R&B, smooth jazz, and gospel are all part of Jonathan Butler's musical canvas. During the late ‘80s, "Take Good Care Of Me", "More Than Friends", and "Sarah, Sarah" established the Cape Town-born singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist's personal brand of soul. He talks with Justin Kantor about the journey leading to his new Mack Avenue release, ‘So Strong’.
Justin Kantor: Hi, this is Justin Kantor of Soulmusic.com. How are you today?
Jonathan Butler: I’m doing great! You?
JK: Pretty well. I’ve been listening to the CD a lot, and you’ve been busy promoting it.
JB: Yes, I have.
JK: Tell me about it. After releasing a number of Jazz and Gospel albums over the years, what made you decide to release an R&B-driven album?
JB: That’s a good question. I had two record deals: one with a Christian label, and one with Rendezvous/Mack Avenue Records; so, contractually, I had two parallel careers going here. I had to do another album for Mack Avenue, and my thoughts were not to do another smooth jazz record; I didn’t want to go down that road. I really wanted to go back to where I started, I wanted to make an urban album and sing a lot more on the album. That’s why I did only four instrumentals on this album. Also, I played more electric than acoustic guitar, which people know me a lot more for. I wanted the album to be fun and flavorful -- a feel-good record, and this is where I ended with it.
JK: You answered part of what I was going to ask you next, about the fact that you’ve recorded for a variety of labels, both major and independent. You did an album with Warner Brothers, N2K Encoded Music...
JB: How labels change!
JK: What is it about Mack Avenue as a company (or the Rendezvous label) that made you want to go with them?
JB: Dave Koz is a good friend of mine and was one of the guys at Rendezvous, and at the time we were touring together, and Dave said, “Why don’t you do another sort of ‘Do You Love Me’ record and sign with us?” At the time I was a free agent, so I figured it’s not going to hurt -- I knew everybody at that label. When Rendezvous got sold over to Mack Avenue, I was part of the deal, I suppose, like Kirk Whalum. We all get shifted from one label to the next. When we started talking about what’s on my mind and on my plate, I said I really wanted to do an urban album. It’s a return to where I started; and I’m happy with the way things are going.
JK: When you mentioned ‘Do You Love Me’, that reminded me of when I went to Berklee College of Music, and you did a clinic there when that album was released.
JB: How old were you then?
JK: I was 19 then.
JB: A good friend of mine, Carl Bailey, was an instructor there.
JK: I studied with Walter Beasley.
JB: Great guy.
JK: What was the recording process for this album? Where did you record it?
JB: I have a studio at home. I use Logic and Apogee converters, and Neve mic preamps. Basically, I did everything at home. I played bass, keys, and programmed everything, except for a couple of tracks. Gordon Campbell, a great drummer, did a couple of drum tracks for me. I had a 12-piece vocal choir in my living room, and we had them doing stuff with “You Gotta Believe In Something” and “I Can See Clearly Now.”
JK: Is there a lot of over-dubbing? Do you do certain instruments live?
JB: Once I got the basic tracks together, like drums, percussion, keyboards, and bass -- I play live bass on it, with a little bit of synth bass -- then I overdub as I go. I work pretty quickly on my own because I know where everything is. I have meat and potatoes stuff that I use all the time, and I don’t waste a lot of time. Maybe I’m getting old, because I’m not as picky and choosy and fussy. I’m not trying to go for perfection, I want it to feel right. A lot of the vocals are demo performances. “I’m Right Here” was a demo vocal -- actually most of them were. The only vocal I really thought about doing right was the duet with Angie Stone; we were in the same room together. We were looking at each other as we were singing the song. I knew I had to match her performance and finesse the lyric. Most of the time in my home studio, I’m completely free. Now that I’m getting close to 50, I just want it to feel right. If it feels good, then as George Duke says, “When it’s right, it’s right.”
JK: Since you produced and arranged the album, what are the most important duties as a producer and arranger?
JB: I’ve had the fortune of great producers producing my records in the early days, and they look at it from a different perspective. They could be critical with some parts and maybe hear more than the artist. They could suggest finessing the lyrics a bit, inflecting or bending, pronouncing certain words and making it clearer so people can hear what you’re trying to say. Also, in terms of guitar solos, to be mindful of space and not being too busy with your solos, so that you’re not listening to the elements behind you.
JK: Is that different, doing it in the studio versus doing it onstage?
JB: I grew up onstage, so the recording studio is a whole other animal . You have to put headphones on, and the music is not in the air and not open. It’s like those in-ear headphones, and I don’t particularly like those, because I want to feel the room, hear it, and let things breathe naturally. Some people say the in-ear headphones make them play better; but it’s all relative.
