John Butler Talks “Surprising” Beyoncé, Rihanna & Kendrick Influence & Why Writing The Trio’s New Album Was Like “A F*cking Therapy Session”Written by Sarah Bellamy on October 4, 2018
More than four years since the release of their last album Flesh & Blood, the John Butler Trio have returned with new single ‘Home’. Featuring dark synths and industrial rhythms, combined with lyrics that explore vulnerability and longing, ‘Home’ signals a new sonic era for the band.
The trio’s new album, also titled Home, is out now, and John Butler has commented that like single ‘Home’, the album contains “very personal subject matter”.
“(‘Home’) scratches the surface of the emotional and sonic landscape that eventually became the bedrock of the album” he says.
We caught up with the man himself to chat about what influenced the synth stylings on the new album, the struggles he faced during the writing process, and his love of hip-hop.
MF: Your new single ‘Home’ is more synth-based than a lot of your previous music. What influenced that change?
John Butler: I started working with GarageBand, and you know, there’s a lot of sounds on it. So, a lot of the music I love, like Anderson .Paak or Beyoncé, or all kinds of pop music, I love bass synths, and it’s something that the bass player in my band introduced, I think, on the last album. He started playing with bass synths, and so by the time I got on this program GarageBand I was using bass synths more than anything else, bass synths and drum machines and I just had a lot of fun making that music ‘cause it’s the music I listen to a lot of the time. You know, Rihanna all that kind of stuff, that’s the music I listen to. I know people think I probably should be listening to Mississippi John Hurt, or you know, Muddy Waters or Dolly Parton, and I do a little bit. But what I really like is listening to Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg or Beyoncé or Salt-N-Pepa, that’s kind of the music I enjoy.
So, once I had that technology at my fingertips that was really easy to use… I think that’s a big part of it is just… I didn’t need a whole studio worth of gear, all I needed was either my phone or my iPad and I could just start creating these bands that I’ve always been influenced by, these drum n bass bands and then put my guitar on top and that’s kind of what I’ve always wanted and always aimed to do is to have this more backbeat, hip-hop, synth to this song writing that I do.
Mind you, ‘Home’ is nothing like that ‘cause there’s no guitar. That was the challenge for that song ‘can I do a song with no guitar?’. So yeah, the album’s different, it goes all over the joint, it’s not just like ‘Home’. That’s just one flavour that made its way into the palette, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years.
MF: I’m actually really surprised that those were the kind of artists you listen to. I definitely assumed you’d be listening to more blues and roots sort of stuff.
JB: Yeah, I never have. Even since I was a teenager it was The Cure, Morrissey, The Smiths, Beastie Boys, De La Soul, N.W.A, Jane’s Addiction. I was massively into Jane’s Addiction, huge, like one of my favourite bands still to this day. So, I’ve always been into alternative music and more rhythmic bass music than I am into acoustic roots music. I like playing that music, and I love Dylan of course and there are a lot of great songwriters out there, I like Jason Isbell and all that stuff. But the music that makes me dance, the music that makes me do that kind of look where you crinkle your nose and you’re like “f*ck yeah!”, that’s hip hop. Hip-hop has always done that to me. I’m always influenced by that.
I’ll always hear in my head, I’ll hear like a Rihanna song or I’ll hear ‘Formation’ [by Beyoncé] and I’m like ‘aw, dude I have to put my guitar over that kind of backbeat, the bass synth, and then make a song and do that banjo fingerpicking’, that’s how I hear it in my head. Something like ‘Brown Eyed Bird’ is kind of like a mixture of that. You’re hearing that bass n drum synth-y kind of stuff over this Celtic kind of fingerpicking, and that’s kind of how I hear my music.
But yeah, I always figure that most people think I’m gonna be listening to bluegrass all the time or some shit.
MF: Yeah, I guess it’s bad to make assumptions like that, there you go.
JB: I mean you’d probably be surprised that like, I love Ed Sheeran or like I love Shawn Mendes’ ‘Stitches’ [laughs]. There are people like ‘why are you listening to… ‘ and I’m like this f*cking song is awesome!’. I’m happy to listen to certain aspects of it, like I’ll listen to a Britney Spears’ song and only listen to the drums and just love the song because of what the drums and the synths are doing. Like, yeah, she might be singing about high school or something, but whatever, I’m just listening to the drums and bass.
