Johnette Napolitano: Keeping it interesting
Raspy voiced singer Johnette Napolitano first made her mark with the L.A.-based hard rock act Concrete Blonde. Now, she devotes her attention to her solo career. She’s published a book, released several solo albums and composed music for a few soundtracks. Her new EP, Naked, features three songs she recorded at her Joshua Tree home. A limited release, it’ll only be available on tour dates. Napolitano spoke to us via phone from her home where she had just finished feeding the livestock.
Talk about the approach on the EP. I know you’ve been touring steadily and just wanted to get a few new tracks out there but what was your overall approach in the studio with these three songs?
I have a fellow alumni of the school of Leon Russell, Brian Mansell, to thank for the EP. I couldn’t figure out how to record. I have a couple of issues with the recording. I don’t know where to record, in the studio or live. I don’t like to record live at shows. I’m still turning that over. The only thing I’ve been selling on the road are my books and I have cool book bags. People kept asking me for music. I need to have something for the fans. Brian, who was Leon’s guitarist for a long time and who helps me do mastering, is brilliant and has a state-of-the-art mobile unit. It’s hard for me to get away for any length of time. I can go into L.A. for a day or two, but I need to get home. If it wasn’t for Brian, I wouldn’t have done it. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to make a record. He brought the mobile unit and we put microphones in my house and slammed them out. It wasn’t that hard to do. He got some great sounds. It’s not just your acoustic chick sitting out warbling out some songs. It has edge. I can’t do anything without edge. The reaction has been really great. I’m humbled and overwhelmed. It gave me ideas about re-launching a label of my own. I had that back in the day. I like working with other artists. They often can’t find their asses with a map and a flashlight. They’re just not experienced. I have had the greatest teachers from Leon Russell to working at Gold Star Studios. I used to answer the phone and Phil Spector would be on the phone. I’ve been exposed to some privileged influences. I had no idea I was in the midst of all that.
“Jazz on Vinyl” started out as a short poem in your book?
It was just a one-page short poem. I was looking for what I wanted to do. I tend to write more music than lyrics. I had to come up with something and slammed out the rest of it. I like that poem. It’s easy and cool.
“Here” is the oldest “new” song. How old is it?
It is older. I’ve been playing it for a while. I had recorded a version I wasn’t all that happy with. In the old days, you’d make a record and tour it. Now, for the first time, I played them live [first] and saw the responses. It amazed me that people know the words when I haven’t put the song out. I like the format. I’ve been in a band for 30 years. I started playing guitar when I was 9 and wrote my first song when I was 12. It’s been really interesting and a full circle thing. It’s not typical and Brian got such a good sound. There’s more going on than me and a guitar.
You wrote “Memory Go” when you were sick in bed for a week and couldn’t do anything much more than sit up in bed and play guitar. What was that experience like?
I was so sick. I had the mother of all flus. I never get sick but because I was touring so much and in planes so much, I picked something up. Everyone here got it and it went straight to your throat. I was hydrating and eating garlic soup. I picked up a guitar. That’s what it’s there for. You can’t lay in bed and think too much or you lose your mind. That came out. I’m amazed that I do like it. It’s such a strange persistent lyric. The Persistence of Memory, which is my favorite Salvador Dali painting, is intense and to fight the persistence of memory is intense. It’s like chanting in a way. I’m not a big bridge writer. I sat down and knocked down the bridge in a voice memo. The voice memo is so good and it’s very different.
It sounds a bit like a Lou Reed song.
That makes my day. One of the things that I like and that I’m aware of is that arrangement is very important. Dynamics are everything. It’s a challenge being by yourself with a guitar to keep it interesting. “Here” is very musical. “Memory” is a very different sort of thing and “Jazz” is a different sort of thing. I don’t know if it’s just me and I have the attention span of a gnat but I need to keep things interesting. Now, you can do three songs and upload them. It’s going to be a challenge to do a whole album. I want to do it by myself.
What’s the status of Concrete Blonde?
We played China a couple of years ago. That is the proudest moment in the almost 30 years. It was amazing. I played Hangzhou and there’s a film of it on my YouTube site. Marco Polo called it the most beautiful city in the world and it is. We played a festival and had to jump through so many hoops. We get up to play and I don’t know how many thousands of people were there. I thought, “How the fuck do they know these songs?” That is the proudest moment. We did great in South America and Brazil and Peru. We went places nobody else would go. But everything comes to an end, and it’s time to know when. It was time.
Talk about your screenplay Witch. It’s a true story about the 1962 trial of your friend who was a New Orleans medium for 40 years. How’s it coming?
Wonderfully. It’s really, really good and hard to do because I have one laptop in the shop. I took it in to be repaired yesterday. I’m not going to stress about it but it’s coming along really well. I will do [a followup to the book Rough Mix called] Rough Mix 2 and make the script part of the book. When you get to a certain age, I have had a lot of people die in the past months, you can’t count on anything. If I get it out there I won’t get ripped off. I love the idea that it’s an important story. I love the idea of kids staging it themselves. I want the action to take place in one or two rooms. I have two Macs that are limping so I’m trying to get everything together on one.
You’ve seen so many people pass away. What keeps you going and what keeps you artistically engaged?
All of them. I must do it for them. If they were still here, they would be grabbing a guitar and wanting to seize the day. What gave me the fire in the early days wasn’t living my life conventionally. I never have done that. I think, “What would my dad tell me to do?” He would tell me to do whatever I want. I can’t tell you how much carnage I’ve seen on the highway. When you’re the first one to come up on someone bleeding his last on the highway, you don’t’ fucking forget it. Never mind that “first day of your life” crap. Think of it as the last day of your life. I have a good friend who was my great mechanic. He would tell me, “Find something you like to do and do it every day.” We lose that so easily.