“Beige Flowers,” the new song from Quilt’s Shane Butler (recording as Olden Yolk) starts with an arresting visual: “Mother, you told me to be there when you die.” As it turns out, this isn’t just poetic license—these are actual words Butler’s mother spoke to him, and they burrowed so deeply into his brain that he immediately wrote a song about the conversation. Those words took on a haunting significance several months later, when Butler’s mother chose to end her own life. In the months that followed, Butler kept the song hidden, unsure about whether or not he should let something so personal into the world.
Now, three years after his mother’s passing, Butler is releasing “Beige Flowers” as a single to benefit Bring Change 2 Mind, an organization dedicated to addressing the stigma around mental health in America through education, workshops, and PSAs. It’s Butler’s hope that by developing understanding around these issues, we can begin to destigmatize mental health issues and move toward becoming a culture where they are discussed freely, openly, and without shame, getting help to those who may need it.
Butler wrote a statement describing the intent behind the song, and we spoke with him more about its creation, development and purpose. You can read his statement below, followed by the interview.
A Statement from Shane Butler:
My mother and I never held hands. In 2013, while packing up her house of ten years in New York City for a move to California, this changed for a quick unforgettable moment. She grabbed my hand firmly and said, “Shane, I want you to be there when I die.” I was shaken and confused. I had no idea what she was referencing or for what reason. When I returned home to Boston, where I was then living, I wrote this song to process the feelings that came from her words. At the time, it was a fictional account of her death and a presupposition of the feelings I would endure. I was completely unaware of what her words foreshadowed. I did not know that in the months following the recording of this song, my mother would enter a state of heavy anxiety, which would result in a surprising series of depressive breaks and hospitalization in several institutions.
On January 5th, 2014, after four months of attempts, my mother took her own life. This was six months after I had recorded this song, Beige Flowers. As an anchor for both her family and community, she had often been the one that others turned to for advice, help, and consolation—she was calm amidst the many hardships of life. But when faced with the reality of her depression, my mother was quick to dismiss her so-called “weakness” to those who might have been able to help her. Not even her closest confidants knew the extent of what she was experiencing. She, like so many, was afraid of the stigmas that would result in letting her true pain be known. So instead the pain baked until it was at a critical state. My mother, like many who deal with mental illness, was an extremely creative person: she created her own heaven with the support of her health, and then created her own hell with the support of her illness.
Until now, this song has felt “too real” to release. But conversation is where real change can begin. I never expected my mother to die shortly after I wrote this song or to ever die in the way she did. In truth, I don’t think she or anyone she knew expected it either. She was always regarded as someone with a strong mind. Yet, illness takes even the healthiest of us sometimes. We all know someone who is dealing with mental illness. This person may not be brave enough to talk about it. My mother had no outlet to safely express her troubles. Stigmas that surround mental illness are far-reaching and debilitating. Those who suffer from it fear judgment, the loss of friends, work, education, and so much more. And yet the brain—like any other part of the body—is an organ that can also become sick. The problem with our current cultural views on mental health, in my experience, seems to be the fact that the stigmas surrounding it make it much too difficult to discuss candidly. With many other diseases, people are encouraged to notice symptoms, ask the proper questions, and then have the possibility of receiving treatment long before the illness reaches a higher stage. In the case of mental illness, we often don’t talk about it until it’s too late. My wish is that we can move closer to having open conversations surrounding mental health.
All of the proceeds from this release will benefit the unique organization Bring Change 2 Mind. This is one of very few mental health organizations that deal specifically with addressing mental illness stigma in our contemporary culture. Through workshops, school programs, PSAs, and continuous research into beginning and continuing conversations surrounding mental health, this organization provides a much-needed service for our times. I hope that you will listen to the song, share it, and if you feel moved to, contribute to this cause.
I thought maybe we could start our conversation by talking about a few things you admired about your mother.
The first thing that comes to mind is that she was an incredibly strong person. She was the person who was always helping everybody around her. A lot of what she did for a living was personal coaching; she would help people figure out aspects of their lives—she was always a helper. She really made a huge impact on a lot of people’s lives, and was always the one you could go to for emotional support. Those are some of the best qualities I took from her—that idea of always being there to help others around you. One of the things that became clear after what happened is that she took care of everybody around her but maybe, at certain moments, didn’t take as much care of herself, emotionally. She always put others in front of her. She was always in the mode of sacrifice, which was very beautiful.
One of the things you mention in your statement is the stigma around discussing mental health in this country—which is something that is certainly very true. Where do you think that comes from?
