Interview with Butch Walker: Georgia’s prodigal son and pop Zelig on his 25-year career

The frontman/songwriter/producer—who grew up in Cartersville and lived in Atlanta in the 1990s—returns to Georgia to play Atlanta Symphony Hall on May 15.

Butch Walker hasn’t lived in Georgia in decades, but the place is never far from his mind, which means it’s also never far from his music. On his seventh solo album, Afraid of Ghosts, Walker confronts the death of his father, from pancreatic cancer in the fall of 2013, head on. “Big Butch,” as he was called, lived in Cartersville, where young Butch (who went by his given name, Brad) spent his formative years and to where he still returns a few times each year.

Walker first tasted fame in 1998 with Marvelous 3, an Atlanta band that enjoyed 15 minutes of notoriety with “Freak of the Week,” a 3-minute, 21-second earworm that hinted at Walker’s gift for catchy melody. In 2001, after the band broke up, Walker set out on a solo career that, over 14 years, has earned him a cult following if not a broad one. The fact that he hasn’t broken through is confounding to his fans, especially when they hear a song like “Coming Home.”

Three years ago, two filmmakers released “Out of Focus,” a documentary that explored not just Walker’s songwriting process, but also his roles that have been inarguably successful: Producer and songwriter. Walker’s roster of clients over the past decade includes Avril Lavigne, Pink, Fall Out Boy, Pete Yorn, and a host of others. Indeed, Walker is a kind of pop Zelig; he seems to know everyone, and everyone knows him. Five years ago, he gave us a peek behind the producer curtain when he covered Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” The video—which includes Walker recording every part, then combining it all into something that’s by turns funny and brilliant—led Swift herself to ask him to perform with her at the Grammys.

Walker, 45, plays Symphony Hall on Friday, May 15.  And no, he won’t have his band with him. But the set of songs he’ll be touring behind, from his new album, were built for quiet, as he explained to Atlanta magazine. Produced by his friend Ryan Adams, who Walker opened for on Adams’s last tour, the album also features guest appearances by Johnny Depp (he’s a killer guitarist—really) and Bob Mould. In a quick phone chat, Walker also discussed the benefits of not hitting it (too) big.

Last November, you had a true homecoming, when you played at the Grand Theater in Cartersville. It came a little more than a year after your father’s death. What did that show mean for you?
Growing up in Cartersville, anytime I was in a theater or auditorium, I’d think how cool it would be to be up there. I always dreamed of doing that. I didn’t want to do it by being the typical theater or drama guy or even in the choral group. I wanted to do it playing rock and roll. The Grand used to be a playhouse, in the 40s and 50s. Then it was a movie theater. It was beautiful with this ornate design. It got converted back to a playhouse and theater long after I’d grown up and left town and kind of discounted Cartersville. Like, I didn’t have any desire to go back there. I shunned it for years. But my pops had always tried to talk me into doing a show [at the Grand]. One of the first things I recall from coming home from the hospital with my mom after my dad had passed away, we passed the Grand Theater. I needed to see it. And I had this notion I needed to play it. Cut to a year later, I was able to do a show there. It was like playing a concert for all my dad’s friends in Cartersville, which was awesome. We recorded it all and we’ll be streaming a documentary of it. All the proceeds are going to Autumn Leaves, a project for pancreatic cancer research.

Growing up in a small town—it’s a different setting than the one where you’re raising your own son. Is there something about your own childhood in Cartersville that you wish your own son could experience?
I have no regrets about growing up there. It made me who I am. Of course, everybody always says that. I do raise my son kind of out in the sticks a bit. I’m an hour away from Los Angeles. And in Tennessee, we’re way outside the city there, too. When I go back to the city of Atlanta, I love it there, but I would rather just go back to Cartersville. I like being out in the country. But I learned a lot about moving away. Sometimes a small town can box you in. Religion and everything. One of the best things that ever happened was moving away and learning the good and the bad of living in a big city. There’s definitely a kindness that comes with growing up in a small Southern town that does not exist anywhere else. You definitely long for that and miss that if you’re living in a fancy city. I come back a lot. My mom and two sisters still live in Cartersville. I do a lot of work in Nashville so come back and hang out in Atlanta. I can see myself coming back one day and spending a lot of my time in the South, especially as my son gets older.

On this record, you’re coming to terms with your father’s death. The whole album has a quiet wistfulness about it, which is not what we’ve come to expect from a Butch Walker record. It’s personal in a way your others haven’t been as much. How difficult—and how necessary—was it to go there?
I felt like for this record, it deserved not to be jammed down people’s throats. I didn’t want to be screaming and yelling at people. A lot of the songs need to be delivered [quietly] to be believed. Ryan [Adams, who produced the album] thought the lyrics would be a lot more believable if I whispered. We wanted it to have that campfire quality, like it’s one of those albums where you can sing it in a hotel room and not wake up the neighbors.

What would this record have been like if you’d produced it, as you have most of your albums?
Extremely different. I tend to fall into my own bag of tricks. I battle myself so much. I can’t help it. You second-guess yourself when you’re the boss as well as the artist. I knew Ryan would be able to tell me what sucks and what doesn’t.

Is this introspective and stripped down approach a new path for you? Or Is it a one-time diversion?
I’ll definitely make records on my own again. As for now, I’d like to make a few more like this. I’d like to utilize someone else’s energy. It’s like Christmas to hear something back that you wouldn’t have done that way.

Tell me about your documentary, “Out of Focus.” I read you were initially reluctant to take part, because you felt not enough people know who you are. Which, as it turns out, is the central conceit of the film. [“The music you know, the man you don’t” is the tagline.] You’ve been in this business for more than 25 years. You make a great living. Do you wish you were more of a household name?
I think everybody always wishes they were bigger than they are. Or scared if they are big that they’ll lose that. But the upside to still clawing my way up, the ride wasn’t over quicker, like I’ve seen for so many of my friends who were wildly successful for one or two years and are now working day jobs again. It’s fucking scary. But it’s the way of the popular world. It’s hard to sustain. I feel good that every tour when I go out there’s a few more people. Every time I do something, a few more people care each time. That’s all that people want—to be appreciated for that art. I appreciate that it’s taken 25 years to get to this level.