Singer/songwriter Freedy Johnston's been compared to the best Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Elvis Costello. However, his latest album, Right Between the Promises, was inspired not by these critics' darlings but by the experience of cranking out Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Deep Purple songs in a cover band.
"I learned that sometimes the dumb lyric is the best lyric," Johnston said from his New York apartment. "I used to worry about being profound, about making my lyrics read well on paper. But that's being too precious about it."
Johnston spent most of the last year in Madison, Wisconsin, working on the album and playing around town in a cover band called the Know-It-All Boyfriends with Butch Vig and Duke Erikson of Garbage. Vig put the Boyfriends together for his brother's Christmas party, and, Johnston said, they had so much fun they decided to keep doing it. (Vig also produced Johnston's 1994 album This Perfect World, which featured the single "Bad Reputation.")
Of the Boyfriends' repertoire, Johnston said, "We played a lot of '70s 'Trans Am rock' covers, like BTO, 'Band on the Run,' 'Smoke on the Water.' " He added dryly, "I learned all these songs I never thought I could play, and realized they had all the same chords as my tunes."
Johnston, who released his first album in 1990, landed on best-of lists with his 1992 indie LP, Can You Fly, which established him as a critics' favorite. Before Right Between the Promises, his albums were filled with elegant, catchy melodies and rich, short-story-like vignettes, long on character development and narrative detail. Playing those FM radio standards with the Boyfriends encouraged him to strip things down, he said.
"My yardstick these days has markings for economy of lyrics, and also for simplicity," he said. "I'm really striving to make my songs direct, to just be able to really communicate with people."
The details are still there, as in the image of a woman waiting for her favorite pair of swans to float by in "Radio for Heartache." But while his earlier songs told cryptic stories, tunes like "Arriving on a Train" and "Broken Mirror" use stripped-down lyrics to make emotional revelations through simple metaphors, with the music filling in the blanks.
"Anyone," a song about finding common ground in human fallibility, is a three-chord romp tailor-made for a sing-along, while "In My Dream" rides on a melody as mournful as its lyrics.
"I realized I sing pop songs," Johnston said with a laugh. "I have a responsibility in my mind to relate the meaning of the song to the emotion that the melody implies. That's the whole point of doing it."
Then there's the album's first single, a cover of Edison Lighthouse's 1970 hit "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)," which Johnston describes as "a perfect pop song." It's getting airplay on adult album alternative stations across the country, which reminds Johnston that he's still got plenty to learn. He thought for sure that another song on the album would be a better choice, though he won't say which one.
"That just shows that you can't force it," he said. "When you intentionally try to record a single, that defeats the purpose right away."