Leading rhythmic folk-roots artist John Butler has joined the Port Fairy Folk Festival 2022 lineup.
He is a major headliner for the 45and episode of what has become an iconic seaside festival on the Australian music calendar.
Butler has established himself on the Australian music scene as one of the country’s most revered singer-songwriters over his two-decade career.
The ARIA award-winning musician has attended the Folkie many times over the years.
“I think I’ve played Port Fairy at least three or four times, it would be my fourth time I think,” Butler said.
“The last time I had, I had a really good jam with Jeff Lang – he invited me on stage for a song and I remember it very well.
“I’ve seen my wife play there a few times and just my own shows too. I love the whole scene, it’s a beautiful place.”
Butler says festivals like the Folkie are a big part of the music landscape.
“Culture is heavily influenced by music, it’s what most of us listen to when we’re not talking, doing or working; there’s music out there somewhere. Music is strongly ingrained in us as a people.
“Festivals therefore provide a space for culture to celebrate and truly experience the magic of music.
“I always think my job is to give people chills. When I look at something I want to feel chills and when I do it it’s so magical and I want to feel it again. But it’s a bit rare because well, that makes it even more special.
“Festivals increase the chill factor and the chances of feeling it, and I think that’s really important.
“When people get chills in the audience, it has a very physiological effect on people and it’s a good thing that makes them feel less alone and makes them feel connected, it makes them feel amazed and like, not fully understanding what is happening to them.
“It’s an amazing little ride that music can do – and festivals facilitate that on a mass level.”
But what is folk music, 45 years later?
For Butler, it’s music by the people, for the people.
“Folklore is a very long tradition of telling stories and telling stories to people – stories of ordinary people, not like celebrity stories or stories of famous people, but everyday stories,” a- he declared.
“I feel like the early forms of folk were about the events of the day; the minstrel going from village to village and singing it. It was a form of topicality but also a kind of collective temperature reading where was the company.
“I feel like it’s the music of a people. It kind of explores all the different aspects of what it means to be human and to be part of a community.”
It was his grandfather’s guitar that played a role in his musical debut.
“My grandma gave me my grandpa’s guitar when I was 16, even though I wasn’t really learning guitar to get it,” Butler said. “I was the first person to learn in the family after his death, and I bear his name. .
“Five years later, I discovered slide music and all of a sudden this dobro slide guitar made sense.
“It was like the guitar was waiting for me to catch up.”
Since then, Butler has had a long career, remaining a key part of the Australian music scene for over two decades.
But who is John Butler now? He is still trying to solve this problem.
“Who am I now as an artist? I guess I’ll stay a singer-songwriter, but I’m probably making more different music than ever,” Butler said.
“Nowadays, I do a lot of rhythm in music influenced by hip-hop and dance with banjos and guitars. That’s what I’m working on right now.
“I think I’m someone who’s probably a little more open-minded and a little less fair than 20 years ago. I think I see a lot more gray in duality and nuance, especially at the times in which we live.
“I find it very difficult to wave flags, that’s what I’m really trying to say.”
A lot has happened since Butler started releasing music in the 90s, but there are two defining moments in his career that stick with him.
“It took 10 years, and I actually lost money in America for 10 years,” Butler said.
“It was a huge undertaking that took centuries and centuries and a lot of work, a lot of background, a lot of building a fan base and a lot of investment and time.
“Australia has everything to do with it even though it’s another country; without Australia I could never have afforded a career in America.”
The John Butler Trio have sold Red Rocks five times and even now each time feels like a great achievement.
“It was the showpiece concert and one of my favorite places on the planet, it’s so majestic.”
Butler’s support of First Nations artists, environmental advocacy and political activism has been a major feature of his musical career.
He admits that it took many years to be able to sit with the duality of life; a theme explored in his timeless 2004 track “Zebra”.
“It’s not all really black and white, there’s a lot of gray in between and so I just try to stay really open-minded, try to keep improving my language and my politics and at the same time maybe not to get too caught up in what circus maybe going on right now,” Butler said.
“I find that a little too simplistic for the complexity of human beings. You know, I’m a nice person and I’m an asshole.
“It’s a very human trait not to be blameless. Can I be a decent progressive man and still find that I have systematic, pre-programmed societal sexism in me? Yeah.
“Am I awake or not? Things are very complex.
“I think all you can really do is stay really open. Keep listening. Keep not taking it too personally.”
Music runs through the veins of the family.
Butler and his partner Danielle Caruana, a performer known as Mama Kin, have a teenage daughter Banjo Lucia who is making waves on the music scene, releasing the stunning emotional track “That’s Not Loving” in 2021.
“I think I’m more inspired by her than proud of her,” Butler said. “I’m still proud of her no matter what she’s done, we’ve always told our kids don’t feel you have to make music because that’s exactly what your mom and I do.
“But Danielle and I were like, how did she get so good? She’s only 19. Like what happened?
“We’ve had several friends leave, she’s better than you two put together.
“It’s pretty amazing just to watch. Sometimes I think to myself that I even have children, that I’m a parent and that I go to meetings of teachers and parents. I think to myself, God, it’s so grown up.
“So I’m always like, wow, I have a girl first, wow. And then I’m like, wow, she’s really good. So it’s actually pretty surreal most of the time to watch what she does.
“Hopefully she’ll be at Port Fairy too – Danielle will be playing, so if we can get Banjo there it will be a family affair.”
See John Butler at the Port Fairy Folk Festival March 11-14.