JOHNETTE NAPOLITANO: A FORCE OF NATURE

Johnette Napolitano, a true rock ‘n’ roll survivor, keeps making music amidst her busy life. 

By Steve Houk

Johnette Napolitano plays Gypsy Sally's on April 19th (photo courtesy Catherine Copenhaver)

Johnette Napolitano plays Gypsy Sally’s on April 19th (photo courtesy Catherine Copenhaver)

Johnette Napolitano, the lead singer, bassist and co-founder of 80’s alt rock band Concrete Blonde, is not one to sit still, even 30 plus years after her career began.

At 57, she is still very active musically, even embarking on a short solo tour soon on the heels of her new three song EP “Naked.” But in her jam packed career, she has also worked for Leon Russell and at the famed Gold Star Studios, written a book, still dabbles in art including getting her work shown in galleries, occasionally contributes music to TV and film, and has collaborated with some of music’s biggest names. Yep, this is one busy hard rockin’ tattooed lady. 

Oh, and she rides horses too. Early in the morning, before the day gets going too fast.

“This is the first horse I’ve had of my own, she’s got blue eyes, is pure white and a real brat,” said the high-energy, highly engaging Napolitano from her home out west. “I have an inflatable unicorn horn I put on her sometimes, and she really likes that. I’m about to go out and give her breakfast in a little while, but I’m usually up at about 5 and get a couple (riding) hours in, and then by the time I do that, it’s all cool and it’s all fun and it’s all fresh and nice, and then you know, phones start ringing and things start happening.”

Clearly, Johnette Napolitano is a true force of nature. Or perhaps better yet, is still a force of nature, given when you watch videos of or listen to Concrete Blonde’s songs, or even with her solo work, you see the raw, honest power of her delivery and the compelling nature of her songwriting that has been evident from day one. But with Concrete Blonde in the rear view after their triumphant last reunion tour in 2012, Napolitano continues to write her brand of emotionally enrobed music, it’s simply part of her DNA. And her fans tell her whenever she’s out on the road that they want more music, it’s just about finding the time to do it.

“People have been asking for music, but I haven’t really had time because I’ve been touring a week out of every month, that’s the pace that’s doable for me right now,” Napolitano says in her frenetic yet appealing style of speaking. “I’ve been touring alot the past year or year and a half solo, which has been really challenging. But that’s what’s been great about it. I’ve worked out this show that has a really fun and good flow, emotionally it has peaks and valleys, and it’s funny in places, and then I do songs that people know of course, and then I do new ones, so I found myself more and more with a guitar in my hands, just by the default, you know, if I’m in a hotel room, sitting there with a TV on the night before the show and I’ve got a guitar in my hand, I’m gonna come up with something. Being on the road is always kind of kicked me in the ass as far as writing because I’m fidgety and I’ve got to play constantly because I get real nervous and I feel like I need to practice alot. And in between there’s alot of other shit to do, so I haven’t really had a chance to actually kick back and be in the space that I need to be to dissapear down the rabbit hole to make a real actual full-length record. But I knew I was going out in the spring and I knew I had to come up with something, and so I (did) “Naked.”

Napolitano got a pungent taste of the backchannels of the music business even before she began her own career, working at Leon Russell’s L.A. studio in the early 80’s. It was an experience that prepared her well for what would come next, and one she wouldn’t trade for the world.

“You go through a special initiation in life when you work for Leon Russell,” she says with a clear fondness for the quirky rock legend and the opportunity working for him provided. “We called it Leon boot camp. When you work for Leon, you do everything, you’re on call 24 hours a day. If you had to stay up for three days in the mobile unit on camera 3 because Leon and Willie Nelson feel like staying up for three days making a record, then that’s exactly what you do. And then JJ Cale drops by, and if George Harrison drops by for a burger with Leon, and Leon wants you to find something in the tape library, then you go to the tape library, and come back and ask Leon, why don’t you just let me redo the whole tape library? I opened the 1/4″ box for the master of ‘Will O’ The Wisp’ and it’s got pot seeds in it, but no tape! But really, Leon surrounded himself with the top tech people, the top creative minds. He was very forward minded, and open-minded in everything he did. It woulda been stupid to be around all those people and not watch and learn what was going on. It was an education, is what I like to call it. To be around genius is really great.”

