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Johnette Napolitano: Fade to black on the blonde

From 1990-1992, Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde was the only record I could play. I don't mean it was the only one I had available to play. I mean it was the only one I had to play. There were ten tracks that went from balls-out aggression to quiet introspection. Every cut was a grand-slam out of the park. Altogether they made a powerful statement….of what I don't know, but whatever it was really resonated within me. The package was all tied together by the vampire trappings that fit so well with the melancholy mood.

The allure of the record came from the stark but beautiful songs written (mostly) by Johnette Napolitano who sung them with a voice that made you just stop and listen. Her tones are lower than a lot of girl rock singers and she could go from low, intoxicating levels to blasting out à la Ann Wilson.

I found out there were two equally good previous records, the debut and 1989's Free. Later on came, Walking in London, and Mexican Moon, two other masterpieces. The band broke up for several years, reuniting in the early part of the new millennium. The vastly under-rated Group Therapy and Mojave showed the band still could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone.

Johnette has put out a fair bit of solo stuff or non-Blonde related material in the last few years. Along with some soundtrack stuff, she released a limited edition last year called Sketchbook featuring songs that were just basic ideas, not embellished much and recorded by Johnette in her home studio. Sketchbook 2 will be out shortly. 

Still today if I'm feeling particularly pissed off, "The Beast" (from Bloodletting) along with "Heal it Up" (from Mexican Moon) or "Over Your Shoulder" (from the band's remarkable debut) is what I have to play to get all the demons out. Imagine if you will, getting to speak to somebody you've been a major fan of for a long period of time and you can get a sense of how I was feeling recently when I was able to speak by phone to Ms. Johnette Napolitano. 

antiMUSIC: Hi Johnette. It's an absolute honor and a privilege to be speaking with you. I have to tell you I'm so nervous right now….

Johnette: (cutting me off) Hey….come on. Don't be nervous. It's just me. What can I tell you to not make you nervous? Hey, my dogs are sitting here right now looking at me and they've got the funniest faces right now and…(laughs). Come on, there's nothing to worry about. I should be the one that's nervous. 

antiMUSIC: Much gushing and blabbing on by me that I won't bore everybody else with.

Johnette: Yeah I was ready to go on this tour to Peru and the night before the promoter called up and said we couldn't get the work visas but don't worry about it, immigration is taken care of. Just come on down. And I said, "I can't do that." Even in the best of circumstances, there was just no way. These times are very strange. I can't really take that chance and I'm just not into lying to immigration under the best of circumstances. Especially going to South America. Yeah, I want to explain to Homeland Security in my country why I was in Peru for four days and then came back through Mexico. Yeah, right. So it was a real drag because we had been to Peru before and this was my first solo show there. I really love the people but I just couldn't do it. 

antiMUSIC: Tell us about Sketchbook #2. How long have some of these songs been around?

