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By Glenn BurnSilver
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Your name is Freedy Johnston. You're a singer-songwriter from Hoboken, New Jersey, by way of Kinsley, Kansas (population 2,000). Your first album, 1990's The Trouble Tree, concerned life and loss and repeated attempts at redemption. You placed these themes in scenarios ranging from a melancholy take on relationships to an odd sense of optimism after electroshock therapy. On one song, "Fun Ride," you perfectly captured the ups and downs of human emotion by chronicling a day at the fair.
But right now, if you're Freedy Johnston, you don't especially want to talk about all that. Johnston, calling from a tour stop in Colorado, isn't interested in discussing how his isolated background affects his art. He hesitates to explain why he bolted the Midwest for the bright lights of New York City. Ask Freedy Johnston about where he came from, and he sounds like he's ready to tell you where to go.
"I really don't want to go into all that," he says, sounding like a jumpy neighbor avoiding eye contact. "I'd rather answer questions about my music."
Such touchiness sounds about right for a guy who, it turns out, has a history as quirky as his songs. Johnston, 31, grew up on a farm in Kinsley, which is an equidistant 1,563 miles from New York and San Francisco. Johnston, raised on an FM diet of Steely Dan, Aerosmith and ZZ Top, had to drive 35 miles to find the nearest record store. Which was closer than the nearest music store: Johnston had to mail-order his first guitar from a catalogue house in Delaware.
Johnston escaped Kinsley by enrolling at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. He lasted for all of one semester, opting instead to work in local, college-town restaurants. Johnston spent the rest of his time at home, in his room, writing "novelty" songs on his mail-order guitar and recording himself on a four-track.
A few years later, Johnston, at the age of 22, was still working at local Lawrence eateries. He'd written and recorded dozens of songs no one ever heard. He was stuck in the middle of the Midwest, with no idea where he was going. He figured something had to give--and it did.
"I was really at loose ends," Johnston says, picking up the story. "So I came out to live in Arizona for a while. My grandfather was sick at the time, so I stayed with him at a trailer park in Mesa."
Johnston's three-month Arizona "recuperation" helped him get through what he calls a "pretty bad" time in his life.
"That winter I'd gotten into a deep funk," he recalls. "I slept all day and went through sort of a breakdown. But I came out the other side. And after that, I was able to see things in a different way."
Johnston subsequently returned to Kansas and soon thereafter relocated to New York. Again, odd jobs were the order of the day. The Midwestern transplant made most of his big-city money as the delivery driver on an ice truck.
"My eyesight is really poor," Johnston says. "And I'm not a good driver, anyway. So I got into a lot of accidents and wound up getting fired."
But by then, Johnston had another career going. He'd developed from an anonymous writer of novelty songs into a notable singer-songwriter. Johnston started playing a few shows, eventually moving out to New Jersey, where he fit right in with the Hoboken boho crowd. A couple of Johnston's songs wound up on a 1989 compilation from Hoboken's Bar None label. The record company then released The Trouble Tree, with a follow-up, Can You Fly, let loose last year.
Johnston's recorded work to date is a unique mix of pop smarts and poetry--like Alex Chilton's sharper-cornered songs performed by a young Neil Young. Johnston, at his best, can pull out a pop hook as sophisticated as any dB's tune. But he can quickly downshift and be as eerie as he wants to be with a lonely, angst-riddled ballad.
Lyrically, Johnston has a knack for fractured prose that makes for a wondrous succession of moments. On "The Mortician's Daughter," one of Can You Fly's better efforts, Johnston lets the song go its own way and then snaps it back with simple lines like, "There's a lonely dove on the telephone wire/I turn my head and she flies away." Johnston starts the plaintive "Gina," from The Trouble Tree, with subtle word play: "Gina's down by the water/The water's up around Gina." But Johnston then abruptly drops into an unexplained outburst: "I know that/Don't you lie to me/I know that." The song ends with Johnston softly looking back on a person and a place the listener somehow knows all too well.
Johnston figures his songs are seeded with equal parts inspiration and "who knows what." He adds that his song craft doesn't come easily.
"I write very slowly," he says. "I'll spend weeks on a song and may never really get it done. I don't like to finish songs. It's kind of a problem, a psychological thing. I tend to leave them incomplete. I went through the same thing in school. Sometimes, I wish I could just sit down and get things done."
That kind of introspection is about the extent to which Johnston will betray himself in conversation. All other clues to Freedy Johnston's inner workings are buried somewhere in songs like "After My Shocks," a rollicking appreciation of electroconvulsive therapy, and "Bad Girl," which finds Johnston musing that "you get your best ideas when you split your head wide open."