JOHN BUT­LER

JOHN BUT­LER HAS JUST RE­LEASED HIS SEV­ENTH STU­DIO AL­BUM, HOME. ALEX WIL­SON CHATS WITH ONE OF OUR BIG­GEST HOMEGROWN MU­SI­CIANS TO TOUCH ON HIS DEEP THE­O­RIES BE­HIND SONG­WRIT­ING AND GUI­TAR SO­LOS, AND PRO­VIDE A CHECK-IN FOR THOSE FIGHT­ING MEN­TAL ILL­NESS IN THE

Australian Guitar - - Contents -

The blues hero touches on his the­o­ries be­hind song­writ­ing and men­tal health.

John But­ler’s lat­est sin­gle “Just Call” is a prime piece of rootsy pop, built on his trade­mark evoca­tive fin­ger­pick­ing, but it didn’t have the eas­i­est jour­ney into his en­vi­able cat­a­logue. The starry-eyed, lov­ing trib­ute to his wife Danielle was an idea that or­bited But­ler’s muse for 13 years be­fore mak­ing it to wax.

“I could just never find the right cho­rus,” But­ler ad­mits, “Or the right sec­ond verse. But the song would just not let me go. It kept com­ing back, like a lost puppy. And the night be­fore the al­bum ses­sion, the words just came to me. I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing!’ I just fin­ished the whole song, boom, in one sit­ting. It’s so thrilling, and such a shock at the same time .”

He’s un­doubt­edly suc­cess­ful now – four of his last five al­bums hit # 1 on the ARIA Charts, and that one er­rant disc made it to sec­ond place – but But­ler is much like his song, hav­ing taken a long jour­ney to find his home in the in­dustr y. Born in the mid ‘70s, his fam­ily even­tu­ally re­lo­cated from sunny Cal­i­for­nia to a small town in Western Aus­tralia called Pin­jarra.

As a child, he was gifted a do­bro by his grand­mother, and learned to play it when he wasn’t out skate­board­ing. Af­ter high school, he spent the early ‘90s back in C al­i­for­nia try­ing to cop a break, re­turn­ing to Fre­man­tle in ’96 as a busker. It was here that he was dis­cov­ered, and was then able to es­tab­lish a foothold in the Aus­tralian mu­sic in­dus­try.

It’s a story with a mythic scope, tinged with destiny. Hav­ing come up the way he did, it’s no sur­prise that mu­sic’s mys­te­ri­ous in­ner work­ings hold a spe­cial place in But­ler’s heart. He’s thought­ful and ar­tic­u­late, com­ing across a bit like a philoso­pher trapped in­side one of Aus­tralia’s most iconic mu­si­cians.

He muses upon how favourite demos can end up left off al­bums, and songs that he thought you’d never fin­ish turn into the big­gest sin­gle.

IF YOU’RE GO­ING TO DO A SOLO, MAKE IT SPEAK THE SPIRIT OF SONG.

Song­writ­ing, to him, is metaphor­i­cal, al­chem­i­cal and mys­te­ri­ous. He likens it to tam­ing a brumby.

“You go out bush to find a song, but it’s of­ten hard to get it to come back with you,” But­ler rhap­sodises. “Plenty of times, you’ll be rid­ing a song back into town and it kicks you off. Ev­ery song has to be sad­dled in a dif­fer­ent way, and in that sense, we’re re­ally just ser­vants to our own songs.”

One of the things that strikes you about But­ler is his abil­ity to weigh the big pic­ture against the finer de­tails. When he talks about the specifics of song­writ­ing, he ad­mits that he has be­come more picky as he’s grown older. Balance seems im­por­tant, and he says that “there’s al­ways a fine line for me. I like to shoot from the hip, be­ing re­ally reck­less and naïve. But I also like to be ma­ture and well-crafted.”

Pas­sion vs. tech­nique is a mu­si­cal de­bate with a long his­tory. For But­ler, there is no con­test, in the sense that emo­tion is the prime mover of mu­sic. But he does say that one can work on be­com­ing a bet­ter horse­man, “so that you have what it takes to bring even the wildest song back into the city.

“Take Jimi Hen­drix. When I lis­ten to him – when I lis­ten to ‘ Voodoo Chile’ or ‘Ma­chine Gun’ – the raw emo­tion in those songs…”

But­ler pauses, as if to con­tem­plate deeply, and then comes back to the topic by way of the gui­tar solo. “I al­ways love when the song’s sto­ry­telling hands the ba­ton over to the gui­tar and the gui­tarist says ev­ery­thing that the words couldn’t say. The lyrics can take it so far, but then the gui­tar brings to life the sub­lime that goes be­yond lan­guage. I think that’s our job.

If you’re go­ing to do a solo, make it speak the spirit of song. To get there, you have to re­ally sur­ren­der your­self. When I lis­ten to Hen­drix, I hear a gui­tarist who has a di­rect line be­tween spirit and tech­nique.”

But­ler’s lat­est al­bum, Home, sur­veys much of the emo­tional ter­ri­tory touched on when he talks about mu­sic. It’s heart­felt, and for a man revered for his gui­tar skills alone, it’s an al­bum clearly driven by the heart’s joys and trou­bles above all else. Re­flect­ing on the ups and downs of life as a mu­si­cian, But­ler took some time out to speak about how mu­si­cians man­age their tur­bu­lent emo­tions within a daily rou­tine.

He then draws an un­ex­pected, but strik­ing anal­ogy. “We’re like fly-in fly-out work­ers. You are con­stantly leav­ing the peo­ple you love to do your job. Along with that bub­ble, the stage is a place of adren­a­line and the rest of tour­ing is of­ten just com­ing down from that state of be­ing.”

Then comes the dan­ger. “You’re of­ten by your­self with a full rider of al­co­hol around you. The lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion ripe for fill­ing the void in the worst way.”

There’s real re­gret on the tele­phone line when But­ler talks about miss­ing first steps, first words and first days of school. He’s vul­ner­a­ble when con­fess­ing about how his anx­i­ety about leav­ing home and fam­ily can man­i­fest in anx­i­ety and ir­ri­ta­tion directed at those he loves the most.

More­over, He’s at pains to point out that he be­lieves what he ex­pe­ri­ences is a re­flec­tion of wider so­ci­ety, rather than a unique strug­gle of mu­si­cians. Even more per­cep­tively, he high­lights the strug­gle of tour­ing crew, who are of­ten de­nied the break from the road that mu­si­cians can ex­pect.

“I met one bus driver who had been on tour for 18 months with no break,” But­ler re­calls. “That does dam­age to your so­cial con­nec­tions and your place within your com­mu­nity. Un­for­tu­nately, the ‘real world’ will have a hard time un­der­stand­ing this kind of rou­tine, but we need to talk about it and find the par­al­lels.”

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