John Butler Trio recently released their latest album, Home, the group’s first full-length effort since 2014, and while the trio’s leader and namesake has been known to experiment with genres in the past, the new record finds him digging deeper into some electronic and hip-hop influences—and even trying out different ways of writing and recording his music. Since the trio’s last album, Butler has moved to the Australian countryside with his wife—fellow singer-songwriter Danielle Caruana (a.k.a. Mama Kin)—and children and discovered that sometimes an artist needs to create alone to truly live up to their own vision.
Calling from halfway across the globe at his home in Australia, Butler discusses how the tracks on Home came to fruition thanks in part to a newfound love of GarageBand, why he decided to record much of the album without his regular trio bandmates—bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Grant Gerathy—how he sees potential song ideas as “wild horses,” his thoughts on the longevity of his career and more.
Let’s start with what you’ve been up to since the last album, and how these songs on Home came together.
I always take about three years in between albums, because it just takes that long to tour the album and then record another one. This one was a little bit longer because I took about a year off, actually. I took a whole bunch of time off and moved from the city back down to the country, closer to where I grew up. So I took that year off and set up my home and set up my place and built gardens and sheds and what have you, got my kids in school and stuff. Then I started to go make another album. And it was a little bit tricky with how the album wanted to be made, so that took that little while longer. So it was a mixture of deliberate extra time and then unexpected extra time.
Was that move back to the country a permanent one for you and your family? Were you living in the city before that?
Yeah, that’s where we’ve been for the last four years now. I was born in LA, and then I moved to a small country town in Western Australia and spent 10 years there. Then I hopped around between different cities.for the next 20 years. I spent about a good 10 years in a city called Fremantle in Western Australia, which is an amazing city, awesome. But as my kids were getting a little bit older, we just wanted to make sure they got some country time. That was really important to us. My wife was like, “What do you think about this?” and I was like, “Hell yeah.” It’s where I’m from; I’m happy to do that. Especially, you know, because it’s such a nice balance to our touring life—Danielle, my wife, is also a touring musician. Touring is just, like, in a different city every 23 hours, and you live in parking lots and buses and hotels and venues. Which is all great, but it’s so highly urban and so fast, so it’s nice to come off the road and be in the country.
And when did these songs on Home start to come out of you?
The songs always know when I’m free to write. It works like this: I’ll write 20 to 30 songs—20 kind of finished and then the other 10 could be something good if I finished them—and then I stop writing. It’s like my cup filled. Like, “OK, cool, I have to record.” And the recording process can take anything from up to a month, to three months, to a year, depending on how long the mixes and masters and everything take. I don’t write anything in that time, because my all energy is consumed by bringing these new children to life. The minute I release that album, I won’t be surprised if I start writing again. The songs know that I’m free, that the cup is empty now. I wrote all throughout the touring cycle for the last album, Flesh & Blood. I write a lot on the road.but I write a lot at home as well. It kind of happened in a myriad of different places.
Do you and Danielle ever write together?
Yeah, sometimes we do. We’d like to do it more, but we’re so busy doing our own stuff that we have to make it a very deliberate intention. We’ve just been working on our own projects too much.
You’ve likened these songs coming to you as “wild horses” that you needed to work with and tame to reach the final product on the album. Is this metaphor a mindset that you’ve been in for a while?
It’s definitely a metaphor that keeps solidifying itself in my mind over the last few years. I’m gonna give you this really bad analogy: You know that Bruce Willis movie where the kid sees dead people? With musicians, we see songs. They make a musician a horseman, or some kind of wrangler. I spend a lot of time out in nature, what I call the “never-never” or the bush. But the never-never is this mystical kind of bush. Musicians frequent that area, that creative, natural, wild place, and we see these wild horses, these songs. It’s wild. We hear them, we see them; it’s like they’re special, beautiful things. They sound so magical in our minds, and when we see them out in the never-never, it’s like “Cool, I want to bring this into the material, three-dimensional world now. I want to bring it into the city to show people, to show the people who aren’t travelers, who haven’t been out to the never-never. I want to sing these songs to them.”
