South African singer-songwriter-guitarist Jonathan Butler is tending to his herb garden at his suburban Los Angeles home. Growing tomatoes, bell peppers, rosemary, sage and thyme, his new pastime that he says gives him “a new sense of heaven,” is part of a mindset he has cultivated that he has dubbed “the season of me.” The musical counterpart to this harvest season in the two-time Grammy® nominee’s life is Living My Dream, a bountiful feast of organically nurtured contemporary jazz instrumentals and soul-mined R&B vocal cuts—all original songs that he produced and tracked live in the House of Blues studio in Los Angeles.
“Each album is a page of your life and this is the season of Jonathan Butler, the season of me. It took years for me to be able to use the term ‘living my dream.’ I had to grow in my confidence and comfort and security first,” says Butler. “It’s one of those albums that I really didn’t think I had in me. I had been struggling, going through this emotional period. Last year was a transitional period. Once I got my wind and got back to a place of focus, it turned out to be the best experience for me. I had to be vulnerable to the songs. It was magical tracking the album and I felt surrounded by the positive vibes from everyone in the studio, especially [daughter] Jodie [Butler] and Dennis Dodd, Jr. They beat me up to write every day. They motivated and pushed me, and kept me focused. When others believe in you, it’s nothing to take lightly. Jodie and Dennis believed in me and I think we did something great on this album. I kept the production natural. These are all original compositions that came from the heart. It’s a classic Jonathan Butler album.”
Like Butler’s best material from a diverse, award-winning and chart-topping career that has spanned R&B, jazz, pop and gospel, Living My Dream provides an honest and revealing soulfully-inspired songbook probing the artist’s life and loves: God, family and his homeland. “It’s the story of my life and the newness of discovery. These really are the best years of my life. I consider all that has happened so that I may gain the knowledge of Christ. What I’m going through, what I’ve been through and what I will go through is going to make me better. It’s a healthy piece of my life. Forgetting all that is behind me and all that lies ahead, I press on,” shares Butler, who often references scripture in conversation.
The set opens with the instrumental “African Breeze,” the first radio single that was originally penned by Butler 30 years ago for The Jewel of the Nile soundtrack, a big Hollywood movie starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. “I wanted to redo it and make it a ‘now’ experience,” he says of the brisk, energetic African-hued dancer with the festive melody plucked on nylon string guitar.
The down-tempo title cut cruises an R&B groove highlighted by horn fills and a trademark electric guitar-vocal scat from Butler mid-tune. “I love the urban-ness. It’s old school with real urban grit. It’s about enjoying where I’m at in life. It’s a cool groove that really comes alive,” says Butler about the song he memorably debuted live last August at the iconic Hollywood Bowl with Jodie Butler singing background vocals.
Writing and recording the gorgeous meditative instrumental “Be Still” during George Duke’s final days taught Butler a lesson. “I went to hang with him and he took me into his wine cellar. We sat for four to five hours and George spoke the entire time. I didn’t even speak. He just opened up about family, our wives, faith and relationships. I had to remind him that I came to write a song with him. I picked up my guitar and the song came so easy and fast. George taught me to connect first as friends before making music. The song has a lot of emotion and was named for one of George’s favorite scriptures.”
Marcus Miller plays on “Be Still” as well as on the mid-tempo R&B instrumental “Let There Be Light,” which the legendary bassist-songwriter-producer wrote with Butler, who illuminates on nylon string guitar. Saxophonist Elan Trotman graces the track with soprano sax elegance. “I played him a few notes and Marcus just heard it all. The song is reminiscent of the Marcus Miller/David Sanborn collaborations.”
Butler wrote the R&B-pop confessional “Heart and Soul” in 20 minutes while tears flowed. “It blows my mind. It’s a true reflection, an apologetic love song. It’s the essence, the heart of where I was at the time. It’s a testimonial.”
Dodd, Jr. penned “Song For You,” which takes a bit of a different detour. The undeniably infectious R&B-pop tune has a shuffling beat infused with reggae nuances and Butler’s cool-toned electric guitar. “It’s a fun song and we threw in the horns just for fun. It adds a nice flavor to the record. It’s part of the unique story I’m trying to share with everybody. It’s not my song yet it affects me and tells part of my story. It connected with me and it’s different than what people would expect from me. I’d rather not make the same music over and over again.”
Butler speaks through a laidback electric guitar instrumental adorned with rousing, churchlike organ on “Catembe,” named for a place where he hopes to live one day in the Indian Ocean in Mozambique near Maputo.
An urban adult romancer, “Night To Remember” makes tantalizing electric guitar overtures amidst a vocal duet from Jonathan and Jodie Butler. “Jodie is pretty savvy as a songwriter. She has some amazing ideas. I’m proud of her.”
“All About Love” begins with an extended vocal and keyboard intro before a sophisticated R&B beat kicks in. “It talks about the family—this household—these women that I love so much,” reveals Butler, a dedicated family man.
