Where John Butler calls home
John Butler invites Simon Collins inside his Margaret River retreat
While it’s probably not the only wheelie bin with a Frack Off ! sticker in Margaret River, this plastic receptacle belongs to John Butler.
When the 43-year-old roots rocker played to nearly 10,000 people at two sold-out anti-fracking concerts in late 2016, it wasn’t as a so-called celebrity activist but a local.
Four years ago Butler, wife Danielle Caruana (also known as musician Mama Kin) and their teenage kids, daughter Banjo and son Jahli, moved to a 2.8ha property just outside Margs.
There you’re just as likely to catch Butler wielding a chainsaw to chop up fallen branches from a karri tree, tending to his impressive vegie patch, or fashioning a knife in his big shed, as strumming an acoustic guitar or plucking a banjo.
“Dan and I, we both saw ourselves raising kids in the country,” said Butler, who was born in California, but moved to Pinjarra when he was 11.
During a literal fireside chat in the lounge room of their artistically-cluttered home, the ARIA and APRA award-winning musician recalls his teenage years in the region, camping by the Murray and Blackwood rivers.
“That’s my country,” Butler says, patting the family dog Pinda. “That’s where my grandfather lived and passed away.”
While they previously lived in the “big village” of Fremantle, Butler wanted a place to decompress after his regular tours of the US and Europe.
“We wanted a balance from a really highly intensely urban job, which was living in buses and carparks for three months on end and being in cities every night.”
The WA music legend says this in front of his makeshift shrine — a bookshelf loaded with animal skulls, bones and feathers, a world globe, and in a nod to his Bulgarian ancestry, two Byzantine icons.
A portrait of Frida Kahlo presides over a scene notable for the absence of his six ARIA trophies, most of which sit in the Fremantle office of his label, Jarrah Records.
The tree change seems to have fulfilled Butler’s search for home, which just happens to be the title of the John Butler Trio’s sixth studio album.
Recorded in producer Jan Skubiszewski’s Red Moon Studios in the Macedon Ranges late last year, Home sees the former busker exploring radically fresh terrain. The album melds heavier beats and modern textures to the familiar acoustic guitar workouts Butler has peddled since he was selling cassettes outside the Fremantle Markets 20-odd years ago.
Butler wrote and demoed the album by himself at home and in hotels, buses and planes using audio production application GarageBand. “On the six-hour drives (on tour) with nothing to do, I could make a whole song,” he says.
Gesturing to the acoustic instruments and other “old technology” hanging above the upright piano opposite the fireplace, he adds “I know them, I touch them and they make the sound I want . . . most computers don’t”.
However, Butler found GarageBand easy to use — “very intuitive and very musical” — and he soon had a dozen or so demos on his iPhone. Well, until he shook up his mobile so much while skateboarding that the application was accidentally deleted along with 13 song sketches.
But he bought an iPad and persevered with his new recording method, taking remade demos to Red Moon to be polished with Skubiszewski, who also worked on 2014’s ARIA Award-winning Flesh & Blood and has produced albums for the Cat Empire and Dan Sultan.
While that album was recorded with Trio bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Grant Gerathy, with brother-in-law Nicky Bomba helping out with loads of percussion, Home is effectively Butler’s first solo studio album since his self-funded 1996 cassette Searching For Heritage.
This new release is a world away from the Celtic-flavoured instrumentals of his first foray, especially the downbeat industrial electronica of the title track and lead single.
Butler, who will tour the new album with a beefed-up five-piece Trio, admits that dropping Home first was about “shock value” and “hopefully pissing a few people off”. He says that making Home and moving to the South West was about finding his “true north”..
The emotional centrepiece of Home is the folk ballad Coffee, Methadone and Cigarettes, inspired by his father, “a pretty colourful character” who lost his father, a forestry worker, in the Nannup bushfires of 1958.
“There’s this theory that it takes six generations to get over a family trauma,” Butler explains.
“I definitely believe in intergenerational pain and that summer, and my dad losing his dad, reverberated through the whole family. It still does.”
Butler has been musing on “fractal overlays” spanning generations of his family. His dad was nine when he lost his dad. Butler was about the same age when his parents divorced and his father, then in his early 40s, moved from the US to Pinjarra.
“I’ve got a fair perspective now,” he adds. “I can see where I came from and I can see where I’m going, how I want to be and what I’d like to change.”
■ Home is out now. John Butler Trio play Wignalls Wines near Albany on January 25, Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River, on January 27 and Kings Park on February 1, with Missy Higgins.
John Butler with the family dog Pinda.