Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde
This is the raw, pre-edited, conversation / interview.
Another part of the process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.
[Okay - the only disclaimer I'm going to make here is that I never actually transcribed the whole interview for the article I was writing. We chatted a LOT during the our phone conversation, and if I had typed everything that was said, this transcription would have easily been twice as long and half as interesting to read. Trust me, the stuff that I left out was about as relevant to anything as discussing the weather.]
The last time I saw you was at First Avenue a few years ago; you were performing with only an acoustic guitar, opening for Paul Weller.
I'll never forget, the first show I did, in Detroit, and his father is his manager, John Weller, and I was so fucking nervous, and I came off the stage, and he was like (in a husky British accent), "You did good, luv!" He was so sweet.
The new album is full of subtle but weighty double entendres, for instance, "a brick in the wall and a washing machine", not to mention the album's title.
I don't really sit and think about those things at all, they just come out. It's actually pretty lazy on my part [laughing], because you already know what it means, so I don't need to explain it. I guess that's the product of being the age I am, the baby boomer, it's like when I refer to "Maggie Mae", we all know what that meant, because the song was about somebody older but beautiful. I don't think too much about anything when I write it, it just has to work. It either works or it doesn't, and that's apparent right away. Writing…it's channeling. I don't really write, I still don't know how it happens. Sometimes I have a bottle of wine, and sit down and write, and won't remember what the hell I did, and then the next day I'll go, Wow! That's something else, who did that?, you know? I don't really stand back and look at these things until they're done. The title [Group Therapy] is a funny title, but it is absolutely true. We all see shrinks [laughing].
Could that also be a play on how getting the band back together helped you through some difficult situations you were dealing with in your personal life?
This was…music being a healing thing. We were all going through some pretty serious personal shit, when we got back together. None of us knew it at the time, but eventually we figured out that we had all been suffering our own particular individual crises. Getting back together and playing music definitely helped us all."
A lyric that really jumps out is "every nerve and every cell", from "Violent". Given the nation's recent turn of events, it's almost a bit uncanny.
That's an understatement. If I told you the shit that I was going through... I was having nightmares about bombs… women and children running from buildings… it was just mind-blowing. I was so paralyzed with absolute terror and fear, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't do anything.
We made the record—started in June, wrote it in June and July, recorded it in August—in ten days, and then the shit hit the fan in September. When I saw that, I went, oh, so that's what that was all about! There are many people that had foreseen and felt something was going to happen. There's a website in the UK, at the British Psychic site, where there's postings, that say, "I see a plane hitting a tower"… I believe in all that stuff, very strongly, it's a big part of my life. The only problem with that is, what do you do with it?
Destiny is destiny, and there's nothing you can do, but I believe that there is a collective consciousness matrix, and the spike was so intense, that apparently there were a lot of people that felt it beforehand. I didn't know what was happening to me. I had never experienced anything like this before, and I was absolutely terrified.
[ - - here we kind of drifted off into several tangents about life and death, and the conversation got a bit off-track for a while, but we veered back towards talking about how one's art can be considered a testament to one's life, and the world as it existed during that time - - ]
…and that's where the record came from. There was very much a mortality issue. If something happens to me, what was the last thing that I did? Are people gonna know me? Have I made my statement? Have I left my mark? Small and insignificant as it is, in the great scheme of things, have I left my mark on the world, the way I want to be understood? Am I known the way I want to be known?
Lyrics like "True, pt. III", that's a very strong statement: look, after I'm gone, here's who I am, here's who I was, you remember me this way. Very few of us have the luxury of foresight, and don't really get to do that.
Many of your lyrics have often delved into the darker aspects of human existence...
Well, when I'm happy, I don't need to write, to express that. When I'm happy, I'm gardening, or playing with the dogs, or painting, or practicing flamenco, but it seems that's when I need music, to deal with those feelings, 'cause that's where it comes from.
Do you think that in our rock culture, things like optimism and resolution can only be afforded through tragedy?
Well you can't have the yin without the yang.
I heard that you sent a copy of the new single, "Roxy", to Paul Thompson of Roxy Music, the band who inspired you to write that song.
I actually liked the record that isn't considered the real band, strangely enough. Siren is just an incredible record."
"Tonight" also has sort of a Roxy feel, in terms of the arrangement, and the production.
