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Freedy Johnston - The Triste Interview
|Freedy Johnston now lives on the East Coast, but originally came from a little town near Dodge City. A relatively late starter, he started to make progress when he moved out to New York. Initially recording for the Hoboken label, Bar-None, Johnston's profile reached its peak in the mid 90's with the minor hit single, "Bad Reputation", signing with Elektra and unanimous critical praise in the rock press. Triste caught up with him in Manchester as he toured in support of "Blue Days Black Nights", a sweetly melancholic series of songs, which if not actually confessional, appear as smaller-scale, more personal observations than his other work.
Triste: Let's start at the beginning. Is it true that you bought your first guitar by mail order? Wasn't there a music shop in your hometown?
Freedy Johnston: At that time there was, but they didn't have the guitar I wanted. There are only about 2000 people there and the next town was Dodge City 40 or 50 miles away and I didn't have a car. So it was easier to order it through the mail - which you shouldn't do. But it turned out okay. It was one of those Ovations - there's not much danger in ordering one of those.
Triste: Were you the archetypal bedroom guitarist or did you get out playing gigs in bands?
Freedy Johnston: I'd be in bands but they'd only last two or three gigs. They would break-up because I didn't know how to co-operate with other musicians. I didn't like them having an influence on my songs.
Triste: Were the bands playing your material even at this early stage?
Freedy Johnston: Yeh, I was in one band for a while which was a collaborative thing. I got a 4 track and wanted to make records, so I got a 4 track and decided to work on my own. I did that for a few years - moved to New York City and had four or five years of making cassettes. I was given five grand to make records and I jumped at it. It was probably poorly thought out, but it helped me out. I should have probably waited and not signed a deal just then. I could probably have waited and got another deal if I'd waited another year or so.
Triste: You were 29 at this time. How confident were you that you were going to make it?
Freedy Johnston: I was very confident, but also afraid to tell anyone that I had a dream of being a musician. They knew I had a guitar and a 4 track. I didn't want to tell them about it and I didn't want to fail. When my first record came out people back home in Lawrence, Kansas - most of them had no idea. I didn't want to be seen to have failed and I'm glad that it didn't happen. I just get going. I'm still that kind of way. I don't want to talk about my songs too much. I don't want to see the process they go through. It's my life; it's the way I want to work.
Triste: You're often praised for your songwriting. But do you see yourself more as a craft or an art-form? To put it in terms of artists - are you closer to Jim Morrison, who saw himself as a poet, or Van Morrison, who sees songwriting as a job which he does "for the pay"?
Freedy Johnston: Either term strictly applies. It's a little bit of both. I could say it was a craft for me as it takes practice and a lot of diligent effort as far as writing lyrics goes. The art side comes in when the inspiration for the song appears, but, you really need to define the terms.
Triste: When people talk to you about your songs people tend to use the description "songwriter". How do you see yourself? Are you a storyteller first and foremost?
Freedy Johnston: Well I'm not a storyteller, as far as telling stories which relate to experiences in my own life. That's not what I do. I write songs which have a narrative and attempt to make sense and tell a story - sure! But whenever I hear the word "storyteller" I think of a children's musician.
Triste: I was thinking more in the sense of being a storyteller like Ernest Hemingway.
Freedy Johnston: Well, then I would say that I am - if that's the definition you're using. The songs contain certain characters whose actions take place at a certain time in a certain place.
Triste: You're not a confessional songwriter at all, are you?
Freedy Johnston: No. I don't write that way. I can't write that way. Maybe I can - but just haven't. There are one or two songs which have popped out which are not actually confessional, but are about my experiences, but I'm not really concerned with that.
Triste: Do you ever have your friends spot themselves in your songs?
Freedy Johnston: There was one song taken from a friend's life - "Western Sky" even though it wasn't literal.
Triste: The fear of flying song?
Freedy Johnston: It wasn't a direct literal description of an event, but it was based on a real situation and he knows it and he's fine with it. I felt like I had kind of cannibalised his life. Cannibalised isn't the right word, but in a way it is I guess. I exploited him a little bit but he didn't mind.
Triste: When you're singing in the character of one of your songs how easy is it to express their feelings?
Freedy Johnston: You have to use your imagination. For example, every song on this album [Blue Days, Black Nights] is about break-up. I haven't been in that situation for a while, and if I had, it hadn't been ruling my life. So the feeling of the song and the progression of the melody imply a tone to a song and I want to match the lyrics to that. In the case of the last album the romantic themes were most appropriate for the music. I don't know how that happened. I'm definitely going to change that on my next record.
Triste: As you said, the last album has a kind of melancholic, romantic break-up feel. I suppose the songs were written first and then the album's theme was established afterwards?
Freedy Johnston: They kind of came together - but they influenced each other.
Triste: The whole tone of the album seems very united from the subject of the songs, their arrangements and all the way down to the cover artwork.
Freedy Johnston: The cover came together after. But it's not a totally themed record. I'd say most of my albums are stylistically or sonically reactions to the previous record. I'm sure that the next album will consciously not be about break-up songs and will stay away from melancholy. I don't know. We'll have to see. I try not to limit myself too much. I was given that advice and I try to keep to it. I try not to plan too far in advance.
Triste: Your publicity claims that your last album has more of a live sound to it - but to me it sounds pretty good.
Freedy Johnston: No, most of it was recorded live. Five or six of the ten vocals are live - which is I guess a lot. The unpolished nature of the vocals is evident to me. I received indication from Jim [Keltner] and T-Bone [Burnette] and others - but mainly those two - of the value of a live vocal and what it captures that you can't recreate by overdubbing. There's no tension there, no performance.
Triste: I wonder if your earlier work was so polished because of your earlier experience of using a 4-track at home and that this gave you a degree of control over the process that spilled over into the professional arena when you made a proper recording? You know the situation where you can re-do a vocal at home on your 4-track enough times until you're 100% happy with it and that this continued in the studio.
Freedy Johnston: I've always wanted to control things in the studio and this time I was advised to stop trying so much and to let it happen. And I needed that. I needed to learn to appreciate the music as something current between certain people at a certain time rather than as a quilt that you sew together and hope it looked right at the end. There are all sorts of things happening when musicians play live together - the visual communication, the sonic nature of it, the sound of a room when everyone's playing together, the phase effects etc. All that is largely a function of trying to get a live take and I owe it to T-Bone on the last record. It doesn't always work - I don't have all the tools in my toolbox - but certainly now I have a greater understanding of the value of live recording and know what needs to be done. I never thought in the past that I could do a live vocal on demand. On previous records I did a live vocal with the band and kept the bass and drums. A live vocal was never really considered. Now I see that's probably when the best vocal and most connected performance happened.
Triste: Taking of songwriting do you ever use altered tunings to give you inspiration?
Freedy Johnston: I started doing that by raising, say, the low string an extra step, so I can reach it. It basically comes about from playing around with the guitar.
Triste: Is that a problem when you're playing live?
Freedy Johnston: Yes. There's a certain way that the set has to start - dictated by the fact that I've a song that's a half a step down and then there's another song that's also another half a step down and that's open. Then there's the open song "You Get Me Lost". So there are three songs which have to go together at the start of the set so I can bring the guitar up [to standard tuning]. It's too much to ask of one guitar but I didn't want to carry my other guitars. So once I do that, it's pretty much over for the set. I'm used to it now. Babbling away saying something while I tune up doesn't seem so awkward any more. There's no way to get round the thing so you might as well say something while you're tuning.
Triste: How are you on stage?
Freedy Johnston: I don't have stage fright. I love being in front of people. The last couple of years I don't even mind if people are talking. I've learnt from people I've played with like Peter Case and Alejandro Escovedo not to take it. I'll talk back to them and I'll stop the show or leave the stage and play acoustically to just a few people. And that shuts the place up. If you let them walk all over you it's over.
Triste: That's an interesting attitude. Let's get this right, you actually stop playing and say "Hey!"?
Freedy Johnston: It works if you do it in a good-natured way. As long as you're not an ass-hole about it. You can get somebody's attention by speaking loudly or speaking very quietly and that's the best way to do it. They usually shut up; they don't realise how loud they've been talking. You basically teach the crowd to moderate themselves. I'm just one guy with his guitar playing really sad, quiet songs, and defenceless to some guy telling his friend about some football game. You can't let it happen. First it's going to affect your performance and second it's going to make you feel a schmuck for letting them ruin your show.
