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Cultural Shorts

Tré Burt's Intellectual Folk On Full Display With 'You, Yeah, You'

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Acclaimed singer-songwriter Tre Burt recently spoke with KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin about how the events of 2020 impacted his new album's lyrical content.

Tré Burt will release his sophomore LP, "You, Yeah, You" on Aug. 28, via Oh Boy Records. The album follows his acclaimed debut, "Caught It from the Rye," which landed him a spot at Oh Boy — founded by the late John Prine — and drew wide critical acclaim.

His 2020 song, "Under the Devil's Knee," was written in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and others and is also a response to ongoing police violence. The piece drew attention from George Yancy, Cornel West and Khalil Muhammad, which led to Burt joining the latter two scholars on a panel at Harvard's Kennedy School through Muhammad's Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project.

Burt, who is based in Sacramento, California, recently spoke with KMUW about his new album and some of the ways he got through 2020.

Interview Highlights

Was this new album something you finished in 2020 and wound up sitting on for a while or did you record it more recently?

We finished recording in March of this year. We started and then it took us five days to track it. We liked what we heard and decided we wanted to keep it pretty minimal and the guys — and the gal, Amelia Meath from Sylvan Esso — on the record … we just worked really well together. They're so talented it didn't take very long.
It's kind of vulnerable to put somebody in the captain's chair [and in charge of how your music sounds]. There's a little bit of, "I hope we get along." It would really suck if I didn't like the way it sounds or I didn't like the people I was working with. Luckily, we just all love each other, so it worked out.

There's been no shortage of material to draw upon from the last few years. Did you have specific things that were bouncing around in your mind in terms of lyrical themes?

On the last song, "Tell Mary," I wanted to distill that level of — what's the word? — existential dread that was floating around last year and parts of this year, the world ending around us.

How did you get through it? I had a moment of intense calm and then moments of feeling like I was trapped: "Help! I'm in a cage!"

There was a lot of that. That's what that line in "Sweet Misery" — "The weight of my heart/it swings me left to right like a wrecking ball" — is about. Kind of like being a wrecking ball. Smashing into buildings. I got a bearded dragon, I got a little companion. That helped take my mind off some things. I rode my bike a lot. Read a lot. Just tried to keep in my body as much as possible.

How much was music a release and how much of it was you feeling like, "This is so intense, I'm not even sure I can express it through music?"

For a good long while, I couldn't play music. Then my label helped me out and got me a cabin for the weekend. I went up to Yosemite and that was the first time I really sat down to write in a long time. And I wrote most of this record up there during that weekend. It was very cathartic. I'm grateful for it. I don't know what would have happened if I didn't have that spot.

What were some of the things you read during the last year?

I read that Cormac McCarthy trilogy, "All the Pretty Horses." I read some Oakland poets. There's this book called "Mumbo Gumbo" that kind of went in [tandem] with what was happening in a sort of way. It was a pandemic but kind of the blues, kind of a silly take on the pandemic. "Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison. I read a lot of James Baldwin. Charlie Kaufman has a new book. I was just bouncing around, picking up whatever I could.

You landed this deal with Oh Boy, John Prine's label. That's rarefied air. There haven't been too many other artists on that label.

It's incredibly validating to have the support of one of my biggest heroes in the song world, Mr. John Prine and his lovely team and family as well. The support from them means the world to me.

Tell me about this tour with Shakey Graves. It seems like a perfect pairing. How's it been going?

It's cool, man. We have similar energies. I guess it's easy for people to try and lump me in with more Americana, or traditional or whatever. I personally don't agree with being lumped over there. So it's cool to be in his sort of realm, playing slightly weirder music with him [Alejandro Rose-Garcia]. So I can lean into that part of me more so than trying to pretend like I'm some country singer or something.