"I write about the human condition — that's what I'm really inspired by, as far as the stories that I tell and the things I write about," says the U.S.-born, Australia-raised singer-songwriter John Butler, speaking last week before a soundcheck in France. "I also make music to kind of decipher the world around me ... to somehow understand it. I just have to make this music to be true and truly present and represent how I feel."
Butler and his colleagues — bassist Shannon Birchall and percussionist Michael Barker — have stayed extremely busy this winter and spring, touring the U.S., the U.K., and Europe in support of their new album Grand National (Atlantic).
Sunrise Over Sea, Butler's breakthrough album of 2005, sold five times platinum to become that year's fifth highest selling album in Australia. It won Best Independent Release and Best Blues & Roots Album at the ARIA Awards. Butler also received the Best Male Artist award, while the tune "Zebra" was named APRA's Song of the Year.
"After three years of touring Sunrise Over Sea, it was great to come into the studio with the guys and have the synergy all ready to go," Butler says. "There's a kind of respect between the three of us, personally and musically. Shannon and Michael are astounding musicians to me, breathtakingly inspirational people to play with.
"We've just released this album a month ago and we're really looking forward to playing these songs on stage in the States," he adds. "They always change from the studio to the live format, so it's exciting to get them more and more under our belt and comfortable with them. We're maturing for sure. This incarnation of the trio has been together for four years now, so we're a harmonious unit. The chemistry is good, which makes for better music and better times. After playing this long, things become more immediate and we have a better idea of what the songs want, I have to describe things and instruct them less and less, you know?"
On the new album, Butler's impressive guitar technique is as intriguing and expressive as his soulful singing style — organic, sincere, and complex. Barker's subtle dynamics and accents add spice to the all-around grooviness, too.
"I'm highly influenced by so many styles of music — different types of folk and traditional styles of music, whether it be country, blues, or Celtic," Butler says. "Mix that with hip-hop, reggae and rock 'n' roll and it affects how it all comes out. I remember when I first heard a reggae beat, I started writing every song to it. Then those songs change styles with the various accompaniment and become something different. Everything keeps on changing and revolving, but at the end of the day, I'm just here to serve the music and serve the song. That's my employer — song! I'll keep on doing it. I have a style and I can build upon it while it changes."
Much has been written about the sociopolitical leaning of the new songs. In particular, "Gov Did Nothin'" stands out as a commentary on Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration's inadequate response.
"It's all kind of a diary and reflection of how I feel," says Butler. "The war, the storm, and dance nights with my wife are all things that are happening around me. My art reflects me and the human condition."