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Freedy Johnston Finds Peace, Comfort After Lockdown

Back on the Road to You” album cover.
Forty Below Records
Freedy Johnston's Back on the Road to You album cover

Freedy Johnston's new album, Back on the Road to You, comes out Friday, September 9.

“I'm rediscovering my job,” says musician Freedy Johnston, on the line from his temporary home in Madison, Wisconsin.

The onetime Kansan spends the majority of his time in California these days but it was in Oklahoma where he faced some hard times and hard questions.

“This was a hard task coming back after seven years to make an album and then being off the road for [essentially] three years.”

Freedy Johnston's new album, Back on the Road to You, arrives September 9 via Forty Below Records and it’s filled with a new batch of songs that stand among his best.

No mean feat considering the quality of albums such as 1999’s Black Days Blue Nights and the earlier, groundbreaking, Can You Fly.

There’s familiar terrain—love, miragelike worlds that leave the inhabitants uncertain of what’s transpired, songs named after women. (Though “Madeline’s Eye,” a darkly humorous yarn, turns expectations of a Johnston tune on its head and is far from the tender “Emily” from Blue Days Black Nights.)

The tour dates are also arriving in no short supply and it seems appropriate that the musician sounds rejuvenated. A man who was sometimes taciturn in the past and maybe sometimes at odds with his success has been replaced with one who is eager to discuss his craft and his future—a future that, not that long ago, he wasn’t sure he had.

It’s notable that Johnston once named an album Never Home, a path he seems intent on keeping. Home, though, has been a number of places. He grew up in Kinsley, Kansas, sold the family farm (so the legend goes) to move to New York City, then made his fortunes as a celebrated writer who churned out a dizzying series of must-have albums.

He rose from the indie leagues to the majors, landing with the much-lauded “This Perfect World” in 1994 which garnered him the tag “Songwriter of the Year” from Rolling Stone.

Never one to rest on such accolades or—by his own admittance—take much stock in them, he continued to write and record and tour. And tour.

Eventually, the albums trailed off but the live performances continued.

Until 2020 when he found himself living alone on his brother’s farm in Oklahoma.

The experience, he says, was transformative.

“My neighbor was the most Trump-loving guy in the world,” he recalls. “I’m pretty left wing. It was hilarious because we became best buddies. We talked about music, we just hung out all the time. I love him. It made me realize I didn’t want to be alone anymore. After COVID, I said, ‘Oh God, please don’t leave me in a room alone.’”

There was a point, too, before the songs that comprise Back on the Road to You, came together to form one of his finest releases to date, that he considered shuffling off into something approaching obscurity.

“I definitely quit at least once in my mind, for various reasons,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe this is it. I’ve already done it.’ I like doing other things. I figured maybe it was time to try something else.”

“That,” he notes, “didn’t last long”

What it came down to was an undying creative impulse.

“I have a condition. My brain writes songs. If I don’t write them down I feel like I might go crazy. I didn’t have a choice. They wouldn’t go away.”

In some ways Johnston may have suffered what many who’ve earned his degree of acclaim have—overthinking the process.

“I used to write songs really fast,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I would just come home from work, write something, and say, ‘That’s cool.’ Now, I’m doing that again.”

The hours spent on the Oklahoma farm may have also brought out something he hadn’t experienced in a while, a sense that music was just another thing in his life.

“For a while, my halcyon happy days were right before I got a record deal,” he recalls. “I had a great job in New York City at an architect’s office. I wasn’t anybody’s boss. I loved everybody I worked with. I was playing in a band on the weekends. But nobody wants to hear me complain about what I do,” he offers. “So I won’t.”

Experiences are not always easy to detect in his songs. One looking for direct corollaries between sad songs and sad times aren’t likely to find them. Asked if he’s written about his late friend, Wichita film critic Jake Euker, who passed in 2012, he acknowledges that he hasn’t.

“It’s a fair question. It's hard for me to write songs about specific things,” he says. “I sometimes do. I'm really afraid to in a way with Jake. So it hasn't really happened. Yet, things just creep in, and I have these unfinished songs that are musically done but don’t have lyrics. I suspect that one of them is going to have some way of explaining Jake to myself. But it’s a very sad, deep thing. He was a loved man. That’s what a song like that has to reflect in order for me to complete it.”

If solitude is less a part of his personal life than it was, so, too, is depression.

“There’s no real black cloud all the time. There’s something in my brain that decided, ‘OK, we’re done with this. We’re not going to do this anymore. There’s no time. Right now I can’t find the black cloud and I’ve been actively looking for it.”

A return to The Bottleneck on September 24 as a solo performer looming, Johnston is also in a frame of mind to discuss his time in Lawrence, attending shows at the venue formerly known as Off The Wall Hall with friends. Playing there, he notes, is one of the sweeter spoils of his career.

“It’s my old home. My friends from Get Smart are getting back together for the show,” he says. “I did some of my first music things back then. I bought a four track recorder up there at Richard’s Music Company. It means a lot to come back and play. I’m going to do what I can to fill the place up with music.”

Freedy Johnston’s music is featured throughout September on Strange Currency, Monday through Friday from 8 to 10 p.m. and Saturdays from 7-9 p.m. on KMUW.

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Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.