Musician Freedy Johnston wouldn’t recommend his songwriting approach to anyone. With a note of self-deprecating humor, Johnston says in a phone interview, “It’s very slow. It’s not efficient.” However true that may be, a deliberative creative process has worked out pretty well for him so far.
Johnston performs a career-spanning acoustic solo show at WOW Hall Feb. 9 in support of his 2022 release Back on the Road to You, his 14th studio record and his first new music since 2015.
Featuring duets with Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs and Susan Cowsill, On the Road maintains Johnston’s streak of well-crafted and thoughtful guitar-based pop songwriting. He has a Midwestern ear for melody, sunshine-y harmonies and strong storytelling sensibilities. Also featured on the record is guitar work from seasoned guitarist Doug Pettibone, who in the past has worked with Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and Mark Knopfler — all Johnston peers in terms of sound and quality.
Johnston’s first album, Can You Fly, came out in the early 1990s. With the release of his second record, This Perfect World with Nirvana producer Butch Vig, who helped define the sound of alternative rock in the era, Johnston seemed poised to be the flannel-clad power pop next big thing. Accordingly, This Perfect World produced perhaps Johnston’s best-known song, the Byrds-esque “Bad Reputation,” just in time for the CD-era alternative music boom.
Born in Kansas and raised on Elton John, The Beatles, CCR and classic country, Johnston was too heartland-wholesome for indie rock. Though well deserved, clichés like “songwriter’s songwriter” and “critical darling” have followed Johnston throughout his long career. As can sometimes happen with the best songwriters, the music industry never quite knew what to do with him.
More recently, cuts like “Tryin’ to Move On” off Johnston’s latest could be early Wilco or Uncle Tupelo-style alternative country, while “That’s Life,” with Susanna Hoffs from The Bangles on backing vocals, could be a George Jones/Tammy Wynette country music ode to the pinnacle of romantic life for a married couple: the trials and travails of putting the kids to bed. Always a man out of time, a mature patina suits Johnston well.
In his younger years, Johnston — now in his sixties — might have assumed an artist had retired with a seven-year gap between records. COVID merely slowed down Johnston’s already time-intensive process.
For Johnston, music tends to come first in a groove, emotion or melody. The lyrics, in particular, “are hammered out over a course of way too long,” Johnston says. “That’s the way I’m trying to serve whatever this song is.” No matter what, Johnston adds, the “music will come to me.”
Songs off Johnston’s latest album, he says, “had been worked up over a period of many years. They finally found their way to the top of the pile.”
Though many Road songs had been with Johnston for some time, surprisingly, he’s already moved on to the next record, he says. A few new songs, still in workshop phase, will be road-tested on Johnston’s latest tour.
After all this time, the veteran singer-songwriter still finds premiering new music a necessary though risky proposition. “It’s important to throw the song out there,” Johnston says.
Freedy Johnston performs acoustic renditions of music from throughout his catalog Thursday, Feb. 9, at WOW Hall; $15 advance, $20 door, all-ages.