Johnette: They called me today…those sadistic bastards and said "It's done. We're ready to ship." And I went "No way". Because they were supposed to be done on Jan 31. And I was just overjoyed because now of course I sign and number them. I really like this record. It's really cool. And people waited for so long and I just hope they're still there and want it. The last time I had somebody handle it, they screwed it up but this time it's all going right. So I couldn't wait to get it out. So then I went, "You're kidding. You're two weeks ahead of schedule. This is the best news ever because I've got to go out of the country…" and so on. Then they called back and said, "We're sorry. We made a mistake. It's not going to be ready until the 31st." I was really bummed but you know….this is the way I like my life now. I just like the fact that you know, I can just make my records the way I want to and I'm very lucky that there are people that want to have them. They are limited editions because everything will find its way onto the Internet digitally, I hope. It's not as easy as people think you know? It cracks me up because the new boss is the same as the old boss. You still have to do a lot of things to get onto iTtunes. So my concept was originally that the people who really wanted to collect my records, would, and then there are no more when they're gone. I may do a compilation three or four down…the best of each one but I'm not that far along yet. But I like the way that the people who want it, can get it, and then maybe it makes its way to digital. It keeps me making music. I can do another record if I want to and the way I want to. With this one, I was wondering, "Is this just your lack of commitment to making records?" I know it sounds like demos, but sometimes you just have a nice bottle of wine and you come up with a nice riff and that sounds cool. But if you try and beat it into a real song, with little finger quotes around it…I don't know….first of all, I don't care to do that in the first place and you don't have to sit through it all just to get a little sliver of something. With this one, it's a bit more lyrically oriented than the last one. The last one had quite a few instrumentals on it. Which is also good for me. I like to do that quite a lot. And some people like to put you in a box and I've been in a box for a long, long time which is obviously what I do. But I do a lot of other stuff and enjoy doing it. But hopefully it'll be out on the 31st and hopefully the UPS truck will come and find me in the desert. I'm always amazed when the truck pulls up because it's 15 miles on dirt road to come out here. So UPS should really be commended because they really do come out here (laughs). So then when I get them, I'll send them to CD Baby and work on my little notes and I think they'll be fine. I'd really like to do an acoustic tour by myself at the end of the year. I want to do an acoustic record also. I have a label in mind which is an actual label. I really hope that works out. But it's really different than the '80s and '90s where you said "I'm going to get a deal and this or that." I was just in back LA seeing people I haven't seen in almost 15 years and it seems like everybody has just mellowed out a lot and they're kind of just like "whatever". The deal isn't even as important. That happens every day. It's like "is everybody doing everything they want to do?" "Is everybody making the music they want to make?" "Is everybody living the life they want to live?" I want to back into this whole thing. I want to do an acoustic tour. To do that, I have to have some kind of label support. I'd also like to do an acoustic album. I've had that in mind for many, many years. I knew when the band wound down, that would be something to do. And I always just wanted to do one. It was just never the time to do one and I feel that now is the time. So I have a couple of things on the way this year. One of them is kind of an underground kind of thing. The other thing will probably be with an indie label but more or less, have a bit more juice. It would be nice to go on tour with some support, you know? So hopefully it'll all fit together in some kind of organic beast. (laughs)

antiMUSIC: Do you have a lot of the acoustic record already under way?

Johnette: I wrote a lot of the stuff here. The "Sketchbook" stuff I record here at home. The movie stuff I do here at home. This record, since the Peru thing got scrapped, I went to LA and rehearsed with my drummer Gabriel and it just all sounded so good. So I'm going to go in and do three tracks. I want Gabriel on drums and better microphones and just a good space. I want somebody else there to do the gear. When you do stuff yourself…and I've got my ProTools here and I've got my stuff here and I tend to do that for quite a bit of stuff. But for this, I really want to focus and I really want to do these three songs. I really LIKE the label that I hope to work for and I want to live up to their faith in me, basically. I'm really going to put a lot of effort into this. I have quite a lot of it. I actually wanted to re-work some older songs in an acoustic format. I do acoustic shows and do some songs and people really seem to like them and like to hear songs that they know in the acoustic format. So I'll just see. I don't mind at this point…having some objectivity about it and I trust who I'm working for…which is a rarity. So I would really like to see if they like it. I'm really happy about it. And I'm working with some English people too. I've been back and forth all night actually with them. Logistically how to do that…. A friend of mine who I've known for years is in a band that is very successful in England, sent me three tracks that were just so good. And I was just going through hell that week trying to find people and ran up my phone bill calling Texas, Florida and everywhere. And his stuff was really the only stuff that embodied the way I was feeling. So that turned out to be an album but the music is rather produced so logistically as far as how to do it live, we have no clue. But we're not going to think about that now, we're just going to finish the record. I just lined up 13 tracks and after Peru, I'm going to be on full-on writing mode and probably get over to England for a couple of days and finish my vocals over there. So there's a lot of music going on. It's nice. It's good. It's like being married for many, many years and then dating. (laughs) I have no idea of what I'm talking about but I think it might be what it's like (laughs). I like it because I just don't feel like, you know…it's not the '80s anymore where everybody has to have a plan and you have to have a year-long schedule where "OK we're putting out the record now and we have to go to Europe for six weeks and then come back…" and before you know it, your year is pretty well planned out. And to a great extent you really DID need to do that, to do it right but if you miss three months in press time, you're screwed so everything's just got to be coordinated properly, more or less. But I'm at the age where….and a lot of s*** has gone down in the last few years and I just don't want to waste any time. I want to do as much music as I can and that's what it's all about basically. Luckily, I'm all set out in my little cabin out here. I love it and I'm a pretty low maintenance kind of chick. So I can pretty much lock up and go do what I want. I can afford to take chances with my music and that's what I've worked for many years to be able to do.

