Freedy Johnston didn't set out to become one of the smartest singer-songwriters of the last two decades. He's a modest chap, but give him credit for more than just updating James Taylor-style music for the post-power-pop generation. Born and raised in Kinsley, Kansas, he took to rock & roll as a teenager via Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and a four-track cassette recorder and scored his first hit with 1994's "Bad Reputation." The album behind that single, This Perfect World, confirmed Johnston as a bittersweet tunesmith and nimble lyricist who earns his allusions to Nabokov.
After his contract with Elektra ran out in 2001, Johnston only seemed to disappear, although he continued to record and even dabbled in film scoring. Mostly, though, his voice and tunes have ripened with age, as evidenced by this year's supremely self-possessed Rain on the City, Johnston's first album of new songs in nearly nine years. It's a warm, inviting, mostly acoustic pop record, with classic American songbook melodies and just enough lyrical intrigue and doubt to complicate his ever-present romanticism. B-Sides reached Johnston by phone while the New York-based songwriter was visiting friends and family in his second hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.
B-Sides: So the obvious question is: What took the new album so long?
Freedy Johnston: I don't know. I talk about this in the bio. I had some trouble with the IRS and did some stupid things. But really, it just took some time. It wasn't a conscious decision. I tried recording the album three or four times, but it took awhile to get it right.
Do you find yourself asking more questions when you record now, thinking more about the process?
Honestly, it's pretty much the same way I've always done it. I'm not the kind of guy who builds and builds a bunch of tracks. You go into the studio, do the rhythm tracks and sing the songs. Sometimes you have to do it a few times.
And you're back with Bar/None, your first label.
Yeah, they're old friends of mine. After being on a major label, it's good to be back home — back in New York, in a way.
Rain on the City is a romantic album, which is no surprise. But it's a distinct, complex romanticism.
I know what you mean. I don't think I'm a romantic person. But you know, these songs were written over a long period, some in 2001 and some in 2008. I'm not going to say which ones are which. I don't even remember what was going on at the time. You know, sometimes I think I'm the last person who should be talking about this. I think other people maybe have a better perspective on it. I don't really read interviews with musicians.
A song like "The Kind of Love We're In" feels like a jazz ballad, a standard. Many of the songs have that essential songbook feel, like the songs of Cy Coleman or Cole Porter.
That's what I want to do. I don't know if I've done it, but that's the goal — to write a song that everybody knows, everybody remembers. A Cole Porter song, that's as good as it gets.
And it's different than writing a hit.
Yeah. I don't think I'm interested in writing hits anymore. I just want to write good songs. And it can be simple. You can play the same G chord everyone plays or sing the simplest lines, but it can turn out to be something new.
And it all depends on how you play that G chord or sing those lines.
Yes. And the melody communicates as well.
Are you living in Nashville now?
No, I moved back to New York. I was in Nashville and Austin for a couple of years. But I just felt I needed to be back in New York. I'm from Kansas, so New York is still a romantic place. I could live in Madison, but it's good to be back in New York. I feel like it's all come full circle.