Singer-songwriters Freedy Johnston and Pat McGee Share the Secrets of Their Craft 

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click to enlarge Freedy Johnston - DINA REGINE
  • Dina Regine
  • Freedy Johnston
Singer-songwriters Freedy Johnston and Pat McGee came to songwriting rather late (at least if you compare them to someone like Bob Dylan, who was writing classic tunes at age 20). But they’ve both now accumulated a catalog of great songs. Johnston issued his first album in 1990 and McGee put out his debut in 1995. Both have just released terrific new albums. Johnston’s new album The Neon Repairman features his sharp power-pop sensibilities. On his self-titled effort, McGee collaborates with veteran studio musicians who evoke the great singer-songwriters of the ’70s (think Jackson Browne and David Crosby). The two musicians are coming to town to play Music Box Supper Club. They’re not on tour together, but the club has booked them as part of a special double bill. We spoke to each of them in separate interviews.

Talk about your upbringing. How young were you when you started writing songs?
: I did my first song for the senior class talent show as a dare with my buddy Jeff. I was 17. I still play that song, “Sparky the Heroic Dog,” at gigs. The dog I currently have now is named after that song. I’ll probably have him on tour. I bring him everywhere. That’s how that happened. The reality is that I’ve been doing it for a while. I put my first record out when I was 30. That’s 24 years ago. Most guys start bands when they’re 15. I’m hitting my stride. It’s taken 20 years to figure out how to do it.

McGee: I grew up in Virginia. I was a late bloomer when it came to songwriting. I was 21 when I wrote my first song. I was playing in bars. I was the guy in the back of the bar playing classic rock covers for four hours a night. It was a fun way to make a living. I went to college for four years, but I didn’t graduate. I started playing more and more and more. I realized I could do it five nights a week. When you’re 19 or 20 and making all this cash money, it’s a blast. I was playing at a bar across the street from Dave Matthews Band. I would notice that they had these lines to get in. I ran into [drummer] Carter [Beauford] one time and he gave me their CD and I credit them with kicking me in the ass to stop doing covers. I didn’t know anything about their music. I just knew they wrote their own songs. In 1992, that was unheard of in my world. I said, “Screw it. I’ll write my own songs.” I wrote just enough songs for a CD and I assembled a band and turned solo gigs into band gigs. It wasn’t a plan. It’s been 20 years now.

What inspired your new album?
It’s been five years and before that it was eight years since I issued a new album. That is a bit of an issue. I didn’t realize it happened. The eight years was because I got married and divorced. The last five years was trying to make this record on my own. It’s self-produced. Between trying to make it on my own and getting funding, it lagged a bit. I think that’s fair. The reason is I guess money and a little bit of mental stuff in there. It’s funny how life works in big ways. I’m promoting it and I love it and I’m well into finishing the next 15 songs. I’m really, really happy about it. It’s a good feeling. It’s a strike when the iron is hot type of thing. These songs have been around an embarrassingly long amount of time. Five or six of them are 10 years old. They’re finally getting their due. They’re very complicated songs. It’s a good feeling. I’m not whining but I put myself through hell and I don’t know what I did it for. I’m on the other side and the music is still there. I really got something from it. I never thought I could say that in a genuine way. People always say music saves their lives. I hope they mean it, but I really mean it. It’s the one thing in this life that has always helped me and always tormented me at the same time.

McGee: It’s a throwback in the sense that the players who recorded those classic records and are still recording are on it. It sounds a little like the ‘70s. It’s my strongest influences. It’s the stuff that got me started playing music — James Taylor and Jackson Browne and the countrier side of Eric Clapton’s stuff and Crosby, Stills and Nash for sure. I’m not some old hippie. I grew up on that stuff. My brother and sister were older than me and educated me on this music. I was at a friend’s house and saw they were spinning vinyl. I freaked out and got a record player and started buying record. I’m rebuying all the stuff I had as a kid. That experience of sitting there listing to a record is how I grew up listening to music and it lit a fire in me. I wanted to write an album like that. I haven’t done that since my first album. I always felt like it was my music but I would collaborate with friends and other musicians. When someone says, “That’s a little too James Taylor-ish,” you dial things back. Now, I’m not going to silence those influences. I think people can listen to this record if they want to know what my influences are. It came naturally.

We live in a world obsessed with singers. Do you think the songwriter doesn’t get his or her due?
It goes in cycles. I’m not qualified to really answer it because I stopped listening to music 20 years ago. I don’t mean that in a bad way. After I bought a certain number of records, I just listen to old stuff now. I don’t even know what’s going on. My view of songwriting is that in the Cole Porter-era and the Brill Building songwriters who wrote the greatest songs. That’s what I really listened to. We listened to Sinatra a lot. It was the best music ever. And country music like Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell or Merle Haggard. That’s high art. If you can write a song like “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry,” then there you go. These melodies come out and they stick around. This chord progression is demanding to write a song. It’s a little bit of a condition. If you didn’t like doing it, it would be called a syndrome. They move me emotionally when I played the chords and melodies. I can’t mess around with the words because the songs have been around for so long. The last song on my record, “A Little Bit of Something Wrong,” is a more light-hearted song about me. It just became clear that it was about the damaged returned from Iraq veteran who was broken for life. It was a great moment for me to realize how it goes. The song had to sit around looking for its niche. It’s like the work of art found its place on the shelf.

McGee: I don’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of pop music. I’ve been rediscovering classic rock. In that mode, you listen to some songs by CSN and Zeppelin and you realize nobody writes songs like that anymore. I wanted to go after that. I don’t read music. I have a hard time explaining what I’m playing to people. I have to have the guys in my band tell other people what I’m playing. I just point to my fingers and I don’t know what a certain chord is. I listened to so much of that music. I don’t claim to be some genius. I wouldn’t say ELO would do thing this way or Paul McCartney would do things that way. It might come out of me because I listen to so much of it. With songwriting these days, it’s hard to tell. You have guys like Pharrell and John Legend. They write some great stuff. I bought the Beck record that won Grammy of the year on vinyl and it’s a great record but I feel like he gets a little more clout because he’s Beck. If it were a random person, that album would never become artist of the year. I’m a big sucker for melody. Those Beatles melodies suck me in. Even Van Halen and Led Zeppelin had great melodies. It doesn’t have to be the poppiest, but it has to have a hook.

Pat McGee CD Release Show with Freedy Johnston, 8 p.m. Friday, May 8, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $22 ADV, $25 DOS, musicboxcle.com.


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