antiMUSIC: The Sketchbook material. Are they all new or are some of them older ideas?

Johnette: They're all new. I like it. It's real cool stuff. 

antiMUSIC: What can you tell us about a couple of the songs, like La Chanson Noire?

Johnette: That was a really bad moment. The thing about my music has always been is that if I'm happy…and I am a really pretty happy person, despite some of the material that I've put out, believe it or not. People will call me to do that. Movie people will call and I get all this stuff for like the darkest material. Like "Suicide Note"…the most depressing stuff. But what I play in music….music is always what I turn to when I have moments that are not so great. And in my life maybe that's maybe 20% of it but that's definitely not who I am. But when you put that out, that becomes who you are. But I've got to say something about that. I'm real proud of that because that was a real heavy thing to do. And one of the things I like is that I don't have to answer to anybody. I don't have to qualify to be put on the radio. I don't have to watch my language. I don't have to do anything on these records. On the Sketchbook records. And so, I really wanted to scare myself. I think the thing I've been most pissed off at myself about is that I really have lacked courage in my work. I really feel like I have. I feel that I haven't even been close to what I can tell or what I can say. But there's been some real legitimate reasons for that. As long as my parents are alive, there's a lot of things that I won't talk about out of respect for my family. So some of these things might never come out and that's fine. So there's things…. With that song, in particular, that track was just intense and I just really, really needed to f***ing express that. Or it wouldn't be gone. I can't boil on these things any more. And it's amazing how therapeutic it is, by the way. So I got that out and it's gone. It's funny because a friend of ours was going through the same similar little moment that I was at the time and hearing her talk about it was…. She didn't know that I was going through something very similar so actually I wrote it about both of us in mind but she was inspiring to me otherwise I would never have had the balls to release it myself. It was something that I just needed to do. It was quite amazing.

antiMUSIC: Long Black Car

Johnette: I love that. That's good. There's a kid around here that drives a hearse and I've got to get him to…well, I've got a hold of him but he's a goth kid so he doesn't get up until like noon (laughs). And I'm old. I'm in bed by like 10 or 11 (laughs). So I'm trying to figure out how to shoot it for my next little movie. But he won't take it like 5 miles from his house. And it's hard to shoot in the day time. He works for the only theatre around here so he works nights and I just said, "Dude. You're just going to have to take a nap or something because I've just got to get it done" (laughs) But this is a real new passion for me, doing these movies. I'm really liking making these two minute movies for the computer….because that's all the attention span I have anyway (laughs). So I'm in the parking lot and a Dusenburgh cruises by. It's like a two million dollar car. I thin k there's three in the country or something. So now I'm writing story about his silent movie star mother who was Al Capone's girlfriend who gave her the car…..I mean please…it just doesn't stop (laughs). Who needs drugs? (laughs)

antiMUSIC: It's nice to have these visuals nearby.

Johnette: Well, I'll tell you…this a strange place here out here. You don't know. The desert is a strange place. It really gives it up. There's definitely something going on. Because you know I couldn't believe it when I saw the Dusenburgh drive by in the parking lot. It was like "What the hell is that?" I mean it was built to be bullet proof. It was built for Al Capone. So I'm going to lunch with the owner tomorrow and I'm going to get the whole history of it.

antiMUSIC: You have such a body of work and yet the songs keep coming. I take it that writing is a very easy process for you? Or at least the ideas are from a renewable source?

