Freedy Johnston has put his time in. His new album, Neon Repairman, came out this year, a full 20 years after Rolling Stone deemed him their songwriter of the year in 1995 above Kurt Cobain. But looking back, the years leading to this point were not the easiest. “Success really knocked me down and knocked me out,” Johnston said in a recent interview with The Santa Barbara Independent.
Johnston recalled how, shortly after the surprise success of his album This Perfect World, he got swept up in agreements and contracts he couldn’t stick to, including broken record deals and a money pit of a failed marriage — but even that was just a requisite part of the journey, he said. “I did like my dad did, losing all my money to a pretty woman. But my friend John D Graham said, ‘Shut the hell up, Freedy. You couldn’t even be in my band unless it happened to you twice. Everybody’s been there, bud,’” he said. “I guess I did my time.”
Johnston does not regret the ups and downs of post-stardom, seeing them instead as the path toward a stronger sense of self and songwriting. “I don’t want to complain about it. I took this ride of my life, and lost my way. I feel like I couldn’t have gotten here without going through it,” he said.
Here, certainly, is a new place: Neon Repairman finds the thoughtful, modest Kansan in the new and unexpected role of self-producer. The production helm was something of an accidental seat, not so much an intention but the byproduct a self-sheltering songwriting approach. “Once you’re a certain way through a project, you can’t just hand it over to someone,” he explained. He was so far along with the songs that self-production was the most sensible option. “Sometimes you just have to touch that stove to find out if it’s hot, so I did,“ he said. It is the first record he self-produced, and the last, he said, he ever will — he can’t wait to be told what to do again.
The sentiment makes sense for Johnston, a celebrated songwriter who will only take so much credit for his success, which brought recognition but also waywardness and “long, fallow” years. The recognition and resulting kickback flowered into a new sense of self-understanding and productivity. “After 25 years of all that, I feel very at one with where my music is now,” he said.
He has, perhaps, never been more in tune. Songwriting, Johnston said, is his unending and obsessive “condition,” and he bursts with excitement when describing the prospect of new recordings. He’s “working like a little ferret now,” celebrating like it’s the Super Bowl when a song “explodes into focus.” For Johnston, songwriting is a refuge — the writing of it, and the loyal company to be found in his dog and the sound guys who join him on tour. “It’s like thing the only thing that has been mine and explains the world, and it’s really my own place to be,” he said.
Things may have downsized over the years for Johnston, but his spirit has surged in response. There are the occasional reminders of the glittery music industry life that once was — he recently joined The Bacon Brothers on their tour bus — but those days flicker like unrepaired neon; he’s in brighter territory now. “I haven’t had a bus for years and years,” he reminisced. “I must say, it’s funny how life changes.”
Freedy Johnston plays Saturday, August 15, at 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E Canon Perdido St.) with The Kennedys and Wally Ingram. For tickets and information, call (805)-963-0761 or visit lobero.com.