Life circumstances eventually caused Russell to move to Nashville, and although she was invited to come along, Napolitano stayed behind in the familiar surroundings of L.A. to begin to carve out her own path. “Working for him, you’re a satellite in Leon’s universe, but at the end of the day if you’re any kind of person that’s got your own thing to say and do, then you have to say and do it, you know? So we stayed in L.A. and that was the right thing to do.”

Napolitano next worked at L.A’s famed Gold Star Studios, where some of rock’s greatest albums and songs were recorded, including parts of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP, much of Phil Spector‘s Wall of Sound recordings, as well as songs and albums by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and countless other legendary acts. “I worked there about three years too and was really into that place, it was just amazing, I mean, the stuff that was recorded there? Phil Spector used to send us a copy of John and Yoko’s Christmas song on white vinyl every Christmas. He would call every Christmas with that little voice, ‘Is so and so there?’ It’s pretty cool, man.”

After her two life-altering studio jobs, Napolitano decided it was her turn, and formed Dream 6 which morphed into Concrete Blonde, a name suggested by REM’s Michael Stipe, who noted the contrast between their hard sound and deep lyrics. And for a period from the early 80’s to the mid 90’s, Concrete Blonde became one of the most talked about bands around. They would break up and reunite a few times over the next 25 years or so, culminating with their 2012 “farewell” tour which included headlining a festival in China, one of the pinnacles of their career. To Napolitano, Concrete Blonde was an unforgettable experience, with all the agony and ecstasy that comes with a successful band.

“In any incarnation, I think we were one of the best bands on the planet,” she said. “But this band has an incredibly tumultuous history, and alot of it’s really difficult to shake. There’s just some damage that you can’t repair. I’m still wrestling emotionally with some of the songs we played, and because I wrote them, I play them when I tour, of course. And just to keep an arm’s length from not actually reliving that emotion again, because there were alot of unhappy times in my life, and now I’m just grateful I made it through and I am where I’m at. But it’s done, everybody’s lives are in different places right now, and musically the guys want to do a certain thing and I think I want to do other stuff. But I feel very fortunate.”

(photo courtesy Amber Rodgers)

(photo courtesy Amber Rodgers)

As Concrete Blonde was beginning to wane, Napolitano did some memorable collaborating, including a killer duet with Paul Westerberg for the song “My Little Problem” that appeared on The Replacements’ “All Shook Down” record. But the most memorable may have been her almost becoming the new singer for Talking Heads after David Byrne left the band.  She recorded a song for an album the remaining band members did with a host of lead singers, “No Talking, Just Head,” and then toured and recorded with them in 1996. But legal problems killed the effort.

“The story was that Jerry (Harrison, Heads’ keyboardist and guitarist) had come to alot of Concrete Blonde gigs,” she recalls, “and after David Byrne left, they were working on a record with a whole bunch of different singers and they asked me to be on it. And so I’m like sure, cool, I’d love to be on it, so they sent me a track, “Damage I’ve Done” and I threw the guitar down and the vocal down and sent it back to them and they loved it. The problem with the Heads since David Byrne left was their identity, to keep going they needed somebody there to prove that they had some focus. So we had a plan to record the new record and try and cement the new identity. But when we were recording, we were in the middle of a lawsuit the whole time because David Byrne wouldn’t let them call themselves the Talking Heads. So all that hostile shit is flying back and forth the whole time we’re making the new record. It was brutal, I’m getting death threats from people. And the record never saw the light of day.”

Amidst her various art projects, her horse riding and just living her super busy life, Napolitano’s heart remains in her music. And her latest effort and impending tour is another powerful emotional expression that is her trademark, with a title that symbolizes her typical MO of putting it out there for all to see.

“I thought of ‘Naked’ which just indicates how you feel when you’re on stage with nothing but you and a guitar, pretty much. That’s exactly how you feel. I do anyway.”

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