OK, we’re not actually friends. I’ve never met the man. Never even seen him play. But in the way you sometimes bond with a singer/songwriter, it feels like I’ve been friends with Freedy Johnston, a tremendously underrated musician who’s helped provide the soundtrack to my life for nearly 30 years now.
Johnston’s latest album, Back On The Road To You, just came out, and it’s already added several distinctive earworms to my brain. Freedy’s songs are like that to me – they sneak into your bloodstream, with a poignant chord or a cutting lyric that you find you can’t stop listening to.
Born in Kansas, he’s hardly a household name, and had his biggest brush with mainstream fame with his 1994 album This Perfect World, which is where I first discovered him, too. I was working at Billboard magazine as an intern for the summer, and his disc was one of a pile of albums the editors were passing along once they were reviewed. (It seems weird to think, now, but piles of free CDs were like liquid gold then, and I ended up having boxes of them to ship back after my Billboard stint.) Freedy stood out from the Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish soundalikes. Always, he’s seemed slightly a man apart from his time.
The single “Bad Reputation” was a brief gorgeous outlier in the summer of peak grunge in ’94, and This Perfect World is a melancholy gem of heartbreak and insight, like most of Freedy’s work. He’s not a flashy guy, more in the mold of singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, John Prine or Ray Davies – observational. He’s got a sweet voice with a slightly rough edge, always tinged with just a bit of yearning.
My attachment to Freedy is personal, because so many of his songs felt like they were tailored for my life at the time – or maybe that’s just the universal seeping through his work. In the late 1990s, when I was doing lots of the moving around and unsettled romantic chaos that comes with your late 20s, his albums Can You Fly, Never Home and Perfect World were in constant rotation.
Each song meant something to me. I moved back to California, and listened again and again to the ringing chords of “California Thing” hoping for an optimistic fate – “High off the roof we rise / Flying to a hand up in the sky.” “The Mortician’s Daughter” was about every girl I stuffed up a relationship with and the stolen moments you never forgot – “I used to love the mortician’s daughter / We rolled in the warm grass by the bone yard fence.”
At times, Freedy’s work has gotten a little too dour and melancholy, but for the most part he’s had a remarkably consistent sound over the years. I tend to like the slightly rockier numbers the most, where at times he sounds like he’s about to erupt.
He paints a picture with spare words – “I just told her that’s she’s my number one / And she went ‘maybe’” tells you everything to know about the relationship in “There Goes A Brooklyn Girl.”
At his best, in a song like “He Wasn’t Murdered,” a few short sentences tell a short story – “It was a roadside stop with a broken name / And he sat there all alone / In the used-up mirror he saw his ghost come slowly walking over.”
Freedy Johnston is still plugging away in the trenches of the music business and I’m happy to be a fan. His latest album shows he’s still got it, and it’s got a gentler, optimistic edge that we kind of all need right now – I’m particularly fond of the killer harmonies of “That’s Life,” “The Power Of Love” and “Tryin’ To Move On,” which suits this uncertain time we’re all somehow, getting through.
Anyway, listening to him all of these years, it’s felt like a secret friendship of sorts, which is perhaps the highest goal any creator can have – that their work was meant for your ears alone. His songs have kept me company through the good and the bad.
Like all of us, Freedy’s getting older, and the world is getting weirder, but there’s a comfort to know he’s around, singing songs for his friends. Cheers, mate.
Please enjoy a playlist of bespoke Freedy Johnston tunes curated by yours truly: