A man stops in the street. His eye catches something shining in the gutter. It’s just a penny, the lowliest of coin, but it sets the narrator off to ponder his current situation. In the simplest to-the-bone language, Freedy Johnston opens up an array of implied ideas, speaking to an inanimate object and finding the common ground between a bit of exchanged change making its way around the U S of A and the traveling troubadour heading from town to town.
Then again, perhaps Penny is just another lonely soul and not a coin of the realm at all.
“Penny lonely penny. You’re a wandering thing. And I am lost in the middle of town. Can’t you see. It was arranged we would meet here just now.”
Where has Freedy Johnston been wandering? Some folks lost track of him after his 1994 hit “Bad Reputation” and his last Elektra album, 2001’s Right Between the Promises. He has moved around, living in NYC, Austin, Kansas, Madison and Nashville. “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,” muses our hero. “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.”
1989 - Time For A Change (Bar/None compilation CS)
1990 - The Trouble Tree (Bar/None CD/LP)
1992 - Can You Fly (Bar/None CD/LP)
1993 - Unlucky (Bar/None CD-EP)
1994 - This Perfect World (Elektra CD)
1997 - Never Home (Elektra CD)
1999 - Blue Days, Black Nights (Elektra CD)
2000 - Live at 33 1/3 (Singing Magnet CD)
2001 - Right Between The Promises (Elektra CD)
2004 - The Way I Were: Early 4-track demos (Bar/None CD)
2006 - Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop (Shout Factory CD)
2008 - My Favourite Waste of Time (Junketboy CD)
2010 - Rain on the City (Bar/None CD
Rain on the City is his first album of new originals in eight years. Recorded in Nashville with producer Richard McLaurin, Freedy delivers one of the best song collections of his career, featuring a diverse array of radio friendly rockers, heartbreaking twang, even hints of blue-eyed soul and bossa nova.
Freedy Johnston was born in the small town of Kinsley, Kansas, famous for being the exact mid-point between the east and west coasts of the USA. He bought a mail order guitar as a teenager after hearing Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True. Later while briefly attending college in Lawrence, Kansas, he fell in with the likes of the Embarrassment and the Mortal Micronotz. His own writing mixed literate post-punk with outlaw country and ’70s AM radio fare. His first album, The Trouble Tree on Bar None, was titled after the nickname his Mom gave a local Kinsley watering hole.
His second album, Can You Fly, was made while living in Hoboken, New Jersey, where the music community rallied ’round the singer. At the time the local scene based around the club Maxwell’s was particularly vibrant and Can You Fly featured a number of club regulars including Kevin Salem, Dave Schramm, Graham Maby, Jared Michael Nickerson, Chris Stamey and Syd Straw. With the release of the album Freedy was touted as one of America’s finest new songwriters by Rolling Stone, Spin and many others. In the Village Voice Bob Christgau hailed it as “a perfect album.” This past year Can You Fly was cited in the book 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die by music critic Tom Moon.
Signed to Elektra in 1994, Johnston had a radio hit with ”Bad Reputation,” and the Butch Vig-produced This Perfect World expanded his fan base. He would release four albums on Elektra, including Blue Days Black Nights, produced by T Bone Burnett.
In this decade his fans had to make do with an album of cover songs, live releases and the early vintage recordings of The Way I Were. But all along he was taking his time, working to get a batch of songs together that were undeniable.
In Nashville he worked his way around town trying various studios, making the covers album Favorite Waste of Time, working the co-song writing game and playing on bills at the Bluebird Café and other venues. He finally settled in at House of David, a studio run by multi-instrumentalist Richard McLaurin and owned by legendary Nashville session cat David Briggs, renowned as Elvis Presley’s last keyboard player. Briggs adds some Wurlitzer to the album on “The Other Side of Love.”
Producer McLaurin has done an excellent job of framing Freedy’s voice with sympathetic arrangements, like the title track “Rain on the City,” whose slashing strings and keyboard washes sound like so much precipitation in an Edward Hopper cityscape. There is radio friendly fare, such as the epic “Don’t Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl.” and the Buddy Holly-style rave-up “It’s Gonna Come Back to You.” There are also fine vocal performances accompanying the acoustic majesty of “Venus” and the country-rock twang of “Rio Grande,” where a full-throated Freedy confidently roars over some excellent overdriven guitar pickin’.
What about the future? There are rumors of a new set of songs including a potential title track called “Neon Repairman.” “While making this album in Nashville, co-writing started making sense to me,” says Freedy. “It’s not about trying to write a big hit, It’s about working on a tight deadline and getting something that is better than the sum of the parts and getting it done.” To that end he’s been writing in Nashville with Daniel Tashian from the Silver Seas in a side project called the Charmers. There’s Mike Brown from up in New York state with whom he’s been swapping files (“he comes up with amazing things I wouldn’t ever think of,” says Freedy), and down in Austin he’s got a couple of songs under his belt with Texas legend Jon Dee Graham. He’s also looking to do more film work like he did on the Farrelly Bros. movie Kingpin. And there are always songs to be learned in Madison, Wisconsin with Duke Erikson and Butch Vig of Garbage in their joint cover band the Know-It-All Boyfriends.
In the meantime it will be Freedy working his way, wandering the USA, promoting a little Rain on the City in a city near you.
The Way I Were
Freedy Johnston in the early days of his career wrote a number of remarkable songs that were never recorded for any of his albums. Over the years Freedy’s friends have collected a number of these songs from various sources, live recordings, radio broadcasts, 4 track demos, early studio work, and incomplete rough mixes of 24 track recordings. These friends and fans grew to love the songs and would trade cassette compilations.