MF: What are some of your favourite albums of all time?
JB: Favourite albums of all time, oh shit, okay. We’ll go with Janes Addiction — Janes Addiction, De La Soul — 3 Feet High and Rising, N.W.A. 100 Miles and Runnin’ and then Missy Elliot’s Under Construction is one of my favourite, favourite, favourite albums of all time, have you heard that?
MF: I haven’t!
JB: Oh man, you’ve gotta hear that! You know like [sings] ‘is it worth it, let me work it’?
MF: Oh yeah, I love that song!
JB: Okay, so that’s off that album. That’s the album that she made with Timbaland. You gotta get it, that f*cking album is… okay, anyway, I’ll stop.
MF: I’ll put it on this afternoon.
JB: Yeah, other than her talking before every one of her songs, going ‘yeah, this is a Missy Elliot production’, other than that it is one of the most ground-breaking hip-hop albums. It was a game-changer, and she is boss, so that. Lemonade was like the album of the last three years that made me actually listen to a whole album again, that’s a great album. The first half of Alabama Shakes’ last album was really great, Sound & Color. Then you go into classics like Band of Gypsies, Jimi Hendrix. I think Anderson .Paak’s album was really good, the one with ‘Come Down’ [Malibu]. Kendrick Lamar, the album that ‘King Kunta’s’ on…
MF: To Pimp a Butterfly?
JB: Yeah! There’s a lot of good ones out there. Jason Isdel’s album’s good if you want like some alt-country, that’s great. I actually really liked Ed Sheeran’s last album, I think he’s a fantastic songwriter and a really great producer. Oh, and another great album, f*cking great album is Justified by Justin Timberlake! That’s a great album, that’s the album he made mostly with Pharrell. I remember walking into a jeans shop in Canada like eight years ago, and I was like ‘what is this song? It’s so good!’ and somebody says it’s Justin Timberlake and I’m like okay, well, wasn’t expecting that, but I love it.
MF: Sweet, thanks for the recs! Back to your upcoming album Home, you’ve mentioned you had some struggles with anxiety in the lead up to creating it, how were those feelings expressed on the album?
JB: I mean, for me musically making that album… every time I make an album it’s like a f*cking therapy session. It’s not necessarily easy. I find when you want to do something really, really well, and it’s something that you really, really love and you’re attached to… I don’t know if you have something like that in your life? If maybe as a writer you might want to write a short story or a novel and you want to do it really, really well, and sometimes you can be very hard on yourself, you know, like you want to be a perfectionist? So, I find making albums a lot of the time very confronting ‘cause a lot of times music pulls me out of my comfort zone.
First of all, the song is boss, the song is the employer and I’m the employee. So the song goes ‘this is how you have to sing it’ and I’m like I don’t know if I can sing that, I don’t know if I can sing in that range! So, I find it confronting sometimes. Like ‘Wade In The Water’, that was f*cking high, I have to sing in my head voice.
For me, I guess what I’m trying to say is making an album is a transformational and transmutational kind of process, where I face my fears and I face my limitations and I face my demons, in a way. So, a lot of times there might be anxiety that’s happening, and I might be getting anxiety about whether I can actually play the parts, you know? Can I play that Indian guitar-picking that I learnt in India? Can I actually do it? ‘Cause it’s f*cking really hard, you know? I always get it right when I’m practicing at home, but can I do it when the red button’s been pushed? That’s the kind of pressure. That’s where I kind of face a lot of my demons, is pushing through.
And then if I was to talk about subject matter, I think things like ‘Running Away’ and ‘Brown Eyed Bird’ and even ‘Home’ are diving into the depths of the dark fears that I may have, or the existential kind of struggles that I may be having. So, music is the therapy session. Music is the means and the mode by which I deal with my shit a lot of the time, and then the subject matter of the songs, they frame, they are the painting, the nucleus, the distillation of those things.
MF: I think the idea of it being a therapy session is a really good way of expressing it with art.
JB: Yeah, it’s not really for others a lot of times, it’s a process for me, and luckily enough and scarily enough when I release it and show everybody, some people like it.
MF: What would you say are the most personal songs on the album for you?
JB: ‘Running Away’, ‘Coffee, Methadone, Cigarettes’, ‘Brown Eyed Bird’, ‘Wade In The Water’, those ones.
MF: And this new album was written across multiple sessions?
