Posted May 5, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Freedy Johnston: Just hitting his stride

Freedy Johnston, photo by Dina Regine
Freedy Johnston, photo by Dina Regine

Singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston received some serious airplay on commercial radio when his catchy single “Bad Reputation” became a big hit in the ‘90s. In the wake of that success, the Farrelly Brothers used several of his tunes in their comedy Kingpin. Johnston’s latest effort, the self-produced Neon Repairman, shows off his songwriting skills with narrative-based tunes that often have a poetic feel to them. We phoned him at his Madison, Wisconsin home to talk about the album.

Talk about your upbringing in Kansas. How young were you when you started writing songs?
I did my first song for the senior class talent show as a dare. I was 17. I still play that song, “Sparky the Heroic Dog,” at gigs. The dog I currently have now is named after that song. I’ll probably have him on tour. I bring him everywhere. That’s how that happened. The reality is that I’ve been doing it for a while. I put my first record out when I was 30. That’s 24 years ago. Most guys start bands when they’re 15. I’m hitting my stride.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming musicians?
I say try to get early on with a group or at least with one other person. I couldn’t do that because I was too much of a loner. It really helps, even though eventually you won’t see things the same way. It’s more than what you could do alone. I was always a secret songwriter. I was a huge music fan but I was just too shy to get a guitar. My younger brother played guitar. In my head, I would write songs. I taught myself how to write songs over the years. You’re a child but it’s a vain, narcissistic thing. I would imagine myself on stage singing Elton John or Steve Miller. I would cut the parts out that didn’t like in my mind. I’d be looping it in a different way. That maybe has helped me. It’s not a problem to write songs. The problem is writing words. At the age of 30, I didn’t blossom. I had always been doing it. Every time I read about people who do something well or with ease, they say the first memory they ever had was of drawing or writing. Authors say they started reading from three or four. I think it has to be in you. I got to a point where I had a record deal and I lost touch with music a little bit. There’s a moment when I wasn’t into it. That’s how long I’ve been doing it. I’d gotten to the other side of it. When you see interviews with painters, there are times they admit they’ve given up art. You have to get to an advanced stage to have experienced that. Joni Mitchell says she can’t sing anymore and she doesn’t miss it. I don’t believe that. She’s a genius. It’s in her.

Your bio describes your songs as being about “desperate characters.” Talk about that a bit.
Well, I don’t know. I think that’s a critic’s job. I don’t know that I have an adequate answer. I’m not a jokey, happy songwriter. It doesn’t come from a place of partying all night. I always just wrote songs because I was sad. That’s where they started coming for me. When I first started writing songs, I did jokey songs. I went to college for one semester at KU. I met some guys and we had a little band. We did this whole cassette of jokey songs—Steve Martin type of stuff. That was my first record really. We worked on it really hard. We dubbed it back and forth between two cassette decks. I still have a copy of it. I’m embarrassed by a lot of it. The guys are young enough to have had no real pain in their life. Songwriters think they’re really smart, but they’re just songwriters. Being a songwriter seems profound and it really is. It’s a great skill. You can turn the world on its head. As far as knowing the motives of it or having an overview of it, I would never presume to be able to do that. I’m happy to take that criticism. I want to do another half a dozen records and I want to keep getting better. I’ve seen Neil Young gets better over time and Tom Petty too. I just want to keep going on in spite of the odds.

It’s been four years since you released a new studio album. Did you have writer’s block?
It’s been five years and before that it was eight years. That is a bit issue. I didn’t realize it happened. The eight years was because I got married and divorced. The last five years was trying to make this record on my own. It’s self-produced. Between trying to make it on my own and getting funding, it lagged a bit. I think that’s fair. It’s funny how life works in big ways. I’m promoting it and I love it and I’m well into finishing the next 15 songs. I’m really, really happy about it. It’s a good feeling. It’s a “strike when the iron is hot” type of thing. These songs have been around an embarrassingly long amount of time. Five or six of them are ten years old. They’re finally getting their due. They’re very complicated songs. It’s a good feeling. I’m not whining but I put myself through hell and I don’t know what I did it for. I’m on the other side and the music is still there. I really got something from it. I never thought I could say that in a genuine way.

People always say music save their lives. I hope they mean it, but I really mean it. It’s the one thing in this life that has always helped me and always tormented me at the same time.

“Neon Repairman” is a somber tune. What inspired the concept for a song about a guy who considers darkness to be his friend?
There’s a specific story about that song. I tell it a lot on stage. The song was consciously made on the template of “Wichita Lineman.” This friend of mine suggested to me when I was living in Boston. She ran a songwriting thing.  One afternoon, I wrote out all the lyrics to “Wichita Lineman.”  Then I wrote out what I had for “Neon Repairman.” That’s how I finished it. I went to town with a CD of it and played it for some people and they liked it. It became a staple of the set. That’s what happens. Sometimes the things you spend the least amount of time on become the things that people like the most

Talk about the persona in “The First to Leave the World is the First to See the World.”
Some of these songs are very specific. I wrote the song about Yuri, who was the first guy shot into space in 1961. He was the most famous person in history at that time. He was the first guy to see the earth and feel weightlessness. He was a singular human. There was only going to be one. He was this young guy who was small enough to fit in the capsule. He was really close to his mom and lived through war with the Germans. He couldn’t tell his mom he was going into space. She heard about it on the radio and was shocked. It’s him in his capsule thinking about his mom. I don’t want to say that on a record jacket because it’s too academic.

“The Sentimental Heart” has a great rhythm.  Talk about it.
I felt bad about it at first because it’s about a singer-songwriter whose car breaks down. I didn’t want it to be seen as whiny. The music was the main thing. I can’t get upset if people like songs that aren’t at the top of my list. I have to be happy about that. I hadn’t thought about it. They’re like a family. I love them all but some I might love a little more. They just have different roles.

Why did This Perfect World become such a hit?
The single “Bad Reputation” helped. An interviewer asked me about being known for that song. I’m glad I got one hit, for God’s sake. I never thought I would have a hit. There was a lot of push behind it and Butch Vig put me on the map. He’s a friend of mine. I play in a cover band with him now. They’re called The Know-It-All Boyfriends. I have hopefully backed it up by continuing to write songs, except for these holes. I do take it seriously. The songs have to be good.

We live in a world obsessed with singers. Do you think the songwriter doesn’t get his or her due?
It goes in cycles. I’m not qualified to really answer it because I stopped listening to music 20 years ago. I don’t mean that in a bad way. After I bought a certain number of records, I just listen to old stuff now. I don’t even know what’s going on. My view of songwriting is that in the Cole Porter-era and the Brill Building songwriters who wrote the greatest songs. That’s what I really listened to. We listened to Sinatra a lot. It was the best music ever. And country music like Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell or Merle Haggard? That’s high art. If you can write a song like “I’m so Lonesome I could Cry,” then there you go. These melodies come out and they stick around. This chord progression is demanding to write a song. It’s a little bit of a condition. If you didn’t like doing it, it would be called a syndrome.

Upcoming 2015 Shows







Harrisburg, PA – Stage on Herr

Cleveland, OH – Music Box Supper Club

Pittsburgh, PA – The Church Recording Studio

Chicago, IL – Old Town School of Folk

Minneapolis, MN – Dakota Jazz Club

Kansas City, MO – Davey’s Uptown




Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.