Anna Butterss appears in our Winter 2023 Issue with cover stars Green Day, 070 Shake, Militarie Gun, and Arlo Parks. Head to the AP Shop to grab a copy.
When Anna Butterss was a teenager, a daunting thought overcame them. After playing flute for seven years and then switching to upright bass to earn a spot in their high school orchestra, Butterss had a “real fear” that they would get bored of any instrument after that amount of time. The day, thankfully, never came.
“I fell in love,” they reminisce over Zoom as their upright bass looms in the background, propped against a corner of the room. Unlike the cover of Activities, the experimental solo record they released in 2022, Butterss’ hair is buzzed, and they’re in the midst of “soft-launching” new pronouns (they/them) when we speak. “The second I picked it up, I just had a physical and emotional connection to it in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. It was a pretty wild feeling as a 13-year-old to be like, ‘Oh, my God, all I want to think about is this instrument and playing this music, and this is an obsession.’”
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Life moves quick. Butterss, who was raised in Australia and has lived in LA for the past decade, has built their career around unshakable rhythm, blinding curiosity, and a profound sense of artistic freedom — the latter being something that’s led them to play with indie stars (Jenny Lewis, Phoebe Bridgers) as well as modern-day jazz greats (Jeff Parker, Makaya McCraven).
In the right hands, bass provides more than a steady pulse — it can conjure deep feeling, eclipsing vocal or guitar technicality in a way that makes you more tethered to the music. It makes sense, then, that feel has guided Butterss’ wide musical taste and launched their career to supreme highs. Sometimes they provide a backbeat that’s lean and considered; other times they play for long bouts because they want to slip into a trance.
Over at ETA, a cocktail bar nestled in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood, that trance is celestial. Led by Parker, Butterss, Jay Bellerose (percussion), and Josh Johnson (alto saxophone) adopt a stream of consciousness that’s not unlike Beat poetry. It’s an intimate space — one where a rare hush falls upon the crowd and people show up for the music, rather than being absorbed in screens or conversation. “Because people aren’t just dropping in halfway through a song and then checking out and being on their phones, they want to hear the whole arc of it, so it feels really easy to do that,” they say. Butterss doesn’t exactly remember when the music shifted from standards and original compositions to free improv, but it’s an evolution that foregrounds how sublime it is to operate in the present moment. Together, the band produce an alchemy where time moves at a different pace than the rest of the city, as their interplay is wildly intriguing, intuitive, and immersive.
The “no-subs band” dates back to 2016, when Parker was looking for somewhere to play casually. One of the owners, Ryan Julio, dug his work with Tortoise and extended an invitation, which morphed into a Monday night residency that takes place whenever they’re all in town. “I think everyone definitely feels the weight of having access to a space like this and us being able to all participate in that music together, so it feels really special,” Butterss says. The music is spacious, ambient, and lysergic — easily some of the most original-sounding jazz in the last dozen years. You can hear flickers of Future Days, Portishead at Roseland, and ’70s-era Miles, if he had lived to witness the full tilt of hip-hop, swirling around, but it’s all its own experience as they continue to venture further out.
You could write that off as hyperbole, or look to the band’s sweeping chemistry. Parker and Bellerose met at Berklee in the ’80s, whereas Butterss and Johnson have played together in different bands for over a decade. Butterss and Parker also connected on the LA side of McCraven’s Universal Beings, a double album of jam-and-edit beat collages, and Daniel Villarreal’s Panamá 77. The list could continue, but it’s widened an understanding and flow that feels as inherent as it is intimate — and can be heard on the uniformly excellent live record Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy, which captures takes from three different gigs between 2019 and 2021. “I’ve been blessed with the privilege of developing a musical relationship with Anna over the past several years,” says Parker, who’s been reshaping jazz with his other band, the New Breed, through a hip-hop lens. “Anna has ears as wide and deep as the Pacific Ocean, and a musical IQ as high as Mount Everest. To say that I consider myself extremely fortunate to make music with them is an understatement.”
The band’s slow-burn hypnotics have fostered their own community, comprising other musicians, writers, and creatives who flood their shows. One of those people was Marshall Vore, a close collaborator of Phoebe Bridgers, who caught their set and sent Butterss an Instagram DM afterward. Bridgers needed a bass player, and Butterss suited the sound the band were looking for. The interest proved mutual. Butterss was excited that they used “all these musical references that I’d never heard of before,” as someone who didn’t come of age in garages. That led to joining Bridgers’ first headlining tour supporting Stranger in the Alps and contributing to her 2020 breakthrough, Punisher.
