When John Butler answers his phone in New York City he’s got four words to describe the weather in the Big Frozen Apple: “Snowy, snowy, snowy, sno-weee.” It’s a far cry from the toasty beaches and rolling surf of his native Australia, and the vibe has only gotten frostier of late. It’s less than 24 hours since the shocking news of New York actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s drug overdose put a pall over the city—and much of the world.
Ironically, when he plays Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom that night–as part of a tour that includes two sold-out shows in Vancouver–Butler could end up singing “Young and Wild”, a selection from his new album, Flesh & Blood, about a fictional junkie couple. Fortunately for him, his sombre meditation on heroin addiction isn’t tied to any personal experience with the needle.
“I’ve never had any big addictions,” he relates. “I feel like I might smoke pot a bit too much, and I’ve done cigarettes. But being around this kind of partying scene, you do see the casualties, especially when you pull out. When it’s like ‘Okay, cool, the party’s over for me,’ and then you see everybody else keep on partying.
“But a lot of these songs on this album I kind of magpied,” he adds. “Magpies are this bird in Australia that takes shiny things from anywhere and builds its nest, and so that’s kind of what I do. I’ll take a little of my own experience of having some heavy party time with certain friends, and then I’ll hear some other stories about addicts or other intense relationships. I’ll put them into the mixing pot and make up these characters to explore different possibilities and emotional landscapes.”
Butler didn’t need to magpie nearly as much on “Wings Are Wide”, the Flesh & Blood track directly following “Young and Wild”. Inspired by his grandmother’s passing, it’s an evocative ballad that touchingly describes a spirit slipping away to reunite, at long last, with another.
“If I just wanted to write a song about my grandmother and how much I missed her it could be a bit tricky,” notes Butler. “But I found that from writing from her point of view, about her just wanting to leave her body and meet her man again—she was a widow for over 50 years—that to me was a more interesting and engaging way of writing about it.”
Long before Butler’s beloved granny passed away, she rather prophetically bequeathed him an instrument that would prove quite handy for his mortal purposes.
“She passed me down my grandfather’s Dobro when I was 16,” he explains, “and that guitar kinda became the cornerstone to my music. I wasn’t at all into roots music or playing the slide or anything when I got it, and it sat under my bed for a long, long time.
“And then one day when I just discovered open tuning, all of a sudden that guitar made perfect sense. My grandmother knew what I was gonna do before I ever did.”