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His Imperfect World

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

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, 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, 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 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.

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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,” Johnston says good-naturedly during an interview in a Santa Monica restaurant before a performance at the Ash Grove.

“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.

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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,” 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. . . .”

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Johnston, a Kansas native who has lived for about a third of his 36 years in the New York area, 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, 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. His eyes search for reactions with such intensity that they seem as if they are attached to you like Velcro. Clearly, the complexities in this man’s life aren’t limited to fictional characters.

“I’m not an autobiographical writer,” 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 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.

“This Perfect World,” for instance, reminds you of the balance of beauty and disorder underlying David Lynch’s landmark film “Blue Velvet.” As in “Western Sky,” the melody is sweet and soothing, but the story is dark and unsettling.

In the song, a father returns to console the daughter he left behind after her mother’s suicide. The drama is compounded by questions of guilt, including whether the father feels responsible for the mother’s action and how much the daughter blames him.

The key to the song, however, isn’t the death of the mother, but the separation between the father and daughter.

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In many reviews, a line is drawn between the sense of isolation in Johnston’s songs and the fact that he grew up in small towns in western Kansas. But there are lots of people from small towns whose songs don’t remind you of “Blue Velvet.” The more likely reason for much of the emotional tone is that he came from a broken home.

Not that Johnston likes to talk about his personal life, be it his childhood or adult relationships. He tries to keep the focus on music rather than his personal life. He’s not even prone to expound at length when it comes to such neutral matters as favorite authors (though he does mention Martin Amis, Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce as ones he thinks any writer should read) or television (“I’m pretty much a nerd when it comes to that. . . . Mostly watch the History Channel”).

But there are moments in the interview when you feel his history and his songs intersecting.

“I don’t feel like I want to write specific songs about my father or my mother,” he says of the impact of his childhood on his songs. “It just doesn’t seem the thing to do. Maybe I’ll do it when I’m older. . . . I’m not trying to be dishonest or anything. I just don’t want to talk about it. I think I’d be embarrassed to get out there and bare my soul in the words. I don’t want to sound like a whiner.

“As it is, some of the emotions come through in the songs I write. ‘This Perfect World’ is not the story of my life, but I understand the emotions involved. I know what it is like to leave someone or to feel abandoned.”

Born in Larned, Kan., 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. Even though you had to be 65 to live in the grandparents’ community, they defied the rules and took in Johnston and his younger brother for two years. Johnston was 10 at the time and he remembers it odd hanging around with senior citizens, but he now values what he calls a rare period of stability in his life.

By his teens, 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 Elvis Costello was the lightning bolt who made him want to play guitar and write songs. Close behind as influences were Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

After high school, 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.

In hopes of a record career, 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 Johnston as “modest in everything but his perfectionism.” The attention won Johnston a contract with Elektra Records, and his major-label debut, “This Perfect World,” won more raves--as has “Never Home.”

Johnston appreciates the critical support, but he’s uneasy when writers draw too close a parallel between the melancholy in his songs and his own feelings. So, he delights in deflecting the interview to lighter areas.

Asked what’s the biggest difference between himself and the Freedy Johnston pictured in interviews, he pauses for dramatic effect, then says: “Well, I’m certainly taller!”

Five-foot-eight?

“Five-nine,” he responds, with mock indignation. “Maybe even 5-9 1/2 on a good day.”

These seem to be good days for Johnston.

The audience at the Ash Grove is enthusiastic, both for the lilting “Bad Reputation,” the closest he has come to a hit single, and the more absorbing songs, such as “The Mortician’s Daughter.” Through it all, Johnston balances the darker elements in his songs with playful asides to the crowd.

As he plays for nearly two hours, you sense a man who has found in his music and in his public acceptance the comfort and assurance that he sings about in a song such as “Western Sky.”

“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.”

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Hear the Music

* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times’ World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: https://www.latimes.com/soundclips


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