STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For 21st Century Media
Freedy Johnston thinks that perhaps he’s an odd choice to perform a Valentine’s Day show.
“I’m not really a romantic guy. My songs are fairly sad,” said Johnston in a phone interview from San Diego. Yet he said he’ll be thinking of ways to make the show special.
“There are gonna be folks out on Valentine’s dates and I want to make it nice for them.”
And he added: “It’s gonna be a fun time. I’ve been having nothing but good shows.”
People certainly shouldn’t expect a show of doom and gloom from Johnston. Not now. Though his 25-year musical career has had its ups and downs, including significant gaps between recording new music, Johnston is back in fine form with his latest album “Neon Repairman” (2014).
“Life is good right now. 2015 is starting just lovely. I couldn’t be happier.”
Johnston was in San Diego, Calif. and we spoke on Jan. 24, the day after he finished a West Coast tour with friends Tom Freund and Wally Ingram.
“It was so wonderful, so great,” he said. “I don’t even know how to describe it. My buddy Wally Ingram is a drummer/percussionist (who) I’ve known for a long time from the Sheryl Crow band when I opened up for them… and Tom Freund is a singer-songwriter from L.A. who I just love. Tom and I switched off doing each other’s songs during the set and Wally played drums. It was the best time. I didn’t want it to end.”
Johnston also spoke excitedly and at length about spending a day at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show in Anaheim.
“I was invited to go there. I was gonna get some free swag, some free gear. So I thought ‘what the hell, I’ll go.’ It was really fun. I saw so many musicians I know. It’s pretty much just like a carnival, a circus. It’s fascinating. I’m glad I saw it.”
It is refreshing to hear Johnston speaking enthusiastically about his life and career. In 1992 he released “Can You Fly” (Bar/None). It received critical acclaim from many publications, and Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice that it was “a perfect album.” That was followed up by “This Perfect World” (Elektra, 1994), his major label debut; the song “Bad Reputation” made it to number 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He was named songwriter of the year by Rolling Stone magazine.
Such superlatives have been the kiss of death for many artists; they release a masterpiece and then struggle to live up to the hype. Johnston’s following 3 albums got good reviews but didn’t sell as well. And for a period of time it seemed as though Johnston’s music-making career was over.
Thankfully for him and us Johnston is back on track. Last year he recorded “Neon Repairman” without record label support. It is his first release since the critically acclaimed “Rain on the City” (Bar/None, 2010). He opted to follow the trend of crowd funding and he is grateful for his fans who continue to support him.
“I think it’s a pretty pure sounding record. I’m really happy with the songs. I’m more concerned that the words and the melodies are where they should be. For me it’s like a Rubik’s Cube; it all has to fit. It has to work together. I have great pride in this new record.”
Johnston also said that he believes his songwriting is getting better.
“On (“Neon Repairman”) there are at least a few songs that I can’t imagine having written 20 years ago. I don’t think I would’ve had the ability. I feel like I can see some improvement there. Hopefully that improvement is continuing.”
The album is available for purchase through his website and at his shows. He hopes to have a distribution deal in place by spring.
Johnston admits that he took too long between albums. Part of the delay is caused by the current state of the music business.
“I used to put a record out and … I could make a living from it. And it (was) very strange when that went away. I can’t express it strongly enough. You have a different view of doing the work. You’ve gotta do it for the love of the music.”
Johnston hopes to avoid an extensive gap after the official release of “Neon Repairman” and is already working on his next album.
“I’ve already got the next 15 (songs) three-quarters of the way done. This record is coming along at a much faster pace. I’m gonna spend more time in sunny L.A. during the spring and summer to really get going on this record. It’s gonna be another L.A. record, which is a great thing. The weather’s always nice and… the best musicians in the world (are there).”
He adds: “I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I can still keep doing it. Obviously people like my songs. I’d know by now if they didn’t. Life is really back where it used to be.”
IF YOU GO
What: Valentine’s Day with Freedy Johnston
When: Show is at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14; doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: World Cafe Live Upstairs, 3025 Walnut St., Philadelphia.
Tickets: $16 – $18 at www.philly.worldcafelive.com or (215) 222-1400
Note: Tickets are general admission.
For more on Johnston: www.freedyjohnston.com