New York State of Mind: backstage gossip with Freedy Johnston
Hearsay #21 / 2000 / Interview with Ewen and Pete


"I don't think it's honest for an artist to sit and moan about a record company without seeing the other side of it. I certainly wouldn't want to work for a record company - it's hard enough being the artist!"

If we were a little economical with the truth we could say that Pete and Ewen, as part of Pete's band Downtime, were supported by Freedy Johnston on a concert date at London's 12 Bar Club earlier this year. After all, Freedy took the stage first and Downtime followed. But, of course, Freedy had the headline 10 PM slot and Downtime were doing the grave-yard shift, a set for the few stragglers remaining in the early hours of the morning.

Freedy Johnston, one of the most acclaimed of contemporary NYC singer-songwriters, was promoting his most recent album Blue Days Black Nights with a surprise low-key UK tour, taking in places you'd expect (Bristol) and those you'd never expect (Aldershot). It was purely for love, of course – no one really makes any money from these sorts of things, but he left a trail of delighted fans in his wake which was probably the main thing. Early on in the evening of the 12 Bar show, between soundchecks and performances, Pete, Ewen and Freedy holed up in one of the 12 Bar's strange, semi-decorated back rooms and discussed the art and craft of songwriting.

HEARSAY: You seem to have worked with or know a lot of people we've covered... do you think there's a scene of singer-songwriters and if so are you a part of it?
: You've covered people like Mark Eitzel and Jules Shear, yes? Mark's a great guy—he's the funniest guy. I didn't realise, but his intense, angry demeanour on stage is kind of a put on. He's obviously getting into it but he's not a tortured person really. He's just kind of affable.

He's like an anti-Jonathan Richman, who comes across as affable on stage but can allegedly be very grumpy.
I think it's the other way round—on stage Jonathan seems very grumpy but off stage he seems quite affable. You've interviewed David Baerwald too, haven't you? He's a very outspoken guy. Political almost to the point of being an activist. A lot of his politics seem right on to me. He's also a conspiracy theorist. His father was in the CIA, as I'm sure he told you. I met his dad once. He's not at all what you'd expect - he's a tall, soft spoken, German guy. But as for songwriting, sure, I feel other people are trying to do the stuff I do. I wouldn't want to deny that. Stylistically... well, who knows what you would say? I'm sure Mark Eitzel would probably recoil from any attempted categorisation, in the same way Jules would. Jules and I are maybe more similar—we're pop songwriters. But sometimes it seems that actual songwriting is a neglected artform. People don't take it seriously. The buying public maybe doesn't realise it exists so much right now, but it’s not like it's a dying art that's going to fade away any more than painting is. I don't think so at least, maybe others would say that. I mean, has fiction writing died away, or is it going to? I can't imagine that.

I'm not exactly saying songs are going to die, but a lot of people we interview have real struggles with record labels, who are constantly demanding hit singles...
That's their job!

Yes, but a lot of artists say it could be about albums rather than just hit singles. Have you found it fairly easy to be left alone to do what you want to do, make the kind of albums you want to make?
It's always a compromise. Look at Jules. He's been living off the hit singles that he's written. Those songs paid for his house, probably. A number one single makes a lot of money for the songwriter. [All Through the Night] was a top ten for Cyndi Lauper. So it is a constant compromise and I certainly don't fault the record companies for wanting the artists to produce music that's going to sell. On the other hand, I'm not always on their side as far as what they see as viable. The radio climate in the
US, with the FCC rules changing, is becoming more homogenised—corporations are allowed to own more so there are fewer and fewer people making playlists. Radio isn't even accessible now so I just don't think about it. People like myself are going to have to scale back, I think. I happen to be on Elektra now but, unless I have a hit record, that can't continue. You can't just live on good press!

Is your deal on a record-by-record basis?
Well, they owe me one more. They can walk away from me after one more and that’s fine because I'm going to continue to make music. My feeling is that, even if it appears to the world as 'he's failed! he's lost his major label record deal!', it's probably the best thing in the world that can happen. I do appreciate them wanting to work with me—it's a constant balance. When you're making a record with a major label, you can't expect to get what you want. Well, all the way.

Which brings us to the new album. You seem to be ploughing a pretty dark furrow these days, compared with the more upbeat feel of Never Home.
On this new record I got perhaps more leeway than I should have. Working with T-Bone Burnett especially, who doesn't like any interference from record companies. I should probably have had a little more of the range pulled in.

T-Bone Burnett only gets that because he's big and scary! How did that collaboration come about?
It's one of those things—you just ask! I asked his manager and he said yes. T-Bone was really into it—it was a good chance for him to work with someone different, I guess. It went well, and as far as the record label goes, he's got the name. The Wallflowers and Counting Crows led the label to believe that he was going to produce a big hit. Elektra believed he was going to produce a big hit record with me and it didn't happen. They should have known that we were just going to get together in the studio and try and make something we liked. But I don't think it's honest for an artist to sit and moan about a record company without seeing the other side of it. I certainly wouldn't want to work for a record company -- it's hard enough being the artist. But I don't think I'll make a record like my latest one next time, either stylistically or at that budget. It’s going to be a whole different thing. This is my last big budget record, although we didn't spend a lot of money. We went to LA and did the whole thing there, which isn't really necessary. It's fun—it makes for good stories—but it's not necessary at all.

