NMF ’22 Interviews: Tré Burt< < Back to
NELSONVILLE, Ohio (WOUB) – The 2022 Nelsonville Music Festival takes place September 2 -4 at the Snow Fork Event Center (5685 Happy Hollow Road) in Nelsonville, OH. The festival is presented by Stuart’s Opera House, a non-profit organization focused on providing access to the arts and arts education in Southeast Ohio.
Leading up to the three-day festival WOUB Culture is profiling a number of artists performing at the festival. You’ll find all of those interviews right here on woub.org/culture.
Tré Burt’s debut on John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, “Caught It From the Rye,” was released to enormous critical acclaim in early 2020. That release, as well as his 2021 follow-up, “You, Yeah, You,” have earned Burt a reputation for his deeply moving lyricism, his keen musicality, and his presentation of the experience of living as a black man in the contemporary United States.
Burt took the time to speak with WOUB’s Emily Votaw about his artistic process, the music industry itself, and his upcoming performance at the Nelsonville Music Festival.
Listen to WOUB’s conversation with Tré Burt embedded above. Click on “play” in the Soundcloud widget. A condensed and edited transcript of the interview can be found below.
Emily Votaw: I’m a radio journalist who doesn’t really like using social media, and in past interviews, you’ve expressed a little bit of reluctance yourself to use social media — while always acknowledging that it was social media that connected you with Jody Whelan of Oh Boy Records. So my question is, do you think in the 21st century that artists need to use social media to succeed?
Tré Burt: I don’t know. I think social media is kind of peaking and it’s bad. I don’t have any hard evidence of this, but you know, things are cool for a little while and then people start to feel otherwise. I think that’s kind of what’s happening now. I mean, it’ll remain a powerful tool for, you know, promotion and things like that. But as far as the artist themselves? When I have shows, I usually have my team at Oh Boy post the shows. I didn’t used to do that when I was a kid, I’d go put flyers around telephone poles and things like that and play the music. I hope that’s coming back.
Emily Votaw: What do you think is kind of lost in an artist’s communication with an audience by using a lot of social media? Or do you think you lose anything if you really commit to doing the social media thing?
Tré Burt: Yeah. I mean, people get those blue eyes, you know, those screen eyes and they kind of just get desensitized and jaded by whatever’s appearing on the screen in front of them. You lose a sense of the physical connection to seeing something with in real life. When you’re using social media instead, you’re showing things to kind of half dead zombies. I think art can lose its specialness, its physicality.
Emily Votaw: Prior to being signed to Oh Boy records, you had been making music with very few resources for years. And now that you’re on Oh Boy, you’ve got all kinds of resources. I mean, incredible recording studios, people like Brad Cook to work with, like you did on the last record. So I’m wondering: has access to all those resources impacted how you approach the creative process? Has it complicated it or made it more difficult or do you just enjoy having those resources?
Tré Burt: I mean, the way I’m making songs these days is kind of returning to how I used to make songs. When I was a teenager, I had a sh*tty laptop and Garage Band and I would just kind of play all the instruments myself. I’m making demos for my new record right now — which might be my last record — and it feels a lot like how I used to make my albums when I was, you know, 15 years old. So, the resources part of your question. I don’t think about it much until it’s time to execute an idea. Then it’s really cool because I can say like, ‘oh, I wanna use the D tone band” or Charles Bradley’s band or something like that for this new record. But when I’m writing songs, it’s very much the same approach.
The biggest obstacle I have these days is finding the time to write the records. I have to physically tell my team not to book shows so I can have time to write. But other than that, I feel like it’s the same speed that I usually make music. I can usually make a good batch of songs that I’m happy with in about a year. It’s a little stressful having to like, think about promotion or what do you want it to look like to the public or music, videos and aesthetic and things like that. But it’s also fun. But yeah, I’m pretty quick.
Emily Votaw: Okay, so I have to bite at that: you said your last record might be your last record — could you elaborate on that?
Tré Burt: I think I’ll just leave it at that.
Emily Votaw: Okay, that makes sense. In speaking to you already, we’ve already talked a little bit about how you approached making music as a younger person, and that really connects to something I really like to ask artists: what were you like as a kid, and do you see any parts of that kid in the music you make now?
Tré Burt: I was a troublemaker as a kid. I got in a lot of trouble. A lot of people were kind of surprised that I had this really sensitive side that I didn’t really show very many people. I think that music kind of balanced me out — and it still does that now, as an adult, or whatever I am. I recognize music as kind of meditation for me. In a sense, it’s a place to go to, where I can get my anger out or whatever feeling, out. So it remains just a place to keep me balanced, to keep my head balanced.
Emily Votaw: Given the region that the station I work for covers, which is Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, I talk to a lot of musicians who are categorized as being Americana artists. And I’m always interested in hearing what they have to say about that label for themselves, because a lot of times it’s not one that they give themselves. So, what’s your reaction to being labeled as an Americana artist?
Tré Burt: Yeah. I have, uh, zero familiarity with, with that label. Um, <laugh> I reject it, in fact! <laugh> I don’t know to me, [I hear Americana and] I just hear the word beige. It just sounds like nothing. It kind of tastes like gray food. I’m not sure what that word means. <laugh>
Emily Votaw: Like everybody else, I’m really in awe of your lyrical abilities, your writing abilities. Do you have any particular artistic practice that’s helped to sort of hone that ability?
Tré Burt: Well, I’ve always enjoyed words. When it comes to writing them down, the best way to do it is to kind to not be very precious with what you’re trying to say. If you’re trying to make something profound or to say something important — I haven’t tried to do that, but I’ve always steered away from trying that. I feel like that would just come out contrived. I just kind of write what I’m saying without even thinking, it’s kind of taking the filter off of your brain and keeping whatever line you put down. And especially if it feels a little too revealing or, something like that, you just keep it.
Emily Votaw: In interviewing artists who are going to play the Nelsonville Music Festival, I always like to ask if they are fans of Michael Hurley. Are you aware of him? Are you a fan?
Tré Burt: Michael Hurley is one of my musical heroes. I used to live in Portland, Oregon, and I kind of moved there <laugh> back in the day, this was about 10 years ago because I knew he lived there and he used to play at the Laurelthirst Public House every Sunday. Every Sunday he would play a set and I was right there in front watching him. I walked up one day to him and gave him a little mix tape that I made. It was burnt CD of some cell phone recordings.
Emily Votaw: Nice, did he say anything about what you gave him?
Tré Burt: He took the CD from me, which I called like “Cell Phone Memos,” or something like that, and he is like “Cell Phone Memos,” is this on Mississippi Records?” And I said “no.” And he said, “Hmm… I’ll play this in my truck.”
Catch Tré Burt at the 2022 Nelsonville Music Festival on Friday, September 2. Find more information about the fest at nelsonvillefest.org, and keep tabs on all of WOUB Culture’s preview coverage of the fest at woub.org/culture.