Catching up with the John Butler Trio playing in Toronto on Sunday
Talented Aussie musician on a mission to give audiences the chills
John Butler was born in America, but grew up and lives in southwestern Australia
The John Butler Trio are the best-selling independent Australian artists of all-time. Butler is an astounding guitarist and vocalist whose music combines elements of blues, rock, hip hop and folk. He has a history of speaking out on environmental and political issues through his music, but has looked inward in recent years for inspiration. In September, Butler released Home, which could be his most introspective and powerful work to date. The John Butler Trio plays the Danforth Music Hall on Nov. 25. Post City caught up with Butler and asked him about creating music with positive messages in an era marked by negativity.
We live in a crazy time, it’s very negative. As a socially-conscious artist, how has that impacted your live show?
Having been politically and socially active through my music, sometimes I felt, personally, that my music career was not enough to tell you the honest truth. When I started my career, I was surrounded by forest activists who were laying their lives on the line to protest forests with hundreds of years old trees from being wood-chipped and sold off overseas. And it seemed a worthwhile way to live your life to protect your culture, your land and your country from corporate greed and dodgy politicians. And here I was looking at pictures of myself and designing posters for my album launch and it felt a little vacuous and I felt like I needed something else. I thought that if my music could be a vehicle of positivity that I could do this, and it wouldn’t feel so vacuous and self indulgent.
What do you mean self-indulgent?
I mean what does my music even do? I’ve created thousands of tonnes of carbon flying and driving around everywhere. I post pictures of myself on Facebook that seemed to be liked more than really important shit. And, you know, I’m telling my stories and there is a lot of contradiction.
So how did you come to terms with it?
I’ve worked out that I’m in the business of giving people the chills. When I go to a live show and get the chills I feel connectivity, I feel love and I feel divinity, magic and wonder. To me, that’s the spice of life. That breaks down barriers and walls and erodes fear. I don’t think you have to be literal in your political leanings in your lyrics or what you do at your shows. If you’re creating love and connectivity and giving people the chills, then you’re doing a good job. And that’s all I try to do nowadays, because it is so convoluted otherwise. That’s my deal and that’s all I can do. That’s all I got.
I know you worked on this new album a lot on your own before hitting the studio. And, it’s more introspective. What was on your mind when you set to work?
I mean, the journey was different. Things are always changing, preferences, styles. What I was trying to achieve 10 years ago, I’m not trying to achieve now. But, in some ways I’m still trying to find the sweet spot of folk, rock and hip hop. But I’m not a rock artist. I’m not a hip hop artist. I’m basically a folk artist who doesn’t like listening to folk.
Tell me more about your internal journey and how music helps you through that.
Music is amazing, the poetry, the chords. It is amazing how powerful it is in conveying the unexplainable and the difficult and the profound. I think that’s why I am a musician to this day because I’m still kind of mesmerized and bewildered by the process. That being said, every album seems like an autobiographical journey about where I’m at. Ten or 15 years ago, I was becoming a father and it was the beginning of me having to become a man. The real journey is about who I am and what it is to be a man, and this album is the latest chapter of that in a lot of ways.
And, of course, it is called Home, tell me how the concept of home resonates.
Home is a physical but also a spiritual place. It’s a state of mind. It’s people as well, my family, my children, my friends. Home, the song, is about being away, but the album is more about what it’s like to be home in the shell I’m currently occupying you know. How can I be at home with it, and just exploring that idea.
How has your approach to songwriting changed over the past two decades?
In the early days, the song would serve me and I felt very entitled. I don’t mean that in a literal way. I wasn’t some psychotic weirdo who speaks to his songs. But, I think I approached it that way. It was very literal. And, now I see it has inverted, where I am the servant of the song and whatever the song wants, the song gets.
What about lyrically?
I am always trying to write better lyrics and bring the listener more into my world, but also to bring myself into their worlds. You want to create an avatar essentially where the listener hops into your song and experiences what you feel you know but they are in your body when doing it. To do that, that’s an alchemy. I don’t claim to understand it, but I’ve done a couple things I’m proud of, and lots that I’m not, and it was like wow that was cool. And I want to do it again. That’s how it’s changed.
How do you stay grounded when you’re touring so much?
I go running, a.k.a. chasing the crazy man around. I meditate. And then just try to control my mind, to tell you the honest truth. My mind is pretty active. Strange thing about being on the road, it’s very regimented. It’s not a very rock n roll lifestyle. I’m always figuring out if I get enough sleep, drank enough water, need to plan lunch and dinner so I have the right amount of carbs and energy. You need to be regimented enough so when you flip that switch at 9:30, you’re ready. The biggest party is always on stage. The biggest priority is that I’m worth it for the audience who have decided to share their hard earned cash with me, and gotten babysitters. I mean, we live in a busy fucking world you know, I want to make sure it’s worth while.