Singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston’s brilliant albums Can You Fly (1992) and This Perfect World (1994) conjure moments, for me, of quiet contemplation with the deeply moving lyrics of songs including “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know,” “The Lucky One,” “Bad Reputation,” “This Perfect World,” “Two Lovers Stop” and “The Mortician’s Daughter.” The list goes on and on.
Despite the burdens on the characters in these solemn songs, Freedy makes them seem beautiful and catchy with his melodic skill. That’s his magic.
During a carefree time in the ’90s when I had limitless options, Freedy’s magic accompanied drives I took with windows open, feeling free while connecting with the artist’s soul. His songs felt like an act of bravery, honestly expressing the truth about his experiences and feelings, no matter how difficult.
Before adulthood fully set in, there was always Freedy’s unique voice to lean on. His detailed character portraits were painted with humor and heart. His love songs rocked and their uncertainty and regret felt familiar. He told riveting tales of trouble, including sexual abuse by a priest (“Evie’s Tears”), suicide and illness (“This Perfect World”) and imprisonment (“Angeline”). There was always something soothing and delicate about his lyrics.
His ninth and latest album, Back on the Road to You (2022), released on Forty Below Records, reveals that he remains a master of creating soulful songs with unforgettable melodies. Try getting the infectious sound of the album’s “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl” (listen below) out of your head. Since it had been seven years between the release of this album and his previous one, Neon Repairman (2015), the songs were a reassuring relief.
Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Eric Corne while Johnston was living nearby in Joshua Tree, Back on the Road to You features contributions from Aimee Mann, Susan Cowsill and Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, who sing harmony vocals on some songs. Mann said in press material, “I’ve always loved Freedy’s voice and songwriting. There’s something so matter-of-fact yet plaintive. I’m delighted he has a new record and am even more delighted to be singing on it.”
Freedy’s performance at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, April 26, when he opened for The Jayhawks, showcased his shimmering guitar and well-crafted songs. He told me in a recent interview from a friend’s apartment in Jersey City that he will release a new album before the end of the year.
“I’m very excited about making a new record,” he said. “I’ve been reading (Roman philosopher) Lucretius. He’s ahead of his time and I used his name in a song.” Quoting from its lyrics, he said: “Don’t give me your Jesus, give me Lucretius.”
He also played in New Jersey in 2021 at the free, outdoor Fall Arts and Music Festival in his former hometown, Hoboken. Originally from Kansas, he moved east in the mid-’90s, making his home in several places, including the East Village, Hoboken and Jersey City.
Back on the Road to You enabled Johnston to re-enter the world of recorded music, he said. He previously recorded some of its songs in Hoboken, but walked away from a contentious business relationship without those recordings, and re-recorded the songs in Los Angeles.
For Freedy, songwriting is like breathing. He has been writing songs in his head since he was a child and the urge to create — to find just the right phrasing or sound — continues constantly, no matter how long he waits to record. He packs a lot of feeling into his songs, using sparse, poetic lines.
“It’s a condition,” he said. “I can’t help it. It’s almost a pathology. I’m not annoyed by it, but it’s weird. It’s what my brain does. I’ve trained it to do that. When I was a little kid, I was always taking popular songs that I liked and changing the words and arrangement. And then imagining myself onstage singing them … I thought that’s an ok fantasy world to live in.”
He says some of life’s challenges have given him motivation to write. It struck me throughout our conversation — filled with revelations about his difficulties — that his sensitivity is one of his gifts, providing him with the ability to connect with others through songs.
He mentioned early childhood wounds in a family that did not encourage or nurture his musical drive.
“I had a house painting job in Kinsley (Kansas) and made a couple hundred bucks and spent it immediately on stereo gear through mail order, or weed,” he said. “I realize now I was just getting ready for my job and yet my mother thought I was the most worthless person in the world. (She’d say) ‘Look at your brother, he works hard, he saves all of his money and he’s in a band.’ ”
His first guitar was also ordered through the mail. “It’s hard to describe the look on her face of despair and confusion,” he said. “She loved music but she said, ‘You’re gonna play that?’ ”
There also was an attack on his character when, he said, a cousin wrongfully accused him of breaking into her home. “I hadn’t done it,” he said, adding “that’s a lifelong thing when somebody says that. My parents were separated. There wasn’t any support there. They loved me, but didn’t understand me.”
