Bernard Butler: 'As a musician, your job is to keep learning'

With a new album in the wings, Bernard Butler is starting this year with a smattering of solo gigs around the country.
Bernard Butler. Picture: Tina KorhonenBernard Butler. Picture: Tina Korhonen
Bernard Butler. Picture: Tina Korhonen

Yet the 53-year-old singer-songwriter and producer is quick to point out that the two dates he has coming up in Yorkshire are not part of some “mysterious, enigmatic” promotional campaign for the record, which is due out this summer.

“It’s not really a prelude,” he tells The Yorkshire Post. “I wish I worked in the traditional music business campaign format, but I don’t really, I just do everything on my own. I’ve been doing shows sporadically for the last couple of years and people are starting to notice. When I advertise one I tend to get an email saying, ‘do you want to come and play here?’ and I’ll say, ‘all right’, then that one goes on sale and one thing’s led to another very naturally.”

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Presently, he tours alone and the emphasis is very much on spontaneity. The former Suede guitarist explains: “The way I do shows at the moment is completely solo and it’s largely improvised in the sense that I’ve got a bunch of songs and I don’t decide what I’m going to play until quite late on or quite often during the show. Because I’m on my own I can change the format of the song as I please as I’m playing it and just seeing how things feel.

“What that means is everything is quite instantaneous, it’s responsive to the moment and the environment. What that also means mainly is I’m learning something new every night about the songs and about myself.”

Beverley appealed because he’s never been there before. “These shows for me, it’s really important for me that I have a good time, basically, and enjoy my life,” he says. “I look at places to go to and think, that looks like a nice night out, it’s a Friday night, I can do that...So rather than trying to trudge round the standard venues of the UK that I’ve played lots of times and struggled through the process, it’s all good. If I’m having a good night out I think generally you’re trying to create an environment where everybody does. Something that’s often ignored is the role an audience plays in a performance, and it’s really important to the way a performer responds. Obviously if it’s in a stadium then that’s a different thing, but when it’s just me it’s really important that you’re connecting all the time and feeling that people are with you. It goes both ways.”

Butler says the 11 years he spent working with the late Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch “without doubt” changed his whole perspective on music. “Technically it changed everything, and it really shaped my outlook in a way that I feel I’m still processing because he’s been gone for (more than) 10 years now,” he says. “That period I was with him, I learnt lots of key things – one of them was about improvising, something I was always interested in and I really enjoy doing. I feel it’s part of being a musician and part of progressing, becoming better, learning your craft, if you like. Progressing through life is learning to move away from what you know and work instinctively. It’s the old jazz adage of learn the notes and then throw away the notes and then you start to play…

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“Every night I played with Bert he was largely improvising, he was always used to playing on his own, so he would twist things around and technically add moments in the song, little bars here and there and change tempos and structures and do what he fancied. And as an accompanying musician, as I always was on an electric (guitar) I had to follow that, and it was quite hard. He didn’t give me many hints because he didn’t talk about it, he just did it. We’d turn our guitar necks towards each other so I could see what he was doing when he was moving and that was the only clue I got. But it taught me to try to be better. I thought when I was playing with Bert I wasn’t necessarily better, but it always stuck with me that I need to be in that place where I can respond instinctively and have the tools inside me to know how to do that.”

Bernard Butler. Picture: Bella KeeryBernard Butler. Picture: Bella Keery
Bernard Butler. Picture: Bella Keery

Interpretation is something that Butler works on with other artists that he produces, such as the folk singer Sam Lee. “He’s a great inspiration on me as well,” he says. “Similarly, Sam takes the folk tradition but the principle is to not just get out an acoustic guitar, it’s to say what can we do, how can we pass on song, how can we pass on story and history, and how can we reflect the stories of nature and the journey of the Earth within what we do? Those kind of principles I learn from Bert, that it was really important to be free, to improvise and to keep on reinterpreting what you do. As a musician, your job is to keep learning; it’s not to keep replicating something just because somebody likes it.”

As for his new solo album, Butler says its title and release date is under wraps as he’s trying to work out a “label relationship”. Nevertheless he reveals he started writing the songs three or four years ago, prompted by people asking him if he’d retired from performing. “I did all sorts of stuff, I was always playing live, but people didn’t really see it as me. So I started thinking about that,” he says.

