Interview: Freedy Johnston on his basic urge to write songs

Credit: Dina Regine

Don’t tweet and get your music from the radio.

It can be hard sometimes to explain exactly what a singer-songwriter does and what the dynamics are around the creative process.  Freedy Johnston has been called a songwriter’s songwriter but his path from Kansas to becoming a New York based songwriter was not easy. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Freedy Johnson at the residence of a friend in the Mojave Desert following the break-up of his marriage to discuss his first album in seven years, ‘Back On The Road To You’. Freedy Johnson explains that he started writing his own lyrics to the hits of the day when he was just a kid in Kansas for his own amusement, and how songwriting has become something he just has to do. He also explains that the seven-year gap between his last album is due in no small part to his marriage issues. ‘Back On The Road To You’ has a strong country rock sound due to the musicians on the recording, and Freedy Johnston explains that he doesn’t want to feel constrained by genre throughout his career. While he may have turned 60, he confirms he has no intention of retiring anytime soon and is looking to maintain an eighteen-month release schedule for as long as he can. 

How are you?

Fine, I currently live in the Mojave Desert. 

I’ve read that when you were growing up in Kansas you had limited access to music so why has it been so important to you that you have spent your life pursuing it? 

It is something inside me, I’ve always written little songs in my head since I was a little kid. I would listen to ‘Bennie & The Jets’ or something, and then I would still be thinking about the song when I was riding my bike I would think about the music, and vainly, myself singing the song with different lyrics about whatever. So that really is writing songs but I didn’t see it like that at the time, it was just me being really full of myself pretending I was a star, and I wanted to be a star but I wouldn’t tell anybody about that. I did that anyway, and it basically became like a habit for my brain, and ever since I discovered rock music as a kid, I’ve stuck with that, always thinking of songs, so eventually it became my hobby that I spent all my time at, and I had a day job in New York. It could have ended there, I could have been a hobbyist songwriter, I might have sucked and it might not have worked out at all. Luckily, people liked my songs, and I put out a demo and it wasn’t universally well received at first but I had something that people liked. It was really accidental and I’ve given a couple of interviews around ‘Back On The Road To You’ and this question has come up before, and like a lot of musicians I could be a cook or I could be a musician, I could be a rock star like Steve Earle or somebody, or I could be in a minimum wage job because there is not a lot between. I didn’t have any skills, and I wasn’t a skilled musician.

My brain has to do it. During COVID I got really down and I thought, right, this is it, I’m going to find a real job and do something else, something respectable. Maybe I could write something and I enjoy painting, but that only lasted about there weeks because I ended up just writing songs, my brain was doing it to spite me. Once a song is out, it has a life of its own, it is not going to go away, and it has to be dealt with. Songs that aren’t dealt with weirdly stagnate and die, the parts are available from older songs and no fault but mine, as the old blues song goes, but I signed on the dotted line like my daddy told me not to do and got married and it ruined my fricking life, haha. Whatever, and during that time songs weren’t getting done, and I could tell all those ideas just like died. The old song idea never made it past the original phase, and during that part of my life, I was just a wreck. I just mention this because it is just part of music, I’m sorry. The process has long since established itself, and it is up to me to learn more about the process, and each time I write a song I learn more about how to do it if that makes sense. Early on I think I wrote some songs accidentally which were really creative, and I was like, how did I do that because I wasn’t really thinking at all. It is hard to get back to that if I’m honest, and I know that is the case, but at the same time, the person who wrote those songs back then couldn’t write a really tight pop song like I can now because I know how it fits together. So there you are, I guess I’ve done it and I’m allowed to be in the office as far as songwriters go. Me and my buddy, Victoria, who is in the other room and I live in her house, we have earnt our officer’s stripes.

The way you’ve described your songs, they seem to be a complete package, the words, the melody, everything forms a complete package, is that true? 

It is a thing, of course, you are right. I’m not going to be heavy about it or anything, it is a whole thing, it is a moment and I work with the sound of the word let alone the meaning of the word, let alone the subject matter, and if it all comes together it’s like, ooh, that is what you work for, you can get the shivers. Honestly, it is very frecking hard, it takes a long time, and I don’t always get them like I want them because it is so hard. It is a thing you go towards that exists, and what I’ve learnt is that those words and melodic ideas, that whole package, they can come out all at once, and when you sing it only once you know it works. The lyrics for ‘There Goes a Brooklyn Girl’ always came out that way, and then later on when I worked with the melody it had to be worked at. 

Where did the songs on ‘Back On The Road To You’ come from, did you collect them over years, or were they written as more of a group? 

