Jonathan Butler
South Africa
Solo Artist
In the world of categorization, definition and labeling, no limiting moniker suffices to describe the recording artistry of Jonathan Butler. A vocalist and guitarist that writes and produces most of his own music, he's had successes over his twenty-five year recording career in pop, R&B, smooth jazz and adult formats. But his canvass is even more expansive than the above mentioned genres define as he masterfully dips his brush into vibrant hues of Africano, world music and gospel colorings. Butler, a soulfully inspired man, sees music as his salvation and "the purpose and tool which God has used for my life." If we must label and define this individually gifted artist and his music, "Soul Jazz" seems to be the most fitting.
Jonathan Butler heard these words emerge from within and he knew he must heed them. At 40 years old and newly signed to Warner Brother Records, it is a new day for the artist that inked his first record deal as a teenager with Jive Records. "I view life in seasons and this season is all about surrender," reflected Butler, who feels that he is in the best place he has been in personally in over a decade. "It's really about opening ourselves up to our higher purpose and allowing it to guide you on your journey. We should be grateful for the guidance and strive to live in attunement with it. For me this and every season is all about surrendering to God. I think it's something we need to do in some way every day. That's what I'm most concerned about at this point in my life."

The youngest of twelve children, Butler started singing publicly in South African townships as a seven-year-old simply to attract his parents' attention. Soon the child's fervent guitar strumming and singing financially supported the family. Music carried Butler far across the country he saw being destroyed through Apartheid. He traveled with nearly 100 singers, musicians and dancers in a show that traversed South African villages to perform. The mode of travel and living conditions were squalid, certainly not fit for a child still in single digit years. On occasion he'd perform at lavish concert halls for whites where he wasn't even allowed to use the bathroom, and the very next night he would perform in a decrepit township. It was a duality that was hard to comprehend and reconcile. However, he was happy and felt comfort when engaged with playing his guitar and singing. His first language was Afrikaans, but he learned English in his travels, which created a gulf between him and his family left behind. "I know I was born to make music," said Butler. "It's not so much about business and a career for me. I see myself as a working artist."

British record producer Clive Caulder signed Butler as a teenager to Jive Records. His first single was the first by a black artist played by white radio stations in South Africa and earned a Sarie Award, South Africa's equivalent to the Grammys. Jive was headquartered in England, so Butler moved there and called it home for seventeen years. His self-titled debut album introduced him internationally and scored a Grammy nomination for the pop hit "Lies." An instrumental, "Going Home," earned a Grammy nomination and the mid-tempo ballad, "Sarah, Sarah," confirmed Butler's place in popular music.

A collection of diverse albums followed. Through them and extensive concert tours, Butler solidified his presence in the 1990s with a body of music that crossed color and age lines. Was he a jazz instrumentalist that sang soulfully or a passionate R&B singer that played a cool jazz guitar? "I came to the West seeking artistic freedom to express myself," he recalled. "While my albums have always offered vocal cuts and instrumentals, for me it was never about creating music for a particular format or type of audience. That's too narrow and restrictive. For me, it's about surrendering to the will of the music and just letting it flow through me, whichever direction it may go."

Over the years, Butler has experienced pain and inner turmoil. Feelings of guilt torment him on occasion for leaving his family behind and not having enough time to visit with them. "While I have grown and changed over the years, I've had little interaction with my family in South Africa," Butler shared. But now his perspective proffers hope. "I believe there will be a season when we will connect on deeper levels and communicate on a new level, which will bring healing and answer all the unanswered questions between us."

Butler went back to South Africa in early 2001, which inspired his songwriting for the new album. "Although I've been back home many times, my wife (Barenese) and I have not gone together. It was a remarkable experience," he recalled. In the past, Butler has relied upon others to give words to his emotions, but this trip fueled an outpouring of creativity lyrically. "I've never been so prolific. God just gave me the words."

Butler quotes the Bible often in conversation and offers his own pearls of wisdom with a knowing glimmer in his eye and a radiant smile upon his face. "When I started singing and playing guitar as a child, it was usually out of fear and to escape the pain of injustice and prejudice that I saw everywhere in South Africa under Apartheid. It's like the world and all my fears disappear when I'm in my creative space," confessed Butler. "If a man is true to himself, he should be without fear."

The release of "Surrender" marks Butler's twenty-fifth anniversary as a recording artist and he feels this album, his thirteenth, is totally without compromise. He wrote eight new songs, co-wrote one and selected one cover. "I titled the album 'Surrender' because I think it is sensual and the grooves on the album are incredibly soulful, sensual, and emotional yet the music and the message are deeply spiritual," said Butler.

