Concrete Blonde is Johnette Napolitano's on again, off again rock band. It's the forum for her great songs about love, hate, vampires, drugs – you know, the usual stuff. Although the group has always featured fantastic musicianship, it is Napolitano's raspy, soulful singing of street smart, honest songs that has lifted Concrete Blonde head and shoulders above many of their contemporaries. When she sings a song like "Joey," an ode to a hopeless alcoholic, the pain in her voice is tangible.
In 1981, Napolitano founded the group in Los Angeles with guitarist James Mankey, one of the most lyrical players in the business. With Johnette on bass, they formed a power trio with the drum stool first occupied by Harry Rushakoff, and now manned by Gabriel Ramirez. In 1984, using the name Dream 6, they released an EP that landed them a deal with I.R.S. Records, home of R.E.M., whose frontman Michael Stipe suggested the name Concrete Blonde.
Their first (self-titled) album was released in 1987, and while "Joey" remains their only mainstream hit, they earned a devoted following with their powerfully emotional brand of rock & roll. Johnette doesn't just sing, she channels. If you're receptive to her trasmission, you'll get a unique listening experience. As she says near the end of this interview, the songs come from clairvoyance.
Napolitano now lives in the Southern California desert and sounds like she couldn't be happier. Yet that itch to create and perform still remains, which is why Concrete Blonde will likely go on again, off again, for a long time to come.
Johnette Napolitano: Well, I've been living out in the desert now for about 12 years - I've lived a couple of places out here. I moved out and then I've actually moved further out. And the cabin that I live in now, which is just heaven on earth to me, it's the first song I wrote here. I was on the porch. It's so amazing out here. It's just everything it says, against a backdrop of crickets and doves and coyotes and wind and it was just magic. It is magic. And so it's a timeless kind of a tune. Sometimes they come and you wonder where they come from, and that was one of them.
Songfacts: What's it like to perform "Still in Hollywood" when you're not in Hollywood any longer.
Johnette: I'm not that far. As a matter of fact, I'm getting ready to drive in to rehearse. We rehearse in Silver Lake once a week. So it's not that far. I'm only two and a half hours away.
Songfacts: It's a great place to visit, but you don't want to live there.
Johnette: Yeah, exactly. Just because it's crowded. It's my hometown, you know. I mean, my dad put the sign up on the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. So it's my hometown. But it's just too crowded. It's as simple as that. I'm just too nervous for the city. And being out here has just done a world of good as far as calming; finding your center and being able to hear yourself, to hear your inspirations and think about things and read things. And being able to play music when you want - there are no neighbors. It's just brilliant.
Songfacts: Well, one of the songs that I really like of Concrete Blonde's is "God is a Bullet," which seems to be inspired by less calm surroundings.
But it's just a simple matter of a phase in your life. And to answer your question, how do I feel when I play it? A little more tired than I used to be, but it's a really good song. One of the things that I can do now that I couldn't before, just for simple reasons of time and distance, is appreciate the songs as just good songs rather than something that has to do with me and all, that's autobiographical or journalistic or whatever. No matter what it is, subject matter or not, analogy or not, metaphors or not, they're simply good songs and I'm finally in a place where I can really enjoy them.
I play better. I used to be very nervous about my playing in the old days, and that really ruined a lot for me. I wasn't very secure about my playing so I really couldn't enjoy things the way everybody else did. But when you play for 30 years, you either get better or you find another job.
Songfacts: It's kind of funny you should say that you felt insecure. Because I remember a particular night that I saw you at a club, maybe you remember, called Bogart's in Long Beach.
Songfacts: And I thought you were amazing. You seemed to be in charge. To say that you felt insecure, it's hard for me to believe.
Johnette: Well, I didn't set out to play bass. But we couldn't keep a bass player. And so I had to learn to play bass. It was hard to play. I've been playing guitar since I was nine years old, but it was really hard to learn to play bass and sing at the same time. It's a whole different patient, you know. You sing in a different place in the measure than you do when you're playing a straight beat. It's just a thing you have to learn.