JK: You mentioned the fact that you started performing live at a young age, so I’d like to go back to the beginnings. The world at large first got acquainted with your talents through recordings like “African Breeze” with Hugh Masekela and "If You're Ready" with Ruby Turner; but in fact you’d been making recordings in your home country of South Africa since you were a kid. From what I understand, you were the first Black artist there to be played on White radio stations in the Apartheid days. How did you fall into music at such a young age, and what are your memories of those early days starting out?
JB: God has a plan. I grew up in a musical family. My parents and siblings are all musicians. When I opened my eyes, I’d sit around listening to my brothers and sisters talk about tours and where they played. Cape Town is a very vibrant city, with Carnival every year. In the beginning, I was extremely shy as a kid. I didn’t want to sing in front of anybody. But I just had a knowing inside. I would sing for myself, or maybe my friends on the street. I took an early interest in guitar. My older brother, my late brother was a genius on guitar. He was like George Benson. Before I ever heard of George Benson, I knew of Cecil. We used to call him "Ponte" and he was known by all musicians in the community. He was an amazing guy. My brother Danny is still singing; my sisters, Sandra and Vicki, and everybody was doing something.
JK: They were all performing on a professional level in Cape Town?
JB: Back in the day, I wouldn’t say all of them were playing on a professional stage, but definitely Danny and Vicki and Sandra and Ponte, my older brother. I really loved music, and one day they heard me singing; we used to do community concerts and variety shows and I was featured, and that’s where it all began. I got onstage and sang “Delilah” by Tom Jones. In Africa, if they like you they throw money onstage. When I saw the money, I knew this was what I wanted to do forever.
JK: You were on the biggest label in South Africa, Bullet Records, with other superstars like Richard John Smith.
JB: Richard was famous, and Danny Williams was famous, and these guys were my idols. By that time I was doing road shows with Broadway-type productions. I was one of the kids on tour with costume changes and makeup changes, traditional Zulu singing, and Brazilian. By the time I was 12 years old, I was approached to make a record; and of course, I so badly wanted to make a record.
JK: So you got over your shyness.
JB: Onstage is where I came alive. It’s almost like watching Shelia E. now that I’m touring with her. She’s really mellow, and then she gets onstage and it’s like fire. I think I was the youngest person on the label, and then I got my very first hit with “Please Stay." I’ve never experienced fans like that in my life.
JK: That was a remake of the Drifters song, right?
JK: You were also part of the Funk band, Pacific Express?
JB: Yes, so now I was doing Jazz stuff: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, George Duke... So, I had taken a dip from Pop. I had a few guys who were instrumental in introducing me to different genres, some incredible cats who were into avant garde stuff. I just wanted to play jazz; but it was all part of my development as an artist. I wanted to be somebody who knew who this person was who was playing and what they were playing. So I carried my guitar everywhere I went.
JK: So you wanted to be known as a guitarist more than a vocalist?
JB: No, I started writing stuff on the guitar. My very first instrumental that was famous in South Africa is called “7th Avenue." I had no idea that song would blow up, but everybody knew me because of that instrumental. It’s like Stevie Wonder and his harmonica; the guitar is an extension of me. If I didn’t sing, the guitar would sing. George Benson is the same way. I love the instrument because it allows me to sit and listen to everybody out there. I think I’m becoming more of a student today of Jazz than I ever was. I’m really drawn to it.
JK: You pick up lots of different chord structures from what you get with R&B or Pop music.
JB: That’s true. With R&B you can use two or three chords and a loop; but there’s nothing like a great composition to me. It’s something that’s beautiful. The chord changes take you someplace. Thanks to Stevie Wonder, he inspired me to be a songwriter and express myself through that. Even though he’s blind, he has a vision. Amazing chord changes.
JK: You don’t hear those changes on anyone else’s records.
JB: No, you don’t.
JK: When you were on Jive Records, working with producers such as Barry Eastmond, was it a natural progression for you musically? What do you think when you look back at your big commercial successes from that period?
JB: I take my hat off to Clive Calder for playing such an incredible role in me developing as a songwriter. When I joined Jive UK, they had five writing rooms, and they teamed me up with Jolyon Skinner. We wrote every day. Clive was always there to listen and give his direction. We wrote “Take Good Care of Me” as a man saying that to a woman. I would write a verse, bridge and chorus; and Clive would say, “This needs something else to bring you back to the chorus." I started to hear it. I was 24 or 25, so these were early days. Chords I knew, but lyrically speaking and melodically speaking, those were good times. Even today, I reflect on those times and try to write with that type of sensibility.
JK: To a lot of people, Clive Calder seems very mysterious; but for many artists he was really dedicated and supportive. I talked to Billy Ocean, and he was telling me the same thing that you said. That’s something you don't see in the music business too often.