Freedy Johnston 'Back On The Road Again'Some of them existed before COVID, I guess. I tried to make the record before COVID, and you know what happened then, and about half were written after COVID. The schedule for making the record was influenced by the Crowdfunding campaign, which I’m glad to have had as a motivating factor. Once we started to ask the folks to help us make a record, and the melodies could be five or ten years old, and some of the songs were written twice. What is the problem and then you go back to the earlier lyrics and whatever? This record was like anything you have to do against a schedule, a little traumatic even if you are completely sure of what you’ve gotten down, you know. I’ve done it, and I hadn’t done it for like seven years, so I’m still a little PSD about it, ooh I could have done so much more, if only. But you go in there and when the red light is on you do it, and if it works that’s it. It was a good re-introduction to the process, and if I’m going to record another record on the eighteen-month cycle I will have to record pretty soon. I’ve got the candidates ready, and I’m very happy to know that during the tour something will come up at the end, a weird new song. I’m looking forward to doing a record every eighteen months until they haul me off. I did that in the ‘90s, it is a normal schedule, but I was a young man then and you do have the impetus of the label. I’m on the highways again, and I hope to come over there again because it is a decade since I played in England, or anywhere over there. 

Did you have a vision for ‘Back On The Road To You’ or was it a more organic recording process because it is fairly eclectic in terms of styles which range from country rock to country pop to pop and some rock? 

I didn’t have any plan. The country rock came a lot from the casting, the guys from The Sin City Disciples, Rusty Wakeman was crucial and was Dwight Yoakam’s bass player, Dave Raven, and the great Dave Pettibone who played with Lucinda Williams, so these guys are already in the country rock world. Also, I’m living out in Joshua Tree and it definitely is that thing. I’m happy it has that sound, it is good to know I can do another record and it can be like what I’m thinking about a lot. When ‘Swordfishtrombones’ came out, how discombobulating for his fans was that and I’m thinking I’ve got to do some shit like that, I’ve got to pull a stunt like that, haha, we’ll see how it goes. I think that is a good feeling, I did that and now I want to go in this direction, I’m as lucky as hell to be even able to do it and that anyone wants to hear it. 

What did producer Eric Corne bring to the recording? 

I met him when we signed with the label, Forty Below records, he is the President and owner. We hit it off, and he helped hire the guys and put the band together, and he is a really on-it producer who caught the energy in the studio when it was there. It is like the  ‘70s style of making records, with some computer help, some Pro Tools at the end, and a lot of hours doing that, but that is just making records these days. I just write the songs and play the music, they are the ones who have to do all the stuff, haha. It is all for a good cause, to make it sound good on the record. We did the record really quickly, and we finished it up at Eric’s house up in Vincent near Encino, California. It then seemed like a whirlwind, we got the cover done, and it is coming out. The music has been out there but I have to admit, I don’t read anything, you know, about my music. I know I get some emails like a good review in such-and-such but it is my right not to read that stuff because I’ve already put that stuff out there. Just to be clear, that is nothing against this interview it is just not for me to read. 

So from your point of view once you’ve released your music it is gone, you can’t change it? 

You can’t explain it away, yeah, or really explain it. Sometimes it is great to hear the background to how stuff is recorded, of course, and particularly if there is something special that happened. Like in the old days when they made records and they had to do things, he was out in the hallway ten feet down, that kind of thing. I’m back down the line when we are going to be recording again and I don’t know what we will be doing, I want to look forward to being able to do anything. This time the songs already dictated what sort of band I needed for this kind of record. I don’t know, it is really great, some different instrumentation and I think the fans will really, really welcome that because I’m going to put another record out in the next eighteen months. I want to put a good rack of records together before I can’t do anymore.

You’ve talked about the country aspect of this record, but what about the pop aspect, that sense of completeness and listenability, how do you see that part of your music? 

I do know what a good song is, and I thank my lucky stars that I can. As far as pop goes, my buddy, Marshall Crenshaw has his song ‘Someday, Someway’ played all the time in local grocery stores, and it is just crazy. Who knows what kind of music it really is, it is just a great pop song. So whatever that is, I don’t feel mystical about it that something has got control of me, but you have to honour the riff. When you think of a pop riff you need to remember it, it is like catching fish, and if it works for you it will work for them.

Is there any particular track on ‘Back On The Road’ that you are particularly pleased with? 

It is normal to have favourites, it is like that with every record. I think of the songs, which is different to the recorded songs, and I’m very proud of ‘The Goes A Brooklyn Girl’  and other songs, but they all have kind of a different place on the record. ‘Somewhere Love’ as a song is very special to me, it is just dumb to say anything about my songs because I’m always wrong, and it is not for me to say, honestly. That is my personal feelings on the subject, but they wouldn’t be on there if I didn’t think they were worthy.

Are your own influences still important to you now at this stage in your career? 