For the first time in several albums, Butler shared the production duties. Paul Brown, known for producing hits with Boney James, Peter White, Richard Elliot and many other smooth jazz stars, produced the album with Butler. "When Paul heard the demos, he was amazed with what I already had on tape," Butler explained. "He wanted to stay true to the demos and not change anything unnecessarily. Paul gave my ideas space and room to breathe. His true genius is displayed in the horn section, organ and background vocals that help bring the songs to life."

Initially Butler felt compelled to make a gospel album and some of the songs on "Surrender" were intended for such a collection. "I was driving in my car one day and I heard Musiq's song, 'Love,' on the radio. I came home and wrote 'This Is Love.' It would have been the anchor for the gospel record." The album opens with this paean of divine gratitude. Wah-wah electric guitar riffs and a big warm horn section fills up the track with funk while a choir of backing vocals propel the chorus to the heavens. A version of Miriam Makeba's "Pata Pata," a major hit in South Africa in the 1960's, delivers an authentic sampling of South African culture to the collection. Butler's nylon guitar and jazzy scat vocals intertwine with a shuffling percussion rhythm, a rousing organ and blasts from the horn section. On the title cut, Butler uses his nylon guitar to seemingly pick out the notes as thoughtfully as a poet chooses his words. Sax sensation Boney James engages Butler in a call and response between guitar and sax before James takes over at the bridge solo.

"Take Me Back" also would have been part of the gospel album. The words for the song came to Butler while hiking. "It's a personal cry, even a testimonial, to go back to that place where we should be in our relationship with our Creator," he explained. "So many of us lose our way at times. Sometimes we get lost because we're too selfish. Eventually we get desperate enough to seek to be in a better place." A delicate nylon guitar adds weighty emotion to the plea.

Butler said, "The instrumentals on this collection are truly reflective of who and where I am today." Listen to "Wake Up" and it's obvious that he is about celebrating his South African roots. It's a festive, energetic feel good number powered by a pulsating rhythm, blazing horns and a snappy South African melody. Bright like the sky at dawn, the instrumental is alive and fun. Apparently he's also in the mood for romance. Butler utilizes a suave Bossa Nova beat for the wholesome love song "Thoughts Of You." While his voice never sounded smoother, he rips a nylon guitar solo that communicates an intense sense of yearning. Amazing that he poured that much passion into a demo as it is the original demo that made it onto the album.

According to Butler, "Back To Love" is the story of the album. This slow emotive jam is "about an abusive relationship. Something went desperately wrong and now the partners are trying to find the path back to one another. But it is also a song about a prodigal child that is seeking a path back to the Heavenly Father."

"River Of Life" is a song that Butler can not explain its origins. "It literally jumped out of my spirit. I was in the studio working on 'Thoughts Of You' and this song came to me, first as chords and then melody. Then I started singing and the words came out of me without any thought. The version on the album is the original demo." It's a powerful and inspiring anthem that is depicted in a South African soundscape.

Two instrumentals close the album. "Many Faces" is a key track that helped Butler establish the tone of the album. His soulful chants and nylon guitar gives the song a world music feel. "It's a testimonial without words. Chanting immediately takes me right back to Africa," Butler offered. Challenging jazz rhythm patterns accentuated with night sounds arise in "African Moon." "This one was originally called 'Swazi.' Swaziland is a place in near the border of South Africa where I used to love to go hang out at," recalled Butler. "Some parts of Southern California, especially the mountainous and desert areas, remind me of my homeland."


Jonathan Butler was born into Apartheid and experienced first hand the travesties and injustices of racial discrimination and a corrupt government. His enormous family was destitute. He left home and family behind at a very young age. He was exposed to the trappings of the road as a teenager (drug and sex abuse). In his later teens, he found his spiritual path and has persisted to conquer the challenges and difficulties he's faced on his voyage. While it's never been easy, the man has tapped into an endless source of hope and optimism that he pours liberally into his life and craft, touching and uplifting others along the way. Butler's story of life is about the triumph of the spirit against incredible odds. "This has been a great journey thus far," Butler summarized. "I think that I'm a more sensitive man due to the hardships and trials that I've faced. While there have been some very dark days, I've never lost my faith and never lost hope. Despite enduring real pain, I know I'm blessed. I've got an incredible wife for twenty years now, three beautiful children, and I make a living making music. Life is sweet."
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