Success as perseverance: An interview with Shane Butler of Olden Yolk

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What are the chances of being born a human? Well, according to the writings of late 19th century to early 20th century Buddhist monk Mahathera Ledi Sayadaw, pretty slim — slimmer, in fact, than the chances of a theoretical blind sea turtle by chance surfacing at the right place and time to latch onto a wayward yoke floating upon the ocean.

When a monk recounted that fable for Shane Butler, it stuck with the musician — so much so that, when naming his new band, Butler drew from the tale for inspiration. But Butler had in fact misheard the tale, envisioning the yoke in question as not a wooden beam, but the yellow insides of a bird’s egg. “I thought, ‘That would be an olden yolk,’ ” Butler chuckled, recounting the christening of his band in an interview with The Daily Californian.

But the name stuck. In 2012, while touring with the indie rock band Quilt, Butler began Olden Yolk as a single-manned space for one-off songs and visual art. The project evolved from there. In 2014, Butler released a split album with Weyes Blood, and, in 2016, Butler met Caity Shaffer, who would soon after prove an essential part of Olden Yolk.

Considering the artful lyricism so essential to Olden Yolk’s work, it is fitting that collaboration between Butler and Shaffer began with a passion for the written word. Upon meeting one another through a mutual friend, the two clicked, and kept in touch over the ensuing months via snail mail, exchanging letters between Butler’s home in New York and Shaffer’s in Texas. Soon enough, the two found themselves trading original poetry daily, eventually co-writing a book of verse. Soon enough, Shaffer moved to New York, and she and Butler began to incorporate music into their collaborative repertoire. Both possessed musical experience, with Shaffer having played bass for Molly Burch for years. Thus, according to Butler, working together on Olden Yolk felt like a logical progression. “It kind of seemed like a really good step,” he said to the Daily Cal. “It’s been really great,” he later added, smiling.

Butler cited the transition from poetry to song as especially smooth because of not only the artistic spark between himself and Shaffer, but also because he believes that the two forms often overlap with one another. “They’re so similar and they can exist as each other, if you choose,” he noted. Indeed, when listened to closely, many of Olden Yolk’s songs could easily classify as poetry. In fact, the group draws inspiration from poetry originally meant to be spoken. As Butler pointed out, oral tradition preserved works of many of his favorite writers, such as those of 15th-century Indian poet Kabir.

In February 2017, less than a year after their first encounter, Shaffer and Butler began working on their self-titled debut album. By September of that year, they had finished recording. For the most part, Butler and Caity wrote the 10 songs on the album together, although Butler pointed out that the specifics of the creative process varied for each song. Sometimes, Butler said, inspiration just strikes. It’s not all random, though — for Butler, certain activities and environments lend themselves more to creative thought than others. For instance, Butler described how he plays guitar daily, a practice he likened to the discipline of his daily meditation regimen. It’s not always easy, he conceded. Nonetheless,“It gives more opportunities for those moments that are beautiful, and you can catch them easier and easier each time,” he noted of such a practice.

As Butler and Shaffer continue the West Coast tour of their new album, they come face to face with fans, a chance to reflect upon the reception and effect of their work. One of the most pervasive themes of the album, Butler explained, is perseverance: “We’ve been going through a really crazy time in our country and … it’s really easy to feel that hope is lost sometimes,” he noted, “And so … that’s really important to just be like, ‘This isn’t easy. You don’t have to say it’s easy. But we can keep going.’”

Indeed, many fans seem to have picked up on this message from listening to the album already. Butler described letters he has received from listeners describing how Olden Yolk’s music helped them through difficult times. “It makes me feel happy because I know that for me music has always been something that’s helped me get through (life) as well, as well as also providing a good time,” Butler said.

Despite the rewarding nature of such feedback, it does not define Butler’s evaluation of his performance as a musician. “Right now, for me, to keep on doing it is success,” he said, “Like, to keep on having the motivation to make new art is success, because it’s so hard,” he explained. In the same vein, his duty as an artist is more nuanced than pleasing listeners. “My responsibility is to stay connected to like my truest self — that’s my responsibility. And however that comes out, and however that influences other people, that’s out of my control. But for me it’s like being true to myself and continuing to push myself to grow and to really explore the things that I want to explore. And then if those resonate with other people, then that’s great. And if they don’t, well, that’s what it is.”

Ryan Tuozzolo covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @_rtuo.