He said he was born with an aptitude to write songs, but learned from songwriters he admired as a child, including The Beatles. “I’m a massive Paul and George guy,” he said. “Those Paul McCartney songs were the first ones I recognized as genius. I remember hearing ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Yesterday,’ thinking ‘that’s a song.’ The second thing I remember is Creedence Clearwater. It was almost sinful (because) it was so rockin’.”
After his parents divorced, he moved in with his grandparents in a retirement community in Arizona for a while. “My best friend was a World War II veteran from Brooklyn,” he said. “It was a strange time, and at that point I had only my grandfather’s old FM radio and I took it in my bedroom and it changed my life. Everything was on the same station from Deep Purple to Sonny and Cher, Steve Miller and Elton John. I discovered music and closed my eyes and imagined it was me.
“Fast forward: I moved away with my guitar and 15 years later I was able to pay to renovate (my mother’s) kitchen. So, it did pay off. I was able to pay for her to come to see me open for Sheryl Crow, which was the first time she had ever been on a jetliner. The loser son came back and did something.
“I’m old now so I can say these things. I wouldn’t be a good songwriter if I had a good, stable life. I know that, starting from youth.
“There’d be nothing to write about. I got really driven in the punk rock days in Lawrence, Kansas … I had something in me to prove to people in my past who done me wrong. That’s what drove me to come to New York, to work my ass off, and I realize that some of the songs on my first record were directed at those people.”
Were some of these people your friends? “Only close friends and relatives can really hurt you,” he said. “When you’re in your 20s, people can get really hurtful.”
He discussed his quick and unexpected ascent in the rock world in the mid-’90s, with little preparation for the industry’s demands.
He received accolades that, to this day, he is still processing. In 1992 Can You Fly, released on Hoboken-based Bar/None Records label, was selected by The New York Times as one of the best albums of the year. In 1994, he was signed by Elektra, a major record label, releasing the single “Bad Reputation” from This Perfect World, produced by Butch Vig; the song reached No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Freedy suddenly found himself needing to learn how to tune his guitar onstage and finesse interviews with the press. One interview with a major music magazine didn’t go well, and a local fan posted derogatory posters around his neighborhood in Manhattan. Freedy thinks the fan was triggered by statements he made in his interview. This incident wounded Freedy and haunts him; he thinks that if he had received proper guidance, he would have been better equipped to deal with the press.
“I was thrown in with the wolves,” he said. “It was the worst interview. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t have happened. I needed some help. I let myself down on that one. These are painful things to talk about. It affected me in the same way as my cousin in Kansas.”
He remembers that when he got a record deal, he told a close friend whom he worked with in a New York architect’s office that he had to leave for a couple of months. He said: “They gave me a party and I thought I’d be back soon and I never did come back.
“I know that I was the luckiest person in the tri-state area, going from my office job to a record deal. It blew my mind. It fucked me up. I had a really good job that I loved.”
He was living in Hoboken at this time. “I was a gopher … then I would go play at the Rodeo Bar (in New York) after work. I’m not complaining because when I have, people say, ‘Nobody would be ready for that.’ So that did happen. And, in a way, I’m still trying to acknowledge that … ‘Wow, was my song really on the radio?’ ”
He mentioned the old adage that “success doesn’t change you, it reveals you.”
“It’s the 11th commandment,” he said. “You don’t learn that until you’ve had success. I got really deluded early on.” But he has grown wiser and is now less stressed about recording.
“There Goes a Brooklyn Girl,” from Back on the Road to You, is a deceptively simple song with a compelling beat about a hipster going off to work, leaving behind her adoring boyfriend who works late in a bar. Freedy makes us ponder if this relationship is going to last.
There goes a Brooklyn girl, there goes my baby
I just told her that she’s my No. 1 and she went ‘maybe’
She always sayin’ that you’re only what you become
Walking away in the morning sun when love is new
And she’s off to some office I’ve never seen
And I’m tending bar and playing guitar
His hushed line, “She’s always sayin’ that the heart can never be won/It must be given in the quiet of the night when you hold the one you love tight,” reminds me of something Toni Morrison wrote in her 1992 novel “Jazz,” “Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love; I rose in it.”
