When he first moved to New York City from his home state of Kansas, songwriter Freedy Johnston landed a job as a truck driver, delivering Italian ice. But his eyesight is poor, and he's a lousy driver. He quickly perpetrated a series of traffic accidents and was soon fired. "I'm much better off in my new job," he says. "No danger of running someone over with my guitar."
Maybe not, but he could knock you out with his second record, Can You Fly. Released last summer, the indie disc's odd yet catchy tunes enjoy a freshness that may derive in part from Johnston's east-by-midwest sensibility, a certain hybrid of New York growl and Kansas twang. His approach seems simple enough: He wraps country and folk around a core of bass-drums-guitar rock and roll. But he does so in a way that transcends similar efforts by crowds of other singer-songwriter-guitarists. Maybe it's because he doesn't traffic in formulas--or that he's unknown and naive enough to express himself unself-consciously. Or maybe it's the way he fits together melodic, lyrical, and instrumental elements--creating organic blends where nothing seems tacked on or forced.
Themes of longing and reverie drift through most of Johnston's songs, even those that rock hard with crunchy chords and crashing cymbals. A prime example is the album's first single and opening track, "Trying to Tell You I Don't Know." The song is built around a muscular electric guitar riff and gruff vocals, but its edgy chorus is layered with delicate, ethereal harmonies. The construction suggests a cinematic split-screen image: on one half we see him standing on the ground, mired in frustration, yelling lines like "Tryin' to sing what I can't say," while on the other side he's floating into the security of his imagination, singing the harmony, "Tryin', tryin' . . ."
The song also provides a glimpse into Johnston's background and the story of how he came to record Can You Fly. Before moving to New York, Freedy (a nickname his mother spun off from Fred) was living in Lawrence, Kansas, where he'd attended the university for one semester. While working at a succession of dead-end restaurant jobs, he started writing songs, and though he couldn't muster the nerve to play them live for anyone, he taped them at home on a four-track recorder.
He eventually accumulated enough material to fill out a demo tape, which he sent to Bar/None, a small indie label in Hoboken with a keen eye for fresh talent. (The bands they've signed--then lost to the majors--include They Might Be Giants and Yo La Tengo.) In 1990 Bar/None put out a version of Johnston's demo as The Trouble Tree. Nobody really noticed (though oddly enough the record was a hit in the Netherlands), but Johnston continued to write new material. Before long he had enough for a second release but none of the necessary funds. To get that record out, he committed what would become for him a defining act: he sold the farm he'd inherited from his grandfather. The proceeds enabled him to record Can You Fly.
"Well I sold the dirt / To feed the band," he sings in the opening bars of "Trying to Tell You I Don't Know." "Yeah I sold the house / Where I learned to walk." Johnston's anguished yet determined delivery suggests equal measures of guilt and commitment. His sense of purpose seems to copilot his imagination, and the latter presents itself in abundant flights. His songs are full of references to the sky, to clouds and angels. In the record's title track, "Can You Fly," a poor farmer and his "idiot" son witness the plunge of a creature, presumably an angel, from the night sky onto their frozen land.
Written in a minor key and an odd, limping time signature, the song is played on an acoustic guitar backed by an electric bass, overlaid with the reverb of a Telecaster electric. Together these elements conjure the desolate landscape where the tableau unfolds. There are no drums, just occasional knocks from wood blocks and other minimalist percussion instruments. We get the feeling that the farmer is a failed, desperate man, and when he asks the angel if it can fly ("We've all been looking at you / I must know / Is it true?"), we sense that his faith in God and the world rests in the answer.
Although the bleak "Can You Fly" is the title tune, the album's tone is set by "Tearing Down This Place," a winsome mix of sadness and optimism, with hope in the lead. It's about a man's determination to break through the emotional walls surrounding the woman he loves. A bright, acoustic guitar progression opens the song, a tasteful melodic and lyrical confection that's sweet without being sickening. And the hopeful lyrics and melody of the chorus flow into the sad history conveyed by the first verse, set off by a minor chord. Johnston's breathy, raspy, yet dextrous voice helps him paint a variety of aural pictures. Faraway Telecaster melodies waft over acoustic chords and soft, fluid bass lines.
Can You Fly is supposed to be available everywhere, but Tower Records was the only place I could find it. A new Bar/None Johnston EP is due out this spring and will probably be his last on the label. He's currently negotiating a major-label deal.
When Johnston packed Schuba's on two successive nights in December, the shows personalized some of the dreamy mystery of his recorded songs. But even live--amid jokes and patter--the mood remained laced with longing and celestial suggestion, right down to the angel painted on his guitar.
He plays again tonight at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. Popster Tommy Keene ("Love Is a Dangerous Thing") opens. Tickets are $7 and the show starts at 7:30. For more information call 549-0203.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Halpern.