WRITING FROM HIS ROOTS
COMPOSER PROFILE Debbie Kruger
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 Australias 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 wouldnt call myself a blues player. I wouldnt 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, Butlers 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 didnt have the patience to play other peoples music. Right from day one I was writing my own music before I learned anybodys 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 Janes Addiction, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I never learned anything all the way through. Id only learn a bit and then go, cool, and jamm it, and the next thing you know Id written a song.
In addition to Janes Addicition, contemporary influences include Ani DiFranco and The Waifs. Butler is only now starting to pay attention to the way other artists compose. Ive always been really insular, he states candidly. He admires Bob Dylan but does not aspire to that style of lyric writing.
Im a bit primitive. The way I write is pretty straightforward. I dont use modern metaphors, I dont write riddles or write stories; Im not really a storyteller. I really like people who can do that and Id really like to be able to do it, but I find Im a lot more straight down the line.
Musically, the songs come to Butler from outside himself, and always through his instrument. Its definitely something to do with the guitar playing. At times Ill play something and it will just make me say certain words and I dont actually know why Im saying them. Ill 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 dont understand and keep on playing and cathartically getting out whatevers coming out.
Occasionally a song will be lyric-driven rather than melody-driven. Sometimes its just about the rhythm of the lyric, the rappy stuff that writes itself, he says. At all times the lyrics are blatant. Butlers 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 dont think its necessary for everybody, and I dont think it should be necessary for everybody. Because I think some musics just about fun, some musics about forgetting, some musics about sex, some musics abut disrespect. And mines about remembering and respect and bringing up issues that people dont really want to talk about, or hear about, on thousands of different fronts. I needed to contribute to what was going on or I wouldnt 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. Its my music, but once we jam it, it becomes our music. Thats why its the Trio and not just John Butler.