Thursday, February 19, 2009
Johnette Napolitano: Revisting Hollywood
Once in a while an artist comes along out of nowhere that touches you. Whether it is with their look, their sound, their voice or their songwriting. They seem to fill a void in the industry. It is a welcomed embrace, kind of like the feeling you get when you put on your favorite sweatshirt or climb underneath a warm blanket on a cold, rainy day. Johnette Napolitano is one of those artists.
Johnette was the voice of the alternative band Concrete Blonde. They attacked the music scene in 1986 with their self titled debut and won over fans across the world. The three member band, which consisted of Johnette on bass and lead vocals, Jim Mankey on guitar and Harry Rushakoff on drums, offered a fresh sound that was unlike any around at that time. They combined elements of pop, rock and punk to merge a sound that complimented Johnette powerful lyrics. The band toured and released other cds through the late eighties and early nineties. They hit their "commercial" peak in 1990 when their single "Joey" hit the Top 40 off of their biggest selling album "Bloodletting". Just a footnote, that release featured the drumming expertise of the great Paul Thompson of Roxy Music.
The band broke up in 1993, but reformed in 2001. They released two new studio albums and one live album before retiring in 2006. I recently caught up with Johnette to talk about her solo career and life beyond Concrete Blonde.
Well, first off I do want to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions that I have. Being a huge fan myself, when can we expect something new from you? "I'm in the last stage of a 3rd edition of a series I do called 'Sketchbooks', which is basically cleaning out hard rives once in a while with ideas or demos, things that don't really fit anywhere, not done but probably never will be and too good to toss. I do 1000 and sign them and www.cdbaby.com sells them and the fans seem to like it. This one will be enhanced," said Johnette. Her first two releases, "Sketchbook" and "Sketchbooks 2" sold out very quickly and I personally have had a hard time finding a copy. Every now and then, one surfaces on E-bay for a hefty price.
What was the one defining moment when you knew that you wanted to go into music? "I've been playing music since I was eight, it's just really what I was born to do. Being from LA, I've been around studios and music people all my life and I'm talking about people like Gordon Jenkins, who was Frank Sinatra's arranger. I went to elementary school with Steve Porcaro, whose family is pretty legendary in the music business. Dave Gold, owner of long gone Gold Star Studios, who created and developed Phil Spector's echo chambers. I worked for Leon Russell, who influenced me tremendously. He lived in such a creative and eccentric environment, I knew I wanted to live life that way as well."
Johnette has worked on several film scores since being with the band. How did this opportunity present itself? "In the early days of the band, the films came to the label for music, there are fans who are directors and writers and alot of the time they come to me. I think I'll be working on a short film soon, the writer contacted me, so I've been lucky like that. Most of the recent film work that I've done with Danny Lohner, formerly of Nine Inch Nails, who happens to be one of my best friends and probably the most talented guy I know. He upped my game considerably", she said.
Can you tell me about your art and how that is going? "It's going pretty well. I'm working on the art for 'Sketchbook 3' and getting back into drawing and painting, in the last few years I've been really into wood and metal, tin, reclaimed materials....I still am. I just finished a portrait of Julia Butterfly-Hill for an auction for her new Love Wins organization. I used 100% reclaimed/second wood and paint. I'm starting up some clay work again. I try to take a break to work on something everyday, I realize how important it is."
Johnette has always been praised for her songwriting ability. Her lyrics are very introspective and full of powerful emotions. How much of that is autobiographical? "In the early days, alot of it was, but as you get older, ideally, you become less self-centered and start to see the world and the people in it in a different way. Also, I moved out to Joshua Tree seven years ago and was in a more introspective phase of my life. I'm just now spending time in Hollywood again, which is my hometown and revisiting some of the old lyrics and the stories behind them. It's been a trip! I'm subletting my tour manager's place for a while and splitting my time....it's turning into much more than I thought it would be. I'm also working with David J (Bauhaus, Love and Rockets) on a record of old standards from the 30s. We toured a bit together and I'm loving that because I don't have to write. All I have to do is enjoy being a singer and use my voice in ways I can't do in rock, and as I told David 'wear a nice dress'."
So, what was a highlight and low light of the years with Concrete Blonde? "Well, the fun, and I would say this to any band, is when you're getting there. When you're broke and you all have the same goal, nothing to lose, and the first time you hear yourself on the radio, see yourself on MTV or whatever. When it gets to the point you're making money everybody turns into assholes. Everybody wants something, you get sued, people spin out of, it gets weird and it's really hard to stay in touch with the source."
The band did disband in 1993 and regrouped briefly in 2001. What made you reform and then stop again? "I needed to make a record, I needed to do it fast, I was having some emotional instability and it just seemed like the thing to do. I hadn't been aware that the guys had been going through the same sort of problems, so we made the record a few months before 911. It was weird. Some of the lyrics on that record 'Group Therapy' are very eerie in hindsight. Then Harry blew it and split again, but I sort of anticipated that may happen and pulled in Gabriel Ramirez from the Roc en Espanol group Maria Fatal, who I play with to this day and we went to Brazil for the first time and Peru, which was great. We made 'Mojave' out there in the desert, which was great and I just felt like we had done all we could do as a band. I was tired of being in a band, writing for a band, touring with a band, I really needed to stretch out."
A friend of mine saw you in New York a few years ago opening for Paul Weller. Any chance of hitting the road again any time soon? "Not soon, that's for sure. I burned out touring a couple of years ago, but I probably need to get to Europe later in this year and Australia. David and I want to do the standards show, we're probably going to do a couple shows in Hollywood, but we're just trying to work out details of all that now."
My last question was, of course, my stranded on a desert island with only one cd, what would it be question? "I would probably answer that question differently if I were asked weekly, but Gershwin's 'Rhapsody In Blue' or 'Slaughter On Tenth Avenue' or Robbie Robertson's 'Native American' records." Technically, that's three, but who am I to argue with a woman whom I idolize?
What an amazing interview this was for me! I was so excited for this opportunity. I got to see Concrete Blonde on their "Bloodletting" tour back in the day. Johnette is such an amazing woman. The talent that comes out of her is almost speechless. Whether it is her artwork or her music, she is inspiring to all lovers of music. Her two "Sketchbook" releases are next to impossible to find, but you can still find her other solo cd entitled "Scarred" which is also unbelievable. It's been over 20 years since I was managing an independent record store called Sounds and Stuff in my hometown of Martinsville, VA. It was there that I discovered the talented Johnette Napolitano. She had a voice like none other and lyrics that I had never even imagined in my life. An artist like this is a rarity and is sorely missing in our music scene today.