Johnette Napolitano, a rock ‘n’ roll survivor, keeps making music amidst her busy life.
Johnette Napolitano, the lead singer, bassist and co-founder of ’80s alt rock band Concrete Blonde, is not one to sit still, even 30+ years after her career began.
At 57, she is still musically active, even embarking on a short solo tour 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, dabbles in art including getting her work shown in galleries, contributes music to TV and film, and has collaborated with some of music’s biggest names; she is one busy, hard rockin’ tattooed lady.
And she somehow manages to find time to ride horses too, early in the morning, before her day gets going too fast.
“This is the first horse I’ve had of my own,”said the high-energy, highly engaging Napolitano from her home out west. “She’s got blue eyes, is pure white and a real brat. 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 hours in, and then by the time I do that … phones start ringing and things start happening.”
Napolitano is a true force of nature. Or perhaps better yet, she’s still a force of nature, given that when you watch videos of or listen to Concrete Blonde’s songs, 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,Napolitano says in her frenetic yet appealing style of speaking. “That’s the pace that’s doable for me right now … I’ve worked out this show that has a really good flow. Emotionally it has peaks and valleys, and it’s funny in places … Being on the road has always kind of kicked me in the ass as far as writing, because I’m fidgety and I’ve got to play constantly.”
Napolitano got a pungent taste of the backchannels of the music business even before she began her own career, working at Russell’s L.A. studio in the early ’80s. 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, 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. It would’ve been stupid to be around all those people and not watch and learn what was going on. It was an education. 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 carving out her own path. Napolitano worked next 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.
“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 ’80s to the mid ’90s, Concrete Blonde became one of the most talked about bands. They would break up and reunite a few times over the next 25 years, 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 a lot 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. 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.”
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.
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,” she said. “That’s exactly how you feel. I do anyway.”
Johnette Napolitano performs Sunday April 19th at Gypsy Sally’s, 3401 Water St NW, Washington, DC 20007. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.