I was living on influences back then, but I don’t know anything about that now, I suppose it is similar to what it was. I listen to oldies radio, like ‘60s and ‘70s hits, and even ‘30s hits like real old songs by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and stuff, just because it is what I like to listen to, so they are always my influences, otherwise, I don’t listen to music anymore. I don’t know whether I should admit that, but that is just the way I do it, I know some artists stay in touch but I listen to stuff I know. And with YouTube I’m always finding new songs to listen to, I’ve been listening to early mixes of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and I heard the song differently so that is an influence.

Credit: Marla Norton

I’ve been listening to all these interviews on YouTube with musicians about the old days, and I also hope I never have to do any of them because I’d have nothing to say, but I love hearing the stories. It is so enlightening, the drummer for Elvis saying he was just hired because he worked on the Louisiana Hayride and Elvis asked him to sit in even though he thought Elvis and the guys sounded great, so he just played the backbeat. That is just a lesson right there because that is the way you should be thinking, how do I support the song not hey I’ve got this new gig I’ve going to show off my chops. There are other stories about the way they did it in the ‘60s, like Phil Spector waving guns around in the studio. I know it sounds wacky, but I’m just lucky I’m not washing dishes and that I’m a songwriter with a schedule of gigs for people who love my music, I really feel that way. I’m glad the dice rolled that way, and I am honoured that by working my butt off, because man, there is a lot of music still out there, and I’ve got all these demo ideas from years ago that keep saying is it my turn yet. So the old songs are really punk rocky because they are from the ‘90s, and finally, that music is coming around and asking are you ready for your lyrics. That happens a lot, and I guess to a young songwriter that must sound crazy, you wrote it 25 years ago and you are only bringing words to it, but that is just the reality of it. I’m glad I still remember them, knock on wood, I’ve no memory trouble.

For anyone attending a Freedy Johnston gig these days, what can they expect? 

It depends. I’m going to Madison, Wisconsin, in September and that is the start of my tour and I’m mainly going out solo because that is how I have to do it. The economics of it are just that, and I’m fine with it. If the folks want to listen, I can bring the songs across, and after COVID, and I hate using buzz words, but I am really grateful. I can’t have a bad gig, if they are not listening, I will play until they do. I heard that older musicians said if they weren’t listening we just played until they did listen. That is the way to do it rather than getting mad about it. Being a solo guy you have to deal with stuff at times, you have to control the room because you can’t always count on respectful listeners. If you have a band it doesn’t freaking matter, and I just love that, if we have a band I’m just like, fuck you guys, we’re really rocking and you can’t be louder than us, haha.

I’ve got bands in Madison for the start of my tour, and in Portland and New York, and when I play in those towns I can just really rock out. Otherwise, I do solo shows on this tour, and I will really be putting the miles on, I start in Wisconsin, then Tennessee, Kansas, all the way across to New Jersey, then Denver, so you can see the miles racking out and I can’t wait, it has been years and you don’t miss your water and all that. I’m one of these guys who can report from the field things are great. Whatever complaints there are, and people have complaints about life, and any complaints about the business everybody has already heard like streaming, the doughnut hole between super gigs and little gigs. Who cares, you are going to go play music for people, and it is hammered into my head, after years and years, how important it is to people because they can’t do it. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, it is just they can’t do it but they would if they could, so you have to do it for them.

So it is a real responsibility, it truly is, and better late than never and 60 is the new 50, you know, so I’ve still got some miles in me and half a dozen records. Everybody’s out at the moment, almost every band that ever existed, James Taylor, The Rolling Stones, I don’t even go back to the ‘50s but I’m sure that are bands who are still playing, and any band from the ‘70s you’ve ever thought of. If one of those guys is still alive, they will be out there, it is the job. I’m from Kansas, so I’m sure that band is still going. I don’t know whether this is going to sound dumb, but classic rock happened in a period, it didn’t happen before or after, it is like the classical period of classical music, it has already happened. It may be regurgitated and redone but the music is still being done today, and there will be a song in that style tomorrow, whatever that style is.

Wherever it came from, and I was honoured to get a tour of Sun Studios by I think it was the grandson of Sam Phillips, but don’t quote me on that, with Ian Hunter, who I was opening for, and we were in the original sound room, the ceiling tiles were original, the glass on the control room was original and the same glass they looked through, and when you looked through it was the original board and the original Ampex machine, original microphones. I said what do you mean the original microphones, did Elvis Presley use those Sure microphones? They looked really really heavy to me, and my musical education since I got a deal with a major label made me realise you can slam them all you want. Elvis Presley came out and blew out this thing, man, and only he was doing it in that way. I was in that room and it was bizarre, and I was getting chills thinking about it, and I was thinking this can’t be right because the studio is still for rent, you can still go in there and use it. A band had been in the night before, and during that visit, I was moved to pick up an acoustic guitar off the wall and just start jamming on A and B, and his band picked up instruments and start joining me, drummer Steve Holly got the drums tuned up and started to play, and then Steve Holly, Ian Hunter and me were jamming. I read an interview with Scotty Moore talking about when they were first recording and when they were doing ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ they were ready to kick off for the night, but Elvis picked up a guitar and they all jumped in, then Sam came in and that was their first hit, you know. What did I just do, I don’t know, I just picked up a guitar. I just wanted to document that, I really get it, that is the classical music I come from. Jerry Lee’s favourite piano was in there, a little Spinet piano with a plastic Bakelite top, and it had cigar burns on the plastic. Ian Hunter goes over and plays on it, and he goes “It’s not that great”, then his piano player, Dennis, this guy from Brooklyn goes over and just goes Jerry Lee on it and he was like, “Nothing wrong with that piano, boss”. It is a moment I will always treasure, I hope if the guys ever read this they with attest to it.

