From the Great Northeast in maple syrup country comes a band who dub their sound “suit folk,” and that band is Milton Busker and The Grim Work.
And in October, the band dropped their existentially-focused new album, Made of Stars.
Milton Busker & The Grim Work formed in 2014 after singer-songwriter Milton Busker ran into his old friend and fellow guitarist David Ball at a local farmer’s market- which is quite possibly the most Vermont beginning to a band ever.
They soon brought in mandolin player Jom Hammack and played as a three-piece until being joined by bass player John Treybal in early 2016. Dave Simpson rounded out the group on drums shortly after, and the group spent some time honing their repertoire at shows in the Burlington area.
They describe their “suit folk” sound as Americana/alt-country music and define it as “the people’s music.”
“It is an Appalachian ditty played by Cole Porter. It’s a gospel song for heretics. It’s hippie music for people that can’t afford to drop out. It’s a love song for the kid who couldn’t get a date but still dresses up for the dance.”
Made of Stars was recorded at Lane Gibson Studios in Charlotte, VT, by Jeremy Mendicino, and mastered by Ryan Cohen at Robot Dog Studios.
We got the chance to chat with Busker to learn more about their latest album, the Vermont folk scene, dream gigs, and more.
So how has the year treated you and the band? Any notable highlights?
You know, 2022 has been a pretty good year for us. The primary focus was on recording and releasing our album, Made of Stars. It was a multi-year project because of, you know [randomly gestures at everything], so finally having it out in the world feels like a big accomplishment. We were also able to release two music videos – “Internet Famous” with director Brandon St. Cyr, whose recent film The Green Knight (not the one with Dev Patel) won the Audience Prize at Vermont’s Made Here film festival, and a second one “Bucket of Blue” that was conceived, choreographed, and directed by my daughter, which just adds ridiculous levels of pride to the whole thing. Yeah, a good year.
What’s the folk and Americana scene like in Vermont these days?
I would say it’s pretty healthy. You’ve got some very big names like Noah Kahan and Anais Mitchell making waves in the industry at large, but there are so many amazing local, or local-ish artists that shift in and out of the folk/Americana category like Kat Wright, Cricket Blue, Eric George, Dan Blakeslee… there’s actually way too many to name. I think anywhere with a long winter breeds folk musicians – something about fires and acoustic instruments. That’s my theory, anyway.
Back in October you dropped your new album, Made of Stars. What drew you to go the cosmic route with this album? Are there any other themes or inspirations throughout?
Well, the inspiration for Made of Stars was extremely terrestrial. In 2017 my father was dying of cancer. I was spending time with him at a hospice center, understandably depressed, and I was seeing a bunch of positive thinking/motivational memes online. They made me angry more than anything. I thought about Carl Sagan’s quote that “we are made of star stuff” and evolved that into a song asking why, if everything’s so magical, was I not feeling anything? It’s a song that tries to call out how this type of positivity can be toxic when you boil it down to a sentence on Instagram.
I think the album opener, “Bucket of Blue,” is a manifesto for the album and our music as a whole – I tend to focus on the darker themes because life is hard and I’m wired that way, but I also think there’s a lot of joy baked into that exploration. In short, we’re here to have fun, but we’re also going to talk about some shit.
Did you find determining the order of songs on the album to be a challenge, and how important is that to you?
We generally record with the intent of releasing digitally, so song order doesn’t mean as much as it used to because EVERYTHING’S A SINGLE! That said, the band and I spent many, many texts mulling over which song would go where and why. It’s a process. We knew we wanted to start with “Bucket of Blue” and end with “Mind This Mind,” and we tried to craft a journey in between.
Is there a song on the album that was the most difficult to write/record for one reason or another?
We recorded the base tracks of the record over a weekend in February and we must have done 10 takes (felt like 100) on that Saturday for “Bucket of Blue” before giving up and moving on, thinking that it probably wasn’t going to make this album. But then we came back on Sunday morning and our engineer had queued up one of the runs and everyone was like, “Oh wait, what’s wrong with that one? That’s actually pretty good…” Don’t throw away your drafts, kids.
The most difficult to write would probably be “Earth and Air.” It deals directly with the loss of my father and I spent a lot of time trying to get the words right. Early on, I was trying to build the song around a repeated chorus lyric, “I miss wishing you would go away.” I wanted to talk about the luxury of having someone in your life that you love deeply, but you can only experience in small doses, and how when we were together I spent a good deal of time thinking, “Ok, that’s enough for now” and now I don’t have that anymore. I can’t wish that they would go away, which was surprisingly devastating for me to think about.
But the thing about that line is that I was then spending the entire song trying to explain what I meant because on its own, it sounds like a very callous sentiment. It just wasn’t working, until I had the breakthrough to switch the words and just be more direct and stop trying to be clever – “I wish missing you would go away.” It’s true, and I was able to speak more directly about the feelings around someone who is gone, and what’s lost with them, and how it’s not fair that everything keeps happening without them. I did throw the original line back in the final chorus, but it’s more of an Easter Egg now.
What has been your favorite/the most rewarding part of making this album?
I love recording, so that’s its own reward, followed by hearing what the rest of the band adds to the music I write, and getting the time to sit and listen to them without having to think about singing or playing guitar.
The absolute best part, though, is the response from our fans. The people who’ve reached out to say how much they enjoy the album or a particular song give me life. Seeing the streaming number continue to go up is a unique thrill. We adore the folks who take the time to listen.
What messages or feelings do you typically try to convey in your music?
Foot-tapping existential dread and social commentary.
What does success as a musician and songwriter mean to you?
It really depends on the day. Sometimes I think success means being able to quit the day-jobs and focus on music full-time. Other times success means millions of plays on multiple streaming services. But most of the time success is finishing a song and presenting it to the band, and having them like it enough to write their own parts for it and make it into something better, and then playing it for an audience that likes it enough to want to hear it again… and sometimes success is as simple as knowing you’re not going to ace this new part you’re learning or writing today and being okay with putting it down until you’re ready to tackle it again. One of the joys of being an independent artist is that there isn’t someone else defining success for you.
If you could tour and open for any present-day artist, who would it be and why?
This was a hotly debated question amongst the band, so I can’t name just one: if we shoot for the stars, we would pick Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne, and Taylor Swift because what would be better than playing to all those people and then getting to watch Bruce, David, and Taylor perform every night? Closer to Earth, but no less unlikely, we also thought Lake Street Dive and Bright Eyes would be good musical fits, but my personal answer is Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. I adore their albums and was able to catch them when they came to VT two summers ago. Every single member of that group is a beast that I would be thrilled to share a cage with.
What are some of your goals – whether musically or otherwise – for 2023?
The 2023 goal is to have Made of Stars be downloaded millions of times and to be invited to all of the folk music festivals… barring that, what’s the musical equivalent of “chop wood, carry water?” Play music, get fans? We’ve been slowly building something over the last few years, and we might not be totally sure what it is, but we’ll just keep building it.