By Darlene C. Donloe
Jonathan Butler has long been lauded and applauded for his popular R&B, pop and gospel songs. Now the handsome South African singer is giving his fans another genre to smile about – Christmas music.
For the first time in his career, Butler has released a Christmas CD. Merry Christmas To You has eight traditional songs and a couple of newbies he penned, including the title track as well as the song, Happy Holidays.
Released by Artistry Music, the playlist includes: Merry Christmas To You, Sleigh Ride, Happy Holidays, This Christmas, Little Drummer Boy, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, The First Noel, O Holy Night and the lesser known Sweet Little Jesus Boy.
While there are traditional songs, Butler, a two-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-guitarist, has added his own flavor to each selection.
There is an instrumental take with a South African flair on Sleigh Ride and Little Drummer Boy.
Butler says he deliberately didn’t want the songs to have a “lot of instrumentation.” Plus, he says, he wanted his “fans to have a personal Christmas message from me.”
The youngest of 17 children, Butler, a former child star who grew up under apartheid, was the first black artist played on radio stations in South Africa.
I caught up with the singing sensation recently to talk about his latest CD.
DD: Why did you finally decide to do a Christmas album?
JB: In 2013, I feel like I’m in a good place. I feel like I’m in my prime creatively. I hear everything, feel everything. I can touch it. I can make sounds. I feel like something is happening to me – lyrically. I’ve gone through some stuff.
DD: How long did it take you to pull this CD together?
JB: I think I did it in one week from Saturday to Saturday. In one week I chose the songs. I needed to get it out of my system. I had no idea it was going to turn out like that. This is about plugging your guitar and voice into a recorder. I went online and got the lyrics of the songs and I was in my room by myself and began to sing the song. I didn’t even do two or three takes. I wanted this to be raw. I wanted to capture my spiritual feelings.
DD: You definitely put you own funk on these songs.
JB: I put a little bit of flavor on Sleigh Ride. It’s very South African.
DD: When will you release some new R&B music?
JB: I’m writing a new urban album that is coming out next year. I tracked down George Duke before he passed away and also Marcus Miller. I think 2013 was one of those years where I pushed myself. There are some things I needed to complete.
DD: You seem very happy right now.
JB: I’m in a good place. I’m still growing. Right now I’m enjoying the music.
DD: Why these songs? What was the process in deciding which songs to sing?
JB: Well, when you hear O Holy Night, you hear how I’m seeing it personally. Didn’t want it tainted with piano and stuff like that.
DD: You have a song on the CD that isn’t that well known.
JB: Little Jesus Boy, a friend turned me on to that. He said it was a Negro spiritual. I heard it from an early recording. The songs I chose were songs that don’t need productions, it just needs guitar.
DD: So, of course, you’re singing them during the Dave Koz Christmas Tour.
JB: Yes, the portion of the show I do is simple. It’s about the message. If people hear the words to what you say, it has a greater impact. It becomes more stripped down. It makes more sense to me. I do Little Drummer Boy every night on stage. It has now become my prayer dedication for Nelson Mandela. The song takes on a whole new meaning. It’s great to do live.
DD: What song was your go to song when you were growing up?
JB: The only record I ever played was Nat King Cole’s Christmas album. I played it every year. It’s kind of cool to have a Christmas album that people like. It could have been the other way around. Thank God for the anointing.
DD: What is your favorite Christmas song?
JB: Sweet Little Jesus Boy and Little Drummer Boy, I like it that way. Sometimes we funk it up. I went into a different place for it. It’s me. It’s a little South African. It has a different feel that I like. I just plugged myself in and started singing.
DD: Was it you or your record company that wanted you to do the Christmas CD?
JB: It was me. I wrote and recorded the CD. I went in to see them about something. I said, ‘By the way, I wrote a Christmas record. Call me if you like it. Call me if you don’t. I got a call from the president of the company the next day. He was really excited. I said, ‘Hopefully you can fund it.’ He said I got his family in the mood for Christmas and it’s June.
DD: You wrote two songs for the CD. Talk about them.
JB: There are going to be more in the future. It’s important to write. What is your experience about Christmas? We should usher in a new Christmas story of our own. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas To You is like postcards to family. I’m impressed to write more Christmas songs. I wanted to write more. I have another full Christmas album in me. We should all step into our own Christmas experience.
DD: Do you have any Christmas traditions?
JB: It’s a special time. It’s a huge family affair with a lot of feasting and singing carols. Christmas Eve is as big as Christmas. Christmas is just for family. Then we have Boxing Day (or Day of Goodwill), which is the day after. That’s when we invite the friends. It’s a long celebration in South Africa. It’s always been that way at my house.
DD: Describe your best Christmas - EVER.
JB: It is going to be this one. I’m flying a lot of family members to Los Angeles. It’s been a long time since we’ve all been together. It will be very special. They will meet my granddaughter. They haven’t met her yet.
DD: What’s next for you?
JB: 2014 is going to be hectic. I don’t want to think about it. I have a cruise in January. I have a new record in February/March. I’m going to Manila for a relief benefit at the end of February. I will also be in Indonesia. I will be in London in March. I am living my dream. My new album comes out next year. I have the Dave Koz cruise. Then I got back to South Africa to host my safari and launch the Jonathan Butler Foundation in Capetown.
DD: Tell me about the foundation.
JB: The foundation is very exciting. We launched it this year in Johannesburg. We are funded by local governments.
DD: Your focus is drug abuse prevention. Is that because it’s very personal to you?
JB: Yes, it’s because it was my story – drug abuse. The foundation will deal with drug abuse prevention, music therapy and music education. We are doing a lot of cool stuff. I will be spending more time in South Africa. We can’t fight drug lords, but we can win our kids back. Purpose Kills Addiction is the purpose. We are focused on getting involved in local communities and schools.
Butler is also part of the Dave Koz & Friends Christmas Tour with Oleta Adams and keyboardist Keiko Matsui. The tour concludes Dec. 22, at the Warfield in San Francisco.
To find out more about Butler and his upcoming Dave Koz & Christmas Tour, log on to www.jonathanbutler.com.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Merry Christmas To You gets an E (excellent).