Guy Buttery: Just a Guy with a Guitar


The ethereal and gimmic-free music of just a guy with a guitar

Guy Buttery
Guy Buttery
Deborah Roussouw

Driving north on Herwood Drive in the KwaZulu-Natal coastal city of Umhlanga, past the opulent wedding-cake houses and manicured lawns, you'll eventually come to a dirt road that leads to a sugar-cane plantation. It's a hidden forest of green and brown, abundant with bird and animal life and littered with a variety of trees that stand between the sweet crops that tower overhead, planted on the rolling and weaving hills and slopes of this seaside town. The combined sounds of the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean and low roar of the oblivious drivers on the N2 envelope the sanctuary, shutting out the rest of the world.


It is here that I find Guy Buttery, sitting on the window frame of his car and steering the wheel with his feet. He brushes his long hair from his eyes and points to the blackened remnants of a wild fig tree. It's the titular tree of his collaborative album with lifelong friend and mentor Nibs van der Spuy titled In the Shade of the Wild Fig.

"That was a sad day when that tree burned down," Buttery says as we settle down on a ridge overlooking the ocean's breaking shores, with tea in hand, getting ready for the sunset.

"This place is really special to me and that tree was the centre of it all. I remember the first day I saw it. I was trapping down the M4, strumming my guitar, when me and a mate spotted it on top of the ridge. We hiked up to it and I immediately fell in love with the place."

But the appeal was more than just aesthetic.

"I scattered a friend's ashes here," Buttery confides. "I've written a lot of my work here. I feel at peace here."

Buttery grew up just around the corner. His parents still live in Umhlanga – although things have changed quite considerably for the once small village. It is now a bustling town sporting major brands, shopping malls and high-end restaurants. Glamorous cars and motorbikes congest the once-quiet roads.

However, when Buttery began his musical odyssey at the age of 10, his surrounds were more tranquil.

Buttery is a product of his environment, and listening to his music, it's easy to trace his story back to the natural beauty of KwaZulu-Natal.

However, like the hidden cane field where our interview begins, Buttery himself is a relatively hidden gem.

In certain musical circles, Guy Buttery is a name that stands amongst the foremost. On guitar, few equal the accuracy and beauty of Buttery's sound. His fingers dance across the fretboard and each note is deliberate and thought-provoking. He feels every sound he produces and, through that, he becomes transparent. Live, Buttery's facial expressions embody a subtle unspoken narrative and with just one instrument he creates and experience that is devoid of any gimmicks or tricks.

But the guitar is not his only instrument. On sitar Buttery is nothing short of mesmerizing.

At the recent Parklife Festival featuring Xavier Rudd, I witnessed an audience member tear up after the very real spiritual event that is Buttery on this majestic instrument. The sound he carries evokes so many emotions that he absorbs you into his world and makes it credible.

Back in Umhlanga, from where we are sitting, we watch the sun set behind us as the full moon rises over the cane fields. It's a stunning setting...

Buttery's music can't be found topping any charts in this country. His radio time is limited at best.

Despite the beauty of the music Buttery produces, it's far from the mainstream. One guy with an acoustic guitar is an acquired taste – like whisky or select teas (he equates each with the other, he tells me). His music lacks the familiar hooks and basslines we've een fed via radio and television. A club-banging, fist-pumping music video won't work with what Buttery conjures up – and yet his style does work, and has given the musician a real career.

"I'm dumbfounded really," Buttery admits. "I can't believe that I have made a career in this country doing what I do, in the manner I do it. The industry is small here, and there are more people making music than there are places for them so it is truly humbling and astounding that there is a place for me."

Humility is a recurring theme in the Buttery story.

Pushing him to recount stories of famous people he has met and played with, and exotic lands he has travelled to, inevitably leads to us rambling on about redwoods in Hogsback, or which backpackers one should hit up when criss-crossing the Transkei.

