Friday, November 14, 2008

Interview:-->Freedy Johnston

"Of the flowers

in Evie's garden...
one would never go out of bloom
Freedy Johnston

Freedy notices lonely shadows cast by many smiling and unsmiling strangers. And hears the desperate thundering of a million dreams traveling on a train of last chances.

And he shares with the listener his haunting, beautiful visions. But only briefly. And then after skillfully spinning his musical maze...leaves us hungry to hear more.

Johnston's vocals are gentle and honest...and float over arrangements that are not cheap. Often creating a delicious mood of weary acceptance.

Freedy has been recognized as a "songwriter's songwriter" by both peers and critics alike. Even garnering ..."Songwriter of the Year" props from Rolling Stone in 1994.

Recently, Freedy was in town performing at the The Anchor in Wichita.
Sharing the stage with his buddy, Wayne Gottstine (Split-Lip Rayfield)...the evening was warm and loose. Along with fan favorites...Freedy shared some new stuff he's been recording in Nashville for his next CD..."Rain On The City".

After the place cleared out a bit...Freedy joined me at a table for a few questions and a mountain of chicken strips.

The following is an excerpt:-->(Oct 22, 2008)

Casey: Freedy, my favorite CD of yours changes from week to week...but, my favorite CD cover has always been “This Perfect World” (1994). What's up with this?
Freedy Johnston: Well, the photo is of my grandparents from a trip they took around the world in 1965. We lived in Edwards County...Kinsley, Kansas.
And I had some photos from that trip and this is one of 'em. Everyone...well maybe not everyone...but many are surprised to learn that this is a family photo...because there they are sitting in front of...y'know... a monument. The Taj Mahal in India.

It's a huge, beautiful building that was built as a gift by a sultan and... given to one of his wives. But, it is a world famous building and uh...and there it is. (laugh)

And they don't look very happy. (laugh) I mean...they weren't really too happy on the trip apparently. They're obviously sitting...not close together and so forth. Anyway, it's not meant to make fun of them at all. It's just sort of a beautiful photo. And I love them.

Casey: In the mid 80s, you moved from Kansas to New York. That's no small skip.

Freedy Johnston: Well, yeah, it was no small skip. But I was in my 20s then, y'know. No fear.

When I first moved there...I moved in '84 or so and uh...I stayed on a friend's couch for a long time and did odd moving jobs and so forth. And that first trip lasted about eight or nine months. And it was kind of rough, y'know.
I was just literally living on a couch and just living hand to mouth. It was kind was a learning experience.

Never Home - (1997)
I fell on my face so I went back to Kansas. I didn't have any place to live anymore. I had literally just enough money...literally...for bus fare to get back to Hutchinson (Kansas) to my brother's house. Just showed up 'la la la'...didn't even have a guitar.

So anyway, I saved up my money for a couple of years...and at the end of '86, I guess, I moved out to New York again.
I had a guitar and a suitcase. It sounds mythical but that's what I had, y'know.
I had some clothes and I got a temp job. That's just kinda how I started.

It was very depressing. I finally got another apartment through the Village Voice. It was just sort of depressing for a couple of years. Y'know, loneliness. And my pawn shop guitar. And just finally...I don't know. I got my act together. I got a good job. I got a four-track.

Came back to Kansas and did a demo with Doug Snodgrass and Doug Hitchcock. Two friends from the old days. Made a 'live in the studio' demo and took that back to New York. That was the demo for my first record and when I got a deal with Bar/None.

Casey: What are some of the things you learned when you were making the transition into a New Yorker?

Freedy Johnston: I don't know. I tell you...I look back on it and...I was in my 20s so I was able to deal with all kinds of deprivation and loneliness. I just don't think I could do it now. It's just too hard.

You get used to having friends and so forth. But when you're at that age you just have no fear. So I just jumped into it. And I was jumping in roommate situations where I'd be living with somebody from a voice ad and it would be messed up. And I'd be there for a couple of months and then would have to move all my stuff to another place.
Can You Fly - (1992)
It's odd how you go through different phases of your life and you look back on them and can't imagine yourself doing them again. But I'm glad I did it. I certainly am.

I love New York. It's still kind of my home. I've lived there for almost 20 years. But uh, I'm kind of living on the road since I moved to Nashville last year so all of my stuff is in storage.

But now that I'm here in Wichita for a few months it just feels like I don't really live anywhere. But it's good to be back in Wichita. I have a lot of friends here. I love this town a whole lot.
Blue Days Black Nights - (1999)
Casey: You appeared on Austin City Limits. (Season 23--1998) What was the ACL experience like for you?

Freedy Johnston: I didn't do a very good job on it, I'm afraid. It was the Indigo Girl's show and they asked me to come along with Mark Eitzel.

(Waiter brings a stack of chicken strips and fries.)
Freedy Johnston: (to waiter) "Thank you. I appreciate that. Fried food after a show, man. It's gonna be perfect. I love it. (To me) Dig in please. No way am I even gonna eat half of this."

So...the political thing to say is 'I had a great time.' But I just didn't do so well. I had a cold. I was cranky. Blah. Blah. Blah. I never saw the footage.

Casey: You haven't seen it?

Freedy Johnston: Well, see I'm kind of...I don't really...I'm not one of those guys that sits around looking at myself so much.

Casey: Did you have the opportunity to hit CBGB's before they closed?

Freedy Johnston: Y'know...I did a few times. Before the closing they gave us a tour. A friend of mine is a director of the Lower Side Tenement Museum. They were touring the buildings. That was kind of a historic day. I remember that. And I played CB's certainly. That's where I got a record deal.
Lower Side Tenement Museum
5-story tenement building built in 1865
Casey: Bar/None signed you after a gig at CBGB's?