Jim thought that was more like The Clash, or The Police, because of the bass line, and the reggae sort of thing. It's got that sound, that's called deep space chatter.
I got the impression that seeing Roxy Music reunite this past year was, in part, a catalyst for getting back together with Concrete Blonde.
Well, it was inspiring, because Paul had sworn up and down that they would never get back together. Here are people who, a couple generations later, would think that they'd never have a chance to see that in their lives, and life is only so long, and it's just a beautiful thing, that you would never in your life think that you could ever see Roxy Music, and then there they were. I just thought it was cool. Eno kind of sluffed it off, and said it had a really bad taste, and it was about money, and everything, and so, what's wrong with that? People were very happy. The reunion made a lot of people happy, and it reminded you how good shit can be. We do need reminding once in a while.
Mediocrity reigns supreme, always. I don't have the problems with other artists that people have. I mean, let Britney Spears have her good time—she's a kid, for God's sake. Let her do her little dancing and and singing and all that stuff. Different people have different tastes, and there's enough to go around for everybody, but there is a mediocrity, for sure, and it seems that when something really comes out that's really the real thing, and blows everything else out of the water, you just go, oh, so THIS is human potential!, and you're inspired by that. I'm inspired by that—whether it's a book, whether it's art, or music—it's always art, because that's really the beauty of being human. It's not that you can trade stocks, it's that you can create something beautiful out of nothing. That's what art is, it's really the finest we can do as humans, and it's what makes us special. I'm inspired when I see good work, special work, unique work, unique expressions, that's pure – I'm very inspired by that, and it doesn't come along that often. So for somebody like Roxy Music – you know what the amazing thing about that is, is the timelessness. That really says something to me – the timeless quality, something that is intangible.
[ - - we chatted a bit about the idea that so many people are prone to psycho-analyze any lull in between new surges of creative brilliance - - ]
That's SO boring! I hate it when people talk like that, because the fact is, things don't really change that much – you do. Even somebody who will look back and say, high school were the best years of my life, I mean, how sad is that? I'm constantly inspired by (the) future, and what it can bring, and what I can do with it. It depends on what you're hung up on. If you're hung up on adulation, and achieving a certain level of commercial success, then you're going to need to sustain that level to be satisfied. That's a very difficult thing to do, it has nothing to do with creativity at all. You'll go through different periods of creativity in your life, and that's natural. You're gonna go through different phases in your life, and hopefully, be in touch enough with yourself, that you'll express who you are at any given time, and be true to it, and trust it, and not feel like we have to look back at who we were, 'cause we're not who we were – hopefully! You're changing and growing as a human being, and so, any statement that you make artistically has to reflect who you are, at that point in time, and you have to trust that. You have to trust who you are, and examine it. Life deserves examination. You should sit back every new year and go, gee, did I fuck up and waste that year, or did I accomplish some things that I really wanted to accomplish? You should take stock, and I'm really big on that. I take stock a lot. I sit and go, well, am I cool? Did I do something good? Have I come a distance from this time last year? A person should do that with their life, in order to live it well.
Is it difficult for you, as a songwriter, to dig that deeply into yourself, and your psyche, and pull out all of these emotional experiences, and be able to find the strength to present them to your audience as art, for the sake of entertainment?
It's the hardest thing. It's absolutely… harrowing. [laughs] It's very scary, but I don't believe that it deserves anything less than honesty and truth, and it takes a certain amount of courage to do that. Lay it on the fucking line – you have to be absolutely honest and truthful, in your work. And, yes, that is scary – it's very scary. There's always a part of you that goes, Jesus Christ, what are people gonna think?, but you have to let that go, you can't edit yourself, you can't filter yourself, you have to be absolutely, brutally honest, and face yourself – face it! – and yeah, it's really hard. In the writing stage, there's nothing else around me. It's all about the work at the time. I'm in there, over my head, jump in with both feet, and all those clichés, but I'm absolutely – my soul belongs to what I'm doing, and what I'm saying, and getting it out. Giving birth to that is definitely my whole existence, when I'm in the writing stage.
For this record, it was really intense, because it was so fast. So it was basically, okay, let it come through! Recording was ten days, so I was working on lyrics up until the last day, as we went along, and trying to see where the record was going, what was taking shape, in order to deliver the statement, whatever it was. I was really trying to make a cohesive piece of work, trying to make it all fit together. Yeah, it was really hard! [laughing]
Still, it must have been somewhat refreshing to run through the process of making a new record in such a short time, rather than deliberating over it for months.
