Concrete Blonde: Recollection

If you watched Dirty Sexy Money last night and wonder what the song in the final scene was – it was “Everybody Knows” by Concrete Blonde. For the young folks who don’t know, Concrete Blonde was Johnette Napolitano‘s old band. Their sound was called everything from alternative to hard rock to Goth. They remain one of my favourite bands of all time, and I’ve probably listened to their greatest hits collection Recollection more than any other album that I own. If you liked the song in last night’s episode, you’ll love the rest of their music.

Recollection opens with the rock explosion of “God Is A Bullet”, followed by my favourite CB track the AIDs anthem “Tomorrow, Wendy”, then the more radio friendly alcoholic boyfriend “Joey” – which was probably the closest thing to a mainstream hit that the band ever had. The creepy “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” and the wailing “Walking In London” are pretty much Anne Rice novels set to music. Other highlights are the softer “Caroline”, and the screaming rock tracks “Heal It Up” and “Still In Hollywood”.

The disc also includes the band’s aforementioned cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “Everybody Knows” – which was originally featured on the soundtrack to Pump Up The Volume – as well as a live acoustic cover of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedez Bends”.

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Interview: Johnette Napolitano

Johnette Napolitano was gracious enough to answer some of my questions regarding her career as well as her new album, Scarred. You can read my review of the CD here and my email interview with Johnette is below. Please keep in mind that I’m just a music fan like the rest of you and not a professional journalist. 🙂

Tell us more about “Scarred”. The album liner notes gave some glimpses into specific song inspirations, but are there any other back stories that you’d like to share? How did recording a solo album differ from recording with a band? Was there a particular direction or style you were aiming for with this album and if so, did you achieve it?

Johnette: I didn’t have anything specific in mind, the tracks Will and Sultan sent me were just so good the words just came, and the mood of the music dictated the lyrical mood. It wasn’t really different at all from recording with a band. Aside from working with Danny (Lohner) who is the only person I can actually sit and do a Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore thing with I prefer to live with tracks and drive around listening to them and singing in my truck – all that ‘let’s sit and write a song together’ stuff is for movies, mainly, and not really my favorite way of working. I wasn’t aiming for any style, I didn’t have any set idea, it just snowballed…I just let it roll and everything exceeded any expectations I could have had. I didn’t have any at all.

What is the songwriting process like for you? Do the lyrics and music come to you separately or at once as a whole song? Do you tool with them over time or feel you shouldn’t mess with your initial inspiration? Do you enjoy writing songs or is it more a labor of love? Which emotion most often motivates you to write? Are your songs mostly fictional, inspired by your own life, or more often inspired by the world around you? etc.

Johnette: I’d have to go back over a hundred or so songs to answer that. I’ve had pieces of music around for years, ideas for lyrics and titles around for years, very few things come all in one piece. Somethings need re-working and some don’t: I’m writing with Billy Howedel (A Perfect Circle) lately and just jam to the tracks and talk to him about what he’s trying to express, it’s a very different process for me, and Billy’s been whittling all these words down and working with Danny and I’m amazed at how they’ve been fine-tuning my streams on consciousness. I’m much better at self-editing than I’ve been in the past, I’m more able to step back and be a ‘third person’ in objectively editing my work. I can honestly say that when I read some of the stuff I don’t remember writing it at all: which is the place I like to be. It really does come from somewhere else.

What bands have influenced your approach to and style of music?

Johnette: none. I’m more influenced, if I am, by what I heard as a kid. I don’t think anybody can touch Jimi Hendrix: his was not of this world, lyrically, musically, everything. I listen to something like ‘Wind Crys Mary’ and think, man, what a beautiful piece of writing. I always said about Jimi you can’t tell where the guitar stops and he starts: he’s just so at one with his music. I like a lot of new stuff, I was rockin’ in the car to a Justin Timberlake tune yesterday, but just because I enjoy something doesn’t mean it’s influential to what I do. I hear music in silence, which is why I live in the desert.

What is your favorite artist/album/song of all time?

