freedy! (This article originally appeared in the print 'zine You Could Do Worse, issue number 8.)

Well, another installment of the series that makes YCDW #8 the singer-songwriter issue. The unassuming Freedy Johnston has been doing his thing for most of this decade, first with two albums and an EP on the Bar/None label out of New Jersey, then leaping to the big time and making two more albums for Elektra. He did some of that aforementioned thing here at Gabe's in April of '97. I got a chance to talk to him before the show. It was a good interview, mainly because Freedy said a few things you wouldn't expect a musician to say. Or maybe it's just me. Anyway, dare to be surprised...

YCDW: You're not too far from home -- you're from Kansas, right?

Freedy: Right, western Kansas -- Kinsley, it's out near Dodge City.

YCDW: So it's good to be back in the Midwest?

Freedy: I like being back here! We played Kinsley last Sunday. It's a town of about 2,000 people. It was a big deal. I'd say the biggest gig of my career. The show was a benefit for the local hospital. I played in my high school auditorium. It was a big event for the town. My aunt promoted it; they printed up posters. It made eight or ten thousand dollars for the hospital; it was just amazing. Greatest gig I've ever done.

YCDW: It's been three years between albums. Isn't that too long for you?

Freedy: Yeah, it's way too long for anybody. Not my fault! I would have loved to put out a record a year and a half after Perfect World. It just wasn't ready. I moved to New York from Woodstock (NY) where I was living, and it set me back somehow. Basically, the songs weren't done, and then in the middle of that, I had a death in the family and that put me back six or eight months. These things do happen.

YCDW: Do you get restless during the long gap between albums?

Freedy: Absolutely!

freedy!YCDW: Did you write a lot between albums?

Freedy: I wrote a record -- I'm not a prolific songwriter, I don't sit around writing songs all day. I wish I could, and I'm working on my ability to finish songs, but it's just not that easy. It's easier said than done. For the last five days, I've said "I've gotta sit down and write" and I haven't done a damn thing. It's amazing just how difficult it is to work. It seems like every writer eventually develops a regimen of working for a certain number of hours per day at a certain time, even if they don't want to, and I guess I have to learn that. I don't know how to do that yet. Writing songs takes so long for me, it's just depressing. I just can't write a song in a day, let alone in a week. It just fucking takes forever. It makes me weary to even think about writing a song, but I gotta do it. I want to have this next record ready to record by the first couple of months of '98, so I've really gotta get kickin'. I've got a lot of music that's ready to have lyrics put to it -- that's the main problem, of course.

YCDW: Did you ever try writing with somebody else?

Freedy: I tried to do that. I worked with Stan Lynch [of the Heartbreakers] on one song. It's just I don't get it, I don't understand how people do that.

YCDW: Are there any advantages to being on a major label that you didn't expect?

Freedy: It really does help. It helps to go out on the road and see your record in a store. Bar/None, they're good guys and I love those guys, but I'd come to a town -- my record wouldn't be in the store. What the hell am I here for? Can't even get my fuckin' record in a store! So that helps enormously. It's a very difficult time to be doing this. There are a lot of bands out there, and it's hard to get people's ears. I never wanted to be a salesman, even though I know it's part of the job. I guess I'm optimistic that things will get better. I think there's gonna be a huge shakedown and that things are really gonna shrink, and that could be fine. I'm the kind of guy, luckily, who will befreedy! around in 20 years -- a lot of these bands won't be. If I'm around, living, I'll be able to play coffehouses. A lot of these poor bands will be doing something else. If I was in a specific type of band, I'd feel threatened, and I'd think of maybe going back to school or something.

As far as your question goes, there are countless advantages. I'm definitely of two minds when it comes to the corporatization of culture. It's great to be in the corporate web when I get support and distribution and exposure, and yet at the same time, it's very sad to see mom and pop record stores going under. That kind of thing is horrible, market forces at work. That's why crass, cynical labels go for the T&A approach and put out things like the Spice Girls; because it's easier to sell music sung by beautiful young girls than it is by guys like me.

YCDW: Do you prefer to write story songs or personal songs?

Freedy: I don't really know. I do try to listen to stuff that I've done, older songs, because everybody's a critic, of course. People tend to like my songs after they've been out for a couple of years. A lot of fans have said "I really like Can You Fly, Freedy. I don't think you'll ever really do anything that good again." I don't want to hear that, of course. I listened to those songs real closely because of that, and I realized that I was doing a lot of lyrical things that I wouldn't do now. It would seem to me to be wrong; I really wouldn't want to go there. That's just an example of listening to my own stuff and trying to figure out what I was doing wrong and trying to repeat my mistakes in a way. To me, Can You Fly is clearly not as good a record in the way it sounds, in my vocal abilities. A couple of songs on the record, I don't even like anymore. This one ("Never Home") I consider the best one I've done, or I can do.

I hate it when artists in interviews say things like "Oh, I know I'm really great. This is my greatest work." Or "Yeah, we know we're really good and we're glad that people acknowledge that. We know we're great sometimes and we're not as good other times..." If you feel that way, don't talk about it! You should be realistic about it and realize that there are a million great acts out there. It's overwhelming, and I can't even hope to keep up with a tenth or a fifth of it. So don't say things like that, just because you sell a lot of records, just beause the critics like you. Don't let that go to your head, that's so dangerous and so embarassing. To see bands like Live, or Pearl Jam, U2 -- they believe all their press -- my God, it's embarassing! It makes me not want to listen to music! Of course, that's an overstatment; it makes me not want to listen to their music, that's for sure!

YCDW: So I take it you follow current music some.

