The state of Vermont is experiencing a quasi-renaissance creatively and has been since the turn of the decade, with numerous musical artists making a national impact. One of the emerging faces at the forefront of this movement, alongside artists like 99 Neighbors and North Ave Jax, is Kelly Butts-Spirito.
A self-proclaimed videographer and director, Butts-Spirito is a fierce visionary who’s driven by the idea of pushing boundaries in overlapping creative spaces, with his “Love, Kelly” brand being attached to music videos and concerts, with plans to expand into fashion in the future.
Some of these concerts have packed 200-plus person venues while also having to turn away that many and more, and artists he has worked with include Trippie Redd and KBFR, the latter who has reached nuclear popularity through a TikTok hit single. And with all of these accomplishments under his belt at his young age, he’s able to exude energy through social media positivity and in-person crowd work.
While the rise of Butts-Spirito may be inevitable, his past would not lead you to believe he’d be where he is today.
In his younger years, Butts-Spirito dealt with substance abuse issues that had plagued him from middle-school age. By 17, he was asked to leave Burlington High School and find a new place to figure stuff out. He spent three months in a rehab facility, and then moved to a group home in Montana. He maintains that while these were tough times, having the experiences under his belt led him to where he is today.
“It’s hard to be a judgemental drug addict,” he chuckles. “And being sober at this age, you have to be really willing to be different.”
After he returned from the group home, he participated in a post-graduate year at Massachusetts’ Winchendon School, where he rediscovered his stride as an athlete in baseball and cross-country, leading to collegiate attention and an eventual career, first at Ithaca, then Evansville. While this proved positive at first, the environment wasn’t right in either situation, and Butts-Spirito withdrew altogether.
But he took a liking to making videos at Winchendon and has spent time in a couple of different studios, most notably this past summer in Atlanta.
A fun part of the experience of growing as a creator is being able to field calls from people who turned him away, like Seven Days and the Burlington Free Press, he said.
His creativity has kept him close to home, as well. In late November, Butts-Spirito released a video with Burlington-based artist Jackson Sevakian, who performs under the stage name “North Ave Jax.” The video for “Trust Nobody” has racked up 295,000 views on YouTube and the audio has over 600,000 plays on SoundCloud. And while this isn’t the first time the two have collaborated, it’s the most notable to date.
That relationship dates back a few years, but re-emerged in the early parts of the original quarantine when Butts-Spirito heard Sevakian’s music and was inspired to reach out and reform it on a more professional level.
North Ave Jax was recently signed to Love Renaissance Records and for Butts-Spirito, it’s been a very enjoyable experience to bear witness to his ascension, as well.
“He keeps improving, and what we have isn’t like any other artist relationship, it’s more like a partnership,” he said.
The “Trust Nobody” video was shot entirely in Burlington and many of the video’s shoots take place in locations that have a sort of tongue-in-cheek meaning for the young artist and director, who both look back on their high school experiences with less than fondness. This came with a bit of pushback from the record label, but Butts-Spirito says that it was worth it in the end, especially with the local impact it had.
That local impact was felt again in November through a concert under the Love, Kelly brand hosted at Burlington’s ArtsRiot!. The show was headlined by KBFR, whose song “Hood Baby” was a TikTok hit in 2020 and who recently collaborated with Butts-Spirito on another video. Also featured were Zaia, the funk-fueled Atlanta MC, and Burlington’s Sevakian, and the concert had to turn away as many people as it admitted.
This journalist also had the opportunity to perform at the show, accompanying Castleton’s Obi the Voicegod. Butts-Spirito said that southern Vermont, and Rutland County are “really dope markets” and “untapped by Burlington people, mostly.”
As he looks to do just that, Butts-Spirito is working with West Rutland native and Castleton University student Tyler Serrani on a video and wants to do more.
“I’m trying to get into speaking at schools, and it would be an honor to speak at Castleton. I think it would have meant a lot to me as a freshman in college to hear my story now, you know?” he said.
Serrani, who performs under his own name, is working with Butts-Spirito on a video for his track “basketcase,” and already looks at him as “somewhat of a mentor” within their short relationship.
“It felt like I had known Kel for so much longer than I did, I guess that’s just the impression he makes on people,” Serrani said.
As for the ArtsRiot! Show, Butts-Spirito said, “The coolest part for me was there were people from every chapter, from you, Jax, KB, Zaia, some of my friends from rehab even showed up. And getting to work with my friends Kevin and Marley on it made it even more special.”
The aforementioned Kevin and Marley are Kevin Garrison and Marley Tipper, two more Burlington products who are old friends of Butts-Spirito’s.
Tipper broke into modeling and online influencing (@marleytipper) around the time Kelly started to make videos, and has reached success in both fields, with over 31,000 Instagram followers to boot.
“She has a real talent for knowing what will blow up,” Butts-Spirito said, emphasizing her importance to the whole process.
“I’ve known Kelly for seven or eight years now, he is one of the most driven people I know. Behind the scenes can get foul, but he always pulls through and makes the best of everything. Love that man,” Tipper said.
Garrison was a former standout athlete in both football and basketball at BHS who started working closer with Butts-Spirito after a house show he put on.
“One thing that allows Kelly to be successful is that he doesn’t let failure defeat him and that is why he’s in the position he is right now. He embodies dedication and consistency,” Garrison said. “I’m sure Kelly will face 100 more obstacles too, but I’ll put my money on him every time to overcome them,” he continued. “He defeats hate with love, something this world needs now more than ever.”
Butt-Spirito is planning a future show at Higher Ground and reflected on where he’s been and where he’s going.
“My mistakes don’t define me anymore, the way I was really afraid they would,” Butts-Spirito added.