Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #130. Subscribe to our print edition here!
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 music industry.
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 industry. 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 California 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. 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.”
Friday January 25th - Wignalls Winary, Albany
Sunday January 27th - Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River
Friday February 1st - Kings Park & Botanic Garden, Perth
Saturday February 2nd - Kings Park & Botanic Garden, Perth
Thursday February 7th - Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne
Saturday February 9th - All Saints Estate, Wahgunyah
Sunday February 10th - Stage 88, Canberra
Thursday February 14th - Sydney Opera House Forecourt, Sydney
Friday February 15th - Sydney Opera House Forecourt, Sydney
Saturday February 16th - A Day On The Green, Pokolbin
Sunday February 17th - Park Beach Reserve, Coffs Harbour
Wednesday February 20th - Moncrieff Entertainment Centre, Bundaberg
Thursday February 21st - The Great Western, Rockhampton
Friday February 22nd - Riverstage, Brisbane
Saturday February 23rd - Tolosa Park, Hobart