They remember that being the first time they started thinking about song form in a completely different way. Previously, they were approaching music from an improvisational POV. “I remember a couple of times Phoebe being like, ‘Can you actually just simplify it?’ That’s when I started realizing, ‘OK, right. There’s a lot of other stuff happening that I need to be aware of in a different way, [like] the lyrics,’” they recall. That may sound obvious in hindsight, but it hadn’t been a primary focus for Butterss, who had spent years jamming in jazz bands where one chord can stretch for minutes. Rather, it’s a skill that was strengthened by playing with Bridgers and her band.
They also realized they needed to come up with parts, instead of riding a feeling or playing a cover. “That was, again, very simple-sounding, but kind of like a revelation for me at that time,” they laugh. They’ve gone on to add low-slung cool to both the boygenius EP and their debut full-length, the record, the latter of which netted a handful of Grammy nominations. If anything, the collaboration is a greater sign of the people Butterss surrounds themselves with — the community they’ve built and continue to fall back on.
Growing up, Butterss would wake up around 5:30 a.m. every morning and spend an hour practicing their upright bass before school. Occasionally, they’d even skip class to rehearse (something they admittedly call a “really nerdy” thing to do). Music was a gateway, populated by foreign folk songs — their parents met playing in Irish bands, though they’re all Australian — the Chicks, and their mother’s love of classical, but “nothing post-Beethoven.” Equipped with a formal music education, Butterss began playing trad jazz around their hometown of Adelaide when they were 16 or 17. Their crew comprised older men who, miraculously, expressed kindness when they didn’t know ’20s cuts like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and encouraged them to learn on the gig.
As one year folded into the next, they longed to live somewhere less isolated. “Once you get that idea in your head that you want to leave, it’s really hard to ignore,” they say. So, following time at Indiana University, they moved to LA in 2014 — around the same time as Parker — and started to free their mind. They picked up electric bass and became more curious about other genres of music, like hip-hop. “The aesthetic, the way that it feels, the collage-y aspects of it. I like it a lot,” they share. They also aspired to do more singing and songwriting, which they achieved by playing with Bridgers.
From there, the grind continued with their biggest shows yet. Twenty years ago, it would have been inconceivable to imagine a jazz player opening for one of the world’s largest pop stars. Butterss, however, is an artist who doesn’t feel bound by the genre’s traditions, and when Jenny Lewis taps you to be part of her live band opening for Harry Styles, you go. Butterss remembers how surprised they were by the reception. The fans, likely not even old enough to know a Rilo Kiley song, gave Lewis so much love and respect, city after city.
“They just absolutely loved her and embraced her, and she’s such a cool performer — the way she moves, the outfits, everything’s color-coordinated,” they recall. There, they played half-hour shows for 10 weeks throughout the fall of 2021 — a sharp turn from jazz sets that can span hours. Another tough circumstance was the crew couldn’t hang out, as there was “a lot at stake if someone got sick.” Still, the packed stadiums provided a lift. “The atmosphere was really positive at a time that was difficult,” they say.
Music remains eternal. When Butterss talks about it, playing or listening, they exude unsinkable joy. They share discoveries readily (“You’re gonna freak out,” they say upon recommending Juana Molina’s Halo) and are intrigued by suggestions, all while maintaining an endless chill. Plus, sharing a joint with a friend and putting on a record never hurts. Rather than vibing out, Butterss usually can’t stop talking, relishing in listening to a song and hearing what moves someone in real time. “You realize we all listen really differently,” they explain. “The thing that strikes someone else is something that I might not have even considered or might not have even heard.”
Throughout their long career, Butterss has never settled. Whether they’re playing an NPR Tiny Desk with Lewis or improvising droning jams at ETA, they continue to evolve. Alongside their flux, like-minded artists like Parker, Flying Lotus, McCraven, and Kamasi Washington — the list could go on — as well as progressive labels like International Anthem and Brainfeeder, have helped to blur boundaries between avant-spirituals and daring experimentalism that appeal more to crate-diggers than purists. Each collaboration offers different outcomes and feelings, but they all share a satisfying truth. When there’s a chameleonic player like this in your midst, you’ll always be surprised.
Editor’s Note: ETA in Highland Park closed on Dec. 30, 2023 after this story was printed.