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Interview: Freedy Johnston

Freedy Johnston photo
12 September 2022

Photo by Dina Regine

Celebrated singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston’s new album, Back on the Road to You (out September 9 via Forty Below Records), is his tenth studio album – and his first release since 2015’s Neon Repairman. Given the new album’s title, it seems appropriate that Johnston calls from a tour stop in Chicago – with many more shows set through the fall. All of this almost didn’t happen, though: as he explains, he had a moment during the pandemic when he thought his music career was finished. Fortunately, his urge to create proved unshakeable – and he has reemerged with songs that are just as insightful, melodic, and memorable as the rest of his storied discography.

How are you feeling as you approach this album’s release date?

FREEDY JOHNSTON: I’m psyched. It’s a great feeling after seven years to put out another album, so I couldn’t be happier. It’s overdue, after seven years. The songs took a while. It’s almost like I’m starting over.

Any particular themes or ideas you were trying to get across this time?

FREEDY JOHNSTON: No, I don’t look at music that way. Songs, I always write them from the music, so the words have to come along and match the music. I can’t tell which way they’re going to go. The themes are always the same, anyway, for me. Loneliness and confusion. And there are a couple of real love songs on this record, and a couple of sort of lighthearted songs.

What’s your actual songwriting process like?

FREEDY JOHNSTON: [Songs] kind of appear. I know that any songwriter that’s reading this would agree: when you get inspired, you get some groove in your head or chord progression, you’d better remember it right then, or you’d better record it on your phone, or it’s going to be lost. When they come out, every month or two, I save them. And then they, through the months and years, get worked into a song. It’s always been the way I’ve done it for all this time. I’ve just gotten better at it. More efficient. But I know a lot of very talented musicians who amaze me with their ability to learn things and change. That’s just not something I’m cut out for. I just start with the melody and put the words on it. They take a life of their own after that.

Freedy Johnston cover art

What do you think it is about your work that makes it connect so strongly with listeners?

FREEDY JOHNSTON: I don’t know; I’m just really glad that people like my songs. I’m a very lucky guy, I will say that. There’s a lot of people writing songs in this world. A lot of amazing, fantastic songwriters. I just feel lucky that my songs are listened to at all. I really work hard at the songs. I think I give it a lot of attention, and I try to polish every little thing as brightly as I can. So maybe that’s what draws people to it. And I pay attention to the lyrics – maybe too much. That’s why the songs take so long.

How did you learn to write like this in the first place?

FREEDY JOHNSTON: I figure, I just write like everybody else writes songs. I never really thought I was inventing anything. I was just doing it like the other guys and girls do. Like Tom Petty or Elvis Costello, those kind of guys. Just kind of following their way of doing things. But I probably learned how to write songs from The Beatles, honestly, when I was a kid. I was born in ’61, so that’s the first music I remember hearing, besides country music. I remember hearing The Beatles because my sister played them. And I realized: this is really understandable music, and really good music.

But how did you know that you should actually become a musician, not just a fan?

FREEDY JOHNSTON: I got very lucky, I would say. I really want to say that, that luck is part of it. I was in New York City, right place, right time, and I was playing out as much as I could. And I got lucky and got a record deal. I worked hard for it. I went from born in Kansas to New York, and I spent three or four years working in an office job. And learning how to make demos, and finally got a record deal.

You work has been so critically acclaimed, which is wonderful – but do you ever feel under pressure to live up those high expectations?

FREEDY JOHNSTON: Nobody’s above that. You always feel like you’re being examined and that you have to perform and that you have to show up. And so the pressure, I hope, is always there. I want to do the best job I can. For me, that’s finishing the lyrics and the music. I realize I can’t control the recording as much. Once I hand in the lyrics and the music, my control changes. I’ve adjusted to that, because you have to, through the years. You hire people, and you hire them because of what they do, and you let them do it. Producers and musicians and engineers and so forth. You’ve got to let them work. But as far as the songwriting, I’m glad that I can at least control that to the end. It’s too hard of a job, in a way. I can’t believe I took it on. I shouldn’t whine, but it just takes too damn long! [laughs]

Because it took a while between the last album and this one, was there ever a moment where you thought maybe you weren’t going to do another release at all?

FREEDY JOHNSTON: Definitely. I am old enough where I definitely thought about that. During COVID, I did quit, in my mind. I spent a whole year alone out in the countryside in Oklahoma. I went a little bonkers, more than usual. I liked to say, “Okay, I’m done. No more records. I’m happy.” That lasted about a week. I laugh about it because I realize I have this songwriting condition in my brain. My brain’s going to write songs anyway, so I might as well do it and make money. I knocked my head back into shape and said, “No, you do this ‘til the end.” So that was my one flirtation with retiring. I’m never going to try it again.

Your fans will be happy to hear that.

FREEDY JOHNSTON: I can’t believe what some people say online: “Oh, man, I love your music so much; it means so much.” And they mean it. And so, heck yeah, I realized I’ve got to keep doing this for them. And as I said, since I’m doing something for my work that I would do anyway, I’m actually not employed. I don’t have a job. It’s great. And then playing live. Come on, that’s the greatest feeling in the world. It’s a great thing to have your job be something you would do anyway.

Freedy Johnston tour dates:

September 16 – Eastside Bowl – Nashville, TN
September 18 – 3rd & Lindsley Nashville, TN
September 21 – Eddie’s Attic – Decatur, GA
September 24 – The Bottleneck appearing w/Get Smart – Lawrence, KS
October 2 – Hoboken Art & Music Festival 2022 – Hoboken, NJ
October 6 – City Winery Washington DC – Washington, DC
October 18 – Club Cafe – Pittsburgh, PA
October 19 – Natalie’s Music Hall & Kitchen – Columbus, OH
October 20 – The Southgate House Revival – Newport, KY