“It’s a love song and when the chorus line came out first, it told me the story,” Freedy said. “It came to me when I was thinking about men I encountered when I was driving a truck delivering Italian ice carts. I would pick them up on Jane Street (in Manhattan) and take them to Bryant Park. I would hang out with the other truck drivers drinking at Ukrainian bars. The song is an amalgam of their experiences.”
The line “You’re only what you become” prompted a conversation about whether we can learn how to write songs.
“That is a really big question,” he said. “I think the more you do it, the better songwriter you will be. But I think it’s got to be in you. I can learn to be a CPA or an airline pilot even, but I don’t know if you can learn how to write a song because I didn’t learn. It was already there. I remember writing a song in my head when I was 6 or 7. It sounded like a Creedence song.”
For Johnston, the music comes first and lyrics follow. “Writing out words and putting it to music seems like the most opposite thing,” he said.
“First, there’s a melody for me … and music is deeper and more primary in our brain than any words. So, of course, the music must come first. There’s already so much emotion in a melody. It seems rude to say to music, ‘I’ve got these words, get over here.’ Music comes to you.”
I asked if, when he’s writing songs in his head, he’s only thinking about the music.
“That’s a very good point,” he said. “The melody comes first, but it has some words with it. Whatever it sounds like will become the words. Then you sit down for hours and days to find the right words for that tone.
“The way songs are sung changes the meaning of the words. You can sing ‘why’ or ‘what’ a hundred different ways. There’s a certain moment that’s undefinable and not in our power when the words and the melody work together and that is the goal.”
His song “Somewhere Love” captures the grief of loss with grace. His pain is palpable. He explains that the song was inspired by his roommate’s departure for Texas in 2018.
“When my roommate moved to Texas for a year — she loved my dog Sparky and I — and drove away, it was so emotional,” he said. “The music came out in her empty apartment … and it was so sad, but it helped me. My dog loved it when I played guitar. The words are about a parent encouraging her (daughter) to go. The music came from my roommate and the words from other stories.”
I asked if “Somewhere Love” illustrates his point that his songs start with music. “It’s the best example on the record of how music and words find each other,” he said.
Freedy discussed the extraordinary loss he experienced when Sparky died.
“When he stopped eating and drinking I had to take him to go die and he was laying on the bed looking at me and I remembered the first time he ever looked at me,” he said. “I quietly played Sparky his song and then ‘This Perfect World’ and I picked him up and put him in the car.” At this point in the conversation both Freedy and I were tearing up.
“We were sitting in the car for a while,” he continued. “My dog was straining his neck to look up at the sun. I’d never seen him do that. I want it to be known how he left the world. He was ushered out and I played for him and he left the world looking at the sun.”
We then talked about moving on, and finding contentment. “I’m trying to be happy-ish now with the stress that comes from being a solo singer-songwriter. It’s going ok, but I want it to go better. And it will. These Jayhawks shows are a part of it. Keeping the gas in the tank and getting the songs done.
“For example, I’ve been living in Joshua Tree. It’s time to move on. This summer I’m going to go to Portland. That’s an example of getting things going. It’s a fantastic music town. That will help me get my next record recorded. I’ve learned that you have to record the songs and not let them sit around for a couple of years … they can actually go bad on the shelves.”
Does he have to be in a certain mood to write a song?
“I can be in a really good mood and write a song,” he said. “I try to knock myself into a headspace to write a new song and try to give it upbeat chords. I don’t have to be sad to write music. Some people can’t write songs unless they are sad because that’s the only place that music lives and that’s not true for me.
“It’s a confusing topic. I don’t think there’s any one answer. I can be happy or sad and work on a song. Music is smarter than us and is there before us and we are trying to find a way to rough out what we can comprehend. Music is much more powerful than the meaning we put on it.”
Is it easier to reveal yourself in a song?
“If I had good parents who gave me a hug and a good life, I’d probably be an accountant or whatever,” he said. “I’d be working somewhere. I do know that much. The problems that I have had to deal with in life have made me a songwriter. I had the ability to do it. But the reason I do it is out of sadness … and wanting to show the world that I wasn’t just some guy with big glasses and cracked teeth. It’s common for people from the sticks with a chip on their shoulders, coming to the city. And it often leads to people really making it. And I showed the folks back home in a way that surprised me.”
“Sparky the Dog” was the first song Freedy wrote, when he was in high school. He performed it at his school’s talent show. He said: “I wrote the song, and the dog came along 20 or 30 years later.”