It’s a very, very deep-rooted issue. I think that in society, for a long time, people were expected to be perfect most of the time. One thing that I’ve realized is that it’s such a commonplace thing—I have not talked to a single person about this issue where they’ve said, ‘Oh, I don’t know anyone who struggles with that.’ Usually, people are like, ‘Yeah, this close person in my life struggles with it,’ or ‘I struggle with it.’ It’s actually just as commonplace as any other kind of health disorder. Everyone has someone in their relational field who’s very close to them who struggles with some element of mental illness. There’s a gradient of mental health, and we all lie somewhere on that gradient. It’s not black or white, where it’s like, ‘This person has mental illness, this person doesn’t.’ Mental health is a thing in the same way that our body’s health is a thing. I think it’s interesting that we don’t have to get a ‘mental health physical’ every year. We have a bodily physical every year, why not have someone who can just check up on how you’re doing? Mental health at times can even lead to physical illness, and it can help people get better. And so the question of ‘Why is it stigmatized’?— I mean, why is the mind stigmatized in general? We are still so closed to talking about the capability of the mind. I think there’s a thing where our society wants us to be complacent, it wants us to believe that joy and happiness just come easily, as opposed to the fact that we have to work for them. As soon as you talk about some of these things, a lot of society will shut you down. And not because they don’t know about it—I think people know about it—but I think we’re all afraid. And maybe it’s because all of us have our own issues with it, and because we’re just not in a place where we talk about it openly.
I don’t mean to use a crude analogy here, but if someone is truly suffering from cancer, we would never say, ‘Oh, that person is just weak,’ or, ‘Oh, that person just needs to get their shit together.’ And yet often times people dismiss mental health issues in those very terms.
I think that analogy is a good analogy. When I think about my mother, and how she passed away, that’s what I think of. One of the things I’m scared about in talking about this, coming out with something like this, is that I don’t want to make it like, ‘Oh my mother died in a way that’s so much more tragic than the way other people die.’ I don’t think my mother would have wanted me to talk about it in a way where it was a bigger deal than someone who died from cancer. I think they’re equals. My mother was taken by an illness.
A lot of times what happens with cancer is that people get to a point where they can’t fight it any longer. There’s a point where many people who have cancer go through treatment, they try and they try and they try to conquer the illness, and then there’s a point where they’re just too tired. It’s a huge struggle, to fight with cancer. I just heard a beautiful story about an artist that I love. I was visiting his studio last week, and his son-in-law was telling us about when he died. He had cancer for a few years, and during the last part of the illness, he got to a point where he couldn’t make his work anymore—and his work was his life. He was in the studio every day. When it got to the point that he couldn’t do his work anymore, he decided that it was time to pass away. I think that happens with a lot of illnesses—there is a certain point where you make a choice. I don’t want to throw that out there as some large, sweeping thing—that’s a very complicated thing—but I do know that with fighting any physical ailment, you do get to a point where it’s too much to fight it. I think the same thing applies to mental illness. Something like a suicide, for people who actually do that, the illness has gotten so strong that they can’t really go on anymore. In my mother’s case, I know it most likely really hit her when she couldn’t be there for the people that she loved. Because that was her life’s work. When she couldn’t be there for others in the way she had been in the past, I think that was the point where it became too much. In her case, the treatment wasn’t available at the early stage. With mental health, you just don’t have that early stage care because we keep it hidden for so long.
Sometimes in the early stages, you don’t even know that you’re sick. It’s so easy to say, ‘Oh, I’m just feeling a little down right now.’
In terms of mental health, if you’re anxious for months straight and you can’t get out of it, a lot of people wouldn’t naturally think, ‘Oh, I need to get a checkup.’ It’s not that we don’t have a system for it, we do, but I do think that it’s less available and less open in terms of conversation. I’ve gone through periods of time where I’ve been through intense mental stuff and not sought any help, and it probably could have been a lot easier if I had.
I’m curious what your mom thought about your music.
She was always very encouraging. She was a huge music lover ever since she was very young. She grew up listening to a lot of different stuff. In her teens and 20s, her favorite bands were bands like the Stones. My sister and I would catch her sometimes home alone, and she’d put on the Rolling Stones and dance in the house. She would just be wild and free and listen to the Stones and dance. And she listened to a lot of contemporary music, too. She loved Radiohead. She was a literary person—she read and wrote a lot, and she was always hip to things. When I started playing music, she loved it. She listened to our music and she always loved it when I shared new songs with her. She got to see us play a couple of times, and I could see her in the crowd, and her eyes were just wide and excited.
You wrote “Beige Flowers” before your mother passed. One of the first things that struck me about the song is how lyrically direct it is.
