be a family band, a father-daughter duo on stage. How does that work for you?

Emily Butler: We are all about just like goofing off and being silly. So we get on stage and that, like, gets amped up, and once we start playing, it's like we're all just looking at each other like, 'are you ready?' Or, 'are we moving on to the next thing?,''are you doing a solo?" It's a crazy feeling to be doing it with your dad, but also just it feels like any other band.

Billy Butler: We didn't realize we were a family band until somebody said, 'hey, you guys are a family band.' We're like, 'oh yeah, we should market on that.' But I can say, you know, I've done a lot of artistic things in my life, but working with my daughter is something that can't be topped. I can't believe I get to do this. And it gives me an excuse to hang out with my kid.

Peter Biello: That must feel great for you, Emily, to hear your dad say that.

Emily Butler: Yeah, I've seen him like my whole life on stage doing all this cool stuff. So to finally be able to do that with him is really awesome.

Peter Biello: Let's listen to another track from this album. This one is called "Land of the Lost."

"Land of the Lost": "Tightly wound, slightly worn, torn and tangled like the bangles I adore. Growing old, being bold, like a fleeting kind of love often sold."

Peter Biello: So, Emily, you wrote this one.

Emily Butler: Yes, I did.

Peter Biello: What's the story behind "Land of the Lost?"

Emily Butler: So, I kind of noticed - I'm a really big bluegrass folk traditional fan - and all the big bluegrass singers, they all have these beautiful songs about women that they fall in love with. And then the woman doesn't love them back. So they bring them to like a river and push them in because they know they can't swim or, you know, take them and shoot them, like, they just murder the women that they love. So I was like, I'm going to do it from the female perspective. So my lover, my boyfriend, he betrays me, so I smother him with a pillow and then I bury him in the desert where he can't be found.

Billy Butler: Hashtag so proud, Dad.

"Land of the Lost": "You couldn't breathe. You coughed and hacked and let out one last wheeze. That's when I knew that deed was done. That I didn't have to use my old shotgun."

Peter Biello: Before we close out, what's a song that we should listen to on the way out?

Billy Butler: "Desperate Times."

Emily Butler: Yeah, I was going to say that too.

Peter Biello: "Desperate Times," the namesake of the album here. All right. Well, here is "Desperate Times" from the album "Desperate Times on the New Hampshire State Line." Billy, Emily, thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate this chat.

Billy Butler: Thanks. Thank you very much, Peter. It's a pleasure.

Emily Butler: Thank you.

"Desperate Times": "I saw a billionaire shooting up in an alleyway. These are desperate times. A housewife microdosed, found the meaning of life. These are desperate times..."

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

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