Jessica Butler shows she’s more than just another pretty voice
In any given month, Jessica Butler touches upon a wide variety of musical genres – and does so in virtually every type of live setting St. Louis has to offer. A member of three acts, Butler’s heard on sax and vocals in the Usual Suspects and Linn, two bands fusing originals and covers, and in one outfit, the Ralph Butler Band, that makes no apologies for breaking out the hits.
The settings, the players, the fans … all of them add up to an interesting whole for Butler, who’s been playing St. Louis stages for the better part of a dozen years. If she’s not recognizable to you by name, there’s still a good chance her face – and, more importantly, her voice – will ring a bell, a fact of which she’s quite proud.
“It’s always a gift, every time I play,” she said. “I think I get a chance to make people feel good. If you’re in a bad mood, music will put you in a good mood.” These days, Butler’s attempting to do that with those three different stage guises and some writing work outside the groups, which she hopes will soon become her true emphasis.
Linn, a band name taken from her own middle name, is a four-piece act featuring Butler on sax and vocals, Grover Stewart on drums, Craig Florez on guitar and Darryl Mixon on bass. Even with a cursory look at the players, you know that she’s put together some heavy-hitters for this combo. “The originals in Linn are pop-funk, or soft pop,” she said, searching for the right phrase. “The covers are old-school jazz and, sometimes, older French music.”
The Usual Suspects, on the other hand, “just do jazz and a small amount of jazz that we can make funky. Like Al Jarreau or Sade played as reggae or ‘My Funny Valentine’ played as funk.”
The Ralph Butler Band, meanwhile, a group led by her father, is one of those acts that just rolls along with times; the seven-piece group plays anywhere from upscale spots like Café Eau to weddings to a small-town annual carnivals in Illinois. “We played a show in Highland, Ill., for their town fair,” she recalled. “Everybody’s eating funnel [cakes] and sauerkraut. Little girls came out and did their pom-pom show. It’s just an old-style tourist fair. You don’t really expect to be playing a place like that.”
While Butler’s got some natural recognition for sharing a stage and a name with her father, she’s often just as noticed because of her six-year stint with The Skalars, an all-out ska band that toured the Midwest and built a solid following here throughout the ’90s. “Oh, yeah, always,” Butler said of the old ska fans who often approach her. “They’re all grown up now, when you used to see them coming out to shows, dressed up as a rude girl or rude boy. So many people remember me from that group.”
When Butler departed the Skalars, she also departed St. Louis, living in Paris for five years, where she worked with a composer named Guillaume Simon. Together, they crafted a half-dozen cuts for an as-yet-uncompleted album. When she moved back to her hometown, Butler began compiling her current stable of acts while working on tracks with a songwriter named Dan Dyer, of whom she said, in her own inimitable style, “This cat is amazing.”
While thankful for the opportunities presented to her as a performer, for the next year, Butler hopes to transition into a songwriter, working on original projects. “I would like to write more,” she admitted. “I’d like to be writing music all the time, so that I’m not playing covers.”
And even if she is playing those, she’s doing so with a voice that’s really come into its own. “It’s gotten so much better,” Butler admitted without bragging. “That’s natural, because I’ve practiced. And I’m not just a kid, jumping around onstage. Really, all around, I like my voice now.”
As do we. Catch her soon.
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