Currently, Freedy rents an apartment from musician Victoria Williams. Also, he said, “I have two 4x4x4 shrink-wrapped pallets with everything from my first journals to mementos and guitars in Lucinda Williams’ warehouse in California. My whole life is sitting in Lucinda Williams’ warehouse, which is very poetic.
“I’m going to Portland in June. It’s time for me to leave the desert.”
Would he consider coming back to New Jersey?
“I’ve lived all over the city, and my favorite neighborhood is Jersey City Heights,” he said. “If I have my way, I will be back here someday.
“Joshua Tree was a nice phase, but I can’t take the quiet. I love being around people even though I’m a loner as much as any songwriter. I loved walking down Central Avenue in Jersey City. It’s a tonic. I love seeing people living their lives. I feel so calm seeing that and I have meaningful conversations with strangers a couple times a day. I’ll just say things like, ‘How are they gonna get that scaffolding down,’ ’cause that’s what old guys do.”
The title track of Back on the Road to You is optimistic and celebratory. “I’m glad I can write a song that’s not completely sad,” Freedy said. “It’s fairly lighthearted.”
The song is about a friend who lives in Madison, Wisc. “I rely on her. Everybody’s got to have someone in their life … It’s a very simple song about going back to a girl. My friend wanted me to call it ‘On the Road’ but that’s been done.”
Freedy noted that some people “write differently with age because they get more successful. But for me it’s about the same. I am not comfortable. Some people lose their perspective and have nothing to say.”
Aimee Mann joined Freedy on his heart-wrenching song “Darlin’,” about parents ruminating over the loss of their child to addiction. The song is “an example of how a song happens really fast,” he said. “There are a lot of guitar grooves and the attendant melodies I look for and that one just came out … some lyrics are not as poetic because you’ve got to finish the story — like the line, ‘He could not live ’cause he could not stop.’ It had to be said.”
The song’s stunning video (watch below), illustrated by Mann, “added the details that I didn’t have the space to do in my song,” Freedy said.
“I’ve only seen the video a couple times because it’s way too emotional for me. I bawled my eyes out. She put in visual details, not the lyrics. It’s the first time I collaborated like that with someone and I’m so moved by it.”
Some songs change by the time they are completed. “Trick of the Light,” a song about marriage, got a name change “because it was originally about my little dog,” Freedy said.
“That song was about how I still see him. It didn’t come out that way. We got a little puppy and it was evoking that heavenly good time. The music was for him … That little thing took my heart.”
We discussed another haunting song, “Evie’s Tears” (from This Perfect World), about sexual abuse by a priest. It features Freedy’s signature mix of a contagious pop melody with dark lyrics. “I can’t help doing it and I’m glad it works,” he said, adding “it’s the only way you are going to get through to someone … it has to catch your attention first.”
We discussed Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” which describes child abuse from a child’s perspective and grabs the listener with its opening chords. Freedy recounted a blissful moment when Vega approached him after a concert and said that she liked his songs. “It was so moving,” he said. “I loved her. I almost cried when she said that … in the ’80s she was an inspiration.”
The title track to This Perfect World is another unforgettable example of gloomy lyrics framed by a calming, hypnotic sound. Its story focuses on “an estranged father coming back to see his daughter before he is going to die,” Freedy said. “He’s talking about her mother who died — they found her by the lake. She killed herself by the lake and he is blamed for it.”
He discussed an assumption that some fans make that the father going to prison. Freedy clarified that “no, he’s very sick.”
Regarding his hit “Bad Reputation” (watch video below), Freedy said “That song is whatever people feel. It was a groove. One thing I’ve learned, you think you know your songs best, but you don’t. I’m not the best judge of my songs. I resisted when (producer) Butch (Vig) told me that ‘Bad Reputation’ would be a hit.
“I’m looking forward to playing the new songs and having people say, ‘I really like that one,’ and I won’t know which one it will be.”
Freedy says he hopes to open for The Jayhawks on upcoming shows. “I just did four nights with them (in April). They fly in and do a weekend and fly out. It was just so amazing. Every night. The Jersey City show that you saw was great, but the other three were equally amazing on other levels.
“It started last fall when the record came out. It’s like being back on the job again. And I feel so grateful. Fans come up and say, ‘I wish I could do what you do.’ I’m living their dream for them, so I better be happy about it.”
For more on Freedy Johnston, visit freedyjohnston.com.
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