Butch Walker Sparks Conversation With Rock Opera, ‘American Love Story’

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

So Butch Walker did a thing… The acclaimed producer/performer put together an album that just might be his most controversial solo endeavor yet. And he’s ready to ruffle some feathers. 

Walker describes American Love Story, which drops on May 8th (Preview to order) as “a love story about hate” and a project meant to be listened to from start to finish. 

“It’s not just a record of a collection of songs under a theme, it actually talks and builds and tells a story and has a pretty bittersweet ending,” Walker reveals.

The album was a surprise, even to him. “I had not planned on doing a rock opera at all. I don’t know if anybody has told you but they’re certainly not in fashion,” he says, with a laugh. But when the singer-songwriter/producer who has worked with everyone from Green Day to Taylor Swift and beyond sat down to write new material a few years back, this is exactly what emerged.

Walker started out with a few songs that tackled themes that had recently been on his mind, like homophobia and racism; then, after playing some demos for his manager, was encouraged to continue on with a concept album. 

The story flowed from there. 

“I couldn’t stop writing about this stuff. It just was unfortunately too apparent at the time,” says Walker who was deeply saddened by the bigotry that resurfaced after the 2016 election and incidents like the white nationalists protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I just started thinking about my childhood and how that was sadly a big part of my everyday life, being stopped in the road by dudes in white hoods looking for donations to the KKK; my friends cracking racist and gay jokes all the time and me being okay with it because it was normalized,” he recalls.

Walker, who splits his time between Nashville and Los Angeles and travels to his hometown outside of Atlanta, is appalled by continuing to run into these scenarios today and was thus inspired to write “a bittersweet love story sung through the perspective of different characters.” 

The album starts off with a narrator journeying back to his small town and reflecting on the blinders its residents wear, then hops over to a middle-aged racist man who, as a child was fed a healthy diet of hate and bigotry and bullied a local gay kid. It cuts to the two of them having an unexpected encounter later on in life, as well as tackles themes of stepping outside of your comfort zone, learning to accept everyone for their unique selves, and wraps up with a tale of bittersweet love. 

Walker started out by putting together the project on his own – playing all the drums, bass and guitars, engineering it, recording the vocals and going back in to re-word the story at various points. Then he called in his drummer, Mark Stepro, to play on some of the tunes as well as keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (Beck, Jellyfish) to lend his talent. 

“I thought he would be a great addition to this, and he was, because we both had the same record collection growing up, all things 70s and 80s. Walker didn’t want the album to be “a stark Lo-fi acoustic record telling you terrible things,” and instead aimed for “a bright, happy, high fidelity, slick production of beautiful melodies telling you terrible things.” 

“I wanted it to sound like whatever the soundtrack was on the radio in the background of my youth while going through being a fly on the wall and experiencing these experiences — or some of them not such a fly on the wall but actually being in the middle of it,” he explains. So Walker aimed to cherry pick little sounds and ideas from specific songs of past eras – “starting with almost yacht rock vibes from the top of the record in the late 70s, going into the early 80s, and having some of that Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac and the Doobies vibe,” he explains. 

Now, Walker is trying to figure out how to do all of this justice live. In his mind, American Love Story needs to be played from beginning to end in order to fully present the story. 

“Because if you don’t know what’s going on, there are some harsh lyrics there that might sound really bananas when they’re taken out of context,” he says, adding that simply peppering in two or three of the new songs and having them make sense with a bunch of older material will probably not fly. So as the world continues to keep a low profile due to the Covid19 pandemic, Walker is toying with the idea of doing a virtual presentation of American Love Story in its entirety. “It will be weird not having that social interaction with an audience, but this might be the perfect record for that” he says. “Because it was already going to be weird. I was already envisioning playing it and hearing the pin drop after the songs; people not really understanding what the hell I’m talking about,” he jokes. 

This project, says Walker, is not for everybody. But at this point in his career, he’s completely okay with that.

“I care deeply about the music and I care deeply about this subject matter. And if somebody has a problem with it because it makes them uncomfortable that I’m not singing party songs or snarky lyrics or sad breakup song, then there’s the door, take off, it’s fine,” he says. 

Walker does admit, however, to having sat on the album for two years before putting it out as he contemplated all of the above. But the songs are important to him. 

The goal, per Walker, is to inspire some much-needed discussions: “I just want people to listen with an open mind and hopefully it will spark a conversation with their cousin or brother-in-law or coworkers or friends. In the last couple of years, I feel like Thanksgiving dinner has been canceled because people are just so black and white and divisive about everything that it’s been impossible to have a conversation. And I just feel like this is something that probably needs to be said.”

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