You are obviously very busy, do you have any plans to get over to the UK? 

That is not up to me, I mean it is not up to me personally. I think what it is is the record has to be pushed over there and I need a booking agent like the old days. The reason I didn’t come over for ‘This Perfect World’ and the others was that WEA over there didn’t license the record. I absolutely want to do it and I’m not a retiree but I’m getting close. Like when my grandparents retired they took a trip around the world, so I could be doing that, something I didn’t do when I was young. I never went on tour around the world like all my friends, I’ve only been to Germany, England, Ireland, Belgium, and Denmark for Roskilde but that hardly counts. I’ve never played in France or Italy any actual gigs but I did radio gigs, and I’ve never been west of Seattle and I’ve been playing for 30 years. With this record to maybe play in Paris, maybe play in Barcelona, maybe I will make it to Kyoto, whatever the hell. That is a hope, and certainly to come back to England. I did a few dates over there with my friend Paula who was a promoter. She would drive and we fought like a married couple, I was terrible and she was great. I remember playing all these little gigs, and every American says trite things like the beautiful countryside, but it really is. I am an Anglophile going by the stuff I watch on YouTube. I watching something about finding Celtic gold and stuff like that. 

You’ve said you don’t read your own reviews, but for your information, you got a 4-star review in Mojo. 

That is positive, shows some interest in the UK, that’s good, fours a good number. It is wonderful to hear that. I am ready to go, I think they will send me over there in 2023. When I leave on tour, I said I don’t think I will see this place much before Christmas, so that is a new thing for me. 2021 was COVID for me as far as isolation went, but once I get going I can’t wait. I’m going to be like Bob Dylan, living on the road.

Willie Nelson as well, 89 and still going out. 

I love Willie, I’m going to smoke a big fatty when we finish this interview.

Well that is about it for the interview, is there anything else you particularly want to say? 

I’ve got nothing else music-related, and I’m not about to go all Bono. I say that but Bono is such a big star, and I guess when you are that big you should use your platform, and I’ve just taken a jab at him, but he is doing the right thing. I want to concentrate on music, and you have got to live by example which means by what you say. It is constantly being suggested to me that I should use social media, but I don’t use social media, I don’t Tweet. I’ve said this before, this is my quote, “One of the worst sounds is a musician talking”, it is a terrible sound. When I see a musician interviewed I only want to hear about their music, when Jerry Lee walked in, or Quincy said this, yes, but I don’t want to hear their views on the world. I can talk about guitars and writing songs, but I don’t think I can talk much about putting records out. For any musicians reading this, Bob Dylan was listening to a mix and he is like, “Mr. Engineer, I can hear everything perfectly on this except the song.”. When you are recording, you always have to be able to hear the song, and when Bob says things people tend to listen.

I live here with Victoria Williams, and all my stuff is on a pallet in Lucinda William’s warehouse, she kindly loaned me a corner of her warehouse to store my belongings because I moved out of my apartment in New Jersey. I have kept these interviews from the ‘80s with Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Johnny Cash, and I would just read them. It may be good to go back and re-read them, there was Tom Waits and his line, “Everybody loves music, but music doesn’t love everybody”, which is a really Tom way of saying not everyone should pick up a guitar. I had a day job, but I was getting the feeling that I can do this, I can be a professional musician, I was an idiot basically, I was like I’m going to get a record deal like those guys did. Now I think it would do me good to re-read those interviews. This is true, I bought this thing in Amsterdam in ’92, and it is a glass goldfish and it is a handblown one-of-a-kind thing at an exhibit by the artist in this gallery. This was the cheapest thing they had, and mainly he had huge aquariums for sale and at the time it was like $50, and I’ve kept it ever since, even through my marriage and divorce. I shouldn’t jinx it, but this guy goes on the road with me and I’ve named him One Fish after the Dr. Suess book, and then someone in Austin named him Tail. That is the bit of home that goes around the country with me. Being creepy, I have my dog’s ashes with me as well, keeping me safe. 

Freedy Johnston’s ‘Back On The Road To You’ is released on 9th September on Forty Below Records.

About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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