Enjoying enormous success with their new album, Flesh & Blood, The John Butler Trio will play the Fremantle Arts Centre on Thursday, March 27; Belvoir Amphitheatre on Friday, March 28, and Busselton’s Old Broadwater Farm on Saturday, March 29. TRAVIS JOHNSON gets to the meat of the matter.
Let’s talk about that album title, first off.
Flesh & Blood – it’s short, sharp and evocative, but it doesn’t exactly gel with Fremantle icon John Butler’s more granola-flavoured image, does it?
“It’s a lyric, the ever-amiable Butler tells us. “A bit of a lyric from a song called Blame It On Me, but it just seemed to roll off the tongue nicely and it just seemed to reflect the landscape I was traversing, you know? There was a lot of intimate and kind of deeper, more fragile and vulnerable subjects that I was exploring and it seemed to really work – it seemed to really make sense to the album. The album is really strong and feely and human and I think Flesh & Blood kind of reflects that.”
Having headed up his eponymous trio for some 15 years, Butler is no slouch in the songwriting department, but he is very aware of the way that talent has grown and been shaped over the years, with this latest offering being perhaps his most introspective work yet.
“Oh, yeah!” he agrees readily. “I mean, parts of it are very outward-looking as well, but it’s dealing with a kind of deeper subject matter that I haven’t traversed as of yet. It’s just all about the human condition, really.”
Comparing his current style to earlier efforts, Butler contends that he has a firmer grasp of metaphor and allegory now than he did in previous years (although fans of the smash hit, Zebra, might say he’s had a strong handle on it all along).
“I think that when I first started songwriting it was very literal, very heart on the sleeve, very ‘I feel this way because of this,’ and now I can write a story about exploring an emotion. I don’t have to just explore my emotions, which can be limited by my experience. I can explore a lifetime’s worth of different individuals’ stories and then put them all into one person. I enjoy it and I find that I’m able to explore more territory that way.
“Like in Young And Wild and Bullet Girl,” he says, pulling two examples from Flesh & Blood. “I was able to write about a junkie couple and go in really deep – they O.D. and they get revived and one revives the other and they have a deep history and now they don’t see each other any more. I mean, I didn’t experience that first-hand. I think I’ve orbited around those circles and different circles of addiction and extremity, but that’s not necessarily my experience, my first-hand experience. I’m able to magpie and bowerbird my songs in that way and kind of explore more territory and travel more distance and I enjoy it.”
Some songs are more directly personal, of course. “For a song like Wings Are Wide – that’s about my grandmother passing away – rather than writing, ‘Oh, you were the matriarch of my family and you gave me my grandfather’s slide guitar and I love you but since you’ve been gone it’s not the same,’ I’m gonna write a song from her point of view, going to meet her husband that she hasn’t seen in 50 years – that was more interesting.
“Finding different ways to write about stuff that are fleshier, that are more textual – you can smell it and feel it and see it rather than just going, ‘Oh, he’s saying A plus B and that equals C.’ As a writer, that gets boring after a while.”
It might be as simple as learning to write in the third person as opposed to the first, a suggestion that elicits a bark of laughter from Butler. “John Butler agrees with that! John Butler definitely agrees with that!”
As always, Butler works hard to maintain a balanced approach to his life. Not for him the tortured slaving away of the driven artiste – he’s got too much on his plate on a day to day basis.
“Amongst being a dad and being a husband and a friend and a skateboarder and someone who needs to eat and sleep and be a friend to people and take out the garbage, I also write songs and I paint and I make knives and I do all these different things. I write songs amongst all that and, at the end of a few years, I have a collection of them.
“Now, not all of these songs stick. Some of the songs that I think are going to be among the strongest on the album, some of the ones that are the most finished, won’t make it to the album – it’s the songs that are half-finished that actually have more of a life. These wild little creatures that live out in the wilderness all want the saddle put on and the reins put on a certain way. Some are willing to come out of the wilderness and come to life, so to speak, and others want to stay out there and spend a bit longer and maybe never come out.
“Some of these things, you drag them in out of the ether before they’re ready and by the time you’ve got them on paper, you’ve broken the spirit of that little beast and it’s crap! So you’ve got to bring them in out of the wilderness and get the reins and the saddle on without breaking the spirit, otherwise it’s not inspirational.”
Told you he a handle on metaphor.