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Photograph by Marty Philbey
Sole Brothers: The John Butler Trio plays the Catalyst tonight.

Grounded Star

Multiplatinum Australian artist John Butler is just a grassroots kind of guy.

By Garrett Wheeler

For Australian songwriter John Butler, there exists a single material object that not only defines him in the public eye but may even be the reason behind his chosen existence as a musician: his grandfather's 1930s dobro guitar. Shortly after his 16th birthday, his grandmother presented him with the instrument, a reward from his late grandfather to whoever in the family learned to play guitar first. To this day, Butler cherishes the dobro, acknowledging it as his most prized possession. "I started playing guitar when I was 15, not necessarily to get the guitar, but when my grandmother gave it to me, it was amazing. It became a sacred piece in my world, and it still keeps me grounded, reminds me what I'm doing."

What he's doing, impressively, is becoming one of Australia's bestselling pop stars. Already, the John Butler Trio's 2007 album, Grand National, has gone multiplatinum, an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that he lost an estimated 40 percent of sales to illegal pirating on the web. Despite the toll of illicit downloading, Butler has had no trouble emerging as one of the most successful independent artists on the planet. The trio--with Shannon Birchall on bass and Michael Barker on drums--is aligned with Butler's own label, Jarrah Records.

Of course, at the heart of the California-born songwriter's success is his music. An alluring mixture of rock & roll, funk, jazz, folk and reggae, his songs have caught fire among iPod-wielding listeners worldwide and earned Butler a handful of awards, including last year's Australian Recording Industry Association award for Best Independent Release. As explained in the CD's liner notes, Grand National can be defined as "large, extensive, diverse" and "impressive in size, scope or extent." Without question, the album satisfies all of those descriptions, covering an expanse of musical territory that Butler himself calls "universal."

Indeed, Grand National is an expression of tastes so wildly eclectic it's hard to believe they all originated from the same creative lobe. "[Grand National] has a wider sound than any other album we've made," says Butler. "Our evolution has taken us even further while still keeping with our style. It's definitely our best work."

The value Butler places on artistic diversity has been evident throughout his recording career, which began with a self-funded cassette tape called Searching For Heritage in 1996. The tape, which Butler hawked after performances on the club circuit in Perth, sold over 3,500 copies, eventually landing in the hands of local music promoter Phil Stevens. Impressed by the recording, Stevens offered Butler a monthly gig at a nearby bar, which, needless to say, was a success.

But the number of tapes Butler sold during his stint as a resident bar-musician pales next to the experience he gained playing for live audiences. "I learned how to capture people's imaginations," Butler says. "I would create music that was exciting for us, as well as the listener. [The band's success] has always been built from what we do as artists--not necessarily our hype, but our ability to make music. That has always been the cornerstone of what we do."

Having headlined a number of tours across Australia, Europe and the United States, as well as appearing at major festivals like Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival, the Trio has had no shortage of live exposure or subsequent album sales. The grassroots system has been good to Butler, and in a sign of good faith, Butler has chosen to sprinkle a little water onto the lawn, establishing an arts grant fund called "The JB Seed."

"I'm at a stage where I have enough success and money to contribute to other people's careers," says Butler. "For years, I was given grants and loaned money, so it's nice to be able to give back."

JOHN BUTLER TRIO plays Wednesday, April 23, at 8pm at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 adv/$25 door; 831.423.1336.

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