I had to think about it a lot, and when I'm on stage, I don't like to think, I just want to feel. So that really was most of the work that I had to do, and I couldn't really kick back and enjoy the songs for what they were, and I was also too close to them. It's really hard to be that close to your own stuff and be objective about whether it's good or not. Obviously, that's hard to do for anybody.
Songfacts: Songfacts is where people go to to find out about the songs and what inspired them. There's a lot of dialogue back and forth about the song "Tomorrow Wendy." And so I wanted to hear from you, what exactly is that song about?
Johnette: You must know, of course, that I didn't write that one.
Songfacts: Yes, but I'm hoping you know the story behind it.
When that first came out, there was a lot of good old fashioned southern "we should burn this record" kind of shit. Between the vampires and Wendy, I think those people just about choked on their whatever.
Songfacts: What is it that attracted you to the song that made you want to record it?
Johnette: It's just a great song. I could probably do an entire album of Andy Prieboy songs, he's just such a great songwriter. So much of his stuff is just mind blowingly good. Somebody like Noel Coward or somebody was reincarnated as Andy Prieboy. He's just brilliant. He's just really one of the most talented people I've ever known in my life.
And there's a movement to get Andy to come back to play live, but he doesn't seem to be into it at all, which is a shame, because he's just too good.
Johnette: He writes, apparently, and I guess records a lot. He's been in the pattern for some years. I know people that have played with him. He did a musical a couple of years ago and he's good at that, he's great at that. It was called "Axl!" First and then it was called "White Black Boy Wins Lotto." It was called "Axl!" With an exclamation point, it was about Axl Rose, but Axl sued him, and so he had to change the title to "White Trash Wins Lotto."
Songfacts: Well, let's talk about the biggest song of Concrete Blonde's career, which was "Joey." Do you remember the experience of writing it?
And I remember Chris every day, "Do we have vocals to 'Joey' yet? Do we have words to 'Joey' yet?" And I'm like, "Not yet." So I literally wrote them in a cab. I knew what I was going to say, it's just a matter of like a cloud's forming and then it rains. The lines are forming in my head and they're all in my head, and I know the chorus, and I know what I'm going to say. It's just a matter of fine tuning the details and how I'm going to lug it out. And then it rains. The clouds all formed and it rained. And then it happened. And that was it. And it was just there.
Songfacts: One of the new songs is called "I See a Ghost," and of course you mentioned the vampire song, how would you say the paranormal influences your songwriting?
Songfacts: I'm here. Can you hear me?
Johnette: Oh, good. I didn't want them to shut off the phone the minute you said "paranormal," cut you off. They do that sometimes. [Laughs] It's a normal part of my life and who I am since I was very young. I've had mentors in New Orleans and that's just a part of who I am. I just did a reading for a friend of mine the other night. I've studied for many, many, many years, many different disciplines, and it's just who I am. And it's definitely where my songs come from - clairvoyance. I'll be out in the stall with the horses or whatever, and then something comes to my mind. Or what happens most is I wake up in the middle of the night and there's something in my head, and then I have to make the decision whether to either get up and record it or go back to sleep. And I've learned over the years that you'd better get your ass up and record it.
Songfacts: Have you ever had songs that have been channeled from beyond?
Johnette: Absolutely. Every single one. Have you seen Telstar, the movie?
Songfacts: No, I haven't.
Johnette: You should. You should see it. It's about Joe Meek, it's really a great movie. A friend of mine from Ireland sent it to me, but I don't know if it's available in this country yet. But, boy, it's amazing. It's a tragic story, but it's an amazing story, about Joe Meek, of course, who did "Telstar," and it's all channeling. In my opinion, at least for me, it's all channeling. That's where it all comes from. Definitely.
Songfacts: So what keeps you going back to Concrete Blonde? The history of the band is the band is together and broke up, together and broke up.