Johnette: Well, it's something I can't stop. I drive people nuts because I don't listen to music much. The only music I listen to is flamenco because I'm a student and have been for years. I don't listen to music much because I want to hear my head. And I'm really a slave to it. 

I mean I remember a couple of years ago, somebody wrote into Dear Abby and said, "I have all this music in my head and I can't stop it. I don't know what to do. I've been to a psychiatrist and I don't know what to do." And Abby writes her back…I've had this on my refrigerator for the longest time…she writes back and says that it's a disease or something and I'm thinking "Oh My God, it's not a disease…it's a gift, you know?" I mean, I couldn't stop it if I wanted to. I already have a lot of instrumentals for a lot of things. I think that's why the Sketchbook thing is so good for me because I like the fact that it keeps coming, but I also do believe in the discipline of self-editing. But it's hard to be objective about your own work. And so a lot of stuff I sit on, maybe shouldn't be released. And that's why I like the Sketchbook stuff. It's like "I know it was white trash but it was fun. And it sounds cool." I mean, with "Long Black Car" the drums got f***ed up in the beginning but I didn't want to do it again. I listened to it a million times and wondered if I should do it again. No. It sounds like a van starting up. It sounds cool. It takes many years…it's very difficult to get into the position where you can be objective about things like that. So there's different venues for different things, different music. But Danny and I did that thing for "Wicker Park" the soundtrack, and the director had asked us to cover "The Scientist" the Coldplay song, which is a great song. I had never heard it before. And we were doing it and it was great but Danny turned and said, "You know, I'd really rather hear you sing your own stuff." And I knew what he meant. And that's what most people want to hear. So as far as being the anonymous songwriter, I don't know if I'll ever manage to be that, you know?

antiMUSIC: Your songs are so full of imagery. "The Sky is a Poisonous Garden Tonight" and "The Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man" just paint such a great, vivid picture. Do you strive to write things that are less than ordinary or is that just the way the ideas pop out?

Johnette: Well, "Ghost" was a true story. That really happened. There's no way I could have made that up. Life gives you all kinds of stuff if you go out and live it. I don't think you could do that in a rarified atmosphere. I don't think somebody like Jessica Simpson could walk somewhere unnoticed. And I think as a writer…if Tom Waits is sitting in a corner of a bar with his back to a wall, listening to a conversation and writing something down, he doesn't really disturb the equilibrium of the room. But if you become larger than life, you start to become that you're the story and you're not the fly on the wall. I really like to be that fly on the wall. I like to travel alone. I like to be unnoticed. I like to listen to people's conversations. I like to participate in daily life. And that's where the real stories come from. I mean, there's some stuff that I couldn't possibly make up. So as long as I'm true to that and I get it down the way I see it… One of the biggest shocks of my life was when "Bloodletting" came out and I just didn't think it was any good. I just thought, "OK nobody is going to relate to this. Nobody but me." And it was just the most amazing thing to find that it was such a universal thing. People just really understood that record for some reason. It was a real revelation to me to discover that the closer you get to your own truth, the more universal it becomes. And I haven't been afraid to be honest since then. But I have a long way to go with courage…but I'm getting there. 

antiMUSIC: What's the current status with Concrete Blonde?

