John Butler is a softly spoken man. In his voice is still a touch of an American accent, and his sentences tend to end with a downward inflection as though he is sighing. The effect is that he comes across both thoughtful and somehow endeared to his words, almost relieved to have spoken his mind without stumbling. In person he can appear reserved and uncomfortable, which, given the attention and acclaim he has received over the years – predominantly with the John Butler Trio, but also with solo projects and his political activism – is hardly a surprise. And between touring, recording, writing and his family, there is little time to waste on idleness, not when there are still so many things to do.
“Offstage I don’t think I’m a particularly clear or assertive person,” he says hesitantly. This hesitance arises at the start of many of his thoughts; once he settles into a subject, however, the words come flooding. “If someone really wants my time and my space and I don’t have it to give them, I have to find ways to communicate that. And I’m not necessarily good at communicating that sometimes. Sometimes you just want to run and tell them to fuck off, you know? So I guess being reserved gives me the opportunity to look after myself, which can be a really hard thing to do for anybody. You don’t record and release an album with the hopes that no-one likes it. You manufacture 20 copies, 500 copies, 10,000 copies, whatever it is, you do it in the hope that people like it, that it becomes something.”
His newest album is Flesh & Blood, whose first single, ‘Only One’, is currently on high rotation around the country, and the record appears set to follow in the footsteps of earlier successes like April Uprising, Grand National and Sunrise Over Sea. Like those previous albums there is great range here, and you suspect Butler is deliberately trying not to find himself corralled into one particular sound or style. His process is to skew any overarching plan or theme for what might make it onto an album, but instead to work a song until it is ready to meet the others. To Butler, it is the song’s choice if it’s ready to be on an album, like a horse finally ready to be saddled.
“Every song wants to be realised, recorded, written differently. You can’t record and write the same way twice. It’s interesting. Every song wants the reins set a certain way. It’s like there’s a song you don’t realise is out there – like [The Sixth Sense movie], but I see songs instead of dead people,” he laughs. “I see these songs and I want to bring them into town so people can see them and hear them, but if you bring a wild horse in from the wilderness and you break its spirit on the way, it becomes sad to look at. Sad to hear. So, you’ve got to get the saddle onto the song in a way that brings it out of the ether and into the real world without breaking it. It takes a bit of staying out of the way, just using your skills enough to bring it to life. That’s how I see it. Other artists probably see it differently. It’s alchemic, ethereal. I don’t really understand it, and words don’t really capture it.”
The quasi-protest song ‘Kimberley’, whose lyrics are replete with imagery of the Wild West, of cowboys and epic landscapes, is perhaps a case in point. Strong and poetic in its own right, Butler couldn’t find a way to make it at home on Flesh & Blood and so it has yet to see a studio release.
“A lot of songs that I’ll play around with before an album that I think are going to make it, don’t. And I think that traditionally that’s the case. You know…” He trails off, trying to find the words. “There’s something [with ‘Kimberley’] that just didn’t quite resonate, that didn’t fit in the batch of songs. I can’t exactly say what it was. It’s almost like … you listen to the album, and you’re in a kind of landscape, and that song sort of took you out. It’s another story for another time, another place. That’s one that just didn’t want to come out of the wilderness. ‘Spring To Come’ was a piece of music that I’ve had for five years. Five years in my head, and I’d play around with it on the guitar, but the lyrics only came on one of the last camping trips we did. Some songs just take time.”
It has been almost four years now since April Uprising debuted at number one on the ARIA charts, which has afforded Butler the space to pull together an album that could evolve at its own rate. I know of many artists who consider their work as somehow preexisting, and during the course of our interview the notion of Butler anthropomorphising his songs is strong. They are a living thing, waiting to be found in the ether and performed into life. I wonder if part of his patience in letting songs develop this way is his consciousness of what kind of legacy he might be leaving; if there is a fear of being remembered for the wrong reasons, the wrong words.
“Well, I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that question,” he says, and suddenly that quiet reservation is back in his voice. “I don’t think it’s for me to say what kind of legacy I’ll leave. What I’d like to leave would be that I gave more than I took, and that maybe I walked my talk. I’d hope that, in our world of duality and hypocrisy, I had some dignity. If I can leave that to my kids especially, I think that would be nice. Not that I just had good intentions, but that I acted upon them.”
It is a fine answer, and before we finish I suggest to Butler that we would all like to be remembered for the things we got right, and that between his environmental activism and his music, fans would no doubt argue his legacy is looking pretty healthy. He agrees, but not without a caveat.
“Being a fan of somebody, you tend to put people on pedestals. I certainly do it. Something my wife once said to me was that if you put somebody on a pedestal, be prepared someday to knock them off it, because they’re going to turn out to be human and it’s gonna bum you out [laughs]. I’m no different than any one of my fans. My hopes, my aspirations, my self-loathing, my lack of confidence, the fear that drives a lot of what I do and that I try so hard to escape. I’m no different from any of them. And maybe that’s the main thing, that I am just like them. This is people’s music, it’s folk music. Written by human folk. I’m a dickhead, I’m a nice guy, I’m an asshole, I’m smart, I’m stupid. I’m ‘Zebra’. I’m all that. I’m nothing special. But then, I am! Just like all of them. The end.”
He laughs again, loud and infectious. A cowboy waiting with his saddle beside a singing wilderness.
Flesh & Blood is out Friday February 7 through Jarrah Records/MGM.