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Cereus Bright Offers Infectious Folk On “Happier Than Me” (INTERVIEW)

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Knoxville’s Cereus Bright plays infectious, high-energy folk music that’s receiving increased attention, especially after recent slots opening for high-profile artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jackie Greene and The Lone Bellow. The band’s five-song EP “Happier Than Me” demonstrates the emotional and sonic range of their music, from contemplative to raucous. The most interesting and complex song on the EP is the title track.

Songwriter and lead singer Tyler Anthony and I talked about “Happier Than Me” before Cereus Bright’s recent show in Charlotte.

 

I looked at your picture

To see what you had done

Opened up my chest and took

A bullet from a gun

 

When I looked at your picture

It catapulted me

Never loved, no never lost

I’m stuck in the between

 

I can’t let you be

Happier than me

I can’t let you know

How far I have let myself go

 

I watched from a distance

To see how you had grown

It breaks my heart to watch him reap

The seeds that I had sown

 

I watched from a distance

Though it tears me through

I’d rather weep and wilt than lose

My only link to you

 

I can’t let you be

Happier than me

I can’t let you know

How far I have let myself go

 

I can’t stand to see

You away from me

I can’t let you go

Till I walk away from your window

 

I can’t let you be

Happier than me

I can’t let you know

How far I have let myself go

 

“I wrote the song in the midst of a breakup,” Tyler says. “And I found, as a lot of people do, they’re over-connected. With social media these days, it’s really hard to move on because there’s this voyeurism that social media allows us now. We can kind of always peek in on these people’s lives. And you see that they’ve got a new person writing on their wall or they seem like they’re doing well cause they’re instagramming all these fun pictures or writing these funny tweets and they seem unfazed by the pain, whereas, you’re living in it. And not only is it easy to watch and observe and stalk a little bit, but it also made me feel like I needed to put forward the best face. Like I wanted to seem like I was doing better than they were.”

The lyrics come across as raw and honest, and that might be because of the immediacy of the emotions Tyler felt as he was writing it.

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“I can remember writing the first few lines. I was sitting on the ground leaning against my bed, and I was in this kind of dark mood, and I had my guitar but I kept picking up my phone, kept looking at stuff. And I put it down and I was literally writing exactly what I was doing.”

The prominence of social media in our lives introduces a new challenge for songwriters. If Facebook, for example, is central to an emotional situation you’re experiencing, how do you write about the feelings without talking about Facebook, which will eventually sound dated?

“It’s hard because I’m writing kind of folky music. It’s interesting to talk about stuff that affects your life, but you’re really talking about social media. How do you write about that? Even though it’s become such a big part of our lives. So this song was kind of an experiment of trying to write about some of the modern stuff in a way that felt still more timeless.”

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The tone of the music reflects the mood of the lyrics. Ominous. Stalkerish. From the first, somewhat dissonant chord that fades in at the beginning of the song, to the way that the melody at the end of the chorus descends step-by-step as he sings “how far I will let myself go,” Tyler says his goal was to “create that synchrony between the music and the content, to communicate it on all fronts.”

“The song kind of starts very intimate and raw and dark but then after that first chorus it opens up. You got the strings and the toms and it gets so loud and aggressive and I think it mirrors that internal journey. It’s sadness and those feelings, but there’s also anger. So I try to go to both of those places.”

I ask him what he did, instrumentally, to achieve the dark tone of the song.

“There’s a couple things I remember us doing,” he says. “One was the guitar we chose. I recorded with my main guitar for a lot of the songs but for this one we borrowed a really old one that was a friend’s. It was kind of a beat up guitar and it just had this natural darkness, creepiness to it. Anything from that to even some of the percussion. For the first hits, a percussionist we hired, he was holding a bunch of old bones or shells, and he was dropping them a little bit. It’s funny how you can kind of find sounds that do that.”

When the toms come in after the first chorus they sound primitive. You can almost imagine them as hand drums. And, really, the emotions Tyler is describing in the song are as primitive as they come. Jealousy, competition, obsession, pride. Those weren’t invented by social media. They’re just part of being human.

“Some of these elements are universal. People have always been like that. But social media gives us this tool, it kind of rewards us for letting that part of us, that very primitive, competitive part of us, rise up and rule. We’re rewarded when we let that happen.”

If you’ve ever checked the number of likes, favorites or retweets on something you’ve posted, you know what he’s talking about.

“It creates this culture where we’re constantly having to manage our self image, or our digital image. And always trying to make what we put out there seem the best, seem happiest, seem sexiest, whatever. And it’s weird.

“Singing and writing songs doesn’t necessarily cure me of it, but if nothing else I get to admit it, and hopefully others get to connect and say ‘been there’ or ‘I know exactly how that feels.’”

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