Johnette: We're done. We're attached to a movie that if it shoots, we'll do something for it. We're done as a touring band, definitely. It's just too much. It's more expensive than it ever was. And I just think we've done it for a long, long time. Jim lives not very far from me, actually and I see him a lot. We get along really great and that's what's great. And we just look at each other and go, "What? Do we even want to even rehearse these things again?" Jim's hearing has been bothering him for quite a while. And it's kind of like "Nah. We don't really need to." If we really feel like it, we'll do something. But we don't. So as long we don't….I've known Jim Mankey for almost 25 years. I'd rather us be friends than try to keep the band happening and be bored with it and not really want to do it. It's a management situation constantly as a matter of fact. I went to subscribe to Soundscape today because our manager really screwed us and we don't get paid anything. So every once in awhile I go "Ahhhh, I should check this or that." But it's just so expensive to just chase whatever it is that people owe us. And there's just so much karma. I mean Harry will get out of jail again and hire some lawyer and she goes yelling about something from three years ago. I mean, we don't have anything. Go back to jail…whatever. He gets out of jail every five years and says, "You must owe me some money." And it's like, "No dude, we don't. You go ahead and try and find the money owed and whatever." And Jim and I will call up and say this and that happened, maybe we should go chase down this money. And we'll just get so bummed out even talking about it. You know what? It's just not worth it. When it becomes that much of a burden, which it really is, it's just not worth it. It isn't worth the friendship. I'd rather just call Jim with a good joke or something. Rather than "Ahh we have to go sue somebody today". And that costs money and at some point you just have to go, "Move on." 

antiMUSIC: It's just so sad that all that crap cuts out all the creativity of the band and all the spirit that helped start it?

Johnette: Well, actually you know it doesn't because we do other things. I'm doing a show out here. Jim is now my projection tech. He's really into the video thing. I'm doing this show on April Fool's Day out here in the desert at the Integratron which is an amazing landmark built in the '50s. It's a really big story involving Nikolas Tesla and a lot of science and FBI and conspiracy stuff. So Jim is really excited because he's going to set up the projector from my computer to show my short film. So we collaborate in other ways. And it doesn't kill the spirit because it just comes out in other things. And we don't have anything to prove any more. We went through some really bad stuff in the early days. We went through court for a year with the bankruptcy thing. And we were told then to walk away. But it wasn't the right thing to do. That would have meant that the business killed the band. I wouldn't want that to happen. And we spent a year fighting back from that. And I think we're more of a creative unit or production unit right now, than a rock band. So I can't see us ever being apart in a sense that we would never have any ideas to exchange. It's just not in the musical realm. More important than anything else, I know everything Jim knows and Jim knows everything I know. And at this point, our musical taste is vastly different. He'll be listening to The Strokes or whatever. And I don't care. I've heard every pop or rock band on the planet and there's really nothing new to me out there. He'll come around and play me something and I'm like "just make it stop." 

Really and truly, more than anything else in my life - and my family and friends can attest to this - much to their frustration and endless agony, music is the most important thing in my life. And so know matter what, I've alienated people and I've sacrificed a great deal for music. And if the band is one of those things, then so be it. As a matter of fact, I wanted Jim to play bass on a couple of the acoustic things I'm doing because he is one of my favorite bass players. But as far as the format we had, we don't want to do it anymore.

antiMUSIC: What do you remember most of the "Bloodletting" period?

Johnette: It was a blur. I mean, it just sped through because we were right in the middle of it. I mean we were together for 10 years before we even got signed so by the time it happened we had been at it for a long, long time. By the time it took off, I was tried on every possible level. And I regret that I didn't enjoy it more. I should have had a really good time and should have jumped on it and kept going. But I was so exhausted emotionally…really broken at the core when that happened and it was just overwhelming. You're never prepared for it when it happens. You have no idea how overwhelming it is. And what negative things that come with it and the people… (laughs). And trust issues happen and then of course, everybody in the world will try to rip you off. So it's a real eye opener, I'll tell you. It doesn't bring out the best in people. And of course, youth being wasted on the young….I'm a healthier person now…a little more balanced now but also having taken the time to travel and further my education a little and getting back into some art. I really had serious tunnel vision for many, many years with the band and it paid off for sure. But I couldn't have lived that way for very long. It's not really rocket science you know? (laughs) I really felt like my growth was being stunted emotionally and intellectually….and it was. So I had no doubt that I wanted to get out and get away from that world for a little while. You have to have something to say and if you're living in a vacuum all the time, living in hotels and dressing rooms and doing gigs, I don't think that really makes you a very interesting person after a few years of doing that, you know?
 

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