Freedy Johnston photo by Dina Regine
Freedy Johnston is no stranger to songwriting or acclaim for his songwriting skills. He has released eight albums and at one point he was named Songwriter of the Year by Rolling Stone. Like Elvis Costello (who played a vital role in Johnston’s journey as a songwriter), he is known for his ability to tell a lyrical story about memorable characters.
His new album Back on the Road to You features Aimee Mann and Susanna Hoffs as well as some songs that may well be the best songs of his career. By phone, he discussed the beginnings of this love for the guitar, the importance of Costello’s My Aim Is True, and his songwriting process since the advent of COVID-19.
Americana Highways: What compelled you to buy your first guitar?
Freedy Johnston: Just like the Pink Floyd song says, “I bought a guitar to punish my ma.” (laughs) Not really, but my mother didn’t like it when I bought a guitar. My brother had a guitar. He was in band and he bought a guitar. I got jealous of him and I bought a guitar through the mail, which you could do back then. Mail-order was how I bought all my stereo gear. I was a 70s stereo gear guy. One month, Stereo Distributors was selling guitars on the back page. Ovation guitars. So I bought one. It arrived via UPS, and the rest is either uphill or downhill. I think it’s a combination of the two. My brother was a truant basically. He got into music to keep himself from going to jail. When he got into music, we were dope-smokin’, drivin’ around, not-going-to-class kind of guys. He got into drum and bugle corps, which is a semi-military thing that they do in the midwest. It was then that he bought his guitar. That was the inspiration.
AH: I hear you once had a friend drive you 35 miles to buy an Elvis Costello album. How did it influence you?
FJ: It’s not as heroic as it sounds. And it was 45 miles! It was the only place to buy records. There was another record store about 25 miles away, but I didn’t think they would have it. It was a newer record. The only reason I knew about it was because of print journalism. I subscribed to Stereo Review, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and another one. Those were really influential on me. I read them cover to cover. That was the first time I heard about Born to Run and Bat out of Hell. Bat out of Hell sounded like a joke record, but the reviews made it clear that it’s a real work of art.
I read about My Aim Is True in Rolling Stone, and I was like “I gotta have this record.” Elvis Costello sounded like something I could get into. My buddy Willie and I drove to Wichita and bought that vinyl. I played it endlessly. I’m sure my brother and my mother thought I was touched or special or something, listening to it repeatedly. I wore it out. This was back when you could wear things out. I had already worn out Goodbye Yellow Brick Road eight-tracks. Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti was my favorite record then, and it’s my favorite record today. I had a cassette of that and wore it out. I played it again and again, and something about it, I really got.
In retrospect, I realize My Aim Is True was a kind of music that already existed, but he definitely took it to another level. Lyrically, it was funny and Dylan-like, and odd enough to be considered new. I really responded to it. My buddy Willie and my brother bought This Year’s Model the next week. They had that on cassette and listened to it in the car repeatedly. I would say it was the biggest influence on me. Up until then, it was Neil Young.
AH: Do you find anything in particular inspires you to write?
FJ: That’s a funny question. I’ve always written songs in my head, so it’s not a choice. I always made up these dumbass songs in my head. That’s why I was really into listening to records. I would always change the record in my head. I would listen to a Steely Dan song and change the words in my head because it seemed fun. I didn’t think I was being creative at all. Even if I took a day job, which I thought about doing during COVID, I’d have to quit it because my brain writes songs. It’s bothersome. Once a song comes out, it’s gonna haunt me.
The inspiration comes from the first idea, which seems mystical. To me, it’s just my brain saying “I have this idea. Get it down on your phone recorder.” I’ve learned now that you can have ideas that aren’t actually new. You can forget them. There have been times where I’ve written something and someone says, “That’s a cool riff. How’d you think of that?” Well, I thought of it one night and I recorded it. I’ve not recorded it sometimes. Usually when I record the riff and the lyric, I listen the back the next day, and I expect to hear something totally different from what I hear. I’ve already rounded off the corners in my mind. The original idea is always this fresh, weird, inspired thing.
That’s how I work. That’s how I write my songs. I have no choice in the matter. Songs dictate when they come out and the pace at which they get done and the ideas that adhere to the melody. The melody’s sitting around like, “What am I going to be about?” Then one day, I’ll see something and the song will go, “There you go! There’s my thing.”
AH: One artist told me that she recorded most of her album on planes. Another one told me the same sort of thing, that she has to record a melody or lyric on her phone because if you lose it, it’s gone.
FJ: The process I’m describing is the process of people of my tribe. It’s not particular to me. This is how it’s done. It’s just a matter of how efficient you are at it. Certain artists are just geniuses at it. I don’t know if you know an artist named Steve Poltz. He writes songs as if it’s breathing. He’s the most charismatic performer in the world. He’s my hero. That kind of guy can’t stop. He’s a computer. I can’t be that.
AH: Do you feel the momentum to record more often now?
FJ: Yes. I do have a certain amount of songs come out each year and they’ve got to be attended to. My new record has a song called “Somewhere Love.” My brain is thinking that the next song is not going to be like that. It will be a rock song or something.
I don’t do it on purpose. I know that 75% of our cognitive functions are subconscious. We don’t know what’s going on. The brain is working overtime under the surface. I just take for granted that the brain is working. I don’t do any of that stuff.
I’ll be making another record again this June. I’m going to record 10 songs. For me, that’s coming up soon. I’ve got these songs really working now. They’re in the front of my brain. To me, the lyrics have to be done or the song doesn’t come out fully formed. Sometimes it gets released that way, although no one would ever know that. Like a lot of artists’ early records, you don’t have time to “finish” the songs.
But now I’m back on schedule, with about 18 months between records until I can’t do it anymore.
I haven’t put a record out for seven years. It’s good to be back on the job. That gap for me is a sign of dysfunction.
My story is I f-ed up and got married. It took at least 10 years out of my life. That’s just the bald, honest truth. I have no bad feelings toward my ex-wife, but I screwed that up. Boy, did that wreck my life and career. Any of you men and women out there thinking about legal nuptials, think hard and long. I’ll get off the soapbox. (laughs)
AH: How do you feel this new album is different from previous albums?
FJ: I’ve heard the comment, “This is classic Freedy.” Everyone writes the same song their whole life, the same set of songs. I know that. I’ve heard lots of musicians say that. Pete Townshend said there are only certain types of songs he can write. When I listen to covers, I’m like, “Why did they do that?” it never makes any sense. Then I learn it and it’s fine.
A lot of the songs on this record are similar to my previous records. It’s not like when Tom Waits did Swordfishtrombone. That may happen some day. These are pop songs I had written.
I tried to make the record during COVID. Due to my own business stupidity, the tapes disappeared. I had to start over after COVID, and I picked myself up, dusted myself off. The mean kid on the playground tripped me into the mud. I got up and kept walking and got the record done.
There are a lot of emotions on the record. I love the record. It was needed. I had to re-enter the world.
The producer and the great band really helped me in the studio, just get in there and make a record. It was done quickly and efficiently. People are loving it. I couldn’t be happier. I’m on the road now, so I’m thinking about that.
And I’m already thinking about the next record, which is the way it should be.
AH: COVID disturbed the process for a lot of artists.
FJ: I was already a hermit before COVID. COVID made it so bad that afterward I didn’t want to be that much of a hermit. During COVID, I didn’t record much. I kind of quit for a month, then realized I can’t not do this. My brain will automatically do it anyway. The songs will be there anyway. I’m glad I got over my maybe three weeks of pouting. It wasn’t a creative period for me. For a lot of people, it was.
AH: Artists seemed to go one way or the other. Some kind of embraced the solitude. Others were more like, “Well, I’ve got nothing to do. I’m going to write songs.”
FJ: It’s kind of like you see with the percentage of families that are like, “Yeah, I know why I married you. I really do like my kids.” It’s probably the same percentage as the couples that said, “Yeah. We should split this up.” People decided one way or another. In certain ways, there has to be a silver lining. There is no way you can’t talk about it. It was the weirdest year. I was more isolated than anyone I know outside of Montana. I was in Oklahoma in a house for a year. I had one neighbor I knew. That’s it. That was really psycho. After about 10 months, I had to go to Wichita to see friends. I had to. It was really psycho. It’s not right. You can’t do that.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
FJ: That’s a hard one. It’s more like a condition. If I couldn’t help writing songs in my head, but they all sucked, I would be a bum. (laughs)
I’d probably be a cook in a restaurant. I used to do that.
I’ve learned to play guitar, so I could be a side guy. I remember writing songs in my head when I was a kid, 9 or 10. “Benny and The Jets” and stuff, writing my own versions. Having done it that long, you get better at it. I think I developed the ability in my head before I ever picked up a guitar.
I’m very lucky on many levels. I got a major-label record deal. I thought that was normal at the time. It was a big freaking deal. All these guys working in New York, and they get passed by this kid they’ve never even heard of. I gotta call that luck. I say thank you to the Fates for making it possible to even talk to you.
I’ll be long-winded if you have a minute. There’s a book by Francis Parkman from 1849 maybe. He was a young Brahmin from Boston and he took off to the plains right before the railroads. He and his buddy were going to hang out with the Lakota Indians. And they did. They hung out with the Lakota. He describes their tribe as being like any small town. The quarterback of the football team and the cheerleader would be like the warrior and the pretty squaw. They’re a good family. Then there’s the poor family that brings up the rear of the camp. They accepted everyone. Certain warriors would dress up to hunt. But instead of going hunting, they would sing songs. I realized I know that personality. That’s me! We’ve always been there. Guys that don’t want to work. They just want to sit around and sing all day.
Thanks for talking with us, Freedy Johnston!
Back on the Road to You (40 Below Records) is Johnston’s 9th studio album and will be available everywhere on September 9. Find more information here: http://www.freedyjohnston.com