Oh, it was, and it was very much intentionally that way. We could have taken a month or two, but I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to get into a comfort zone. I wanted to be on the edge; I like to work that way. It makes it pretty grueling and pretty intense for people you're working with—engineers, and the band—and it is really hard, but I like that. I like it, it's almost as if somebody's holding a knife to your throat, and you've got to fucking do it, rather than being comfortable, and going, gee, I'll do it when I want. I don't want that – I want to be forced. I want to lay my own ass on the line, and have to deliver. If you don't get it in one or two takes, well, you suck, anyway [laughing]. There was definitely an awareness that, it's not perfect, but… it's living. The spirit is there. Never mind that this note isn't perfect, or that isn't perfect, but the spirit is there, and that's the essence of what it is. Recording is capturing a performance, and the performance is what it's all about.
There was one song, "Memory" the last song on the record, that was very difficult to do, because it HAD to be done in one take. It had to sound to me, like you're in a New York nightclub, at three in the morning. To do that, it had to be done in one take. The second one wasn't gonna be any good, because the spirit wouldn't be there, so it was the kind of thing where we could only do it once a day. If we didn't do it that day, we had to wait 'til the next day, because it would be stale. It was very difficult, no because it was difficult to play, but everything about that track depended on the mood and the feel, and you could only have that once.
It does have a very urgent sound to it.
It was live, that went down live. There is a spontaneity, but it has to work within this framework.
It's a lot harder to do that than to sit and polish things to perfection for three months.
It's a beautiful closing number for the album, by the way. It also sounds as though it could be a summation of the band's career up to this point.
Yeah – it was, once again, that, let's be conscious of the moment in time, live for the moment, you know? Here we are, we're alive, and we're making memories and melodies, and that's something to celebrate in the end. At the end of the record, that is something to celebrate.
Yeah, let's just enjoy, 'cause you don't know what else you have, and never mind all the other stuff, you know?
[ - - Here our conversation gets a bit busy again, but basically, we talk about the song "Fried", and I explain cognitive miser theory in trying to establish a correlation relation to the lyric "my surge protection failed" - - ]
It sure did – everything sort of exploded . . . filtering, where you have to choose what your input is, because you can't possibly handle it all.
I understand you reside in Mexico part of the year; do you feel there is a major difference in the way other cultures regarded artists, compared to the way they are viewed in America?
Absolutely. No question about it. I don't think in this country, anybody sits around the Thanksgiving table, and encourages their kids to grow up to be artists. The cliché is they want you to be a doctor or a lawyer, and they want you to be successful. In America, the idea of being successful is making a lot of money, and artists don't make a lot of money—it's rare if you do—but the culture is just not geared to doing something for its' own sake, for the love of doing it. There's a huge difference. It's a young country we live in. there is an appreciation of art, of course, but I don't really think it's the first thing people want their kids to grow up to be. You want your kids to be successful, or whatever. Artists generally have a reputation of not contributing to society, and nothing could be further from the truth. I've been to Morocco, and of course in Mexico, where every kid dances and sings, music is so engrained in every other aspect of life. It's just a natural part of life. It's just as natural as learning to drive.
I've gained quite a lot of respect in other places, especially as an American, because… I don't want to generalize, but I have been around a little bit, and I know we're perceived as a bunch of greedy capitalists. Even our President calls us consumers, he doesn't even call us human beings. That is what we are perceived to be, as consumers, so when somebody is actually singing for a living, and writing for a living, it is respected in other cultures, and other countries that are older, with generally, fine traditions of these things. Some of the greatest satisfaction that I've had in my career is playing music for people who don't even necessarily speak my language, and I don't speak theirs. It's just something that's very universal about music, and about the truth of emotion. It definitely touches people, and I'm grateful for that.
[ - - We talk about her conceptual art, master potter Juan Casada[sic?], Baja, album cover for Steve Wynn, and the symbolism of crosses]
"Your Llorano" marks a brief return to the Spanish motifs incorporated into your work on the Mexican Moon album, as well as with Los Illegals.