Butler closes the session with a pair of poignant nylon string guitar instrumentals. The first composition Butler wrote for Living My Dream, “Sweet Serenade,” is a poetic beauty with drama underscored by a horn section. A solemn, bluesy offering that was written at sound check, “A Prayer” stirs the heavens with celestial vocal harmonization. “I’m fortunate to work with some of the best young Israeli musicians, including Davy Nathan, who plays keyboards with Babyface and Toni Braxton. I love the chant part that Jodie and I sang at the end. That’s where the prayer comes in.”
The youngest of 13 children, Butler grew up in destitute in Cape Town, South Africa, ruled by Apartheid and segregation. “I was born poor, but richly blessed with talent and the gift to make music,” he says. “I can’t dismiss where I’ve been or where I’ve come from. I’m a proud South African and I came from nothing.”
Butler began his singing career at age 7, releasing his first album in 1973 and winning the Best New Artist Grammy in South Africa the following year at age 12. He made history by being the first black artist played on white South African radio while earning three gold records (“Please Stay” went double gold and “I Love How You Love Me” went gold) in 1975 as he became a teenager.
More than a decade later, Butler moved to London, England after signing with Jive Records and released his first album internationally. The self-titled set went gold in 1987 in the United Kingdom and in the USA. He received Grammy nominations for Best R&B Song for his R&B-pop vocal hit “Lies” and for Best Jazz Song for the instrumental “Going Home.” His genre-busting material earned songwriter’s awards and received abundant airplay in multiple radio formats: pop, urban, contemporary jazz, adult contemporary and gospel. Butler’s 2004 album, Surrender, went gold in South Africa where he remains a superstar. “I don’t think I’ve ever really celebrated these moments in my life. I’ve spent my whole life taking care of people ever since I was seven. And I’m grateful, but this is the season of me.”
Butler is still taking care of people back home. Last fall, he launched the Jonathan Butler Foundation in his native country to fund music education programs that give children the purpose to overcome a life of drugs and poverty just as he did. The music and arts programs serving South African children ages 4-17 operate with the mission statement, “Purpose kills addiction.”
“I’m very proud that this is my legacy, giving back to people in South Africa. I’m happy to inspire these young kids and I’m extremely proud and encouraged about reclaiming our children from drug lords by teaching them how to sing and play instruments. The (South African) government has stepped in to find ways to progressively move and get more people involved. We’ve been in Pretoria and Johannesburg since we started and we’ll be launching in Cape Town in October. It’s so important to be in that city because it’s where I’m from,” explains Butler about the foundation that aims to launch a satellite component in the U.S. this year to increase assistance in South Africa.
Another aspect of Butler’s “season of me” is his blossoming love affair with golf. He’s only been playing slightly more than a year, but he’s smitten and plays almost daily, often with other musicians. “I’m not sure how golf took over, but it attached itself to me. I can go out on the golf course and have ‘guy time.’ I’m completely taken over by this little white ball. I’m so at peace and calm when I’m out there and so relaxed after playing, which I never thought would be the case since I’ve never been a sports guy. I wasn’t trying to find another passion, but it actually found me. Golf has become my saving grace and has given me a look inside me. I think it’s the freedom. It’s amazing how much it’s given me.”
In concert, Butler remains a captivating and powerful performer, pouring his heart into selections from his immense catalogue. In addition to being a popular draw at headline dates, festival shows and music cruises, Butler thrives on interacting with his fans. For the past 4 years, he has led a group of 35 guests each fall on the Jonathan Butler Safari, during which he shares his South Africa by visiting important landmarks in his life, as well as historic locales such as the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was jailed.
“I’ve come to a really good place in my life even if finding my way there was tough. I’m living my dream and it’s amazing what God is doing—seeing all these things through tears and pain. Seeing God place me in these extraordinary places and opportunities…if I couldn’t see it, I’d really be blind and faithless. I need to hold onto the love surrounding me. I had never really dropped my shoulders to embrace it. It took shedding my skin, realigning and readjusting myself as a person, honestly looking at how I can become a better person, which affects my family. We stood together through difficult periods and it taught me not to make too many allowances in life of which I had been making too many. It was a trying time and a difficult year emotionally and personally, but I did a lot of reflecting over the past two years and I’m in a good place,” summarizes Butler.
During an extraordinary musical life that has unfolded in the public eye, Butler has seen and endured a lot. He’s watched his country turn itself inside out for the better—much like he has done with his own life. Living and witnessing the brutalities and injustice of oppression as a celebrated child star while at the same time not permitted to enjoy basic human rights, indulgence naturally became his coping device. If not for a spiritual intervention, his light would have been extinguished long ago on the mercilessly dark path of abuse and self-destruction. His music has purpose, providing comfort and genuine inspiration. When he sings, he testifies to the glory and healing power of love. When he plays guitar, his fast fingers innately find notes of passion and divinity. Jonathan Butler’s recording career has carried him far, far beyond his wildest dreams. He’s living his dream and that is a blessing for us all.