Born Fred Johnston in Larned, KS. His mother gave him the moniker "Freedy." Addresses: Record company--Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019.
With a talent for writing pop-folk songs that are simultaneously haunting and infectious, Freedy Johnston makes music that is built upon intriguing melodies and rich lyrics. Critics routinely compare the Kansas-born singer/songwriter to pop/rock icons including Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, and Joni Mitchell. Rolling Stone declared him an American original and named him Songwriter of the Year. Playboy called his 1992 indie release Can You Fly a work of genius and "the best album by a new male singer-songwriter in at least a decade.'' And Johnston's two major- label releases--This Perfect World and Never Home-- consistently received rave reviews.
Commercial success, however, has come slowly. In concert, Johnston is often the opening act, not the headliner. And This Perfect World and Never Home have combined sales of around 200,000--respectable, certainly, but less than might be expected considering their critical acclaim. Los Angeles Times music writer Robert Hilburn suggests that's because Johnston's music requires extra effort from listeners. "[His] themes can be demanding--alternately witty and obsessive in ways that don't always reveal themselves on a first listening the way radio hits usually do.... Johnston reflects on life's contradictions and complexities with the skill and ambition of a first-rate short story writer. Like a mystery novel, there are clues, but not quick solutions."
For his part, Johnston seems content not being a household name. "I don't worry a lot about having a larger audience," he told Hilburn. "I never had any expectations that I would have a gold or platinum record. I'm just thankful to be able to make a living doing what I love: writing songs and making records that you hope will live on and maybe help other people understand some of the things they are going through ... the way all those records did that helped me.''
While critics generally agree on Johnston's talent, they tend to pile up a myriad of labels in a futile attempt to describe his music. One review said Johnston melds "sixties' brit-pop and seventies R&B" and creates a sound which is "post punk, neo- country, Hollies-esque." Another said that Never Home features a "folkish acoustic-guitar base with touches of mid-sixties' garage rock" as well as "classic model pop ballads." Johnston's music also has been categorized as "country-pop-folk songs worthy of Marty Robbins or the Byrds" and, in a bizarre juxtaposition, the singer was once called "the rock world equivalent of Jimmy Stewart, the Everyman whose very lack of flashiness makes him fascinating." Then there's Johnston's voice, which has alternately been described as reedy and limited and evocative and effective. One reviewer called it "twangy" while another created the word "twangless" to describe it. The trouble is, as Barbara O'Dair explained in Rolling Stone, that "nobody sounds like Freedy Johnston. He's an American original."
Johnston was born and raised in Kansas. His middle-class parents separated when he was seven years old and he spent his childhood shuttling between his mother, father, and grandparents in Arizona. "The heart of his work ... conveys an almost overpowering sense of loneliness and isolation," Hilburn wrote. "In many reviews, a line is drawn between the sense of isolation in Johnston's songs and the fact that he grew up in small towns in western Kansas. The more likely reason for much of the emotional tone is that he came from a broken home."
As a teenager, Johnston was both class clown and class president and he found comfort in the music he heard on the radio--Top 40 pop from Elton John, Steely Dan, and ZZ Top along with classic rock from bands like Aerosmith and Led Zepplin. He began making music in isolation. "The four-track machine was how I got my start," he once said. "I hadn't yet learned how to work and jam with other musicians. All the songs went from my head to the four-track. Slowly, through live playing and recording I fell into a groove of working and playing and being comfortable with other musicians." Johnston attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence for a semester, then spent a few years working as a cook in the college town while trying to put bands together. In Lawrence, he was exposed to a wider range of music; his influences include Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Tom Petty, Paul Westerberg, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan.
In 1985, Johnston left the Midwest for New York, following a vague dream of launching a music career. He eventually formed a band and connected with the indie label Bar/None Records in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1990 Johnston released an undistinctive debut, The Trouble Tree , and two years later created a critical furor with Can You Fly. The record sold 40,000 copies and was named one of the top albums of the year by Spin, People Weekly, and The New York Times, among others. As a result, Johnston landed a contract with Elektra Records and spots opening for Soul Asylum, the Lemonheads, and Matthew Sweet. Then came his two major label releases -- This Perfect World, which generated the radio hit "Bad Reputation,' and Never Home. He also contributed to the 1994 benefit album Shelter: The Best of Contemporary Singer-Songwriters. "A master storyteller, Johnston sketches out full-blown tragedies in a few taut poetic lines," Alec Foege wrote in Rolling Stone. "He joins that elite cadre of songwriters--Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Elvis Costello--whose brilliant pop compositions turn magical with the addition of a defiantly idiosyncratic singing voice. In Johnston's case it's a gauzy tenor that rises up to kiss each instantly hummable melody right at the point when its timbre becomes most translucent."
Johnston's musical journey has led him to a varied assortment of producers. Graham Maby, Joe Jackson's bass player, produced Can You Fly. Butch Vig, who has worked with alterna-gods Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, produced This Perfect World. Danny Kortchmar-- whose production credits include records by Neil Young, James Taylor, Don Henley, and the Spin Doctors--was at the helm for Never Home. Each album, however, preserves Johnston's sound, stories, and themes--which O'Dair identifies as loneliness and loss, guilt and deceit, irony and hope. "A lot of people were expecting me to make him a lot tougher--really make a big, big record," Vig said. "But I wanted to keep very true to his voice and the rhythm guitar playing. A lot of the tracks are really stripped down."
Johnston, meanwhile, has earned a reputation as a control freak. He has talked of smashing equipment when things go badly in the studio and he refused to include a lyric sheet in This Perfect World because he felt some of the songs were unfinished. "I somehow have a really bad reputation in the biz for being difficult," Johnston told Foege. "A lot of it is just that in the alternative-roots rock circles in the city, it's as cliquish as the fashion industry or Hollywood." Despite his circuitous journey to success, melancholy story songs, and bad reputation, Freedy Johnston still has a devout faith in the music he's making. "There are people I sort of look at out of the corner of my eye to see how it's gone, " he told Steve Knopper of the Knight-Ridder News Service. "Someone like Elvis Costello--he's made a lot of records people would consider mistakes, with a lot of left turns, and he's been able to keep an audience. And Tom Waits. [They're] seemingly able to do what they want. I may not be as headstrong as either of those guys. I know I'm not. [But] I try to do what I want to do."
by Dave Wilkins
Freedy Johnston's Career
Johnston's parents split when he was seven, and he grew up in small Kansas towns. In 1985, he moved to New York to pursue a music career. In 1989, the independent label Bar/None Records released his debut, The Trouble Tree. It was followed by the critically acclaimed Can You Fly, This Perfect World, and Never Home.
- Selective Works
- The Trouble Tree , Bar/None Records, 1989.
- Can You Fly, Bar/None Records, 1992.
- Unlucky, (EP), Bar/None Records, 1993.
- This Perfect World, Elektra Records, 1994.
- Never Home, Elektra Records, 1997.
- Entertainment Weekly, July 15, 1994, p. 64; December 23, 1994, p.
- 65; February 21, 1997, p. 125.
- Knight-Ridder News Service, October 6, 1994.
- Los Angeles Times News Service, June 12, 1997.
- People, March 31, 1997, p. 27.
- Playboy, June 1993, p. 28.
- Rolling Stone, July 14, 1994, p. 102; September 8, 1994, p. 29.
- Stereo Review, May 1997, p. 92; October 1993, p. 100.
- Additional information was provided Elektra Records publicity material.