Freedy Johnston

In 1994, Freedy Johnston took the music world by storm after Rolling Stone named him their “songwriter of the year” for his album “This Perfect World.”

The album featured Johnston’s biggest pop success, a hit called “Bad Reputation,” and was the main launching point for his career, which as of 2011, is over 20 years strong.

Johnston recently sat down with Dave O to discuss his life and career, both then and now.

Dave O: Welcome aboard Freedy! I find your background more interesting than most, so I want to spend a little time discussing it.

You grew up in a small Kansas town (Kinsley) of just 1,658 people, but when you look at that town, it has actually put out some noteworthy people, from you to an NFL player to an Olympian to a famous air force commander. Plus, its the exact halfway point between San Francisco and New York City, with both being 1,561 miles away. I would think those feats and facts would be quite rare for a town of that size.

But first of all, what was it like growing up in a town that small? What would you do for fun as a kid and where/when did your interest in music first get piqued? Did family play much of a role in that? Wow, I just asked like four questions at once (Laughs)!

Freedy: Back then, I was more interested in listening to music than playing it.. I had subscriptions to Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone and Stereo Review. My first stereo was a GE receiver/8-track combo, bought at Kline’s Appliance in Kinsley in 1975. This was replaced in 1977 with a big Technics/Design Acoustics system which I wish I still had. I remember handing almost all the money I’d made that summer driving a tractor ($900) to a Great Bend stereo salesman. Obviously no parents approved of that purchase, and I’m afraid it wouldn’t be the last time. I’d graduated to vinyl, and I was very into the usual suspects; Steely Dan, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Steve Miller. And the one jazz record my stepdad had, Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven.” My mother did play a lot of Merle Haggard, Lynn Andersen, Loretta Lynn etc. around the house. I liked her music but I don’t think she liked mine very much.

Dave O: From what I understand, you bought your first guitar through the mail at age 16 after being fascinated with Elvis Costello. Is that really the sole reason you decided to purchase it, or were there other factors/artists that inspired you as well?

Freedy: Well, I was, like a lot of kids then, really changed by that first Elvis Costello record. Ireally didn’t even know what kind of music it was, actually. I’d read about it in Rolling Stone and talked my good friend Willy Rincon into driving me to Dodge City to get a copy. It seemed like a new and different thing. I loved it, and the songs made me decide “this is the job I want”.

My younger brother played trumpet and guitar, but I’d never played an instrument. Now I wanted in the club. In 1977, I ordered an acoustic guitar from a Delaware stereo mail order house. It arrived via UPS one sunny Saturday morning, and I’ll never forget the unexpectedly coffin-shaped box coming out of the back of the truck.

Dave O: You attended college at the University of Kansas in beautiful Lawrence, which is known for having a fantastic local music scene. How important was Lawrence in your music development, and what are your favorite memories of your times there?

Freedy: Man, I loved living in downtown Lawrence. I was only at KU for one really fun semester. Then I moved downtown to do I had no idea what. Work in restaurants and play guitar, I guess.

I lived above Auntie Annie’s candy store and above Woodstoves Inc. across from the current Free State Brewery. The Embarrassment would play Off The Wall Hall once a month or so. They were everybody’s favorite band. I think I’m more influenced by them than anybody.

I also remember seeing Sun Ra, Jonathan Richman, Bad Brains, REM… man, lots ofbands at Off The Wall. I was one of the guys hanging around checking out the guitars after the gig and asking questions.

They were fine days back then. I was working as a baker, and i had a band, the name of which changed every couple of gigs. With my friends Doug Hitchcock and Doug Snodgrass and Todd Kitchen. I also played drums, of a sort, with Dalton Howard and the Go-Cats for a while. They deserved a better drummer! Haha.

Dave O: By 1985, you had moved out to the New York City area with some songs you had recorded. That had to have been both exciting and scary. What do you remember about those early days in New York City – what were you doing for a “regular job” while you continued to work towards your ultimate goal of a career in music?

Freedy: It sounds corny, but I did pawn a guitar to help pay for my bus ticket to New York. I asked a friend to keep paying on it until I could send for it, but it went the way of all things. I showed up at Port Authority with a thrift store suitcase and my friend Christine’s address on 2nd Avenue. I did temp work, word processing, at various places in midtown. I saved up and got my own apartment, got a new guitar, a 4 track. Honestly, I remember it being fairly lonely and depressing for a long time. Which seems almost comical to write now. Of course it was. Haha.

By 1989, I’d written several songs, and I came back to Lawrence and recorded these songs live to tape with the band mentioned above. That was my demo, several songs from which are on my first record The Trouble Tree.