JB: The only record guy that is still like that today is Clive Davis. Whatever he’s been involved in, he’s made some choices and direction that you don’t get today. Artists are left on their own today to fend for themselves. In some ways it’s cool; but those were remarkable times. Billy and I worked together and wrote together; he sang background on some of my songs. The first person I worked with in London was a guy named Simon May, who wrote the ‘Eastenders’ theme song. We wrote a song together called “I’m In Love.”
JK: Was that the one that Ruby Turner recorded?
JB: I can’t remember. Clive (Calder) was instrumental in me developing as a songwriter and spending time in the studio. I was doing a lot of session work, and there was a lot of discipline, direction; it was amazing. When the live album came out, I didn’t know it would be such a successful record around the world. It’s incredible.
JK: What made you move on from that chapter? In the ‘90s, you went to Mercury for the ‘Head to Head’ album, and pursued some different ventures.
JB: Jive was moving to the U.S., and we had just bought our first house in London. The stability of my family was key. Clive wanted me in the U.S., but my manager thought it would be best if I stayed in London. In the end, I ended up leaving Jive, but those were growing years. I was married, grown, making decisions, and I can’t say some of them were not good choices; it was just part of me developing and making the right choice for my family. When I left Jive, I got signed to Mercury. That was the start of me independently doing my thing. I’ve known Clive for many years. It was important for me to stand on my own, be my own man and make decisions for me.
JK: You've certainly done a lot of interesting projects since then. One that stands out to me is the album you did with Juanita Bynum, which was a meshing of Gospel and Classical music.
JB: That was awesome! To hear my songs in that setting was a hell of an achievement and an accomplishment. I was in tears listening to “Falling In Love With Jesus.” Also, to have broken records in Billboard for Classical and Gospel and Independent charts was an incredible accomplishment, so I was really excited.
JK: That was something that was funded through the University of Alabama?
JK: Did you have a connection with that school?
JB: I was approached by a lady whose vision it was to put something like that together. I was in Nashville and they approached me. I said, “Fantastic!” But I had no idea that it would be more than great; it was insanely incredible. We had Ruben Studdard; but he was contracted to American Idol, so they couldn’t use that recording. Basically, today I have a parallel career in ministry on both sides -- R&B/Jazz and Gospel. It’s a great place to be.
JK: Let’s talk about ‘So Strong’. You have had some personal challenges in the last year that inspired you to write some of these songs. With “Feel So Good,” in the press release that I read, you said it was about people letting go and letting God come through. So were there certain circumstances that led you to write that song?
JB: ’09 across the globe was a really tough year for everybody. These are really difficult, trying, and testing times. I can’t believe that I finished the record. My Mom died in ’09, my best friend, Wayman Tisdale, died of cancer; my wife is a cancer survivor -- and I’m making a record! Everything that happened on this album was meant to be out here right now for me. We’ve come out of some stuff; and it is time to rejoice and be happy. My wife is great; she’s completely restored. My Mom, bless her heart, she was a great lady. If it wasn’t for my Mom, I wouldn’t be talking to you. She had 12 kids, and I was the last one.
JK: What was your connection to Wayman with regard to your career?
JB: Wayman was an unbelievable friend. I think it was a spiritual connection we had. We’re both born again Christians. We love the church and our families; and we love food. When Waymen came to my house, he used to love eating my food and hanging out at the house. We knew that going out there, it’s important to leave a piece of you on that stage. We talked a lot about stuff like that. This record, even if I wanted to change the lyrics, I couldn’t.
JK: You also have your daughters singing on the record, Jodi and Randi. Do they tour with you as well?
JB: Occasionally, because both are still in school, but I may take Jodi on the road with me this year. She wants to be in the business, so I’d rather have her experience it, to see what’s out there and what it takes.
JK: Another song on the album, “Factual,” has a smooth ‘80s groove to it, perhaps close to your classics “More Than Friends” and “Sarah.” Was that something conscious?
JB: Yes, I was consciously thinking of the 80’s. I was thinking of George Benson's ‘Breezin'’ album -- how slick and cool it felt. I also thought of the R. Kelly step groove, how that groove would play into it; and Motown swing arrangements. It was fun. The 808 drum machine setting up the song, I was just thinking about doing it urban and approaching it like that. Even with “So Strong,” I wanted that Love Unlimited string arrangement. I just went with it.
JK: With the title track “So Strong,” I want to ask you about the inspiration behind that. A lot of the lyrics on this album are from recent experiences. You’re a married man, so it’s not like you went out to a club and met someone. So does that come from friends’ experiences, or imaginary scenarios?