Freedy Johnston: No. It's where I got my Elektra deal. We did a show at CB's and the band was pretty tight then. I remember that show really well. That was the night when there were a couple of labels talking to us. So I've always had fond memories of that place. And so many bands played there.
Right Between The Promises - (2001)
I didn't ever see The Ramones there, of course but I did see Cheap Trick play there when they released an album via internet in the mid 90s. That was an amazing show. Cheap Trick at CBGBs. It was incredible.

Casey: In 1994, Rolling Stone named you Songwriter of the Year. That must have been...

Freedy Johnston: I don't even know what to say. It's a nice thing to have happened. I don't really sit around thinking about it too much. It was more I think...shock. Just sort of like...they've got it wrong. What...they're talking about me? So I've never been able to fully maybe appreciate that in a way. I just never really understood it. Of course I'm very flattered. I've got a little problem with accepting accolades I guess. I don't know. I don't know what to say about it except of course it's a high honor and uh...y'know...'thank you Rolling Stone. (laughs)

Casey: When you release a much control do you have over the sequencing?

Freedy Johnston: Well, quite a bit, y'know? Why do you ask? Do you have any questions on any sequences?

Casey: I plead ignorance on the whole sequencing process and I was just curious.

Freedy Johnston: Well, funny you should ask 'cause this CD (“This Perfect World”) was sequenced with “Bad Reputation” at the top and I was kind of being...difficult at the time and for some reason I didn't think it should be that way.

I was not as big into that song as everyone else and I was wrong. And everyone got quite mad at me. Quite mad at me for saying...for making this blanket statement...'”Bad Reputation” cannot be the first song on the record.' And I was overruled finally.

But that was an instance of the artist being patently wrong. So you have input but I think you learn with time that you don't always know your own material best. That there are some people you work with or people you trust who do have a better perspective.'s hard to take that pill sometimes.
The Way I Were -(2004)
Casey: Well, I guess partly because when you write songs...they're personal for you.

Freedy Johnston: They mean something to you...but you have to give that up in a certain way when it's already done. When it's a piece of music that's gonna be thrown out into the world.

Casey: I rented the DVD "Kingpin" (1996) recently and was floored when two of your songs were used in the soundtrack. What's that like for you to be watching a movie and hear your songs in the middle of the film?

Freedy Johnston: It's fantastic. It's really a thrill. I don't know quite what to say about that. I had a great time working on the “Kingpin” soundtrack. It was 15 years ago so...I would do it very differently now.
But what a thrill....'cause it gives your songs a new life. The film kind of owns the songs in a way. And I'm okay with that. Especially when it's one like a Farrelly Brothers film. Of course it's fine for people to associate “Bad Reputation” or “...Perfect World” with it. I love that movie. See it on cable all the time.

Casey: You've also done several music videos. My favorite is probably “On the Way Out” (1997) because you get to do some acting in that one and it's fun.

FreedyJohnston: (laughs)

Casey: But which one is your favorite?

Freedy Johnston: Oh, I don't know. For guys like's not really a big thing to do videos. But y'know, that “Bad Reputation” video that my friend Peter Fellman did...I like it. He has so many characters in it. There's so many people in it that I like watching it. There's 25 to 30 characters in it. So if I had to pick one to force on someone it'd be that one.

Bad Reputation - Freedy Johnston

Casey: Your 1990 debut...”The Trouble Tree”...garnered you a tremendous following over in the Netherlands. What is it like touring over there?
The Trouble Tree - (1990)
Freedy Johnston: That was a fun time. Received a lot of love from Holland. In '91 who would have thought...y'know I had a single that for some reason got some airplay. Kind of a funky song called.uh..."No Violins". And for some reason it clicked.

And we did a tour. It was a surnomical number of cities. Like 17 dates in Holland. They weren't all big. They were little bitty towns. The Dutch, the Germans, the English...they know so much more about our music than we general. And it's so rewarding to go over there and receive all this love. They know everyone that played on your record and they's just...I would recommend it to any American band that can't find their audience here. They need to go to Holland. They need to go to Germany.

Casey: Here's one I know is difficult...but do you have a favorite song you've written?
Freedy Johnston: Oh I don't know. I mean...the reason a person picks a song that's their favorite is y'know...they had good luck that time and they put together...the pieces in a certain way and everything worked okay.

So I've had a couple of those that worked alright. “This Perfect World”. “The Mortician's Daughter”. I have a new song which I played tonight... “The Other Side Of Love.” There's songs...and you can't predict it but sometimes you get lucky and everything works together. So those would be some that I like to play.

Casey: “The Other Side of Love” is good stuff. Sounded good tonight.

Freedy Johnston: Did it sound good tonight? It's a simple song but I respond to it.

Casey: Absolutely! Can't wait to hear it on disc. You performed “Wichita Lineman” tonight...which was killer. It's rare for an artist to cover someone else's song and make it their own. But you nailed it. When I was younger...I always thought it was talking about Wichita, KS.

Freedy Johnston: They weren't though, were they? (laugh) But still, it's close enough.

Casey: Yeah. We'll take it.

* * * * * * * *
Freedy has almost completed work on his soon to be released..."Rain On The City"...and can't wait to wrap my ears around it. But until then...I strongly encourage everyone to pick up some of his earlier work.
A true original. Good stuff.

Casey Chambers


whiteray said...

Nice work, Casey. Good interview with an interesting performer.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to throw you props and tell you how much I enjoyed reading this interview.

I have Freedy Johnston's "This Perfect World" CD. Every song on it is a gem.

I'll have to listen to more of his stuff.

Good work!

Anonymous said...

Really lovely, spontaneous conversation here...good insights, from both sides. Hope to hear more next time around...thanks, both of you!