John Butler’s Running River

An interview with John Butler on the
eve of his new meditation album launch

with Josh Pryor

Listening to the preview of John Butler’s new meditation album Running River I was struck by a few strong impressions.

Aside from general delight at hearing well-produced soaring instrumental tracks, atmospheric guitars touching on the style of Peter Green blues and Gilmour-era Pink Floyd, I realised how integral spiritually-oriented albums had been in my formative years as yoga student.

Krishna Das and Juzzie Smith seemed to be the soundtrack to my life in the 2000-2010s. I don’t recall hearing anything recently with that same cohesive gravity. In the age of streaming music services and AI-generated songs and playlists, the organic album format and the idea of a real personality expressing something from a place of meaning is a relief to hear and feel.

John and I had a great chat in the lead-up to the album launch. I told him how much I appreciated the subtly up-beat aspect of many songs on the album. As much as we enjoy classic chants and ambient music, sometimes we need to be lifted, even a little, especially while in a suggestible state during or after yoga.

“Yeah I need a bit of hypnotic rhythm. I love some ethereal and pastel sounds too, but for me there’s always a heartbeat, and I wanted to put that heartbeat in these songs. So I found myself making atmospheric loops that are hypnotic, but not completely formless. I had to do it my most instinctual way.”

John Butler decided to make a meditation album a decade ago, but it was only in recent years that the space opened up for it. He had been pushing in a few other directions and found only frustration, depletion, and “a bunch of coulda-shoulda-woulda moments”. With his attention span diminished, returning to this idea was the only thing he could do to soothe the frayed nervous system. The universe created a situation where he had no choice but to make good on his earlier commitment.

John’s personal practice is impressive in breadth and longevity. Starting with TM as a young adult and expanding into an array of mind-body work that can be deployed out on the road. His studies with Hindustani Slide Guitar pioneer Devashish Bhattacharya made a strong impression too. He reminded John during hours and hours of plucking practice that “through discipline comes freedom”.

“Classic Indian ragas influenced me very early in guitar playing, and that does have a form and melody. It’s a little old school, switching out the modern gear and giving a nod to the ancient technology of chants.”

Massage, kinesiology, osteopathy, reiki, and similar modalities are front of mind with this album. He wanted to write a series of 20 minute songs to match that kind of environment, but was eventually convinced to keep most songs around 10 minutes.

“This is a soundtrack for any kind of inward or healing journey, to infiltrate screen culture and excessive dopamine activity. Something to soothe when travelling, to counteract the noise and lights of busy cities.”

We talked about increasing unease in the nervous system with phones and political strife, our regular access to ultraviolence from the comfort of a phone and latte. It’s a little uncomfortable, these familiar insecurities are hardwired in us. Focusing on the negative to get the chemical reward associated with protection. The difference is that while a gazelle might get chased and escape, afterwards they do a big physical release and shake it off – but humans tend to dwell. It ends up rattling the circuitry.

“I wondered how can I give a big hug to the nervous system and allow it to just fucking drop. This album is about helping the body understand it’s okay to step back from the addiction to dopamine. That’s why we come to these ancient healing modalities – as a balm. Our challenges aren’t new, people have been thinking about it for thousands of years.

Now, after Covid, John is ready to reach out to the world creatively with a new sense of gratitude. The last few years gave him the opportunity to provide palliative care to his father. He made a room for his Dad in the family home. He has appreciated being around his kids too, not just for birthdays and events, but while washing dishes. Wonder happens in the mundane.

I quizzed John a little more about his personal practice. He explained that while his on-the-road rituals occur in the hours before the concert that night, his practice is just as much about making sure the next night’s performance is also nurtured.

“Have good sleep, loads of journalling, exercise. Sound check. Eat 3 hours before performing to give digestion enough time. Meditate 90 mins before. Warm my vocals, stretch my body.”

After the performance is just as important. A kinesiologist once remarked to him “wow, you are carrying around all these people long after the event”. After opening his field to thousands of people, his practices up the probability of being in good shape the next night. He burns plenty of sage, palo santo, and sandalwood. He has a travel alter that he takes with him, sometimes the road crew wander into a smoke-filled room and go “hey what’s this about!”

“Making the time can be a pain in the ass. You can call it being regimented or disciplined – but it works. I go through the motions, the rituals, and it send signals to my body that self-care is about to happen. Sometimes just the initial gesture of rolling out the mat makes me feel good.”

For now, John is thrilled to offer something to allcomers, anyone that enjoys this expression of humanity coming from the perspective of a perpetual student, a wandering wonderer. He said the last thing he wants to do is pretend to be a healer. This is one voice, one offering to the field of consciousness. In tune with this intention, the last song on the album (one of only two that have lyrics) calls to Watturu, the ocean to “take it all away so I can see another day, wash me in the water, wash me in the sand”. It is a brilliant offering from a remarkable artist.

We look forward to hearing it resonate around yoga studios in the near future!

Listen to John Butler’s new meditation album Running River exclusive to Yoga Australia members below by logging in. This content is only available to current members.