“In my world if I make a record with Sam or Ben or I play with somebody or I make my own record, it’s all the same, really. I treat them all in the same way, I don’t really have much separation in my head with it; it’s just making more music. Whatever role I have to play within that, that’s the joy of it for me, that I have these different roles. But I realised that in the public perception, I didn’t really exist, and I started to think about the reason for that which was because all this music was shooting off in different directions​​​​​​​ with different people, and if you wanted to define where I was within it all, it was probably quite difficult.

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“So when people would say, ‘You made that album 15 years ago, what have you been doing since?’ and I’d say, ‘I made four albums last year, but people wouldn’t know about it. So I started to think, what is my point within all this, what is my relationship with all this music? I thought the best way to find out was to go and perform them in as minimal and simple a way as I could think of. So I started going to a rehearsal room on my own and just setting up with one guitar and microphone and trying to remember the songs.

“It was really important to me that I didn’t start going back and trying to write down chords and learn things because I thought that would go against the grain of the folk principle of passing down the story and passing down the song. I thought how can I pass this down to me without trying to re-learn songs? I also don’t like listening to my own music at all, once it’s done it’s for other people and it’s gone. It’s a bit like looking at bad photos of yourself, so I stay away from it. So I thought I’m going to try to do things from memory and see where that gets me.

“What I’ve found is I started vaguely trying to think of songs and there were a few that I could remember that I liked, and one that reminded me of another song, and I found that I couldn’t remember chords and all the lyrics but if I didn’t remember a lyric I could make it up and I could change it, and I thought that was a good lesson because inevitably if I could start doing things for the now, rather than what it was then.. So I just started doing things on my own, I did it every Wednesday afternoon for about a year. I did as an exercise, really, and I found myself enjoying it, recording it on my phone and taking it away.

“The principle was: how can I find a singular voice that travels or a singular thread that connects my music and music that I performed with other people, music that I’ve written with other people, with other voices...that works in one simple way – one voice, one guitar, how I deliver the songs, so that there was one distinct character going through it. I did it for about a year and got this collection of all sorts of songs and cover versions, and where that left me was inevitably writing new songs. I started to write new songs in that similar format with this voice that I’d discovered by having this time to develop, and also the kind of songs that I’d chosen to find. There’s a lot of my music that I just don’t really like, I’m happy for other people to, but there’s no reason why I have to like it all. I thought if I can find 20 or 30 songs that I like that’s a result...and gradually it developed.”

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In the middle of everything he met the Irish actress Jessie Buckley and the pair started writing songs for what would eventually become the album For All Our Days That Tear the Heart. “I was in the middle of writing my own songs, so I was in the mood for it, and I started working in that same fashion with Jessie and it really worked,” he says. “It was with very minimal tools and writing without external reference points and influences...and that took over the next couple of years of my life. And when it ended, I returned to this.”

Latterly Butler has been working with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and James Grant of Love and Money. “I’ve known Norman for decades on and off but I hadn’t met James before, and we got asked to do Celtic Connections – it was just a random idea to put the three of us together,” he explains. “They booked the show and then we had one rehearsal the night before, it was a bit daunting. We knew we had to bring four songs each and we’d each sing a song and the others would join in, and it was just brilliant. Instantly from the moment we started doing it, it was just a lot of fun.

“I found that being onstage with them is so great, they’re very funny, laugh out loud. I’m on the end of a line of two Scotsmen, it’s quite hard work sometimes to keep up, they are just non-stop banter...but they also happen to be brilliant songwriters, both of them in a class of their own. Brilliant performers, they’re people that have learnt their craft over years and years and can just throw songs out. I love being around musicians because I have to step up, to say how can I be as good as them? How can I listen to what they’re doing and contribute?

“Norman, for example, has written songs that have literally shaped my life – in particular the songs off Bandwagonesque were really key in my personal life, so when I get to perform those songs I realised I don’t want to f*** them up. I’m really keen to add something useful rather than just be singing along. We’re doing Celtic Connections again (this week) and we’ll have a tour at the end of the year as well in the UK. We’ve written some songs and we’re going to write again in a couple of weeks and see what comes of it and definitely try to put a record out this year.”

Bernard Butler plays at The Old Woollen, Leeds on February 8 and St Nicholas’ Church, Beverley on February 9.

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