As a songwriter, Freedy Johnston doesn't shrink away from the terrible things he's seen and heard, but his new full-length Rain on the City is far from being the testament of a tortured artist. Cut in Nashville with the help of some of the city's best musicians, Rain is Johnston's first set of original songs in nearly a decade. As he did on a series of classic records made in the '90s, Johnston advances the singer-songwriter moment by years. Unlike many of his more lauded peers, he's both a tunesmith and a musician whose canny structures communicate a state of mind that words alone can never express.
Produced by Richard McLaurin at The House of David, Rain on the City is the record Johnston has been trying to make for a good portion of the last decade. He came to town in 2007 and cut a collection of pop cover tunes, My Favorite Waste of Time, which paid tribute to the kind of songwriting that has inspired him. Johnston did fine by Burt Bacharach and Marshall Crenshaw, but Rain is a deeper record.
"What you're hearing on Rain on the City is a lot of work," Johnston says from his home in New York City. "It's not like the covers record, where the vocals are live vocals. These are live vocals in a way, but one of Richard's strengths is that he really knows how to get vocals. It takes a while sometimes to get the right one. That was the point, anyway: Don't hide the vocal. Speak to the world, basically."
Johnston was born in 1961 in Kinsley, Kan., and became interested in performing after hearing such punk and new wave acts as Elvis Costello and Pere Ubu. He moved to New York in the mid-'80s and devoted himself to songwriting. Signed to indie label Bar/None, he released his debut The Trouble Tree in 1990. He followed it two years later with Can You Fly, which established him as a major talent.
With beautifully spare arrangements and lyrics that were evocative but never cryptic, Can You Fly peaked with "Responsible," a brilliant song about a man who has lost his daughter to the lure of New York. Colored with lap steel and Syd Straw's backing vocals, Can You Fly updated the kind of singer-songwriter records that seemed obsolete in a shiny new decade. Johnston then released his major-label debut, 1994's This Perfect World, which yielded his best-known song, "Bad Reputation."
Johnston says his approach has changed as he's matured. "I remember in earlier years being able to write songs much more quickly," he says. "I didn't know as much. And so, in a way, it's sad to have to grow up. There might be something that I can't do any more. But you know, I've been roundly criticized for that kind of thinking by my buddy [songwriter] Jon Dee Graham. I realize if I were writing them now, I might do them in a different way."
This Perfect World was a charming shot at a conventional pop record. Still, "Bad Reputation" sounded slightly one-dimensional compared to great Can You Fly tracks such as "Wheels" or "Sincere." Johnston returned to form on 1997's Never Home, a collection featuring quasi-rockers and ruminative numbers. His flat Midwestern inflections complemented his sly chord changes and conversational lyrics, making him an American cousin to Grant McLennan of Australia's The Go-Betweens.
Much like The Go-Betweens, Johnston was a victim of that double edge: critical acclaim on the one side, general indifference by the record-buying public on the other. After releasing Right Between the Promises in 2001, Johnston put out a compilation of early demos and began a protracted search for a new home and a revitalized career. He says he went through some tough times in the last decade, moving from his longtime home in New York to such far-flung locales as Austin and Nashville.
"I was lookin' for a new town to live in, frankly," he says. "I'd lived in New York since '86 or so, and I was looking to restart. I wasn't really acquainted with Nashville, other than doin' a gig. I wouldn't really hang. So I realized I needed to move there—there's a lot to learn. All those great players. Just being able to meet the guys was reason enough to live there for a while."
Johnston says he made little effort to get a publishing deal or do business in Nashville. "I mainly worked with [producer] Ed Pettersen and with Richard at House of David," he says. "I'm more of a gearhead. I think if there's a fear of Nashville, the fear is of employment and money. It's the money trench, as Hunter Thompson put it. The business side of Nashville is essential, in a way, obviously. Somebody's got to do it."
Rain on the City benefits from McLaurin's meticulous production and the playing of such Nashville stalwarts as drummer Pete Abbott and keyboardist David Briggs. Steve Herman adds flugelhorn to two tracks, while McLaurin colors the proceedings with lap steel and mandolin. The arrangements stop and start, mirroring Johnston's tales of loneliness, indecision and loss.
"Lonely Penny" and "Don't Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl" demonstrate Johnston's gift for compressed narrative. "Don't fall in love with a lonely girl / 'Cause you'll never be alone with her," Johnston sings. Elsewhere, "The Devil Raises His Own" updates '60s pop and "The Kind of Love We're In" is North American bossa nova. Rain is a notch below Can You Fly, but its maturity gives it a depth that's ultimately almost as satisfying.
"I wish I could control it, but there's no keeping your life out of your music," Johnston says. "I don't write specifically confessional songs. There is a lot of wandering and loneliness in the record. But things are much better than they were even six months ago. It's like, 'OK, I earned it.' "
"Cory Branan. –Brandon Jazz" - YES
Jack likes hip hop. The guy is a Detroit native, any music about struggle is…
jared corder complaining about people moving here is a bit ironic. pot meet kettle.
nobody said so so glos and desaparecidos for best 2013 show! surprising.