JB: I wrote most of the album over like five years, in hotel rooms, backstages, at home, in sheds, on the toilet, in the car [laughs], wherever the song comes to bother me, I just try to kind of capture it. I get to a point where I’ll write 15-20 songs, and then I stop writing and then it’s like ‘oh, I need to start recording’. Then I record them and I don’t write through the whole session, usually, I won’t write while I’m recording, other than fixing lyrics of songs that I’ve already written. But once I release this album, once it’s released and out and finished, then I’ll start writing again. Like, I make a body of work, I dry it up, I record it and then up until I release it, there’s so much energy and work that goes in just to release an album that right when I start going on tour for this album the songs will go ‘oh he’s free again, hello, you’re free, can you do something?’.
MF: So, you like having it very much finished, and then moving onto the next thing, rather than going back over things?
JB: Yeah, I mean there are songs that didn’t make it onto this album that I still think are good that may make it onto the next album, if I don’t forget them. That’s usually the problem is I forget them, or I just forget about them, even though I have them recorded somewhere. I get excited about the new songs, but we’ll see.
MF: I read that with ‘Just Call’, it was thirteen years in the making?
JB: Yeah, it was f*cking weird!
MF: Why was that? Was it writers block or something else?
JB: I have no idea. [Songs] are like horses, you see them out there in the wilderness and you’re like ‘wow, I want to show everybody! I want to show everybody in the city how beautiful you are’, you know, all the people who don’t write music, for example, all the people who are not artists who enjoy art. A song is that. Some you put the saddle on and you ride it into town and everybody goes ‘oh, that’ really beautiful!’ and other songs you walk up to it with the saddle and you try to put it on and it kicks you away and it runs away and you’re like ‘what, why?!’. Then you see it again and it lets you get a little closer and you get the rug on, and you almost get the saddle on, you go to tighten the belt and it bolts off with your saddle, like, what an asshole of a song, why are you being such a prick?! That song just did that, it would just like flirt with me. It would let me play the first verse and sing the first verse for years, and I’d try to write something and it’d be like ‘nah, not good enough’.
Then the night before the session with Jan in Victoria, like really properly stating the album with just him and I, I was able to get on my iPad and finish it. The chord change for the album came, a whole bridge came, and then the vocal melody for the chorus and the words came. I was just stoked, I was like it’s happening, I don’t know why it’s happening but I’m here and I’m capturing it.
It’s an interesting thing, sometimes you can capture the horse against it’s will, you can tie it to a tree and f*cking put the saddle on, and you can break it, you can break the song. You can force a song to be finished, but it’s shit [laughs]. You just bring a depressed horse into town to show everybody and everybody’s like ‘yeah, you should really let that song go, you shouldn’t have shown me, that’s depressing to look at and listen to’ [laughs]. Nobody wants to see a broken animal.
MF: It’s about letting it happen organically, then?
JB: Yeah, but you have to use your skill. You have to be proactive, you can’t just expect that brilliance or inspiration lands on your lap, you have to turn up. I really believe that. Elizabeth Gilbert writes about that, she did a TEDx talk about that, about the idea of genius and being naturally talented, like no, you have to turn up. You have to turn up so that when it does arrive, when the horse does allow you, you have all the skills ready. It’s like, you’re a writer you know, and if you keep on writing, when a good idea comes you’re ready, you’re actually fit at what you do.
One of my friends once said, the manager of The Cat Empire, she’s like ‘you know what the definition of luck is? Preparedness meets opportunity’. So, if you’re prepared and you’re fit, when the opportunity of a good idea, or inspiration lands on your lap, you’re like ‘I’ve got this shit, I’m ready’. You’re a skilled horseman, you’re not trying to put the saddle on for the first time, you’ve been trying to put the saddle on every day, but when it finally comes, you’re ready. I kind of see it like that. You wait for inspiration to come, but you’re always practicing your craft, so when it does come you’re on you’re a-game to make the inspiration the best it can be.
MF: And you’re doing a tour for the album?
JB: Yeah, I’m going to be touring in February. I’m actually going to go to Japan and America for two months as of next week, but I’ll be back in December, and then in February I’ll be doing the Aussie leg of the world tour.
John Butler Trio’s new album ‘Home’ is out now and you can catch the band on tour with Missy Higgins across Australia next February. Dates here.