The butterfly has long been a powerful symbol of rebirth. The lowly caterpillar's emergence from its cocoon into a thing of beauty in flight is a vivid embodiment of transformation and self-realization. The title of Butterfly Blue, the stunning and soulful new album by vocalist Halie Loren, evokes those poetic images, but tinged with a sense of bittersweet melancholy.
Loren has found quite a bit of metamorphosis over the past few years, growing from a West-Coast singer-songwriter to an international jazz celebrity in Japan and Asia, where the singer has now performed dozens of sold-out concerts and found her music climbing to the pinnacle of many a sales chart, including three consecutive Billboard Jazz #1 albums in Japan. Her career and musical growth continues into 2015, the year which finds Loren spreading her proverbial wings wider than ever before with the release of Butterfly Blue, drawing inspiration from blues and soul music influences in a deeper way than she has in the past, while firmly and unapologetically planting one foot in the jazz realm and the other in pop. She does this without losing any of the warmth, charm and sensuality that has always characterized her unique vocal approach. But the thread that connects the album's mix of jazz and Songbook standards, reimagined pop songs, and original pieces is captured in that seemingly contradictory title."
"A lot of these songs were chosen because they explored different aspects of imprisonment and freedom," Loren explains. "Many of them have to do with ideas of being beholden to thoughts, feelings, and experiences from which you alone can also free yourself."
The album's title marries two original pieces that exemplify that theme. "Butterfly" was written by Loren, who imagined the insect's transformation from the caterpillar's point of view, facing the prospect of having to pass through a literal death in order to experience rebirth, relating the experience to that of human suffering being the catalyst for spiritual growth. "Blue," one of two songs penned by guitarist and songwriter Daniel Gallo, expresses empathy and promises of a brighter future to a lover in the deep throes of melancholy. Joining the two, Loren says, "really felt like an apropos combination. It's about finding the way through the pain of experience to a new, wiser, more beautiful version of yourself. But you have to go through the journey; that's where the real pain happens."
The two songs also boldly spotlight the album's musical influences: the stabbing horns and soulful pleas of "Butterfly" conjure soul touchstones like Otis Redding or Etta James, while "Blue" lives up to its name through Gallo's gut-punch guitar and Loren's powerfully communicated longing. While she's quick to say that Butterfly Blue is by no means a blues or soul album, those storied genres color the whole album. "It has touches of the things that have heavily moved me musically over the years," she says. "I've been a fan of a lot of different kinds of music my whole life, so I was interested in stretching out beyond the territory I've explored over the last few albums and digging deeper into more of my bluesy roots."
To realize those ambitions, Loren added horns and strings to the arrangements in a more extensive way than she has in the past, though with a light and always effective touch. These additional musicians, William Seiji Marsh and Gallo on guitars, David Larsen on saxophone, Joe Freuen on trombone, Dana Heitman on trumpet, Rob Birdwell on flugelhorn and trumpet, and Katherine Dudney on cello, join Loren's longtime core band, (pianist and co-producer Matt Treder, bassist Mark Schneider and drummer Brian West) featured on the majority of the singer's releases to-date. Together the ensemble subtly nods toward classic soul blues sounds within a modern jazz context.
Butterfly Blue begins on a more winsome note, however, with the wordless vocal melody of Loren's "Yellow Bird." Despite the playfulness of the song's Tin Pan Alley feel, however, the lyrics fit the album's darker theme. "The idea of freedom being an internal feeling rather than an external reality came to me in the image of a bird in a cage," Loren says. "I thought, 'What might they dream about?' On the surface, it's kind of a cute song with a cute melody, but the meaning of the lyric goes deeper into more esoteric notions of how subjective our perceptions of 'reality' are, and to what degree we are masters of our own experiences in this life."
The notion of using animals to express deep-felt emotion comes easily to Loren, who has always felt a strong connection to the natural world. Born and raised in Alaska, she's lived for the last 17 years in Oregon, where she maintains a strong connection to the outdoors.
Loren's rendition of Charles Trenet's "I Wish You Love" is a unique hybrid of the original French lyrics, with a brief detour into the better-known but less expressive English lyrics. "Stormy Weather" is stretched into a sultry, teasingly languorous blues, while "Our Love Is Here To Stay" offers a sense of familial nostalgia.
"After The Fall", the second song penned by Gallo, tells a story of a woman in the winter of life, reminiscing about a long lost love through music that formed the soundtrack for those precious memories of youth. "I had the rare opportunity to hear this song as it was coming into being through hands other than my own: an original song I didn't write but that was entirely new to the world, crafted with such a richly emotional story and vivid imagery - it was love at first listen."
"I've Got You Under My Skin" continues the album's theme of emotional or spiritual imprisonment, here captured in the song's tale of uncontrollable obsession, heightened by the spare, snake-charmer tone of the arrangement. "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" is given a darker-than-usual perspective that illustrates the thoroughfare's hopeless denizens.
Loren's "Danger in Loving You" is reprised from her 2010 live recording Stages, and is included as both a long-overdue studio version of the song as well as a tribute to the vocalist's longtime songwriting partner, Larry Wayne Clark, who passed away in 2013. "Carry Us Through," lifts the spirits by adding New Orleans accents to singer-songwriter Sarah Masen's song of survival, and the set ends on a hopeful note with the late Horace Silver's classic, "Peace."
Loren explains, "The idea of the song is that if you can find peace inside, everything will be all right with the world outside. I love that it embodies a zen-like quality in both message and music while so beautifully reiterating the concept of freedom being a choice, an internal experience. I thought it would really round out the feeling of the album nicely and bring it back to this place of simplicity."
Upcoming Halie Loren Performances:
May 8 / Hart Community Performing Arts Series / Hart, MI
May 22-23 / Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts / Port Angeles, WA
Halie Loren · Butterfly Blue
Justin Time Records · Release Date: June 9, 2015