Johnette: too many to say, really. I have to say Leonard Bernstein with the LA Philharmonic’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is perfection…artist would be the great Carmen Amaya, who is considered the greatest Flamenco dancer of all time, but was also a great Flamenco singer. I was playing music before I ever heard rock and roll, so I’m much more emotionally moved by Sinatra than say, the Beatles. There are a lot of things I like, but it wasn’t like I saw a rock band and said ‘gee, I want to do that!’. I have to say that when the Pretenders came out it was great because no one was really doing what Chrissie was doing at the time, and it made it ok to be a tough chick if you were one..and I was one. I did love Fleetwood Mac and Heart back in the day, they were about the only women doing that back then. I loved good singing. I loved prog in high school. Jerry Harrison likes to tell a story about how I threw a shot of tequila on him in New York because he didn’t like Supertramp. I’m laughing at that, I was so crazy back then, but I don’t care, I DO love Supertramp! ‘Crime of the Century rules! Some hip- hop band just put out a killer track and sampled ‘Take A Look At My Girlfriend’ and I e-mailed Jerry telling him I think of him every time I hear it! Honestly I like just about anything if it’s good. I always say there are only 2 kinds of music: good and bad. Nothing touches Flamenco, in my opinion. Flamencos only respect true emotion, what is real and comes from the heart. To achieve that as well as technical prowess is really the ultimate. I can’t stand shit playing, and I like a good song. I was just telling Danny I really like Fall Out Boy. They write some great stuff…I love Snow Patrol, also. Bjork is pretty much the top of the A-list, as well. Nelly Furtado has some great stuff…the good shit really does stand out, but if you show me some band that doesn’t make it and ‘why doesn’t so-and-so get on the radio?’ Well chances are it’s because they’re just not good. Everyone has different tastes and there’s enough to go around for everyone.

What modern artists/songs do you like?

Johnette: I touched on a few of those above…I like a lot of stuff, but don’t know who everyone is..just because something is corporate doesn’t make it bad automatically, you know? I mean, what the hell do people think Starbucks is? I respect anybody that can stick it out and who has the dedication to their music to put in the years it takes to be recognized. I respect the hell out of REM and the Chili Peppers. It’s not easy to get to that point, there’s a whole lot of sacrifice involved. People have no idea.

What is your favourite song that you have written, and what song do you wish that you had written?

Johnette: ‘Smile’ by Charlie Chaplin…’Ghost Riders in the Sky’ I wish I’d written..’It’s a Wonderful World’..all that oldschool tin pan alley stuff is just fantastic. I have a true story I’m thinking about turning into a musical somehow and want to approach the songs that way. My favorite song by me..hmmm…I’m just going back and rediscovering a lot of my old stuff and really wonder how I wrote it in the first place. Off the new record I like ‘Poem for the Native’. I wrote that years ago and Will had the perfect piece of music for it: I literally forgot about it and have a pile of crap out in the desert that I’ve had nowhere to put since I moved into the cabin. I was calling it ‘the shitpile of destiny’ because I’d go out in the morning and walk around and find a page from a notebook blown up against the chain-link fence, and that was one of them. I thought, ‘wow, I’d completely forgotten about this’ and wanted to use the words.

What is your favourite book/piece of art/film/tv show?

Johnette: although people will attach too much to this politically I love ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. I love Pedro Almodovar, he’s a freakin’ genius. I love foreign film although am very behind in films. ‘Apocalypto’ was absolutely mind blowing: a great movie. I don’t have a TV but when I’m in a hotel you have to pry me from ‘Law and Order’ and ‘NYPD Blue’. I also love ‘Scrubs’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’! I have Court TV on right now..I love classic black and white: Bette Davis. I read her autobiography and I loved it.

What is your opinion of music blogs, podcasts, and other mp3-based sites? Do you feel that file sharing has been detrimental to the music industry, or that it has enabled artists to reach a wider audience?

Johnette: I love every bit of it. It’s very empowering for artists. The Chinese say ‘you have to learn to dance on a shifting carpet’.

What is one thing you would like people to know about you as a person? As a musician? Do you think of being a musician as a career or as a part of who you are as an individual?

Johnette: it’s just in my DNA. I wouldn’t even call myself a musician: that would be an insult to real musicians who practice their craft every day. As a person I care very much about things, to the point that if I absorbed everything going on I would be too depressed to function. It’s taken years for me to feel that what I do is a contribution. I just heard from a friend who is in Ghana for a year doing humanitarian work. At the end of her day she listens to my music. That means a lot to me; when I hear from people, therapists, doctors, cops…who work out in the real world and my music is what soothes them or inspires them at some point in their day. It’s taken me years to appreciate the value of what I do, and I’ve had a lot of people try to bring me down.

