Port Fairy Folk Festival announcement
John Butler: Port Fairy Folk Festival Artist of the Year
The Port Fairy Folk Festival traditionally selects an Artist of the Year from the year’s line up as one who fits the description of ‘an individual who has made a significant contribution to the folk music community and industry’. With this in mind, the fact that in 2012 the title is given to a man who is 36, surely says a lot about what John Butler has been doing with his time.
At the end of the video clip for the John Butler Trio’s 2007 ‘Better Than’, a song in which Butler leads with a driving, rhythmical riff on the banjo, a quote is scrawled on a wall, graffiti style: ‘Art changes people. People change the world’. If this is true, then the prolific John Butler is constantly changing and growing, and all for the better. But on another level, he’s a true personification of this sentiment, considering the way his art ‘changes people’ and certainly has inspired countless young musicians in this country, not to mention his significant contribution as one person working to bring about change, using his artistic success for greater good.
Born in Torrance, California to an Australian father and American mother, John Butler moved to Western Australia with his father in 1986, and now calls Australia his home. Of course, like all successful musicians, John Butler didn’t reach where he is today over night. He began playing guitar at age 16 and started out, like many good folk musicians, as a busker, playing in the streets of Western Australia’s creative hub of Fremantle. Drawing from music styles such as Indian, Celtic, bluegrass and folk, Butler’s self-composed and recorded tape of instrumentals, Searching For Heritage (1996), sold an amazing 3,000 copies.
The John Butler Trio was formed a couple of years later and the John Butler album was released in 1998. Success with his recordings has followed steadily since then, with three albums Sunrise Over Sea, Grand National and April Uprising all reaching number one on the Australian charts. Combined with a swag of APRA and ARIA nominations and awards, John Butler’s musical voice has been heard loud and clear. His funk-edged, blues and roots sound is distinct and his vocal unmistakable. His style is soulful, playful, upbeat, and, most of all, meaningful and message carrying.
If there is one message that Butler is making loud and clear, it is that the music scene in Australia needs to be continually nourished and renewed, and he has made his own big contribution to this by establishing The Seed in 2005 with wife Danielle Caruana, of Mama Kin. The Seed is a music funding body that supports Australian artists, offering a range of grants, mentoring initiatives and music industry conferences, with the idea of sharing finances and knowledge with the next generation of emerging artists. John describes his motivation behind the project on The Seed website:
“When Danielle and I first started the fund we always intended for it to grow into something that wasn’t just funded by ourselves but contributed to by many movers and shakers within the Australian music community.
In the beginning we felt it was necessary for this fund to have credentials and for that my initials served well. But now … [t]his is an Initiative funded BY the music community FOR the music community and I feel The Seed best represents our inclusive approach” http://www.theseedfund.org
It’s precisely the kind of passion, music excellence and commitment to Australian folk music that makes John Butler a perfect Artist of the Year in 2012. We asked Rhythms magazine’s Samuel J. Fell to interview John Butler and share his thoughts on the award:
“Art changes people. People change the world”
Port Fairy Festival Director Jamie McKew remembers seeing John Butler supporting The Waifs in the backroom at The Nash in Geelong, more than ten years ago. “No one knew who he was,” McKew says – how things have changed. “
Since that day, and indeed, since the days when Butler first embarked upon his musical journey – busking mainly, a slow and steady beginning – his star has risen. Risen to heights not often seen in the realms of roots music, a genre (or a collection of genres) before thought, amongst younger circles, to be ‘uncool’ and ‘old’, until the likes of a few came along and turned that notion on its head. John Butler was one of those few.
It’s because of what Butler has achieved over the past decade or so then, that he’s been awarded the 2012 Port Fairy Folk Festival’s Artist Of The Year. This is a man who began at the bottom, and through talent, drive and creativity, made it to the top, in the process reinvigorating music and minds alike, ideals and perceptions of roots music, of independent artists, of ways of getting your message out.
“It just has to come from a soulful place at the end of the day, and if it has the opportunity of reaching as many ears as possible, then that’s awesome, that’s a dream come true for me,” Butler himself muses from his studio out West, where mere hours before, he’d happily received news of the aforementioned award. Butler is also sage on his methods of presenting his ideas, his messages if you will – “I think, of all things, you have to be playful. If you clutch onto anything too strong, you end up strangling it.”
It’s been this genuine desire to share in such an artistic and subtle way then, that has seen Butler—both solo and in trio format— reach people the world over, come into their lives, enriching them as he’s gone. But in amongst the accolades and the adulation as well, Butler has given back, perhaps most importantly through what was initially known as The JB Seed, now The Seed, a true indication that Butler recognises the need for nurturing, particularly given he himself came from such grassroots beginnings.
“It’s all I know … and I’m really proud of where I’ve come from, how I naturally grew from that place; it’s where I paid my dues,” he tells. John Butler is still paying his dues: “I feel like I’ve grown … but I feel like my best work is still ahead of me,” he smiles. “I’m really excited about that”. and as such, he’s still exploring, still growing as an artist, still exciting his legions of fans, not to mention himself.
Although Butler is still young, it’s universally recognised that he’s on the path trodden before by the ‘greats’ of Australian music – Paul Kelly, Archie Roach, Jeff Lang, amongst others. This is a canon of artists revered the world over, and Butler, given his past, seems destined to join them—from little things, big things grow, as Paul Kelly sang, an adage which in this instance, rings clear as a bell.
Samuel J. Fell