"Friend In The City" was an excellent early rocker, "Happy Birthday" a four track demo where a lonely Freedy toasts his birthday, creating a conversation with himself by overdubbing his vocals, and "Light Of Doubt," an incomplete outtake from his 1990 debut album The Trouble Tree was a classic song that got away.
A couple years back Bar/ None presented a CDR of these disparate recordings to Freedy and suggested he consider an album of his great lost songs. To our surprise Freedy had four track recordings for just about all the songs in question as well as a couple we had never heard before. The songs were laid down between 1986 and 1992.
“Happy Bithday” was actually written for my cousin for his birthday,” Freedy remembers, “ ‘Captain Astro’ was about a Witchita Saturday Morning cartoon host I used to watch when I was a kid and “Can’t Stop Shaking” was recorded with a Sony stereo mike that I accidentally ran through the wash and then a dryer cycle. You can hear that it’s working but a little funky.”
On these recordings Freedy plays all the instruments. There's a uniformed sound to the recordings although stylistically they are quite diverse as he works his way through, country, rock and roll, even a disco groove or two. With the exception of a live version of "Man With The Four Stroke Heart" that appeared on an early Bar/None compilation, none of these songs have ever seen the light of day. All in all 14 great lost songs from one of our finest songwriters.
Mastering engineer Scott Hull at The Hit Factory (Garbage, John Mayer, Steely Dan) took his time making The Way I Were into a uniformed listening experience.
"These recordings are not trying to be anything more than what they are”, says Scott. You are hearing the songs as they were conceived, the basic unadorned creations as Freedy first imagined them and the are simply great songs in any context."
The Trouble Tree / Can You Fly?
We had to go all the way to remote, mysterious Kansas to find this guy, but it was worth the trip. Transplanted now to Hoboken, Freedy is a rockin' new member of the Bar/None crew. His debut release, "The Trouble Tree" , produced by Chris Butler (formerly the brains behind the Waitresses) shows the varied styles of songwriting Freedy can pull off; from the haunting atmosphere of "Gina" to the sun-dried desolation of "Tucumcari", appearing in the lounge with "Down on the Moon #2" and "Bad Girl", then shifting into overdrive with "Little Red Haired Girl", "That's What You Get", and "After My Shocks". As he says, "Most people have pretty wide musical tastes and I'm no different. My songwriting is just an extension of that - it keeps it interesting."
"Born in western Kansas a few months before the Berlin Wall went up. Moved around a lot, Arizona, Florida, back to Kinsley, Kansas. 1,563 highway miles from both New York and San Francisco. Some choice, right? There is a giant billboard with an arrow pointing to each city and the mileage. Kinsley's sad little distinction. Worked at a diner near the sign. I'd go outside on my breaks sometimes and look at it, wonder how far 1,500 miles was."
"Wasn't a music store in town, so I bought a guitar by mail order. I remember the UPS guy bringing it up the steps. A big moment. My younger brother tuned it for me, showed me some chords and that was it, I was lost for anything else."
"I was 16, listening to ZZ Top, Led Zep, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, David Bowie. Read about Costello's 'My Aim is True' in Crawdaddy and had someone drive me to the nearest record store (35 miles away in Dodge City) to get it. I probably bought it just to be different from my friends, but it ended up really opening my eyes. Then, when I moved to Lawrence, KS for one semester of school and six years of restaurant work, I heard all this new music I couldn't believe. I remember sitting in my dorm room one afternoon, skipping class, and hearing Pere Ubu's "The Modern Dance" for the first time. Standing up, staring at the speakers. Another big moment. So I was introduced to a lot of new (to me) music at that time. Neil Young, XTC, Embarrassment, Talking Heads, The Fall and you know, the whole mob of other bands. I also picked up on country/western. My parents had listened to C/W almost exclusively, but I thought it was kind of novelty music. C/W didn't connect with me until I started liking all this other music. When I opened up my mind it came in too, you know. I realized that I'd been overlooking this beautiful thing all my life."
"Bought a 4-track a few years ago and started writing my own songs. Didn't do the band route really. Had one band that lasted about three gigs. Kind of kept my music to myself. Looking back, keeping a band together and playing a lot would have been a more direct route to where I am now." Where Freedy is now, is hanging out at The Trouble Tree . Why don't you come in and join him?
l992 was a remarkable year for Freedy Johnston. His second album "Can You Fly" was released in April. It has since graced the Top Ten list of many major magazines including People, Spin, Musician and Billboard. He has toured extensively across America with artists like Soul Asylum, Matthew Sweet, the Lemonheads and They Might Be Giants.
With his strong musical vision and distinctive voice, Freedy Johnston has delivered a remarkable listening experience. Two years in the making, the album brings together sixteen musicians on thirteen songs. Can You Fly is a truly resonant labor of love.
In addition to Freedy's unique song craft, "Can You Fly" also features some remarkable performances. Syd Straw cameos on the achingly beautiful duet "Down In Love", and Marshall Crenshaw plays a tasty honky-tonk six string bass solo on "Remember Me". Other players include Hoboken heavy-hitters Chris Stamey, Dave Schramm, Kevin Salem and Jared Nickerson. Despite all the players, the arrangements are never fussy and the songs are allowed to stand on their own.
Freedy Johnston's songs are often open to wildly different interpretations, but they always seem to ring true on some hidden level of the listener's heart. From the cinematic jump-cut style of "Responsible" to the metaphorical tale of love and death in "Mortician's Daughter", this second album firmly establishes Freedy's stature as one of America's great songwriters. Can You Fly finds us privy to a rumble at the crossroads where the Replacements, Pere Ubu and the Mekons face off against Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. What follows are a few biographical notes by Freedy himself.. ..when you're done here, listen up and take a trip inside your own piece of sky. Can you fly?