What are your plans for the future? (Touring, another solo album, more collaborations, or any possibility of a Concrete Blonde reunion?) Have you considered pursuing art or trying your hand at a novel, or is music your preferred form of artistic expression?

Johnette: Burning Man in September. I’m not sure I have the attention span to do a novel. No Concrete Blonde reunion and although I understand why people ask me that I wish they’d stop asking me that. Ever. Never. No. Nyet. Done. I don’t even want to relive any of that although I consider CB to have been one of the best bands on earth..I was in a bar last night and called Jim Mankey to wish him Happy Birthday, I just talked to him a little while ago because he keeps my dogs when I’m gone, he’s known them all their lives.

Depending on what I need to express I’ll write: or dance: Flamenco is the best for me, I think that’s why I like it. It’s the only thing deep enough.

On a personal note, I also want to thank Johnette for the music she’s created over the years – both with Concrete Blonde and this remarkable new solo album. I recently read a quote from Johnette saying “I find American culture to be a bit anemic . . . I think people are starved for meaning and content.” I think that pretty much sums up how I feel about modern music, with the exception of the latest Mavis Staples release and now “Scarred”. So I hope Johnette knows how much I and her other fans appreciate the effort she’s put forth to make music that is both moving and intelligent.

Johnette: thank you very much for that…I have no idea where it comes from but I now realize…actually, Jim told me..once I said to him ‘when I hit that high note in ‘Ghost Riders’ people really go crazy? It’s just always takes me by surprise’ and he said, ‘well not everyone can do that’. I never realized that before: I just figured, well, everybody can sing, everybody can dance…seems so obvious to me, and I’m just realizing now that not everybody can. We’re all here for each other for different things: we must respect the health and value of the individual as a part of the greater collective. But there is no collective without recognizing the individual.

Thanks to you –


Johnette Napolitano – Amazing (mp3)
Johnette Napolitano – The Scientist (mp3)

Johnette Napolitano Official Site
Johnette on MySpace

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Johnette Napolitano: Scarred

Johnette Napolitano’s Scarred will be released on May 29th. The former Concrete Blonde front woman possesses one of the most distinctive and powerful voices I’ve ever heard. No matter what song she chooses to sing, her vocals never fail to be chillingly hypnotic. She has a dramatic, earthy tone akin to that of Patti Smith, Nick Cave, or Leonard Cohen – all of whom she has successfully covered in the past – yet Johnette’s pipes have a more thunderous echo and can transform even the most harmless of ballads into a dark cinematic tale fit for a vampire movie. But Napolitano has not allowed herself to be backed into the Goth corner, instead she has utilized that darkness as a firm foundation for whatever genre she chooses to experiment with. Her fondness for Spanish, Native American, and Western elements is present on Scarred, as well as electro-dance synths and beats and an almost psychedelic rock…all wrapped seductively around that earthquaking voice.

The synth heavy opener “Amazing” sways and vibrates, and is perhaps the most mesmerizing piece of drama on the album. The light industrial sound of the track as well as that of the screaming “Everything For Everyone” makes me fantasize about a Johnette and Trent Reznor collaboration.

Scarred also includes Johnette’s cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” – originally featured on the Wicker Park soundtrack – as well as a rendering of The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. The richness of Johnette’s voice can transform even a bland Coldplay tune into a soulful ballad.

The title track stirs acoustic and electric guitars into the synth mix with a despondent yet resigned narrator, and “Crazy Tonight” takes that acoustic-synth recipe and throws in a dash of psychedelic rock and piano. The spoken word piece “Poem For The Native” seems to modernize the kind of Native American influenced poetry of Jim Morrison and The Doors, while “My Diane” was inspired by the photography of Diane Arbus.

The moody “Save Me” is set during the flood of New Orleans and layers a grinding Zeppelinesque shake under Johnette’s gravity defying wail. And the Bible burning finale “I’m Up Here” addresses several recent social and political issues and seems to be told from the point of view of an unnamed creator voicing the anguished questions of its creatures below.

Johnette Napolitano – Amazing (mp3)
Johnette Napolitano – The Scientist (mp3)

Johnette Napolitano Official Site
Johnette on MySpace

Buy the CD