It's album number six for the John Butler Trio. And for this one, the man who likes to be seen as more than just the blues festival-playing, million-dollar hippie wanted to take things into some fleshier territory.
For his previous release, April Uprising, he went out with a mindset to create an album that was "all killer, no filler". This translated to concentrating on the nuts and bolts of good songcraft. He wanted to cut the fat out of each song, creating lyrics and chords that were super-tight, and not rely on epic musical movements to make the song hold.
"And I think, for the most part, I did that," Butler says.
Looking back, he came to the realisation that some of the tastiest dishes are those where the fat gets left in. So setting up for Flesh and Blood, which debuted at No.2 on the ARIA charts and has already offered up single Only One, Butler was a lot more open to putting the "experiential quality" back into his work.
Keen to explore and create, recorded in the Fremantle studio he calls the Compound, lyrics and arrangements were still vital. However, this time Butler was interested in the point where a song gets passed on to experienced musicians to "express the stuff words can't bring". With bass player Byron Luiters, and Nicky Bomba on skins, whether it was a solo or a jam that took a track away on a journey, on Flesh and Blood Butler ensured he paid respect to each song's "sensory experience".
To help perform this special kind of musical alchemy, he employed the assistance of producer Jan Skubiszewski. With Butler having seen the producer at work on his wife Mama Kin's latest album, the emotive and rhythmic The Magician's Daughter, he was keen to have that kind of magic imbued into his own work.
Skubiszewski is a man who understood Butler's eclectic musical needs. The teaming up was everything the hard-working musician had hoped for, and more. The producer's musicianship, communication skills and ideas were a big part of making Flesh and Blood what it is. Working like a "fourth member of the group", Skubiszewski helped Butler to get "as close to the bone as possible" and put him on the edge vocally.
Saying he has done a lot of his learning in public, for this album Butler wanted to delve deep and draw out a greater emotive quality from his voice. One of the tools employed to help him achieve this was a specific microphone Skubiszewski used in the studio, the Shure SM7. It is a relatively inexpensive microphone, and the same used to record Michael Jackson's vocals on 1982's Thriller. Bringing in this special weapon was an approach that worked. "I'll never sing into another mic again," Butler says. "Or at least I won't until someone shows me something better."
The creative process, and the team involved, has paid musical dividends throughout the album. For an artist who says he has often approached his lyric writing as something that needed to be intensely personal, it is on tracks (such as Bullet Girl and Young and Wild) where he has taken a step away and written from the third person that Butler feels as though he has operated at his most tender. It is as if, he says, listeners get a chance to know him from new perspectives because he is not holding onto the first person as a vehicle for self-expression.
Audiences will have the opportunity to see this blues and roots rocker's tender side in action as he digs into the most extensive Australian tour he has done in four years. It is part of a busy 2014, with more than 100 shows booked, including a Summerstage concert in New York's Central Park and their third headlining slot at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in the Rocky Mountains. This tour will see the trio welcoming new drummer Grant Gerathy. Quick to say he doesn't want to disrespect any of the trio's former line-ups, Gerathy brings a great feeling to the band, Butler says. With the new line-up having the potential to generate some solid, deep grooves, the band "sounds like how we should sound right now".
Butler will be joined for this tour by Brisbane singer-songwriter Emma Louise. Nominated for best female artist at last year's ARIAs, her debut album, Vs Head Vs Heart, debuted at No.12 on the ARIA charts after its March 2013 release.
JOHN BUTLER TRIO
With: Emma Louise
When: Saturday, April 12
Where: Royal Theatre
Tickets: from $68.70, available from ticketek.com.au
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