Originally created 08/17/97

Storyteller hides inside songwriter



Freedy Johnston writes such hauntingly original and affecting songs about longing and need that his work has been frequently compared to such pop-rock masters as Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell.

Despite enough rave reviews to fill a wing of a branch library, however, Mr. Johnston's music hasn't received the massive radio airplay that could make him more than a cult favorite. Together, his two Elektra albums have only sold about 200,000 copies.

Even though some of his songs are blessed with melodies rivaling the best of Paul McCartney, Mr. Johnston's 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.

It's not that the songs are purposefully evasive, but that Mr. 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.

Maybe Elektra Records ought to market his albums as a parlor game - where the challenge is coming up with the best interpretation of the songs.

"Not a bad idea," Mr. Johnston says good-naturedly during an interview in a Los Angeles restaurant.

Western Sky, a ballad from his new Never Home album, is such a rich, multilayered tune that it could keep the game participants debating for quite a while.

It tells of a man on a two-day drive out West, lonely for his wife, who has flown home ahead of him. As the song unfolds, we learn that the man won't fly because his father was a pilot who was killed in a plane crash. When the driver stops for the night, he phones his wife, wanting to give ... and to hear ... words of comfort.

In a pop world that long ago seemed to run out of fresh ways of saying, "I love you," Western Sky shows there are still fresh, moving ways to do so.

Or does it?

Could Western Sky really be about tensions in a relationship?

If the wife loved him so much, why didn't she ride with him rather than fly?

"Good question," Mr. Johnston says, pausing to consider an option that hadn't apparently occurred to him.

"Maybe she has to get home for something," he says, finally. "Maybe it's they don't want the kids to have to spend two days in the car....

"It is definitely a love song, but I like some complexity, some mystery. The idea isn't to trick anybody, but to make them feel or discover something about the people in the songs and, maybe, about themselves. The aim is to be honest but not obvious."

Mr. Johnston is hard on his own work, refusing to include a lyric sheet on his acclaimed 1994 album, This Perfect World, because he felt that some of the songs were unfinished.

A short, wiry man, Mr. Johnston is also something of a perfectionist when it comes to interviews. Frequently returning to earlier topics to revise or amplify on his remarks, it's as if he is constantly reviewing a transcript that is running through his head. Clearly, the complexities in this man's life aren't limited to fictional characters.

"I'm not an autobiographical writer," the 36-year-old Mr. Johnston declares early in the interview.

True enough, you don't sense the writer's presence in such songs as On the Way Out, a song on his Never Home album about a shoplifter. But that's not one of the tunes that makes you care about Mr. Johnston.

The heart of his work - from Western Sky to The Mortician's Daughter - conveys an almost overpowering sense of loneliness and isolation, qualities that don't seem simply the products of a fertile imagination.

In many reviews, a line is drawn between the sense of isolation in Mr. 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.

Born in Larned, Kan., Mr. Johnston spent his youth going back and forth between his mother and father, who separated when he was 7, and his grandparents, who lived in a retirement city in Arizona.

By his teens, Mr. Johnston was back in Kansas and finding increasing comfort and inspiration in music. His tastes were evenly divided between Top 40 pop and rock, Elton John and Paul McCartney to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. But it was Elvis Costello who made him want to play guitar and write songs. Close behind as influences were Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

He spent one semester at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and remained there for another five or so years, working as a cook as he tried to get bands started.

Mr. Johnston moved to New York in the mid-'80s and eventually landed a deal with indie Bar/None Records. Can You Fly, his second album, won him enormous critical backing.

Robert Christgau, the respected music critic for the Village Voice, called the 1992 collection "a flat-out monument to singer-songwriterdom" and described Mr. Johnston as "modest in everything but his perfectionism." The attention won Mr. Johnston a contract with Elektra Records, and his major-label debut, This Perfect World, won more raves - as has Never Home.

These seem to be good days for Mr. Johnston. "I don't worry a lot about having a larger audience," he explains at dinner. "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."