Some songs just follow you in. You pop the saddle on, away they go, and they come in and they’re beautiful, wild, majestic things. Other songs, you have to really work to bring them in, and some horses you force in. You literally tie the rope around their neck and you drag them into town and you break their spirit—and you present a pretty shit song to everybody. And they’re like. “Why’d you bother showing me that broken beast,” and you’re like, “Well, it wasn’t broken out there, but I broke it on the way in because I wasn’t crafty enough with my skills—as a horseman, as a poet, as a songwriter, as a guitarist, as a recorder, as a producer.” So, every song is like this sensitive, wild beast that you need to use all your skills as a poet and as a guitarist and as a producer and as a writer and bring it in and not fuck up. You want to bring in something that’s wild and mystical and has a bit of divinity about it. I really believe the songs come to me, they choose to come to me, and I’m a conduit for that. But when I do it really well and I really bring them into the town, it’s just magic. The way the songs sound in our head is pretty majestic, so it’s a lot of pressure when that red button gets pushed. It’s like how Michelangelo said that he just removed all the marble to reveal David, that David was already there. I believe it in the same way [about songs]. Songs are already there, and we just have to play up to them. I hope that makes sense.
Absolutely. Were these songs recorded over a long period of time in different places or was it more of a focused, one-studio thing?
It was a mixture. I did all the pre-production on my iPad on GarageBand. GarageBand, finally with the touch screen [on the iPad], became really user friendly. For me—as a bit of a Luddite—it allowed me to start using drum machines and synthesizers in a really easy way. I don’t have to go to the studio and work with a beat-maker and 500 vintage synths—it’s all at my fingers. I produced the songs from start to finish—from the drum beats to the bass lines to the synthesizers. Then there was other times where I was like, “I wanna experiment with a multiple drum thing,” with a drum kit and two other big toms that actually play the kick and the snare parts. I’ve always wanted to do that. So I came to the studio, and we got Brazilian drummers to come in with a drum kit, and we tried some songs and it kind of worked. And then I’d back again to keep working on my iPad.
I had a couple sessions with the Trio, but I found the best way for me to get out these ideas—which were now quite distilled and I was quite protective of—was to just get them out of my head without too much distraction, without too many people around. I ended up going to Jan Skubiskewski’s Red Moon Studios in Victoria and recording with him pretty much by myself, for the most part. Which was a big place to get to, because it’s so not how I do things. I record in my studio with my trio. Now, I was in somebody else’s studio by myself, but that’s what the songs on it asked of me. That’s what I needed, too. I was so sensitive, so protective of the songs and anxious and sensitive to everybody being around. It was just too much to manage for me at the time. The process was so unlike anything I’ve ever done. It took a long time to get to the point where I was like, “OK, I want to record this song with my trio.” I kinda felt guilty. It felt weird. But it was the right thing to do.
Was that because of the type of songs these were, or was it more about the headspace you were in?
It was the amount of pre-production I’d done. I’d just done so much that I knew exactly what I wanted to hear. What I really needed was for everybody to do as I said, and I felt guilty about that. I Felt like a dictator. I mean, it’s always been my band, and I’ve always been the captain of it and produced it, but there’s a lot of freedom in how things end up being when I arrange it with the band. This time, I needed everybody to play exactly how I wanted it to be played. I just felt weird about it, and then I was actually anxious. I was feeling this anxiety that was kind of a completely new thing in a lot of ways. I was so anxious at the time that having anybody in the studio and having any other things to deal with overloaded me. And that wasn’t the band’s fault; it was just because I was trying to manage people’s emotions. Like, I would notice this kind of strange dynamic between the band and the producer, and I felt in the middle of that. And at the same time, I was just trying to get these sounds out of my head. I would’ve done it by myself if I knew how to record properly. I just needed to be in that mad-scientist space. It was a bit of a spin-out, this whole process.
Another interesting thing is that recording an album, for me, is a very much transformative experience, like a therapy session. I won’t be the same after it. I’ll have divulged so much of my emotions into it and tried to kind of do some reckoning with and realization of myself, because that’s how I write. I write to make sense of myself and make sense of the world around me and the emotions inside me and outside of me. And the recording process is revealing—it asks a lot of you, to be great. As great as those songs and those wild horses are, to be that great is a lot to muster. And recording this album was part of that journey, that learning, that healing.