JB: Imaginary scenarios. I’m 49 this year. I’ve been married 28 years, so I’m not qualified to write a tongue-in-cheek song or club song. But my friend Kirk, who wrote that song with me said, “What about this? If you put this spin on it, it will be pretty cool.” When you hear it, hopefully you want to hear it in the club and have fun at a party.
JK: It’s a real positive and feel good song.
JB: Thank you.
JK: Kind of like that, what made you decide to remake “I Can See Clearly Now?”
JB: That was personal. When you’ve gone through stuff in life and seen God come through for you, you can’t believe any other words but “I Can See Clearly Now.” To me, it’s a personal testimony that sums up to people that don’t know I’m a born again Christian, they can figure it out right there. I left that on the table. This is not Andrae Crouch or Donnie McClurkin. This is a song that was famous in the ‘70s by Johnny Nash; but it has an anointing on it and it has a positive message. Listen to that, and it will touch somebody. When I started working on that song, my kids said, “Why are you doing that song, Dad?” I said, “You guys are too young to know what this song is about,” but once I got it done, they were like, “Cool!”
JK: This is going back a little bit, but I always liked when you collaborated with Dionne Warwick on “Always Something There To Remind Me.”
JB: Oh man, you are reminding me of stuff I don’t even know I did! I've had so many collaborations. With Dave Grusin, I did "Maria" for the 40th anniversary of West Side Story, which was an awesome collaboration that also included Gloria Estefan, Arturo Sandoval, John Patitucci. I love Dionne very much. She’s such an amazing person, and she’s always the same every time I see her and talk to her. It’s like Gladys Knight; just wonderful people.
JK: Their styles are so authentic and pure. Even when you mention Gloria Estefan, there aren’t as many singers today who are really great singers and they don’t have to do fancy stuff to make it shine; the music is coming from a true place.
JB: That’s the key, coming from a true place and being yourself, realizing that you have a unique style and approach.
JK: You did four instrumentals on the album, and there is one that is dedicated to your granddaughter. When you dedicate an instrumental to someone, what is it that reflects something about that person, because you’re not saying lyrically, “You’re this or you’re that"?
JB: Actually, she just got home! She was my muse, my inspiration in the studio. That song alone doesn’t cover the inspiration she brought to the table. That song is really cool; that was an idea I had on my hard drive for years; and every time I would play it, my wife would just love it.
JK: How old is your granddaughter?
JB: She’s three. I want to do instrumentals to show a different side of me playing guitar. This is me playing an Archtop jazz Gretsch guitar. I’m playing electric, and it felt good.
JK: Is it a different feeling playing it?
JB: I like to listen to old school jazz at home and I play that way all the time. I’m not a solid body guitarist; I’m more a thick body type of guitarist, and I wanted to show off that part of me as well.
JK: It gives it a different kind of feel, and it’s refreshing.
JB: Thank you.
JK: These days you’re based in California, right?
JB: Yes I am.
JK: Is that what you consider home now?
JB: L.A.’s been home for the last 12 years. I love it here.
JK: It reminds you of your own hometown?
JB: Yes, my wife and I both come from a beach area in South Africa that's mountainous, so it’s nice to be able to experience that. Cape Town is very much like that, so it’s nice to be able to live here and have little similarities, like San Francisco.
JK: I love San Francisco. So you have some things that you were missing in London?
JB: Well, in London, I miss a couple of restaurants. Singapore Gardens is one of my favorites. Then, I miss all my friends in Bowhill and Kilburn -- Richard Jon Smith is there.
JK: I was going to ask you about him.
JB: I think he’s travelling, doing a lot of church ministry work.
JK: I know he put out a Gospel album about 10 years ago.
JB: I get a text from him every now and then, and from Glenda, his wife. We’ve all been very close. Our kids grew up together, and when we bought our first house in London we were so excited. I miss going down to Hampstead Village and having coffee and breakfast. It was so much fun. Kenwood Park. We did so much! We enjoyed Victory Church. We knew a lot of people there and we still do, but it’s been years since I’ve performed in London, and I look forward to that opening up for me to go and tour there.
JK: Do you think this album will allow you to tour around a lot?
JB: I certainly hope so. I just found out today from one of my interviews that I did, that ‘So Strong’ is #1 on the Soul charts. I hope that will make an opportunity for me to go and perform in London. I remember what a good feeling it was for me to be on ‘Top of The Pops’ in London and play at Hammersmith Odeon. That was my first headlining date in London. I look forward to it. It’s been years; but that’s the nature of the business. You got to keep sowing seeds until harvest comes.
JK: I thank you for all the great music that you’ve been giving us for the last couple of decades, and I was really happy to hear the new album. It has a nice mixture of R&B and Jazz, with your inspirational messages. I hope everything goes well for you.
JB: Thank you.
JK: My pleasure. Have a good one!
JB: You, too. Bye.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.