How John Butler Trio Changed The Aussie Music Landscape With ‘Sunrise Over Sea’

7 March 2024 | 2:57 pm | Steve Bell

In 2004, John Butler Trio’s third album ‘Sunrise Over Sea’ achieved the “impossible”, becoming the first fully indie album to debut at #1 on the ARIA charts.

John Butler Trio

John Butler Trio (Supplied)

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Back in 2004 – just a few short years after he cut his teeth busking in the streets of Fremantle – US-born, WA-bred roots singer-songwriter John Butler reached the pinnacle of the Australian music scene when Sunrise Over Sea, the third album by his outfit John Butler Trio, debuted at #1 on the ARIA Album Chart.

What made this already auspicious achievement more special, however, lay in how he’d pulled it off: Sunrise Over Sea was the first fully independent album (as in released by an independent label via an independent distributor) to ever achieve the feat, with his label Jarrah Records becoming the first artist-owned label to have an album debut in the top spot.

This incredible result flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which dictated that a major label must be involved for an artist or album to navigate the upper echelons of the charts, with the indies meant to exist in the margins and provide a home for more niche or non-commercial acts and artists.

The dreadlocked folkie wasn’t the first fully independent artist to venture into the commercial realms, but he was the first to achieve so much, so defiantly and completely on his own terms. Here’s how it went down.


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In the mid-‘90s, whilst still busking, Butler had released the self-funded instrumental solo album Searching For Heritage. It sold 3,500 copies on cassette, which in turn funded the debut studio album John Butler (1998) by the nascent version of John Butler Trio. Their next album Three (2001) – again completely self-released with assistance from independent distributors Metropolitan Groove Merchants (MGM) – went to #24 on the ARIA Album Chart and won an ARIA Award for Best Independent Release.

The band were touring constantly in Australia – conducting their own headlining runs as well as becoming virtually omnipresent on the then-bustling festival scene – and were also beginning to make more frequent forays overseas, particularly to America where they were well-received. This hard work on the live front was parlayed into the live album Living 2001-2002 (2003), which rose to #6 on the ARIA chart and achieved Platinum accreditation (for 70,000 local sales).

Living 2001-2002 was the first Butler release to carry the Jarrah Records imprint, the singer having formed the label the year before with members of fellow WA outfit The Waifs and their common manager Phil Stevens. This not only gave them an identity and label for international releases by the two acts, but – in conjunction with MGM founder Sebastian Chase, a highly-experienced veteran of the Australian scene with many wins under his belt – allowed them to focus more closely on their home market to build upon their already considerable successes.


As he approached album number three, the 28-year-old Butler’s tastes were evolving and expanding. In an interview with Audio Technology’s Mark O’Connor, the singer explained: “I’d been listening to hip-hop and reggae and various artists that I liked. I really enjoy a lot of the loops that older hip-hop acts like the Beastie Boys have used, old R&B drum sounds with one mic in the room. Old James Brown recordings. Early ’70s Bob Marley stuff has a really good soul grit to it. And listening to Beck’s Odelay album – what an amazing producer! When you hear that stuff you realise you can really experiment with things.”

There had also been significant changes in the John Butler Trio line-up – the new band for the sessions featured percussionist Nicky Bomba and upright-bass player Shannon Birchall – which Butler believed gave him greater freedom to fully pursue his artistic vision. Upon the release of Sunrise Over Sea he told Rolling Stone’s Michael Dwyer: “Essentially what I learnt out of this process was, more so than ever, I'm the keeper of the music. I have the intuition and the foresight to pick the right players to my music.

“I've learned it's not always about having the same players for five, six or 10 years, it’s having the right chemistry for these songs at this time. Some of my favourite Jimi Hendrix music is off-the-cuff stuff with Band Of Gypsys.”

The album was recorded in late 2003 at Joe Camilleri’s Woodstock Studios in Melbourne, with Butler self-producing the sessions.


The album’s lead single, the catchy and socially-conscious Zebra, scored wide radio airplay – even infiltrating the commercial airwaves – and rose to #22 on the ARIA Singles Chart (as well as winning APRA Song Of The Year and climbing to #8 on the 2003 triple j Hottest 100).

Later singles What You Want (#29) and Something’s Gotta Give (#47) – the latter released as a standalone single in December and then added as a bonus track to later pressings of Sunrise Over Sea – also acquitted themselves well without quite achieving Zebra’s traction.

