For John Butler, the music is the boss.
After six albums with his eponymous trio, the acclaimed Australian singer-songwriter-guitarist says he’s come to understand that his main role is to function as a conduit, shepherding songs into existence and delivering them to his audience.
“The songs are the boss, the band, including myself, are the workers,” he says. “The more and more I do this, the more I realize I’m just here to be of service, that music in its purest form is experiential, it’s healing and it’s transformative. That’s its real quality. It can transform bad into good, pain into love.”
From his self-titled debut in 1998 to 2014’s Flesh & Blood, Butler and his bandmates have fused folk and roots music with reggae and rock, earning a reputation for exhilarating live performances that perfectly put that philosophy into action.
“I’m here to be a conduit for that and it’s about how well I can be that conduit. It’s usually staying out of the way, not getting too heady and thinking about it too much, trying to stay in my heart,” he says.
Songwriting for Flesh & Blood began with the goal of fusing two things: the improved focus Butler had brought to songwriting on his previous record and that intuitive musical style he and his trio have developed in relentless touring.
“The album before, April Uprising, I was very much interested in writing some real songs that didn’t need massive musical embellishment. I was really concentrating on songs and song structures. For that, I really achieved what I wanted to achieve,” Butler says. “I knew for the next album that I did miss some of the musical exploration. Hopefully you write good lyrics and put a good song together, but then there are these musical movements that take from the lyrics and explain what the words can never explain.
“That’s a really important thing I do as a guitarist and with the trio,” he says. “With this album, I wanted to have really solid songs and allow the songs to breathe if they felt like breathing.”
Flesh & Blood began with the trio—Butler, bassist Byron and drummer Nicky Bomba—taking the unusual step of going into songwriting sessions together.
“We wrote two songs together as a band, which was the first time we’d ever done that,” Butler says. “It was fun to do and added a whole other layer and aspect to the music.”
Flesh & Blood is a typically diverse and versatile album, featuring acoustic ballads, edgy rock, reggae grooves and a single in “Only One” that’s built around acoustic guitars and a terrifically melodic chorus. “Coming from essentially a folk background but loving rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop, that’s what’s going to happen,” Butler says. “You can write a ballad, you can write a heavy blues song, you can electrify it and play rock ‘n’ roll. I want to take people on a journey. I don’t know if I should, but I don’t really try to write albums. That’s not the way I work. Maybe because of my eclectic influences, or maybe I’m not disciplined enough, but I’ve never been interested in just writing 13 folk songs, or 13 love songs, or 13 rock songs, or 13 reggae songs. It’s a bit repetitious for me.”
The trio recorded Flesh & Blood over 20 days in Butler’s studio (known as The Compound) in December 2012, working with producer Jan Skubiszewski. The album features more keyboards—piano, Wurlitzer and synthesizers—than on previous John Butler Trio recordings, a natural evolution more than a specific goal.
“That was exciting, but there was no premeditated decision to go in some direction we’ve never gone before. It was just about wanting to satisfy the songs,” Butler says. “I’m constantly writing: in hotel rooms, at home, in my dreams. I write everywhere. It’s always a process. The songs just tell me how they want to sound.”
The songs also tell Butler and his bandmates how they want to grow and evolve over the years.
“The songs can keep on going. They’re like teenagers when they’re recorded. They’re 18 and just allowed to leave home and go out into the world, but they keep on growing on stage and turn into something else. It’s always fun to watch what they do and read what they want to be in the live situations,” he says.
And though the John Butler Trio has seen the tag of jam band applied over the years, it’s not something Butler has found to be particularly accurate.
“We’re not massively improvisational and going into uncharted territory all of the time. People may think that, but a lot of time it’s how I pay a guitar solo or make the arrangement. Songs sometimes go completely off script, but not often. We always know where the next sign is. What you do before the next stop sign is up to you, but when the stop sign comes, turn left,” he says. “I’m not into jamming for jamming sake. I’ve never identified with the title jam band for that reason. Every band that I love jams in some way, but I wouldn’t call them that. It’s all about the song. I’m a songwriter who can play guitar as opposed to the other way around.”
As far as songwriting since Flesh & Blood, Butler says he has some songs started as well as some finished for the next project. The trio will begin recording next year with tentative plans to release a new album in late 2016 or early 2017.
“There’s lots of new music going on and I’m just enjoying that part of it,” Butler says. “What I love doing is writing songs, making something out of nothing and being that conduit as best as I can.”