Freedy: I follow current music, but not current indie music, which is hard for me. I do admit it at least. It's hard for me because I can't really sit down and listen to...oh God, I hate to even say it! I can't really listen to poorly-produced, poorly-realized, out-of-tune records these days, like I could even five years ago. I would buy a Pavement record and put it on and say "oh, this is cutting edge, this is genius!" Now I buy a Pavement record and put it on and think "well, you know these guys, I can kind of see what they're doing, but they can't really play very well. You kinda have to learn how to play, and I wish that they'd maybe done another take when they were in tune a little better." You know, those kind of thoughts do go through my head, because now this is my chosen field, and I feel that you can push the envelope and yet still play your instrument. I don't want to criticize Pavement specifically. The one that really got me was Wowee Zowee, which I actually went out and spent $14.99 on, thinking "wow, I'm really gonna get up on these guys" I couldn't believe it! I was embarassed! I was like, come on, man, I work hard at this,freedy! and these guys, obviously, obviously, did not know that song when they hit the record button. They didn't know it! They're missin' changes and stuff. I'm gonna sound like an old curmudgeon here, but those are the kinds of considerations that I have now, that I might not have had in years past. It's not necessary to be sloppy to be raw. The Stooges were in tune!

It's strange, bands like the Fall, who Pavement are completely indebted to, I would forgive them some of their sloppiness. Some of that is biased. I'm biased towards the Fall, because I heard them when I was growing up musically. Maybe if I listened to some of those early records now, I wouldn't be so tolerant of the sloppiness. Just in general, I have trouble keeping up on new records because I'm tired of buying and stuff and not liking it! I really want to like records. When I like something, I really love it, like Urge Overkill or Beck or Fountains Of Wayne.

YCDW: Usually the shortcut to success on the pop chart in this country is to write some kind of stupid-ass novelty hit. Has there been any pressure from Elektra on you to do that?

Freedy: That's actually something that you would never hear from a label, I don't think. Maybe you would hear that from your manager, and that would be something that you disregard. Honestly, I have had less intervention from Elektra than from Bar/None. I imagine I wouldn't be the only person to say that. Indie labels, they have their life on the line with every record, so they're gonna be far more meddlesome. Elektra lets me go away and deliver a record. They'll say things at the end, but it's generally constructive criticism. I love pop music, always have, so I'm not gonna shy away from making a song more coherent or understandable. But I would never want to totally try and angle to me would be to write a song with a religious theme, which would obviously sell, because it seems like that works, like the Joan Osborne hit, or that unbelievably bad band Dishwalla. Use God in your lyrics and people are gonna buy that record for some reason. I would never do that.

I love the idea of writing songs that people want to hear. "On The Way Out" was written as a last-minute thing I did for a movie that didn't come out called Empire Records. It wasn't accepted for that movie, but it was accepted for a movie called Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. And yet that song is very simple, kind of dumb. It was written for a shoplifting scene, so it was written specifcally about shoplifting. I never really liked it, but now when I play the song, it's fine, it's not too dumb. It's not that deep! I make no claims that it is, and I like to rock out as much as anybody. I'm glad that I'm not afraid to do that, I'm obviously not trying to rock out for the sake of doing it. I think that Perfect World is definitely a departure. From my four records to date, it's the one that's most rounded off and pop. I like to turn up my amp in the studio. On Perfect World, we tended not to go that route, which is fine.

YCDW: So far, you've released The Trouble Tree, Can You Fly...

Freedy: Perfect World, and this [Never Home].

freedy!YCDW: Wasn't there an EP in there somewhere?

Freedy: Yeah, it was really lame. It was lame because I really wasn't there in the studio and I let the producer work on it, which is fine, but you can't do that and be happy. I'm not a curmudgeon in the studio, I actually know what's going on, so I know what I want. Whenever I've gone away and let them do what they want, I come back and I'm like, "sorry, let's start over." And so I'm a little burnt on that, except with Butch [Vig]. With Butch, I can go away and come back and be really happy with things. I'm really tired of the idea that you've gotta get a name producer or nobody's gonna listen to your record. I'm much more concerned with working with a dedicated, professional mixing engineer, somebody who mixes records for a living. They know how to make your records sound mixed and done. I'm much more concerned with that than a producer. It's so hard to mix, every recording engineer thinks they can mix, but only a few can. Mixing is a very delicate art. It's voodoo.

YCDW: How was Danny Kortchmar [producer of Never Home] to work with?

Freedy: Danny's great; he helped me a lot finshing the songs, evaluating the lyrics with me making sure they were sort of understandable, and that's an important role. This time, I hope to not need that help. I hope to be able to go in with finished songs. Never Home needed some refining, and he got that. He helped me a lot. His help was important on the songwriting end, because musically, we were just gonna make a band record. I know how to evaluate a basic track, and to figure out whether a drum sound is okay, or when a guitar sound is working, not technically, but liking this one better than that one.

YCDW: Let's talk about a couple of the songs on Never Home. "Gone to See The Fire": you don't generally get too many songs about arsonists.

Freedy: Yeah, who knows where those...the song needed a lyric. It's no mystery, I think most writers work like that. You just sort of fish. You look for ideas and see if they hold together, see if it matches the mood of the song, and if it does, really develop it. The whole record's fiction, except for "Western Sky" which is a friend's story. Whatever "me" is in the record is through the fact that they're my songs. I'm not telling any true stories from my life. Some people do, and I really appreciate those people who can make their life into an artistic statement and have it work. I really love songwriters who can do that, it's very moving.

Interview by Rob Galgano
Feature design by George Zahora

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