Debbie Kruger
John Butler Trio photo in APrap Photo by Tony Mott
December 2001



Like many songwriters, John Butler prefers not to analyse his work. He dropped out of art school because he did not like having to validate his paintings with essays elucidating their meaning, so describing the thought processes behind his songs can be arduous.

Comparisons are also tedious. He rebuffs suggestions that he is “Australia’s Ben Harper.” He admits to fusing many styles and influences into his music, but other than some slide guitar, blues is not one of them. “Roots-based with rock, little bits of Celtic and Indian maybe, bits and pieces,” he says. “I wouldn’t call myself a blues player. I wouldn’t call myself the next Ben Harper. It is guitar-driven, definitely my guitar sings, it sings just as loud as the music. Really full-on roots music, dynamic roots music, intense kind of roots music.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1975, Butler’s lifestyle and preoccupations are as far removed as possible from the hotbed environment of US West Coast rock and roll surrounding him in his formative years. Yet he would be the last to deny the impression bands like Fleetwood Mac and Eagles made. “All that kind of classic rock stuff has been a real influence in the back of my brain. I didn’t listen to a lot of music, and then when I started playing with [my own] band I found a real classic rock thing going on. That long song jamming classic rock thing they did a lot in the ‘70s.”

He moved to Fremantle in Western Australia when he was 11, and after finishing high school he started busking around Perth. It never occurred to him to go back to California to forge a musical career there. “I wasn’t even thinking about music that way. I just started busking. I was making a really good living and I just wanted to gypsy around Australia. And I made a tape and that led to my solo album and then I just went into the career.”

The organic approach to making music is also reflected in the development of his songwriting. Writing was inevitable because he didn’t have the patience to play other people’s music. “Right from day one I was writing my own music before I learned anybody’s music,” he says. “I did have lessons when I was 16 for about five months – I learned a bit of Led Zeppelin, a bit of Jane’s Addiction, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I never learned anything all the way through. I’d only learn a bit and then go, cool, and jamm it, and the next thing you know I’d written a song.”

In addition to Jane’s Addicition, contemporary influences include Ani DiFranco and The Waifs. Butler is only now starting to pay attention to the way other artists compose. “I’ve always been really insular,” he states candidly. He admires Bob Dylan but does not aspire to that style of lyric writing.

“I’m a bit primitive. The way I write is pretty straightforward. I don’t use modern metaphors, I don’t write riddles or write stories; I’m not really a storyteller. I really like people who can do that and I’d really like to be able to do it, but I find I’m a lot more straight down the line.”

Musically, the songs come to Butler from outside himself, and always through his instrument. “It’s definitely something to do with the guitar playing. At times I’ll play something and it will just make me say certain words and I don’t actually know why I’m saying them. I’ll be playing the melody or a chord progression and the notes come to me and then all of a sudden I want to say, ‘You don’t understand’ and keep on playing and cathartically getting out whatever’s coming out.”

Occasionally a song will be lyric-driven rather than melody-driven. “Sometimes it’s just about the rhythm of the lyric, the rappy stuff that writes itself,” he says. At all times the lyrics are blatant. Butler’s thematic concerns are social and political – domestic violence, domestic politics, racism, media manipulation, logging, uranium mining. His acclaimed John Butler Trio album, Three, contains songs with to-the-point titles such as “Attitude”, “Media” “Money” and “Take”. For Butler music is a necessary device for raising awareness.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for everybody, and I don’t think it should be necessary for everybody. Because I think some music’s just about fun, some music’s about forgetting, some music’s about sex, some music’s abut disrespect. And mine’s about remembering and respect and bringing up issues that people don’t really want to talk about, or hear about, on thousands of different fronts. I needed to contribute to what was going on or I wouldn’t really sleep well at night.”

While the other members of his group are also writing for themselves, Butler has not yet explored co-writing. There are so many things he wants and needs to say on his own. “It’s my music, but once we jam it, it becomes our music. That’s why it’s the Trio and not just John Butler.”


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