Rolling Stone’s initial three-star review of Sunrise Over Sea was positive but lukewarm, with Dan Lander stating: “A slicker, more mature Butler presents himself on Sunrise Over Sea, and there’s a definite sense that he’s swapped his dirty-hippie-dreadlocks for the slightly more genuine Rasta variety. The influence of Nicky Bomba – a constant presence in reggae flavoured music in Australia for years – plus Butler’s willingness to self-censor a little this time around (only one song over ten minutes) have made this a much tighter, more refined and ultimately more enjoyable experience”.

To be fair to Rolling Stone, they rectified this with their 2021 list of the 200 Greatest Australian Albums Of All Time, on which Sunrise Over Sea ranked #174 with Tyler Jenke offering: “...While it was 2001’s Three that made the music-loving public stand up and take notice, it was 2004’s Sunrise Over Sea that put his John Butler Trio on the map. Self-produced by Butler and backed by Shannon Birchall and Nicky Bomba, the Trio carved out an eclectic collection of organic roots classics.

“Bolstered by the likes of infectious single Zebra, the public might have come for the catchy acoustic gems, but they stayed for the mesmerising instrumentation of album opener Treat Yo Mama, the introspective Peaches & Cream, the heart-rending What You Want, and the inimitable melting pot of styles that merged delta blues with folk-rock, or resonating acoustic cuts with seemingly-improvised passages that were as stunning as they were intricate.”

Having debuted at #1, Sunrise Over Sea held the top spot on the Aussie album chart for two consecutive weeks, returning to the top for one more week the following July after a sold out national tour. The album earned Gold accreditation in the first week of release, on its way to its current status at five times Platinum for estimated sales of 365,000 copies.

At the 2004 ARIA Awards, Sunrise Over Sea scored John Butler Trio two ARIAs for Best Independent Release and Best Blues & Roots Album, with Butler himself also taking home the prestigious Best Male Artist trophy.

But with such seismic success comes inevitable backlash. Butler’s earthy and seemingly ‘alternative’ approach to both life and his career meant that more than a few feathers were ruffled by his inclusion in Business Review Weekly’s 2004 list of the 50 richest Aussie entertainers (with reported earnings of $2.4 million). Amongst the wider industry, Butler’s star suddenly didn’t seem to hold the same lustre, with the indie outsider suddenly seeming to have outstayed his welcome. For a little while, triple j even started playing a song by little-known US pop-punk band The Reactions titled I Hate John Butler.

But the singer himself continued on his own unique and altruistic journey, not only donating a dollar from every ticket sold to his gigs to the Wilderness Society, Refugee Action Coalition and the Save Ningaloo Reef Fund – as he’d been doing for years – but following the success of Sunrise Over Sea, he kickstarted the JB Seed initiative (later called simply The Seed), promoting artistic expression and cultural diversity by financing projects from emerging artists and musicians.


While Sunrise Over Sea remains John Butler Trio’s high-water mark from a commercial perspective, it also set the platform for a successful global career that continues unabated to this day. He remains, without doubt, the most successful independent artist in the long and storied history of the Australian music scene.

The success of Sunrise Over Sea also inspired and encouraged the next generation of Australian independent musicians – and importantly label owners – by proving that there were alternative pathways to the traditional models and that it was indeed possible to achieve success on your own terms, without selling out to the highest bidder.

When Rolling Stone established their list of the 50 Most Iconic Australian Music Moments Of All Time in 2003, the runaway independent success of Sunrise Over Sea was ranked at #14, showcasing just how important the achievement was on a broader level.

Titled John Butler’s Independence Starts A New Trend, the piece by Stephen Green (who, it should be noted, owns and operates parent company SGC Media) concludes: “The major labels’ stranglehold on independent commercial success was broken in 2004 by an unlikely dread-locked busker from Fremantle. John Butler not only opened the gates for a generation of Australian folk-rock artists but changed the commercial model forever with his album Sunrise Over Sea. No longer was signing to a label a necessity if you wanted a music career, it was a choice. 

“John Butler Trio smashed the indie glass ceiling with this third album, becoming the first independent artist ever to hit Number One on the ARIA Albums Chart with his five-times Platinum smash. Casting aside the rule that you can’t get on the radio or into big-box record stores without a major label, Butler conspired with his manager Phil Stevens and MGM Distribution’s Sebastian Chase to create a plan for Butler’s own Jarrah Records that valued fan engagement and artistic control. The plan worked and has been used as a template for countless artists since, landing him at the chart’s summit – a feat he would repeat three more times (and counting) in his incredible career.”