Calgary Folk Festival: Aussie musician and family man John Butler counts his blessings
The Calgary folk fest is for family reunions.
That goes for the moms and/or dads and/or kids, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. sense of the word to the extended idea of it — from a group of friends gathering in the beer garden and the volunteers who assemble every year to the greater, close-knit community that comes together on the island, even if it is for only one weekend out of the year, and only for that communal musical experience.
And then there are the Butlers and Caruanas, where it’s a delightful combination of the two.
On the Butler side of things, husband-father-musician John will be bringing his acclaimed Aussie roots ’n’ blues ’n’ rock trio to the event. He’ll also have his kids in tow, an eight-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, who’ve been with him while he’s been touring the States for the past month.
“They’re pretty adorable,” Butler says from a stop in Detroit, and then laughs while adding the obligatory, “most of the time.”
When they arrive in town Thursday, for the John Butler Trio’s headlining mainstage performance, the reunion, albeit a brief one, will take place with wife-mother-musician Danielle Caruana, who’s also at the fest with her project Mama Kin.
While festival audience members will be privy to part of it — she’ll join him onstage for a song — the rest of it will be quick and private, a pair of ships passing on Prince’s Island, before a handoff and a departure.
“We meet in Calgary and we do a high-five, maybe six hours together, and then I leave the kids with her and she goes back to Australia after Calgary,” Butler laments, noting that he’ll continue on his road warrior ways for the next month or so.
But, again, that’s the price on has to pay in order to feed a 15-plus-year, six-album career that is a successful one, by most standards, including his own.
“Success, everybody has a different definition,” he says. “One is, you know, happy wife-happy life, and then the other one is feed myself, pay the rent and feed my family just doing what I love. And I’ve been doing that for a long time, so I definitely have that success.”
Butler’s latest studio album with his trio — one that has changed over the years but currently features Byron Luiters and Grant Gerathy — is Flesh & Blood, which finds the musician at the height of his skills as both a player and songsmith, working and expanding the different styles and sonic textures (blues, rock, reggae, roots, pop, funk, soul and more) effortlessly, comparable to like-minded acts such as Ben Harper and the Dave Matthews Band.
Released February of last year, what followed was something of a standard situation for the California-born musician — whose family moved Down Under when he was still a child — and that was rabid response from his ever-increasing fan base, awards and nominations from the Australian music industry, chart-placement, and, for the most part, thumbs up from the critical realm.
It also further established him on this side of the world, with the touring he’s now doing and appearances on Conan cementing his reputation as an artist who delivers.
For many, that would be enough. But for Butler, it’s merely scenery on the journey, the long haul.
“I try not to give those things too much credence only partly because I have in the past and to be brutally honest everybody likes it when everybody likes you, but no one likes it when it’s the other way around,” he says.
“And I’ve had a bit of both and that’s all well and good, but I just try to keep on the road, and keep on the road of being creative …
“I’m just thinking about the next album and how to evolve this thing and fully realize it, and I’m not too sure I’ve fully realized it. But at the end of the day … that’s really the main thing is that I’m happy, my band’s happy and that the fans are kind of happy.
“But I like to think that I can do better, as well.”
That actually goes for the songs themselves, with Butler explaining that even though the Flesh & Blood material is a year-and-a-half removed from its recorded form — more than two-and-a-half since it was laid down over the course of 20 days at his studio in Fremantle dubbed The Compound — they’re far from stale, always taking on a new form, turning into something different every time he and his band take the stage.
It keeps things interesting for the audience, himself invested in the music.
“It just takes everything I’ve got every night. Even songs I wrote 10 years ago seem to be just as challenging to get right. I think swing and funk and groove and the x-factor and just capturing the lightning, every night, it takes everything I got,” he says.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been at a moment onstage where I’m like, ‘Oh, I can just play this one and not do too much and it will be great.’ I’m just not that much of a virtuoso. It takes everything I’ve got. I’m definitely not bored by them.
“And they are growing and they are changing, and I think that’s the beautiful thing, I think when you record a song they’re basically 18 year olds, they’re just allowed to leave home and go out into the big wide world. But when they sit on the stage for a year-and-a-half they get life experience and they turn into something else.”
Which brings us back to his real children, from which he will now spend the remainder of the North American summer apart from. While he admits leaving them with their mother in Calgary, as Caruana performs workshops throughout the weekend and a side-stage showcase on Sunday, will most certainly be difficult, he chooses instead to focus on the time they have had together and what that has meant.
“It’s a complete blessing,” he says, pointing specifically to getting the opportunity to be a father.
“I’ve always been very fortunate, ever since they were born, my career was at a level enough, at least in Australia where I could afford to bring them out. And because of Australia I was able to bring them out everywhere. So I’ve been blessed. I’ve been blessed to see the first swims, the first walks, the first words. With this lifestyle those are the things that you (usually) miss out on and I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a wife that’s so supporting and so hardcore, basically, to make it work.”
John Butler Trio performs Thursday during the Calgary Folk Music Festival at Prince’s Island Park. For tickets and more information go to calgaryfolkfest.com.