Chatting to Buttery is like chatting a buddy, and it's easy to forget this is, at least in my opinion, a musical genius.

His humility comes from the freedom he enjoys. He does whatever he chooses, there are no obligations in his music. He simply produces what he thinks sounds good and then, whatever may be, will be.

"Music has to come from a personal place," Buttery says. "For me, it is an expression of how I feel. If I decide to play a blues gig with Dan Patlansky, or go full out with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, or play with a Tuareg musician, I can. I don't have anyone telling me that I should make this sound or play with that guy. I have full artistic license to do whatever I want."

That freedom does come at a price, however.

First up, any attempt to describe Buttery's sound comes up short – even for the artist. "I couldn't tell you what it is," says Buttery when I asked him to try. "Whenever I am asked, I simply say 'acoustic guitar' because that's honestly as close as I have come to finding a definitive answer. I simply incorporate whatever it is I like. It's an amalgamation of so many years worth of listening to music – one song may have equal elements of traditional West African music and Led Zeppelin and yet sound like neither, or both.

"I couldn't even make a pop record if I wanted to," he says. "I simply would not know where to start. When musicians make a pop record they have to think in terms of boxes. Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's just not for me."

Buttery's sound is definitely not "pop", but that doesn't mean it's not popular or doesn't have the potential to become so. Musicians like John Butler or Mumford & Sons have certainly entered mainstream consciousness with a sound that revolves around acoustic guitar. Music festivals and gigs like Pretoria's Park Acoustics and Jo'Burg's Rise and Shine Music Festival are also giving acoustic guitars a platform.

"There is definitely something happening in this country. Live music and the artists that perform it are certainly getting their due now," Buttery confirms.

He's definitely getting plenty of this. Buttery was a double-nominee for best instrument album at this year's SAMAs – one nod for his solo vinyl album, To Disappear into Place, and In the Shade of the Wild Fig, to go along with four previous nominations and one win.

He attributes much of his success to his desire to bring his music to the people of South Africa. When I ran into him backstage at Parklife, Buttery was just about to run off as he had two more shows to perform in Gauteng.

His success is built on hard work and an appreciation that no gig or audience is beneath him.

"I love playing at small towns across the country. You really get a sense of the diversity we have here when you just get out of the major towns and cities. I am always game to play at any venue, to any crowd, as long as they dig what I do. Some of my best gigs have been in cramped venues or to crowds of no more than 30 or 40 people."

Most travelling solo also has its positives. "It's relatively painless to travel. It's just my guitar , so the schlep of getting my gear around isn't so bad."

A new addition to his gear is a Casimi Guitar – from the team who produce handmade guitars from their base in Scarborough.

A guitarist is often defined by his instrument: Hendrix had his white Strat; Slash his iconic Les Paul. Buttery believes the instrument he plays is a reflection of himself.

"It's just something that makes sense to me. The feeling I get when I play is hard to describe. It is almost the one thing that just resonates with me on a level that is grounding and calming. It's so simple. Having one guitar or any individual instrument simplifies things so well.

"One instrument on its own grabs my attention. It's easy to hear ego or humility when there is one piece. I find the intimacy of the artist becomes transparent. It's almost like the artist is saying, 'Here I am. I am open for love or criticism.' I love hearing the voice in the instrument."

As our interview draws to a close, I ask Buttery if he's bothered by his lack of financial or commercial success. Has he ever been tempted to throw in the towel and do what millions of people around the world do – take a job for the money?

He doesn't miss a beat.

"Never. It just wouldn't make sense to me. And besides, I consider myself extremely successful. I have met the most wonderful people through music. Music has brought me more happiness than I know what to do with and I am humbled by the love I have received as a result of it."

Buttery's sound might not be everyone's cup of tea – but his success is self-assured. When listening to Buttery play, all notions of mainstream success and capital gain slowly melt away. All that's left is the humility and honesty of music.

This article is from the August 2013 issue of Rolling Stone SA, to subscribe to the magazine click here.


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