A gifted songwriter whose lyrics paint sometimes witty, often poignant portraits of characters often unaware of how their lives have gone wrong, Freedy Johnston seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the early ‘90s and quickly established himself as one of the most acclaimed new singer/songwriters of the day.
Johnston was born in 1961 in Kinsley, Kansas, a small town with the odd distinction of being equidistant between New York City and San Francisco. Growing up, Johnston developed a strong interest in music, but living in a city without a music store or a record shop, doing something about it took some effort. When he was 16, Johnston bought his first guitar by mail order, and a year later, a friend drove him 35 miles to the nearest record store so he could buy an album he’d read about - My Aim is True by Elvis Costello.
After high school, Johnston enrolled at the University of Kansas in Lawrence; while his academic career didn’t last very long (less than one year), Johnston wasted no time immersing himself in the city’s new wave scene and became a passionate fan of local legends the Embarrassment. Johnston also began listening to everything from Neil Young to XTC and developed a taste for country music. After several years of working in restaurants and writing songs on a four-track recorder in the evening, Johnston pulled up stakes in 1985 and moved to New York City. (A collection of Johnston’s early four-track recordings was released in 2004 under the title The Way I Were.)
After several years of making the rounds, Johnston’s work caught the attention of Bar/None Records, a respected independent label based in Hoboken, New Jersey. Johnston made his recording debut in 1989 with two tracks on a Bar/None label sampler, Time for a Change, and his first album, the scrappy and genially eccentric The Trouble Tree, followed in 1990. While the album received largely positive reviews and became a minor hit in Holland, sales were poor in the United States, and in order to finance recording of his second album, Johnston was forced to sell some farmland which had been with the Johnston family for generations (an decision Johnston set to music in his song “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know”).
However, the risk paid off as 1992’s Can You Fly earned enthusiastic reviews and was named among the year’s best albums by The New York Times, Billboard, Spin, and Musician Magazine; Robert Christgau in The Village Voice went so far as to call it “a perfect album.” The album also earned a healthy amount of alternative radio airplay, and Can You Fly’s success convinced Elektra Records to sign Johnston. His first set for Elektra, 1994’s This Perfect World, received similarly positive press and spawned a minor hit single in the song “Bad Reputation.” While Johnston’s next three albums for Elektra - Never Home, Blue Days Black Nights, and Right Between the Promises - didn’t fare as well in terms of sales, he maintains a loyal fan following and the respect of critics and peers.
He released The Way I Were: 4-Track Demos 1986-1992 in 2004, followed by Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in 2006. Johnston has also dabbled in film scoring by writing incidental music for the Farrelly Brothers comedy “Kingpin”, and he performs occasionally with the Know-It-All Boyfriends, an informal cover band featuring Butch Vig and Doug Erikson of Garbage.