Freedy Johnston is afflicted. “But it’s a happy affliction,” Johnston, an indie-rock singer-songwriter, said of his craft. “I have to write songs; it’s like a disease – a good disease to have, but it’s the one thing that really haunts me.”
The musician, compelled by big-city musical dreams while growing up in small-town Kansas, described the writing process in visual metaphors and anecdotes of devotion, never faltering on the fact that the music in his head, those songs waiting to be written and performed, doesn’t stop playing.
“The way I work, the music is calling the shots – it’s not my decision, I’m just in there as the assistant,” Johnston said. “The music already knows what it wants.”
The artist put an end to what he considers a tough era of this particular malady with Rain on the City. The album, released in 2010, was the first to include tracks written by Johnston in eight years.
Johnston channeled his songwriting abilities into a handful of albums before his big-label debut on Elektra with This Perfect World in 1994. The album spawned the single “Bad Reputation,” which rose to 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
He continued to release albums with Elektra until, after 2001’s Right Between the Promises, his songwriting stalled.
Smaller label releases followed: A collection of demo tapes and a live recording, as well as an album of cover songs. The songs – which had worked their way into Johnston’s sets over the years – made for what he considers a curiously upbeat album. The project, the artist jokes, was “my way to make a happy record.” Still, the singer-songwriter tried and failed to make an album of his own work.
“It’s clearly just a hole that happened in my output that I will never repeat again,” Johnston said of the hiatus, a time filled with life changes – a marriage, a divorce, and moves from city to city.
“It really was just a classic odyssey, being lost and not being able to get back home,” Johnston said. “Music was the thing that was really difficult for me, but it was the thing that saved me.”
His return album, Rain on the City, has earned critical acclaim for its subtle, yet powerful and nuanced storytelling – from recounting tales of downtrodden characters that walk a city street in the album’s title track, to delivering the lines of a drifter in “Livin’ Too Close to the Rio Grande.”
Johnston will be playing a solo acoustic show at Jammin’ Java Tuesday in support of Rain on the City, but he has already set his sights on completing his next project. That album, tentatively titled “Neon Repairman,” will be “more of an intimate sounding record,” Johnston said, one focused on the vocals and guitar work, that he anticipates will come out this fall.
He has approached the writing process on the new album with a fervor and diligence learned after being “scared straight” by the years-long process of making his latest album, he said. Now, he sits down to write deliberately and lets the project pick up “its own momentum.”
“So now here I am, putting out another record this year,” Johnston said. “And I’ll put out a record every two years until I can’t make records anymore, and that’s a good feeling.”
• For more information about Freedy Johnston, visit freedyjohnston.com.