Dave O: By early 1989 and into 1990, you had the attention of record labels with your album “The Trouble Tree.” It was well received by critics, but didn’t do real well commercially. After that, you did something that I call completely bold and ballsy – you sold some of your family’s farmland back in Kansas to help get more money for another album. Am I correct that this was quite a bold move, or do I make it sound like more of a big deal than it was? And if I’m right, what made you decide to “shoot for the moon” and keep at it?

Freedy: You are correct. It was a move to my relatives not unlike me spending all of my summer wages on a stereo. I have to say, that although it certainly was my land to sell or do whatever with, I never told my mother I had done it, and she found out through reading about it in some interview. It just seemed like the most foolish move in the world, but again, not unexpected from me. Haha.

Dave O: By 1994, all of your tireless work paid off, as you put together a blend of songs on “This Perfect World” which would give you big commercial success AND big critical success, as Rolling Stone named you their “Songwriter of the Year.” Close your eyes for a minute and go back to 1994, right when this album FIRST came out. Did you have any clue it would make you a household name in the music industry and get you the recognition you’d long deserved? I guess I imagine you living in a cheap New York City apartment and dedicating your life to this art form and dream and being pleasantly surprised and borderline shocked with all of the accolades. Am I close?

Freedy: Well, all of that was just ridiculous and unexpected, and I wish I had been better prepared to deal with it, but I guess we all say that about life. I was really lifted up by Can You Fly.The record was received as well as anybody could ever hope for. It’s the record that made Butch Vig want to work with me. I was out on the road when this perfect world came out. Doing duo shows with Mark Spencer, opening for the Cowboy Junkies. I expected the record to get noticed because Butch had done it, but I really didn’t expect the radio play to happen like that.

Dave O: The song you did that most of our listeners are familiar with is “Bad Reputation.” Tell us the story of that song?

Freedy: It was a dark and stormy night. Haha. Actually, it was a snowy night near Christmas up at a studio near Woodstock. Tracking was done, and the band had gone back to New York. Sitting around a table in the kitchen, Butch asked if I had any more songs. He was looking for something uptempo, radio-like. I played what I had of Bad Reputation, with very different words. I really wasn’t that into it, I told him. He really loved it. He was right, wasn’t he? We went out into the studio and cut the basic track right then, with Butch playing drums and John the Engineer on bass.

Dave O: Many of your songs are about hearbreak, disappointment and loneliness, which are three of the most “real” things you can write about. I was talking to Gavin Rossdale (of Bush) the other day about this, and I’m wondering if you are the same as he and I are. We find that when we write at night, we are much deeper and more in tuned with emotions. Maybe a great way to put it is we’re more honest. Is there a certain time of the day when you feel like your writing is at its best?

Freedy: I always get my best ideas early in the morning. The earlier the better. If I had my way all the time, I’d go bed at 8 pm and get up at 3 am to write. When I can, I follow that schedule.

Dave O: Where is the oddest place you’ve ever written a song?

Freedy: My own head. You don’t wanna go to that place! Haha.

Dave O: I know, right! Wikipedia, which we both know is 100% accurate, describes you as a “songwriter’s songwriter.” What does that mean to you?

Freedy: Oh man, what can you say to smoke like that being blown where the sun don’t shine?Haha. Really, I of course say thanks for loving my songs folks. I am a simple man, and this is the work I do.

Dave O: You took three years off between “This Perfect World” in 1994 and your next release, “Never Home,” in 1997. Why the delay?

Freedy: I actually think 3 years is an okay interval. Less than 2 is too soon for me. It takes me that long to finish the &*$#@! songs.

Dave O: (Laughs) I know you are running out of time, so I won’t ask you about each subsequent album in detail. But you continue to go strong in the music industry and are doing quite well ( Catch us up from 1997 to today – what have you been up to and where is your career today?

Freedy: Well, gee, I guess I’ll have to back out of this one a bit. After leaving Elektra in ’01, it did take me a few years to figure out how to sail my own ship. It was 8 years from my last Elektra record to Rain On The City. I will in future endeavor to keep that interval down to 3 years… At most. haha

Dave O: I’m assuming you’re living in Nashville now – what is the future for Freedy Johnston, and how is Nashville and its rich music tradition impacting and defining your style?

Freedy: I lived in Nashville for about a year in ’07, then about a year in Austin in ’08, but now I’m back in New York City, and I spend lots of time with my girlfriend in Madison, WI. I go back to Nashville a couple of times a year to hang out with the fine, fine players there. It’s a great town to make a record in.

Dave O: Finally, do you have a key to the city of Kinsley, yet? And how often do you make it back?

Freedy: Yes, I do indeed have a key to the city of Kinsley, Kansas, thank you for asking. It isn’t a real key, but it’s shaped like one. I make it back as often as I can.

Dave O: Thanks so much for your time, Freedy. Anything you’d like to add?

Freedy: Thanks Dave, for this opportunity to tell my little tale.

Connect with Freedy Johnston on-line at:

Until Next Time – Dave O