Not Just A Tortured Soul
Freedy Johnston can actually write a happy song once in a while.
It's true. The man who established his songwriting credentials withthe mournful likes of "This Perfect World" and "Bad Reputation" has just released Never Home, a new album proving that any categorizing of him as a purely angst-ridden lyricist is just talk, talk, talk. "Iím glad I didnít get trapped into being just a melancholy, tortured soul, as far as writing lyricsóI didnít want to be seen as just that," says Johnston from his D.C. hotel room, in the early stages of his tour with Shawn Colvin.
Johnston seems satisfied that his new record features a number of straightforward songs. Though its 11 accessible pop tunes do not sound markedly different from the majority of the songs on his three previous albums, he probably has never wrapped his bright melodies in so many equally bright words before. He points to the new ballad "You Get Me Lost" as such a song. Yeah, it's a Freedy Johnston song that sounds like a love song and actually is a love song. "There are several songs on the record like tható'I'm Not Hypnotized,' 'On The Way Out,' that song," he says. "They're upbeat melodies and they're upbeat lyrics."
Some might imagine an artist who has received such critical accolades for his songwriting to have complex ideas about what a good song ought to be, but he stresses the importance of simplicity. He is happy that the new album's lead track and single, the shoplifting tale "On The Way Out," is "an easy song to get" in his own words. "I donít want to play down to people or sell my soul to be accessible, but I want to be heard. I want to be listened to. I like complex songwriters, 'artists,' you know, in quotations, but I also like records that I get, and that I want to hear again. And thereís a fine balance there.
"Itís a high achievement for a song to be a hit," he continues, "because it means it canít be too stupid. People want to hear it more than once or twice, but it also has to be understandable on the first listen. You remember 'Girlfriend' by Matthew Sweet. What a surprise singleóyou know, incredible track, big song. Itís also transcendent. A little bit profound, that people can latch onto. And that is the highest achievement.
"With Danny [Kortchmar, producer of Never Home] on this record, we both agreed that the best songs are the big hits that are simple, yet profound. You know, the songs that a six-year-old could get, but if you listen to it a little more itís really deep. Simple melody, very profound lyrical idea. 'Tears Of A Clown.' Stevie Wonderís maybe not a good example because his lyrics are more, you know, Stevie. I love Stevie so much, but they arenít always about one thing, or just about an emotion. Maybe 'Donít You Worry ĎBout A Thing' or something."
The importance of simplicity was very much on Johnston's mind during the making of the new record. "When I was working on these songs, I would bring the lyrics in, and Danny would read them. Heíd sit there in the studio and read the lyrics and look up at me and say, 'Well, this is good, this is good, this is good, this line I donít get.' So heíd make me explain the song. And a couple times I would say, you know, listen, I get it, the kids are going to get it, you just donít get it right now.
"So, sometimes I would win, but mostly heíd be right, that the line would just need to be a little more clear, not be mysterious just for mysteryís sake. Make some sense, because songs are not poetry, or writing a short story. Itís not an epic poem. Itís a fucking song. Something that people are going to hear coming out of their car radio and theyíre going to hum along to, and theyíre often just going to latch onto one word."
In order for a listener to latch onto even one word of a song, though, the song must be heard. And since being heard is important to Freedy Johnston, it becomes a question of how his potential audience will be exposed to his pop craftsmanship. He finds it promising that Adult Album Alternative radio has embraced the fairly rockin' "On The Way Out," but is dismayed, as many are, at the state of rock and roll radio at the end of the century.
"When youíre talking about radio, itís almost not about music at all," Freedy relates with more than a little despair. "Some of the people that you talk to at radio stations, sometimes they donít even like music. They really donít. They donít have time to listen to music. Or they only have time to talk to advertisers. So, as important as it is, I try not to really get too worried about radio."
Though he is quick to point out that music is not just about having fun for him, that he very much views it as his job, the singer has no specific expectations for his career. "I donít really have a game plan or a campaign goal," he says. "Iím kind of naive. I think the good records make their way. And if theyíre given a chance, they do what they can do. I think [Never Home] is pretty accessible, but itís not like a made something that everybody and their brother and sister is going to want to hear."
So, the marketing of Freedy Johnston is a community effort, as was the choice of "On The Way Out" as the first single. "I make the decisions in the studio, with the producer, and sequencing and mixing calls, but when it comes to that kind of stuff itís not really my area of expertise," he concedes. "Last time, I didnít even want to put 'Bad Reputation' on the record."
Thankfully for the world, "Bad Reputation" did end up on 1994's This Perfect World, his first Elektra album after two for Bar/None. Though not a hit of Casey Kasem-like proportions, "Reputation" did generate enough airplay and word of mouth to sell 150,000 records, lead to side projects like the music for the movie Kingpin, and even expose the songs of Freedy Johnston to unsuspecting shopppers across America. "A lot of those songs have been played on Muzak, but they do it because of the music, not because of the lyrics," he says. "Itís sort of subversive to have 'Evieís Tears' played in Pathmark, because itís not a classic love song at all. This girlís dealing with a rape.
"The thing that affected me the greatest was hearing the actual Muzak version of 'Bad Reputation.' Thatís the only song that, as far as I know, was made into another version by some studio band. And that was weird. It was pretty emotional, actually. I was waiting on line at the airline ticket office by Grand Central, getting my ticket to go home for Christmas. And all of a sudden this thing came out and I was like, oh, I think Iíve heard that before. Then all of a sudden it was like, thatís my fucking song. And itís done by another band. The vocal melody is done by a guitar.
"I was struck dumb. It was such a moment in my life. You know, I bought a guitar when I was a kid. I wrote a lot of bad songs for a long time. Made a couple records, and Iím still doing it, trying to make my way. All of a sudden I hear my song coming through a Muzak speaker. It was just beyond me. I never expected it to affect me like that. And Iím not a snobóIím happy for it. Better me than Billy Joel."
Freedy fans who donít happen upon his tunes while wandering shopping aisles in search of Golden Grahams and Junior Juice will, as usual, have plenty of opportunities to hear the man play his songs live. Though he finds appropriate humor in the idea of playing Lollapalooza ("I donít know where my crowd is, if theyíre all 15 and pierced and tattooed, or if theyíre people my age who have straight jobs") or opening up for his labelmates Metallica ("No way the crowd would even sit still for it"), he will play just about anywhere "as long as itís not a total sellout." He looks forward to continuing to play Maxwellís, the legendary club in his former home of Hoboken, N.J. which has been its reputation decline in recent months since the departure of its longtime talent booker. "I donít care if the bar or restaurant area has changed," he says. "Itís sad that it changed but at least itís still open. Itís still a great place to play." Of course there are limits. "I wonít play some concert thatís ĎR.J. Reynolds Presents Friday Night With Freedy,í you know. But Iím easy."
YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1997