Out of His Own Way: Freedy Johnston, January 23 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 12 January 2010 09:52

Freedy JohnstonIf you followed the career of Freedy Johnston, you might wonder what happened to him after 2001, when Elektra released his Right Between the Promises album.

Until Rain on the City (out today), Johnston released a live record and a CD of covers, but the man behind the 1994 single "Bad Reputation" -- who was Rolling Stone's songwriter of year that year, and whose major-label discography included albums produced by Butch Vig and T-Bone Burnett -- doesn't want to talk about the more than eight years between albums of original material.

"That's why we put it in the bio," he said last week. "I didn't want it to be talking about it every time, rehashing the same story."

In that official record-label bio, Johnston -- who will perform a Daytrotter.com show at RIBCO on January 23 -- is vague: "It takes a while to re-adjust one's priorities and get back on track after working with the big budget that the majors give you. I went through issues with the IRS, had a relationship go south and a touring vehicle grind to a halt, but through it all I never gave up writing and gigging whenever possible."

In our interview, Johnston didn't elaborate much on the specifics of his personal life. (In addition to living in Austin, Texas, in Nashville, and in New York, he did live in downtown Rock Island in 2002 and 2003 and married a woman from the Quad Cities.) But he did discuss his difficulty completing songs.

"I used to have no problem writing songs before I had a major-label deal," he said. "All of a sudden it was really hard to finish the damn things. ... Now I'm on the other side of it. ... Maybe I just needed to reset my clock. I'm working better now than I ever was."

Johnston's difficulty, he said, was "just fear: 'Oh my God. Now it has to be perfect.' I seized up. ... You don't want it to be quite imperfect. It's more perfect in your mind in its unfinished state. 'If I can get this last line, it'll be a genius thing.'"

That pressure Johnston put on himself was in conflict with something a friend had told him, a philosophy that all those unfinished, unreleased tracks aren't worth much: "Even though you think those are good songs, they're not, because nobody else is living with them," Johnston said.

Beyond the difficulty writing, the final version of Rain on the City was Johnston's third attempt at recording a new album. "The two previous times, I just scotched it," he said. "There was a feeling that I'm not going to give up on this one. Three times, that's getting a little bit psycho. I can see two times. But three is just kind of wrong. Then you're getting in your own way."

There's certainly no evidence of struggle on Rain on the City, which has a casual warmth but was obviously crafted with care. The opening track, "Lonely Penny," is reminiscent of the anthropomorphism of "I'm Just a Bill," coy about whether its subject is a person or an object: "Hey Penny / Who left you here? / Did they hold you so near / And then disappear?" And its lead instrument is a ukulele, a bright, hopeful counterpoint to the loneliness inherent in the detailed backing drone.

The album is full of gentle, accessible rockers and ballads, and Johnston's always-pleasant voice sometimes sweetens lyrics that might otherwise sound bitter, particularly in the context of the allusions in his bio: "Between the wife and the ex and the government / Man I never met a dollar that wasn't spent."

Even without much of a dynamic range, the album covers a lot of territory, and it reveals that Johnston's skills haven't diminished despite his relative silence.

And beyond having a new album, he's also doing a proper band tour for the first time in 12 years. In Rock Island, his backing band will include Duke Erikson, Jay Moran, and James "Pie" Cowan - three of his bandmates in the all-star cover band The Know-It-All Boyfriends. (The only one missing is Vig, whose replacement is no slouch: Timbuk 3/Sheryl Crow drummer Wally Ingram.)

So it's safe to say that Johnston is back.

"I was not firing on all cylinders," he admitted.

And Johnston promised that his fans won't have to wait another eight years: "'Freedy get back on the stick. We want a record every year and a half.' So I'm going to do that."

Freedy Johnston will perform on Saturday, January 23, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). The show starts at 7 p.m., and cover is $8.

For more information on Freedy Johnston, visit FreedyJohnston.com or MySpace.com/freedyjohnstonmusic.

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