Johnette: Like waves. When it's right and as long as it's cool, then it's cool. If it's not, then there's other stuff that everybody does. We all have lives. And when we're so inspired, we play. Even when we're not, we play once a week, just because we're a good band. And we've been playing for so long. We did China last year. People keep asking us to play. We've done South America a couple of times in the last couple of years.
When you work in the States you have to do it a certain way. A different way. And I don't like to be out for more than a week away from home. I'm going to have to do things a little differently, I'm going to have to go out a little longer this year and next year, because we have to get back to Europe and you can't just go over to Europe for a week. You've got to invest a little more time in that. But we haven't been there for a while.
But we do things. We just pace ourselves differently. We're not 25, we don't have to go out and grind ourselves into the dust for seven months straight. We can pick what we do and choose what we do. The things that are fun. And we've never really changed. We haven't done things by the book ever since we started. We do what's right for us to keep longevity. Ask anybody who's been married for 30 years - you don't get in each other's faces every day and expect to get along. It's not right.
So we know at this point who we are, what we like to do, and how to keep it fun for us. So we get together once a week to play and to stay good. We're musicians. You need to stay to keep your jobs together. Like today, I'm going to take a keyboard, I'm not even taking a bass. Because I want to hear the sound and do some beats and play some keyboards with Gabriel Ramirez, and then let Jim Mankey play whatever. So we're in that sort of a phase of things. And then we rehearse the night before we leave, and then we get the set down because we have a great lighting guy. We know what we're doing, but we know how to keep it fun and not let it turn into what it can turn into, which is a real pressure and a real grind and a real competition. We're not in that phase of things.
Songfacts: Does the composition of the band change the way you write songs? Are you inspired differently when you're with them than when you're doing things solo?
Johnette: No. I mean, we'll jam on stuff, but I've found - and this is what's sort of happening at this point - of all the ways we've worked, it still works the best if the song is written and then brought in and then played. And then everybody adds what they add to it. Gabriel and I throw down some beats and things.
Once in a while we'll come up with something together. But at this point, it's kind of like I've got the song written, and I think everybody prefers that. I think everybody prefers that at this point. Or at least they seem like they do. We just did a new song that I'd written years ago for somebody else at a gallery show a couple of weeks ago, and it was amazing. It was written for piano, actually. It's a song about Billie Holiday, it has the real old torchy '40s feel to it. And we just blew it out. It was awesome. It was just beautiful. Gabriel played this big old Louie Bellson ride cymbal and it was just awesome.
We're not out to reinvent the wheel. There's still nothing like a good song. That's why people keep calling us to go to China and play and go to South America and play. People know the songs and they like them.
Songfacts: This Billie Holiday song that you mentioned, is this something that's eventually going to go on an album as well as the "Rosalie" and "I See A Ghost"?
Johnette: Well, there's stuff that's semi recorded, there's stuff that's recorded, there's enough piling up to start to be an album. But what usually has happened is that there will be songs and we'll record them and maybe we'll try them out live. And there will be a couple we want to re-record. And then there is my sketchbook series of things, of which a lot are demos - Gabriel and I have played a lot of those at solo shows. So we're digging out a couple of those that I think would sound good on the band. Once we feel like, Wow, this is an album... just even that term is weird to me now, because music is in so many formats that why do we have to make an album at all. And to go in and go, Okay, dudes, we're going to spend the next four weeks making an album... I don't want to be in the studio for four weeks. I don't want to be in the studio for four days. I want to get in, lay it down, have fun, and go. There's other stuff to do.
But when we're there and when we have that opportunity, we slay it. Like when we recorded those two songs, the A side and the B side, we went in to Stag Studios, which is a studio we love, a great studio, proper studio, with a console and a big room and our favorite engineer. We had two sides to blow out, just like in the old days. It was cool.
Songfacts: Well, on that note, I think that's a great way to wind things up, Johnette. It's been a treat to talk to you. I've loved your music for years. And if you run into any ghosts from the other world, I hope that they're nice ones.
Johnette: I'll write about them.
Songfacts: That they're Casper the friendly ghosts.
Johnette: Oh, they're all friendly. They're mischievous suckers.
February 8, 2013
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