At 16 John Butler’s music career started on a whim as he took to busking the streets of Australia. Today, twenty-something years later, the front man of the John Butler Trio has surpassed all expectations—unimaginable expecations, nonetheless. He’s released five albums and has been nominated and won a multitude of awards from the Australian Recording Industry Association and the Australasian Performing Right Association. Currently on tour supporting his sixth album “Flesh and Blood,” Butler continues to push barriers by delivering thoughtful and emotional music. But it wasn’t always that way…
In youth Butler was far more concerned with carving half pipes and becoming a professional skateboarder than practicing a C-chord on the 12-string. His short attention span left him bored of music on the airways, so he began writing lyrics of his own.
“It was a great way to express how I felt about being a teenager,” Butler says. “It was more like a diary—a great journal to record my experiences.”
Though he took guitar lessons on and off for a few years—despite breaking his arm a few times from skateboarding—the real impetus to play came from the gifting of his grandfather’s slide guitar after he passed away in a bush fire that enflamed part of Western Australia. Butler’s grandmother announced that whomever learned how to play the guitar first would get to keep it. “I got the guitar without really wanting it,” Butler admits; however, today it’s his favorite instrument with immeasurable value. He also continues to play on a 12-string he’s had since he first started busking. “I’ve had that guitar for more than 20 years,” Butler tells. “It’s not in great condition, a bit beaten around, but it’s a good friend and still plays.”
On those strings Butler has written quite a few hits like the 12-minute instrumental “Ocean” and the song “Used to Get High for a Living.” Three years after the John Butler Trio’s 2010 release “April Uprising,” the band hit the studios where Butler shared the pen for the first time with members Nicky Bomba (drums/percussion/vocals) and Bryon Luiters (bass/organ/vocals). The trio cowrote the downtempo groove, “Blame it on Me,” and the shout-along “Devil Woman.” After working a solid three weeks in the studio in 2012, they completed “Flesh and Blood” and began working on the promotional side, booking world tours and festival slots, doing video shoots, and conducting media interviews.
But before finishing “Flesh and Blood,” Bomba’s side project, the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, took off on the Australian music scene. Butler recognized the momentum his brother-in-law’s orchestra gained. So Butler pulled the plug on their album to allow Bomba to focus on the orchestra. During the band’s down time, Butler took on the role as a stay-at-home dad to his 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
“I feel really lucky to always be there for my kids’ first words, steps, swims—the good stuff,” he says. “I haven’t missed anything. I have an extremely supportive wife, who is just as committed as I am in making sure we stay together as a family as much as we can.”
His time off allowed for wife Danielle Caruana (a.k.a. Mama Kin) to release her second album, “The Magician’s Daughter,” in February 2013. It was then that Butler was introduced to Australian producer Jan Skubiszewski, which led to Skubiszewski’s final engineering of “Flesh and Blood.” The album features the band’s wide palette of sounds, as members play an assortment of instruments, from guitars, drums and percussion, to steel pans, pianos and Wurlitzers, to organs, synthesizers and clavinet keyboards, Rhodes and Ebows.
“I’m always looking to bring something to life that you don’t understand,” Butler explains. “You hear it in your head, but how to make it into a sound and onto a song is always a mystery.”
Butler added percussionist Grant Gerathy—whom bassist Luiters worked with in the band Ray Mann Three—in place of Bomba. When the John Butler Trio returned to the studio, they sealed the album’s final touches and added “How You Sleep at Night” to the track list. “Only One” became the debut single, and in the fall of 2013, the official music video was released, directed by Ben Young—a freelance West Australian director who also worked on videos for artists like Simone & Girfunkle, the Emperors, Split Second, and the Voltaire Twins. Young fulfilled Butler’s vision of turning “Only One” into a zombie love story.
“The song is a very sweet, very unashamed love song about how much I love my lady,” Butler says with a laugh. “I just thought that if I was sitting on the beach, singing into the camera around a campfire, I might want to punch myself. I wanted something a little different [in the video] to juxtapose it.”
Recently, the John Butler Trio has joined a lenghthy list of contenders—Melbourne’s Bored Nothing, Lowlakes and Nun, among 30 others—in the running for the Australian Music Prize. A $30,000 award for the best album of the year will be announced in March. Until then, the trio is focusing on the road and delivering the best show possible to fans far and wide.
“We all want something magical to take place,” Butler says. “And when that happens, it doesn’t feel like [our fans] are Japanese, American, or Australian, or hipsters or hip-hoppers, or 13 or 70. We all just feel like spirits enjoying spirits. It’s vague and cliché, but I find that the case is, we’re really not that different at all.”
Butler will say goodbye to his home Down Under and hello to fans overseas, as he embarks on his “Flesh and Blood” tour. It will stop at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater this Friday, November 8, accompanied by opening act and upcoming Norwegian artist Monica Heldal. Handel is promoting her debut album “Boy from the North.”
John Butler Trio
November 8, 5:30 p.m.
Tickets: $35-$40 • All ages
Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre