Peace and quiet aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. At least that’s what singer/guitarist John Butler learned when he and his wife decided to move to western Australia, where Butler grew up.
It was essentially a back-to-nature move, a time for him to decompress after a decade or so of recording and touring with his namesake trio. It was a career path that brought him best-selling albums in Australia and a devoted audience in the States, but he needed a break.
But as Butler, his wife (singer/songwriter Danielle Caruana), and their young family tried to settle into their new rural surroundings, Butler found that the anxiety he had suffered from for years was somehow getting worse, not better.
“I’m not an orthodox religious person, but I want to say that the Lord works in mysterious ways,” Butler says with a laugh. “There’s almost an irony to how the universe sends you gifts and messages. We went down to the country to put a bit of balance in our lives, and now I realize that of course that’s when things would bubble to the surface, because I was taking a year off. You stop stirring the pond and running at a breakneck pace and that’s when the world catches up.”
For years, life as a touring musician had amped up Butler’s feelings of anxiety, but he realized after the move that there was more to it than that.
“A lot of it was about coming and going, and leaving my family behind,” he says. “But it also had a lot to do with the fact that my son was 11 or 12 years old, and that age was a very traumatic time for me. I was moving to Australia, my parents were getting divorced; it’s an interesting thing that happens to some parents, where when their child becomes the same age that they were when they dealt with some trauma, all of a sudden it becomes this mirror image.”
Butler dealt with his anxiety the only way he knew how: by making music. That music could loosely be termed roots-rock or Americana, but those terms don’t really give enough credit to Butler’s sense of rhythm. Even his acoustic guitar-based ballads have a sense of propulsion, a driving percussiveness that buoys his gritty singing voice and skillful six-string playing.
Typically, Butler would’ve made that music with his longstanding rhythm section, bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Grant Gerathy. But as sessions began for what would become the 2018 LP Home, something seemed amiss.
“The flow was kind of not happening,” he says. “I couldn’t work out what was going on, but I had to kind of remove myself and do this by myself. I had a lot of ideas for this album in terms of beats, and bass lines and tracks; it was very me, in many ways. Once I realized that that was the way it was working, I had to go with it. I needed to get out the sound in my head rather than trying to accommodate other people’s opinions.”
Butler set up a session between himself, producer/engineer Jan Skubiszewski, and no one else. And that’s when the flow was restored. The result is a collection of songs that mix electronic beats, layers of Butler’s electric and acoustic guitars, and that same sense of propulsive rhythm.
Lyrically, Butler searches his soul and doesn’t always like what he finds. On the twisting, light-footed rocker “Running Away,” Butler remembers being hurt long ago, and sings, “I held it down/Pushed it under ground/I said, ‘I never wanna feel that again.'”
On the cavernous, electronic-percussion-fueled title track, which immediately follows “Running Away,” Butler seems to hit bottom, finding himself far away from his family in a lonely hotel room and singing, “regret the choices I’ve made/But I’m too selfish to change/Filling this bottomless hole/And it’s corroding my soul.”
Taken together, these two tracks can be viewed as the nucleus of a riveting and emotional collection of songs. But in order to get those songs right, Butler had to do a good bit of the work himself, something that he doesn’t apologize for.
“That’s why it’s called the John Butler Trio, y’know,” he says with a laugh. “I had to get out what was in my head; that’s my job. I work for the songs, and they tell me how they want to come to life. Sometimes they want to come to life with a whole group of people, but whatever it takes to get the songs out, that’s my job. I can’t bend the songs to my will, I have to bend to their will.”
Of course, sometimes a process like that has consequences; both Luiters and Gerathy left earlier this year during the supporting tour for Home.
“I don’t think they necessarily felt connected to the music,” Butler says of his rhythm section. “And maybe that’s why they decided to leave the band.”
Right after saying that, though, Butler allows that there were probably other reasons.
“They were in the band for ten years, and they both had kids under two years old,” he says. “Things had changed a lot. It’s one thing when you have your dreams and your songs, and those are the only things you have, and another when you have other responsibilities.”
Bassist OJ Newcomb and drummer Terepai Richmond came on board soon after, and Butler says he’s happy with the way his new band is playing the songs from Home.
“There’s a lot of great energy,” he says. “Everybody really wants to be in this band, there’s a lot of celebration.”
And in fact, Butler sees the unexpected lineup change as a sort of extension of his new album’s themes.
“Playing Home has been very interesting because it’s been very revealing and raw,” he says. “There’s a certain shedding of skin, and that kept happening up until Graham and Byron left the band. The album brought up some deep shit; it not only happened in the writing and the recording, it happened in the touring.”