As a boy growing up in the farming community of Kinsley, Kansas, Freedy Johnston was drawn to a sign in the town’s tiny business district. It showed two arrows pointing in opposite directions. One read “New York City.” The other, “San Francisco.” At an early age, Johnston knew two things: He wanted to follow that sign in one direction or another, and he wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll.
Not that Johnston didn’t try following the conventional path to adulthood. He enrolled in college at Kansas University, but dropped out after a semester. He moved back to Kinsley and got a job at a diner. It sat right next to the sign with the two arrows.
If destiny wasn’t calling Johnston, something was.
So he packed up his things and headed east to New York City, pawning his favorite guitar to pay for the trip. He hoped to send money home to buy the guitar back. It sold before he got the cash together.
That there’s a bittersweet irony to this story isn’t lost on Johnston. It shows up again and again in his music. From his rough-and-tumble debut, The Trouble Tree, to his most recent album, the sublime Rain On The City, Johnston returns to themes of loss, tough luck, and bad timing.
Johnston’s songs are often praised for their literary quality – and deservedly so – but they also hit you on a gut level. As a young man, Johnston was drawn to both the raw energy of punk and the austere beauty of Paul McCartney’s vocal melodies. It’s no surprise that Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True is among the first albums that inspired him. One can hear Costello’s gift for meticulous songcraft and wry storytelling on Johnston’s second album, Can You Fly.
When it came out in 1992, Rolling Stone and Spin hailed Can You Fly as a masterpiece. Robert Christgau called it “a perfect album.” Its success led to a major label deal with Elektra, for whom Johnston released “This Perfect World” in 1994. Not only did that album showcase Johnston’s increasing sophistication and range as a songwriter, but it also included his breakthrough hit, “Bad Reputation.”
In the ensuing years, Johnston released three additional albums on Elektra, including 1999′s critically acclaimed Blue Days, Black Nights, produced by T-Bone Burnett. And while he hasn’t replicated the radio success of “Bad Reputation,” critics have continued to praise Johnston’s work effusively, solidifying his reputation as one of the finest and most singular voices in the singer-songwriter genre.
Johnston took a break from songwriting in the ‘00s, releasing the demo collection The Way We Were and the covers album My Favorite Waste of Time. Then, in 2009, he released his first new album in eight years, Rain On The City. Pitchfork, the Los Angeles Times and others praised the album, calling it one of the most assured efforts of Johnson’s career.
Now splitting his time between New York City and Madison, Wis., Johnston is currently writing and recording songs for his next album, tentatively titled Neon Repairman. In an age where the Internet has greatly diminished the power of radio to dictate artistic success, Johnston is poised for perhaps the most exciting stage of his career. At this point, though, it isn’t about destiny. Johnston fulfilled that a long time ago. Now, it’s about joy – both for Johnston and his fans.