That influence is always gonna be there, because I'm a Californian. I was born in Los Angeles, and that's part of my culture too. "Llorana" is an old Mexican legend. Depending on what region of Mexico, Llorano was a woman whose husband left her, or she had an affair with a nobleman, who was in a different class than her, she had two kids, and when he wouldn't marry her, she drowned the two kids in the river, and it's rumored the ghost of Llorana – the weeping woman – wanders the rivers at night, looking for her lost children. I've always been intrigued by this legend, and so, I just put her in the here and now.
I'm singing flamenco now, and it's amazing. My teachers are mind-blowing, and I'm singing a piece with them to open the show. It's called The Tientos, a very old form of flamenco, basically a gypsy prison lament. It's very challenging to sing. Not only is it not in English, but it's more like an opera, almost, where there are different movements, different rhythms, it's a real challenge, and I'm thrilled to be doing it. It just kicked my musical sensibilities from 0 to 60. The accents are on 12 and 3 and 6 and 8 instead of 4/4. If you get your head around that shit, it's just mind-blowing. I'm trying to plan a trip to Spain, to see some gypsy flamenco, and some bull-fighting, and get deeper and deeper into that. I've always been fascinated with flamenco – it just speaks to me. The gypsy tradition, how Spain claimed that it was the greatest Spanish art, but in fact it's gypsy art, when in fact, there are Moorish influences, and now there are trends in flamenco that are incorporating the Eastern influences, and the fusion… there's very much an Eastern influence in flamenco now, and the roots of it of course are Eastern, Northern African, Gypsy, from India – the original gypsy territory – I'm absolutely fascinated with it, the history of it, the history of the people.
You know, there were more gypsies killed in the concentration camps than Jews. They've always been an oppressed people, and it's very much an oral tradition, where these stories are passed down musically. It's absolutely fucking fascinating to me, and you see these families, in Spain, from the little kid on up to the grandmother, they'll be dancing and singing, and it's just what they do, it's who they are, and it just blows my mind. I'll see somebody like that, that just kicks my ass, and then go, geez, I'm playing a bar chord, and I'm getting paid more than these people [embarrassed laughter], who are REALLY something, you know? So, I absolutely admire the art form, and I always have. It just speaks to me, and just rips tears out of my eyes. It's just absolutely gorgeous. I really, really, like flamenco a lot.
Tell me specifically about The Tientos...
The dancer is everything, and the guitarist has to watch her. When she speeds up or slows down, when the dancer calls in the singer… so you have to watch for cues… there's hearing and watching involved, it's just amazing. It's very intricate. When you see it, you go, oh, they're just throwing chops, but there's actually a lot that goes into it, and everything has a reason for happening – every gesture. There's this one gesture in dance… The original territory in Spain, where flamenco originated… it's a fishing village, and there are certain gestures in dance that are actually based on, say, pulling a net out of the ocean – you know... everything means something, and the deeper I get into it, it seems like it's bottomless, you know?
[ - - Okay, now we chit-chat a bit about live recording, we talk about Holly Beth Vincent, and the Vowel Movement album, and eventually come back around to discussing what in currently in the works - - ]
I'm probably about seven tracks deep into a solo thing that's pretty eclectic, that is different. I'm not interested in repeating myself, really. I'd love to do some serious flamenco mixes, and incorporate some of that, but the stuff that I'm doing, there's some sampling, there's some things involved that I've never done before. I'm terrified of repeating myself.
[ - - We talk a bit about talk about the U2, and the current situation in Dublin… which leads us back around to the political ramifications of the song "Violent" - - ]
The reaction to the song is very favorable, people really like it. It's…eerie, you know, when you consider when we did it, in August. I'm not gonna censor myself. You can play something for three different people, and they'll react to it and hear three different things in it. So I'm not gonna censor myself, ever. What comes through is so strong, that I can't censor myself. It's almost like it's my duty to report it as I get it, and it is that clear. A song will come to me that clearly and that strong, and it's my duty to deliver it the way it's given to me, so, I trust that. There's a reason that things happen in time, but I'm not gonna over-think... I hope people like my work, and I hope people are satisfied, and get what they come for, but I'm not a slave to it. If it comes down to taking a poll, as to what I should do, it would never happen. I personally look for an artist to inspire me and show me something, and show me the way, I don't think it's the other way around.
© J. Free; 2002