John Butler Trio

How Australia's John Butler Took The U.S. By Storm

Few artists ever achieve the success of Australia's eclectic roots band The John Butler Trio. In fact, it's not a secret that most major label bands never find themselves with a top-charting album, especially a debut at No. 1.

But this is only one of the many, many achievements of the talented Aussie Trio who have defied any formula in the music business. The band achieved a No. 1 debuting album - and much more independently - without the funding and promotional push of a major record label.

The band, who combines soulful vocals with elements of hip-hop, folk, reggae and Zeppelin, became Australia's No. 2 top touring act. Also, its most recent Australian release "Sunrise Over Sea" debuted at No. 1, achieving platinum sales status in a short two weeks (it's now currently four times certified platinum in Australia and platinum in New Zealand).

"Sunrise Over Sea's" single "Zebra" took home the Song of the Year title at the 2004 APRA Awards (Australia's version of the ACAP/BMI Awards), beating Jet's popular "Are You Going to Be My Girl." Also, The John Butler Trio was nominated for five ARIA Awards last year (a.k.a. the Australian Grammy's), taking home three including "Best Male Vocalist," "Best Roots & Blues Album" and "Best Independent Artist."

"Yeah, it's great," Butler said of his band's achievements in Australia. Butler plays an array of instruments that includes 12-string and pedal steel guitars and banjos - and has many times been compared to Ben Harper. "There's a lot of history making going on over there. And it wasn't a deliberate thing. It was just the way it started," he said.

With so much success flowing "down under," it was only a matter of time before U.S. labels took notice.

"We put out a few feelers in America," said Butler during a phone interview. "We really wanted to go to America because we figured people would dig it. We always want to go places where we feel people want or need the music."

"I tried to do it independently the first few years here and found I was going to have to move here," Butler adds. "We realized we needed some help. Lava Records was interested in us before and they were still interested."

"They were interested in doing business in a way that I felt comfortable with - 100% creative control over the music, artwork, publicity and things like that which is really important to me," he said. "They were really willing to work with me on those fronts, which are the most important fronts for me. Because of what we've done in Australia independently, I think we very much know how to make a good album, promote an album and put on a show. So I wasn't about to be in the position where I would have someone tell me how to do it. I just wanted to work with people who have the same goal: let's spread this good music."

And the John Butler Trio is doing just that. The trio, rounded out by drummer Michael Barker and upright bassist Shannon Birchall, signed with the American label Lava Records, a highly-successful label home to bands like Kid Rock, O.A.R., Simple Plan, Antigone Rising, Unwritten Law, The Click Five and Uncle Kracker, amongst others.

Lava released "Sunrise Over Sea" in the U.S. on March 15, landing at the No. 8 position on the Alternative New Artist Chart. Stateside critics are loving it. The New York Post said (Butler) plays "the best acoustic soul since Dave Matthews" and Billboard called "Sunrise Over Sea" "wonderfully overwhelming."

Butler reveals that his band released another album in the States on an independent label, but, "it was like sailing a matchstick on the Atlantic Ocean."

"It was a little hard to make any waves while the waves are tipping your boat over," he said. "So this ("Sunrise Over Sea") is the first release on a more elaborate scale."

Things have been taking off rapidly for The John Butler Trio in the U.S. The band just played its second performance at the popular annual Bonnaroo Festival alongside the Dave Matthews Band, The Black Crowes, Joss Stone, Widespread Panic and many others. The Trio was the No. 1 selling new artist at this year's New Orleans Jazzfest. The band also recently played sold-out shows in San Francisco, New York and Austin. The band plans to continue touring the States throughout the 2005 year.

"We're just looking forward to sharing it with people," said Butler of his music. "It's a journey of many different colors. It's not any one thing that can be pigeonholed. If you're willing to go on all the rides at the park, it will be a deeper experience."

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Kristi Singer

Kristi Singer is a Contributing Writer for Chorus and Verse.