Triste: So how do the audiences here compare with The States?
Freedy Johnston: It totally depends on where you are. You can make broad generalisations - sometimes in New York the crowds talk more because there are a lot of people from the music business there. But it doesn't always apply.
Triste: The last time I saw a show in Manchester the music was very quiet and there was one bloke at the back talking really loudly and a lot of people were turning round, but nobody actually asked him to pipe down; they just ignored him.
Freedy Johnston: I have to tell them. For me there's no choice but hopefully it's not an issue. A couple of nights ago I played an amazing show in Aldershot. The PA broke after three or four songs. I was getting really upset on stage and the crowd were so wonderful. They were saying, "Don't worry Freedy. We'll get it fixed". Finally, they managed to get it going again and after a minute or two there was a huge blast of noise from the PA so I said, "Fuck it!" I unplugged the guitar and went out into the crowd and there were 70 or 80 people there. "I'm going to play the songs for you and you're going to have to be real quiet and listen. I'm going to stand on a chair in the middle of the room". And I did and I played the whole set that way. They were as quiet as a mouse and it went really well. I didn't have fun, although I find it funny in retrospect. It was a lot of work but it was worth it. What I'm trying to say is that the crowds have been wonderful here and that crowd were deserving of a commendation. They helped me come through with that. Hopefully, that doesn't happen on the rest of the tour and all the PA's work.
Triste: How do you rate yourself as a musician?
Freedy Johnston: I'm not a guitar player. I'm totally self-taught. I don't even jam with other guitar players. I can play my own songs and I can play the covers I play. I someone who's a guitar player out of necessity. But I know how to play. I've been playing for 23 years so I know how to play my own songs, but if you ask me to play a solo, then forget it!
Triste: Don't you play piano as well?
Freedy Johnston: Yeh. I play one song on Blue Days Black Nights and that's it.
Triste: Any current songwriters you admire?
Freedy Johnston: Mark Eitzel is an amazing songwriter and Ron Sexsmith is incredible. I like Lucinda Williams too. Her earlier stuff I really like - she's a really amazing talent.
Triste: What of the greats?
Freedy Johnston: Joni Mitchell's always been a favourite of mine - she's clearly a great artist. Neil Young also has been a great influence on me - he's as capable as any songwriter really. I reckon he's inconsistent though. I don't want to sound critical, but I'm talking about people who do my job, so I think I have some right to talk about it - but Neil Young's been a great influence of course. I also used to be a great fan of The Fall. Absolutely.
Triste: You admired Mark E Smith?
Freedy Johnston: Mark E Smith is one of the great poets of the last quarter century.
Triste: I never thought you'd like The Fall.
Freedy Johnston: I was turned onto The Fall by two friends back in the early 80's and latched onto him immediately. They are clearly head and shoulders above any band of that period, I think. They were totally different and better than the rest of that scene. I have always been, I imagine, pretty picky about what I listen to. I only like The Fall and there are no other bands like them that I like. People should have their taste like that - various colours and various tastes.
Triste: Talking of different tastes your biog mentions Sinatra.
Freedy Johnston: Much too much was made of that in the biography. The influence on the record was real, but it was the overall tone that I was trying to capture. I wasn't trying to sound vocally like Sinatra or use similar orchestration.
Triste: I read it as being an attempt to capture a similar feel to one of those 50's albums on Capitol - something like In The Wee Small Hours.
Freedy Johnston: Yes that's right. Was it before Only The Lonely?
Triste: Yes. It was the first in that series of "concept" albums he pioneered. I think it was even released as a 10" record first. It's got that mood of late nights, loneliness etc.
Freedy Johnston: Only The Lonely is head and shoulders above the others because it's got Nelson Riddle on it and his orchestral arrangements are amazing. They had time to do the orchestrations that's why they are so complex and beautiful - but they had to record really quickly in a handful of sessions.
Triste: Somebody told me that Sinatra pretty much sight read his parts cold and you can see that might go some way to explaining why his phrasing was so idiosyncratic.
Freedy Johnston: He was incredibly gifted that way. He was so talented I don't care if he was an ass or a mobster or whatever - you know the stories. I don't care about any of that. He was one of the greatest singers ever.