The Butterfly Bull is a story about collaborations and the exploration of contradictions. About baseball and art. Love and loss. Dark yet hopeful. And it’s a story about singer/songwriter Nick Africano’s ability to pair some of the best elements of folk and soul with superb storytelling and raw passion.
The album’s roots date back to over seven years ago; the direct result of ideas Africano developed while studying the poetry of Federico Garía Lorca, and later composing “The Poetics of Contradiction,” his college thesis paper. The ideas behind the album further materialized five years later, when, knowing Africano’s passion for all things Spanish, his friend Peter returned from a trip to Spain with the perfect gift: a journal with a drawing of “el toro mariposa” (the butterfly bull) by painter Francisco de Goya, on the cover. “That little gift resulted in my best work to date,” said Africano.
He began by writing one word at a time on its pages. That quickly led to more lyrics and more words, all thematically inspired by the drawing of the bull with butterfly wings. “I’ve never felt so close to an image,” he said. “When I saw it, I thought immediately of my college thesis paper, and I remember thinking, ‘holy shit, this is the perfect visual embodiment of that idea.’”
But to better understand The Butterfly Bull, you need to know Africano. He was born seven weeks early in Watseka, IL, and lived on an incubator for a short while. He’s still always early. And is still strong-willed. A standout high school baseball player, at 17 he was sidelined by a stress fracture in his vertebrae. With only a 15% chance of a complete recovery, he disciplined himself to wear a solid plastic back brace 23 hours a day, every day for ten months. During that time, he couldn’t run or do what he loved most: swing a bat every day after school. It was his release, his escape and his form of performance.
Since he could no longer physically perform on that stage – the ball field – he found solace in another form, returning to an instrument that he had only begun to toy with: the guitar. He spent hours strumming the same chords on the front porch of his Normal, IL home, which later became his sanctuary and classroom for teaching himself guitar. It was there that he wrote his first song.
He continued to write throughout his time at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, but it was his mother’s death from breast cancer the week of his graduation that solidified his path as a musician. “She was my truest hero and best friend, and her death moved me to work as hard as I could to live my dreams. I like to think these little songs honor her life in some way,” he said.
After her funeral, her colleagues at Bloomington High School and many of her friends from church – all of whom knew of Africano’s plans to record — collected money to help him begin recording. “I was blown away by their generosity and try to always remember that my recording career started as a gift, and that helps me remember to try to give back as much as I can,” he said.
Africano’s move to New York City in july, 2008 helped further push his work, as did the band featured in The Butterfly Bull: Matt Basile (bass) and Adam Christgau (drums) and Boyce (vocals, keyboards). The disc was recorded at New York’s Cowboy Technical Services and Second Story Sound. The track “Heart of Dreams” was recorded at GaluminumFoil with Chris Cubeta and Jeff Berner, featuring Chris Morrissey on bass on drums.
Led by Africano’s deep rustic voice, and featuring folk and blues sounds, The Butterfly Bull captures the intensity and ambition of an artist intent on making his mark – a drive and ambition first developed in his early days of baseball. Africano’s rough vocals are sometimes spoken as much as sung, in a Waits meets Dylan style, with lyrics inspired by some of the greats: Federico García Lorca, Faulkner, Joyce and Hemingway. And then there’s Sam Cooke. “I’m inspired by his seemingly effortless delivery in his singing and his annunciation. It’s perfect. I could listen to Sam Cooke all day every day.”
Africano is also inspired by his father’s work. His father, Nicolas Africano, is an accomplished painter and sculptor, whose work can be seen in museums in Europe as well as in The Art Institute in Chicago, The Whitney in NYC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Nancy Hoffman Gallery and in Minneapolis with the Weinstein Gallery.
And so, two years ago, when Africano’s dear friend Peter gave him the butterfly bull journal, he saw the contradiction embodied in an image. The songs on The Butterfly Bull speak to this theme of mystery and contradiction and use the butterfly bull as its champion, as its’ lens through which to make sense of some of the ideas.
He says: “The lightness of butterflies, the weight of bulls, the impossibility and the possibility. That a bull can fly! That butterflies can carry bulls!! Wholenesses. Harmony somehow. The image the limitation and the limitation the liberty. The butterfly bull.