'Write what you know," goes the old creative adage, and Australian folk-rocker John Butler couldn't agree more. In fact, that was his prime directive on Flesh & Blood, the reflective sixth set from his popular roots-jam band the John Butler Trio.
So while a billowing track like "Cold Wind" may seem to be about a metaphorical journey, it actually details a four-wheel-drive trip that the singer and his wife recently took deep into the Australian outback, where they camped in an Aboriginal settlement near Ayers Rock and communed with its renowned tribal elder, Uncle Bob Randall. Nor was it some superficial hipster exercise; Butler's sojourn through his country and its indigenous cultural history lasted nearly three months.
"I'd heard about Uncle Bob Randall, and I wanted to meet him," says Butler of the indigenous artist whose song "My Brown Skin Baby They Take Him Away" described his experience among the "Stolen Generations," children who were involuntarily removed from their homes by Australian government agencies and church missions.
"He welcomed us into his home with open arms, and he told us stories about his childhood, about being taken away from his mother, his family, his people."
Despite all that, Butler was worried about overstaying his welcome. Instinctively, he sensed when it was time to depart. "And as we left that country and went up north, it was very windy and cold, and it literally moved us on — the wind told us to get the hell out," he says. "And that's how the story of 'Cold Wind' came about."
Butler also believes that he'd passed over Aboriginal culture's mysterious songlines, which are also known as dreaming tracks, although he couldn't pinpoint exactly where or when. "They criss-cross all over the country like a web," he says. "It's a very old, very sacred way for people to remember their heritage and the secrets of the land."
Other Flesh & Blood remembrances were culled from real life, as well. "Blame It On Me" is written from the perspective of a higher power, urging humanity to take more responsibility for its own destructive actions. And "How You Sleep at Night" describes an airport run-in that Butler had with Western Australia's current premier, Colin Barnett, over a proposed gas refinery's encroachment on the pristine Kimberley region, which is home to the world's largest humpback-whale nursery.
"The face-to-face boiled down to this," recalls Butler, who participated in two "Concert for the Kimberley" benefits, as well as street protests, which helped nix Big Oil's toxic project. "I said 'Look, mate — you're a dad, I'm a dad. We're husbands, we love our families, and we like clean air and clean water. So this is not about politics — this is about decency.' Because the Kimberley is magical — it's one of the last real wild places on the planet."
Ultimately, Butler believes his album — and indeed, his life itself — reflects a much larger truth: "I think a fulfilled life is a life that's connected to its community and its family. If you just live your life only to satisfy yourself and your own needs, it's not full. And it is not happy."