How John Butler's New Album Helped Him Heal From Grief

How John Butler’s new album helped him heal from grief

The folk musician’s new album, Running River, was recorded during a period of immense personal turmoil. But as he explains on the new episode of Men's Health's Turning Point podcast, the creative process proved cathartic

JOHN BUTLER IS blinking back tears as he reflects on the day his dad passed away. The pain of the loss is clearly still acute, but as Butler recalls the darkness of that time, he eventually forces a brittle laugh.

“Just before COVID, my band kind of stopped, for lack of a better word, and I decided to go solo for a while to recalibrate,” says the 49-year-old Aria-award winning artist, who’s chatting to us today as part of Men’s Health’s Turning Point podcast. “Then COVID happened and then soon after I brought my father into my home to give him palliative care in his last bit of time on this planet. Meanwhile, my wife had just left earlier to go give palliative care to her father in locked-down Victoria. And so both our fathers died during COVID, 40 hours apart, which is a wild, wild, wild, wild thing.

“And in amongst it, I was making an album at home by myself, COVID-style, and I got pretty deep and did some great work, and then I got way too close to the canvas and all the colours turned to brown and I couldn’t hear the forest for the trees. Post my father passing away and ongoing adrenal fatigue, PTSD, ADHD and anxiety just went, Bing. If you don’t laugh, you cry.”

In this period of immense grief, Butler hit a creative stalemate. “Every time I went to the studio, I was just like, I can’t hear this. The computer stopped working properly because I just rammed it, and I had to walk away. I had to surrender. In the surrender and in the complete giving up I was just like, I don’t know how I ever did this. I don’t know if I could do it again. How could I possibly get on stage with the band? I think I’ve heard that a lot from many different people. Maybe you’ve had these moments where you’re like, How did I do what I did before? How did I do that? Do I still have that?” And I was asking the same questions.”

But somewhere, amid the disillusion and trauma of grief, Butler somehow saw a path forward. It involved setting aside time to heal, as well as abandoning the album he was making and instead working on an ambient instrumental project called The Four Seasons. “I’d always wanted to make this ambient album of a soundtrack for when you’re getting acupuncture, kinesiology, reflexology, a massage, in your yoga practice, in your meditation practice, in your breathing practice, on your plant medicine journey,” he says. “And in the surrender, I was like, Now it’s time to make this album. This is the only thing I can make right now. I can just start with a few really simple tracks. Obviously, you need to take the complexity out and just heal. You’ve been through a lot. It’s just baby steps, build back baby steps.”

The new album, Running River, is the first of four. The second ‘season’ will be an instrumental offering that harks back to Butler’s days busking on the streets of Fremantle while the third is a solo song-driven studio recording. The fourth and closing season will be a return to working with a band.

First up, Running River comprises 10 songs, 10 minutes long that are designed, Butler says, “to calm the nervous system” from what he calls a “frenetic media onslaught”. “I feel like not just myself, but collectively, there’s a bit of nervous system burnout. You’re seeing that across the board in men’s mental health, women’s mental health, kids’ mental health. We’re buckling under this pressure, watching juggling dogs, scrolling to watching people being obliterated by the world’s strongest armies. You’re just like, This is crazy making, proper crazy making.”

Butler found the respite he was seeking in the simplicity of the music he was making and hopes others will find a similar refuge.

“In the process of making that music and playing a very simple chord progression for 10 minutes straight, that in and of itself is a very calming thing to do,” he says. “That’s what it was intended for, just to be in places of wellness, whether it’s a place you go to get healing or do your yoga or get a massage. When you’re on that table, you’re hearing a little bit what I have to offer and I wanted just to be in that space. It’s not something that you do to make money, it’s not something that you do to further your career. It was just something that I needed to do as a process because music for me has always been cathartic and it’s a means to process and to move through this life.”

Running River is out on May 24.

Listen to John on The Turning Point podcast:



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By Ben Jhoty

Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Head of Content, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.

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