Local Current Blog

BJ Burton, producer for Bon Iver, Low, Francis and the Lights, talks about setting up shop in Minneapolis

Producer BJ Burton, photographed at Justin Vernon's April Base studio during the sessions for the Bon Iver album 22, A Million (Photo by Dan Huiting)

BJ Burton likes to keep a low profile. He mentioned this several times while chatting over coffee on Wednesday, a sheepish grin creeping across his face as he squinted into the morning sun.

That low profile is probably why, even after several years of co-writing, producing, engineering and mixing critically acclaimed albums by Bon Iver, Francis and the Lights, Sylvan Esso, Hippo Campus, Low, and Lizzo, to name a few, he remains one of the most unsung and underrated producers tied to the Twin Cities. It’s probably why he’s been hesitant to talk to press, which he has rarely done until this week, or get into specifics about who he might work with next.

And it’s exactly why his new studio won’t even have a name; for Burton, his reputation as a collaborator and producer more than speaks for itself.

So why is he talking now? Because he’s in the process of setting up his own space for the first time ever — and because this new space is in a city he’s decided to call home after nearly a decade of bouncing between North Carolina, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Eau Claire. Burton has just purchased the former Humans Win! studio in Northeast Minneapolis from the building’s owners, the musically inclined Tyler Erickson and Varun Kataria, who are shifting their attention to a restaurant and venue they’re developing in Brooklyn. Erickson and Kataria were renting the downstairs recording space to Humans Win! and upstairs apartment to a separate tenant; both have vacated so that Burton can begin repairing the building and moving in his own equipment.

“The studio’s in good shape, but the building itself needs help,” Burton said. “It’s going to be an undertaking. I was like, maybe that’s healthy for me, you know — to actually have something to take care of. Because I need to slow down. I’ve been nonstop for five years. So that certain spot just made sense.”

It won’t be the first time Burton has lived in Northeast, and he has fond memories of the music he’s already made in the area — like Lizzo’s Big GRRL Small World, which he co-wrote with the artist in a rented bedroom that he was living in at the time.

“I texted her a couple days ago and was like, yo, let’s make music in Minneapolis again,” he said, perking up in his seat as he contemplated the possibilities. “Let’s channel this Minneapolis vibe again and see what happens.”

Burton, who hails from North Carolina, first came to the Midwest in 2010 through his work with the Durham group Megafaun. The band brought him back to their hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and introduced him to former bandmate, Justin Vernon, and soon he was tapping into the buzzing network of Eau Claire-Minneapolis musicians who were preparing to tour behind the supergroup Gayngs — like Zach Coulter and Adam Hurlburt of Solid Gold and the producer Ryan Olson, who all immediately recognized Burton’s talent in the studio. By 2011, he was contemplating a move to Minneapolis full-time so he could continue working with local groups like Solid Gold and Poliça.

“Ryan Olson picked me up from North Carolina in his car and brought me to his house, and we worked on music a lot,” he remembered. “I got introduced to a lot of people around here through that. And then when Justin wasn’t on tour he’d be like, ‘Yo, come over,’ and we’d just mess around with sounds in his studio for hours, and just challenge what sound can do, you know. Which, years later, kind of blossomed into the relationship we have now, with the last album.”

Burton’s fingerprints are audible on the boundary-pushing Bon Iver album 22, A Million; he co-wrote three of the tracks (“10 Death Breast,” “29 #Strafford Apts,” and “8 Circle”) and is credited in the liner notes as “Noble Black Eagle,” a key collaborator who helped with everything from programming sounds to recording a saxophone part. You can also hear his influence all over the most recent Low album, Ones and Sixes, as the edges of the songs sear and sizzle with the subtle addition of distortion and electronic manipulations; and on Lizzo’s Big GRRL Small World, especially in more experimental moments like on the three-part opus “Bother Me.” Other examples of his influence in the studio are harder to pinpoint; his work with more folky groups like Megafaun and the Tallest Man on Earth is more subtle and atmospheric.

“I’m very careful about the palette that I choose. I always want to hear something that’s new, or very dynamic, or very clean or very dirty. I don’t want it to be in the middle,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t want to have a sound, you know what I mean? The artists that I’m working with — it’s their voice that I’m trying to embellish and make louder and push farther.”

He feels particularly proud of his work with the group Hippo Campus, who he met when the group was just finding its sound in the studio. They are one of the groups he’s working with again now, putting the finishing touches on their next album, in addition to Low (who are on track to release a new album this fall) and the English artist the Japanese House.

Burton said he’s eager to bring more internationally known artists to Minneapolis and to show them all this hidden gem of a musical city has to offer. “Everyone that’s come here is kind of like, ‘Whoa, this is here?’ Like when Twin Shadow was here — I took him to Bunker’s on a Monday to see the Mambo’s Combo, and he was like, ‘Whoa. You could never do something like this in LA; you could never see this in LA.’ So that was pretty great,” he says.

Even though only a couple weeks have passed since he closed on the building, and even though there is still lots of remodeling work to be done — a dab of blue paint was drying to his pants as we spoke, with traces of white plaster are tucked among his waves of black hair — Burton is already busy in the studio getting his gear situated and bringing in artists to explore the space.

“I’m running downstairs and me and Francis are making beats, you know, then going up and painting. It’s pretty great,” he says. “Justin came over yesterday. People are just coming in to show support. It’s been sweet.”

  • Johannes Esteban

    Kind of weird of you guys to completely gloss over how badly Burton and the building owners screwed Lance Conrad and Humans Win, but why ruin a feel-good story with the facts? As long as we get nationally-recognized producers to live here, who cares whether or not local artists get the shaft, right?

    If Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were pushed out of their studio by Rick Rubin in the ’80s, would such flowery prose have been spent regaling us of Rick’s noble intentions? Would only a footnote been given to Jimmy and Terry informing us that they had vacated the premises so that he could begin remodeling? The Current prides itself on its commitment to the local scene, yet stories like this are very telling of the station’s ultimate loyalty.

    • Brandon

      The Current Prides iteself in The Current’s version of the “local scene.”

  • Serita Colette

    Andrea- your journalism is DEPLORABLE! Get the whole damn story. Can you at least write an ounce of truth on what went down. You know who Lance is…you’ve met and chatted and said hello to him in public many many many times. You know none of this is the real story, but you made the choice to social climb then be real. You owe it to your music community to be a writer of truth and what’s really going on. Wow.

  • Benny

    Yeah, the story seems pretty basic. Lance Conrad and Humans Win! pour their blood, sweat, and tears into building a great studio. Out-of-town producer swoops in and buys their baby. Seems like there should be more outrage here.