You imply you're changing direction with your upcoming recording plans. What are you hoping to do?
I'm going to work with Knut Bohn who did Can You Fly. We're getting ready to record in July or August. It's going to be a completely different record; whatever Can You Fly is, it'll be closer to that. It's a while since I heard that record, but last time I heard it I liked it! Stylistically it's going to be more varied song to song. There will definitely be more rock music because I know Knut likes that.

You seem to strike a fine balance on your albums between production and giving the songs themselves breathing space.
I treat each song the way it wants to be treated. You have to keep in your mind that they all have to be on the same disc so you don't want to treat them all in the same way. You have to have some stripped down and some of them want to be stripped down. Emily, on my new record, wouldn't have worked with big production, I don't think.

You can hear the Lalo Schifrin strings...
In your head, you can! It's possible to allow the listener to provide the production, the orchestration, which is funny. It's all there in the performance and the song. As you know, you can make a great record with a well-recorded live performance--it just depends. There are so many different ways to do it, too. I learned a lot on this record. I learned to never say never and also to appreciate the importance, as far as live music goes, of the magic of performance which you can never replicate through overdubbing. Sometimes you can come close but whatever strange magic happens when you get a good take can never really be replicated, or even helped, by overdubbing a bunch of things. I believe it was Jim Keltner who said to me that jazz guys don't overdub—they don't even think about that. It's all about communication. Even if they're playing charts, rather than improvising, they play with each other. So we did a lot of that. It didn't always work, sometimes we had to go for the multitrack but, like I say, it's never say never. I try to always keep an open mind, which sounds easy but was hard for me because I want to control things in the studio so much. You have to realise that you can't always, and that you're often wrong. I was often wrong. It was good to finally get used to being wrong—you think 'it's my song and my idea's going to be best', but that's just not always the case.

That's shown when people do really good cover versions. Have you had cover versions of your own songs that you've really liked?
The only cover I know of is The Lucky One by Mary Lou Lord. Knut actually produced a cover of The Mortician's Daughter for some Norwegian artist. There have been some unreleased things. Susanna Hoffs did a record that was never released where she covered The Lucky One and Can You Fly but I never heard those. Maybe my songs don't really lend themselves to being covered, I don't know.

A sense of geography and place comes across as an overriding feature in your writing. Do you locate your songs in real settings? Is place important to you?
Yes, that's how I work. I write by visualising whatever is going on in the song and describing it, like a screenplay. It's a habit, the way I've taught myself to work, and I can't imagine writing a song about big themes. I don't think I've ever written 'people we've got to get together, it's gonna be all right.' It has to be an internal dialogue in someone's head or a description of events, like in Mortician's Daughter. That's the way I work. People have habits and they're hard to break out of. It's why it takes me so long to write. I work backwards, with the melody already done months in advance and I have to fit words and meaning on to it. If you're putting music to words it's probably much easier because there's already music in the words—rhythm and poetry. Poetry is considered music, although I don't really understand that, but it is rhythmic so it should be easy. But I've never been able to just write words, a whole song, without the music already there because the melody alters the emotions so much. The way you sing a word is as important as what the word actually means.

There's also a pull between urban and rural in your work. Are you to drawn to one more than the other, in life as much as in art?
I live in
New York City. On This Perfect World most settings were urban ones, on Can You Fly it was a little more rural. On Never Home... I have no idea. It was more wide open. I don't really like that record so much -- it was a very difficult time. Although I like the songs, I really didn't get along with the producer and the songs don't come across on record so well. I don't really know what he was trying to do. I was depressed and he was such a difficult, negative guy. Live, I only play two songs from that album, which should tell you something. With the new one I play almost every song, except the piano song which I can't play, obviously. I could barely play it anyway, even if I had a piano. It's the one thing I know on piano.

There's a harmonium on the stage if you want to borrow it.
There's one up there? God! I've never played that song live. I'd be so embarrassed to get in front of a piano live.

As well as place and setting, your songs feature really vivid characters. Do you write about real people?
I have once or twice but not really. The song Western Sky on my previous record was based on a friend's life, but that's about it. I use some images from people's lives but I'm not very good at telling the truth or describing things that have happened.

Do you write more material than you need?
No. Not at all! It takes me so long and I write just as many as I need. I had one extra for the last record which I wish I'd put on, but generally it’s so much effort. I know there are some songwriters who write a song a day but I don't understand that at all; I've no conception of what that's about. It's great that people have different ways of working.

Some people sit down religiously and do an office day.
That can help. There are phases that come when I have to work more. Right now I've got seven or eight finished pieces of music that really need lyrics. I've had the music for a year and so no fucking around, I have to make myself concentrate on the lyrics. It's probably what it's like to do a thesis. I have that negative voice in my head saying it will never happen but somehow it gets done. Very occasionally a song leaps out at me but usually what leaps out is the title and the melody and then you have to fill in the rest of the blanks. But if anything at all springs out at you it's generally a good sign that it means something. It's good to have a tape recorder and notebook by your bed—it's often in the early morning that something will come out.

It's great that you're over here playing. Most people we like don't come over to play any more.
This tour was set up by one woman, who knows my manager, without any help from the record company. She booked the gigs, she made it happen. I've never been out of
London before. It's not really financially viable but you bring CDs to sell and do it anyway. Warners step in at the last minute, taking credit and trying to get on the guest list. Basically we've told them, go buy your own tickets like anybody else, man. They wanted ten tickets for the show here tonight but the guy said 'give me your credit card number right now if you want tickets.'

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