In America, we have a terrible tendency to take homegrown musical treasures and bury them in our own backyard. Especially the songwriter who stays at home working on the tunes, instead of posing for photo ops or marrying a movie star.
Freedy Johnston is a good example of the guy who's got a singular songwriting gift and is always working hard to perfect it. Since his breakthrough disc, 1994's This Perfect World, and its hit single, "Bad Reputation," Johnston's been in the darkroom, developing one gorgeous, unsettling musical picture after another.
Johnston is back with his first new record in five years, Neon Repairman, another stunning collection brimming with both indelible melodies and wonderfully seedy characters. Johnston will be performing them tonight at the Dakota Jazz Club, and ahead of the show, we spoke to one of our finest living songwriters about his new record, how it got made, and why he's so often drawn to the noir side of life.
Gimme Noise: After a string of superstar producers (Butch Vig, T-Bone Burnett), what made you choose to produce the new record yourself?
Freedy Johnston: Well, I felt like I just wanted to record the songs and mix them. And this time I felt I could fulfill both roles. So I did it, once, and it really came out great. Although I don't think I want to do it again. There were times (making the record) it was like a labyrinth. You can't get out! But you have to keep going. T-Bone, he really knows how to turn the knobs and get the weird-ass sounds we all love. But I can't. Still, I think now I could do it for other people. But not for myself.
A couple of the new songs, like, "Baby, Baby Come Home" and "Summer Clothes," sound a little more straightforward and less character-driven than some of your others. Stuff that some people really could cover. Was that intentional?
No. Every song requires its own rules. Even rules of grammar. I think I've written other songs that are, uh, general statements. My goal has always been to write something like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Something that transcends boundaries and is just a great song.
I'm working on a dozen new songs. And they have their own rules. I can tell that that one wants those kind of words and this one wants these kind. "Baby, Baby Come Home," seemed like it needed to be very very gothic and simple, because it's set not in the modern era. I see the song set in the 19th century. It needed to be like that. You can't mention anything anything like electric lights or cars.
Do you find yourself reading for inspiration?
I read little things in the paper. Just a snippet of something brief. That has often set off songs in the past. I read nonfiction. I read a lot of stuff. So all of that comes in to my way of looking at the world. But lately I've been learning other songs. Like say, by [Bossa Nova King, Antonio Carlos] Jobim. And you realize that, "Hey, there's another horizon here." That helps with writing too.
I have trouble watching movies. But I go to them, because my girlfriend likes to go to them.
There sure are a lot of unreliable narrators in your songs. Is there something that appeals to you about someone who might be misleading the listener? Is that something you aim for?
You need a story. Sometimes they might be about someone I know, like my mother (even if nobody knows that), but most of them time they're just fucking made up. Excuse my language. But, you need a story! And often the story just takes a turn and I think, "Okay, it's gotta be like this now." And that's how it happens.
Randy Newman has often said he wants the latitudes of a short-story writer.
There's a great example. I wouldn't ever have the cojones to write a song, much less make it the single, like "Short People." I love the song! And I imagine most short people love the song too. Most people know it's about prejudice. But I don't think I could write something like that.
It's been five years since the last album. Do you see the next one coming out faster?
I use to put out a new record about once every 18 months. It was good for me to have a pace like that. Life went on and I had a hit there ("Bad Reputation"), but then things happened. I got married. I got off my label. Stuff in life happened that probably slowed me down. But I'm back to wanting to make albums faster now. A year and a half between records would be good for me again.
"Wichita Lineman" found its way into "Neon Repairman." Was that a surprise to you or was it somewhat calculated?
I always played "Wichita Lineman" and I loved it. I have this female songwriter friend down in Austin, Seela, who would always say to me, "Write that song!" whatever it was. One day I literally took out a legal pad and wrote out "Wichita Lineman." And I had a few lines of "Neon Repairman" and I'd put them in where they seemed to fit. And whatever the Wichita lineman was doing, I'd try to reflect that.
I did the demo on bouzouki and that bouzouki is what you hear on he record. I was in Texas at the time. Things were kind of tough, after my divorce and all this stuff. And I just looked out the window at all this bleak terrain and that's kind of how the song was born. It was a good way to write and start the album. Honestly? I was just trying to get the song done. But, uh, I really like it now.
Freedy Johnston will be at Dakota Jazz Club on Tuesday, May 12, at 8 pm. Opening is Kevin Bowe. Tickets are $12. For more information call 612-332-5299. You can also order his new album, Neon Repairman, at www.freedyjohnston.com.
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