My mother and I used to talk about death a lot. She had a very spiritual life, and she was interested in how lots of different traditions handled death, and so was I. We had a lot of conversations about death before she died, and even together we read about ways that different traditions handled death. She told me about ways that she would want to die, before this even became anything. So when she said this thing to me, she said it in a way that struck a chord with me. It felt strange. But at the same time, it wasn’t totally alien because we’d talked about things like this before. So there were two elements to it. One was, ‘Ok, is this just a conversation we’re having?’ But there was also a tinge of something different. She said things to my brother and my sister during this period of time that, looking back on them, we see them as cues that something was up. But at the time, because of the way that she was, it could have just been a commonplace conversation.
When I wrote the song, I was able to be open like that because there was none of the weight of it being a reality. I think it’s one of the most direct songs I’ve ever written. Usually, in my lyrics, I kind of mask things in the poetic. This one has elements of that, but it’s also pretty straightforward. That’s a scary thing to put out there. And when she passed away, I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to release this song. I can’t do it.’ It was too real. The lyrics were heavy at the time, but after she passed away, they became so much moreso. Now, this year, I’m starting to release more solo material, and I thought, ‘I can’t release anything else until I release this song.’ It was serendipitous timing, because there’s a lot of traditions in which the mourning period for someone passing goes for three years. That’s the ‘grief period.’ And so the song is being released three years after she died. I feel like this is the perfect time to say, ‘Here it is, this is what happened,’ and to also use it as a gift on some level.
There’s a lyric that really leapt out to me in the second verse. You sing: ‘I may be your mother the next time/ and you’ll play the son as it stands.’ It scanned to me as an attempt on your part to reverse roles with your mother, so that you could shoulder some of that pain she was feeling.
I like that read of it. That’s one of my favorite things about putting music out there—there’s so many different interpretations that can come. The words to me mean a specific thing, some of which is what you said, but there’s also more to it. Some of it involves things that my mother and I talked about—thoughts on death and what happens. I’m very interested in a lot of esoteric ideas, and one of the things my mother and I were both interested in was reincarnation. One of the things that becomes very interesting in a conversation about reincarnation is that you never know what roles you’re going to get. So that idea—What if someone who you lost ends up coming into your life in a completely different role in the future? Who’s to say that’s not a possibility? I’m not going to say it is, but who’s to say it’s not? So there’s a more literal meaning to that line as well.
Why did you choose to partner with Bring Change 2 Mind for this song?
When I finally decided I was going to release the song, I thought a lot about my intention for releasing it. I had done a few songs on the last Quilt record in which I had written statements about them, and I really liked that. I was doing a lot of conceptual artwork before I started doing music full-time, and for each project, I would usually make a video, and the video would have visual elements and sound elements, and I’d write a statement with it. And I liked that—it’s not that you’re telling the viewer what the thing means, but you’re giving them context for what you were thinking about when you were creating it.
So when I was thinking about, ‘What is my intention for releasing this song,’ I wrote down a series of points, and one of the main things that came out of that series of points was that if I was going to talk about how she died, the main thing I wanted to do was reach out my hands to people and say, ‘This is something that happens. And there is a stigma around it. And any little bit of conversation that can go into lessening that stigma is necessary.’ And I also thought, ‘I would like to give the proceeds to an organization that works in mental health awareness.’ So my publicist and I started putting together a list of organizations that we could potentially work with. And I started looking at all of these organizations, and I was thinking, ‘All of these organizations are really great, but they don’t hit that spot for me—that spot of increasing awareness.’ But I didn’t know enough about it to be able to find that type of organization on my own.
Now, along with my music, I am also a visual artist. One of the small projects I do are these drawings, which are portraits for people that are essentially portraits of their personalities. I’ll ask for a list of the material objects in people’s lives that they associate with themselves, and I use those to create these ‘pictures’ of them that have nothing to do with their faces. I do these drawings on commission.
So, there was a couple who wrote me to do a commission for them, and they sent me the long list of all of the different things in their lives that describe them. And at the end of the list it said, ‘My partner works in mental health, and he’s been working in mental health awareness for 20 years. He gives lectures and seminars…’ and I found myself thinking, ‘Oh my God, I need this person. This is a person who knows.’ So I wrote them and said, ‘This is very serendipitous. I’m in the middle of working on this project when you sent me this list, and I was wondering if I could talk with you about different organizations you may know.’ He gave me a list of organizations, and when I hit Bring Change 2 Mind it was really crazy, because the mission statement they had written for their organization pinpointed all of the same ideas I’d written out when I was thinking about my own intention for releasing the song.
The thing that made their organization different from other organizations is that their main focus is to eliminate stigma. That’s what they do. They do PSAs, they work with a lot of celebrities, they work in high schools and middle schools—which is really important to me, because if you get to kids when they’re young and you let them know that this is a thing, and it’s a normal thing, that allows people to start having the conversations about it. If you have mental health programs in schools, it helps to normalize it. So if a kid is having an issue, they can think, ‘Hey, this is normal. I can talk about it with someone, and I can get help.’
—J. Edward Keyes