Edgy Johnette Napolitano Defies the Singer-Songwriter Stereotype

Concert Preview

The L.A. based alternative rock band Concrete Blonde wasn’t hugely popular in the ’80s but it delivered some pretty compelling music. Its 1989 album Free yielded “God is a Bullet,” a heavy-hitting song about drive-by shootings that landed in rotation on the influential L.A.-based station KROQ. In fact, when the band reunited a few years back, singer Johnette Napolitano was able to see just how far the group’s music had circulated.

“We played China a couple of years ago,” says Napolitano via phone from her Joshua Tree home. She’s currently recording and touring as a solo act and plays the Music Box Supper Club on July 8. “That is the proudest moment in the almost 30 years of the band. It was amazing. I played Hangzhou and there’s a film of it on my YouTube site. Marco Polo called it the most beautiful city in the world and it is. We played a festival and had to jump through so many hoops. We get up to play and I don’t know how many thousands of people were there. I thought, ‘How the fuck do they know these songs?’ We did great in South America and Brazil and Peru. We went places nobody else would go. But everything comes to an end, and it’s time to know when. It was time.”

In the wake of the band’s dissolution, she’s been plenty busy. She’s published a book, released several solo albums and composed music for a few soundtracks. Her new EP, Naked, features three songs she recorded at her home. A limited release, it’ll only be available on tour dates.

“I couldn’t figure out how to record,” she says. “The only thing I’ve been selling on the road are my books and I have cool book bags. People kept asking me for music. I need to have something for the fans. My producer, who was Leon Russell’s guitarist for a long time and who helps me do mastering, is brilliant and has a state-of-the-art mobile unit. It’s hard for me to get away for any length of time. I can go into L.A. for a day or two, but I need to get home. He brought the mobile unit and we put microphones in my house and slammed them out. It wasn’t that hard to do. He got some great sounds. It’s not just your acoustic chick sitting and warbling out some songs. It has edge. I can’t do anything without edge. The reaction has been really great. I’m humbled and overwhelmed.”

The song “Here” is the oldest of the “new” songs. Napolitano says she’s played it for a few years now in live sets.

“I had recorded a version I wasn’t all that happy with,” she says. “In the old days, you’d make a record and tour it. Now, for the first time, I played them live [first] and saw the responses. It amazed me that people know the words when I haven’t put the song out. I like the format.”

She wrote “Memory Go,” a track that has a hazy, Lou Reed quality to it, when she sick in bed for a week and couldn’t do anything much more than sit up in bed and play guitar.

“I was so sick,” she says. “I had the mother of all flus. I never get sick but because I was touring so much and in planes so much, I picked something up. Everyone here got it and it went straight to your throat. I was hydrating and eating garlic soup. I picked up a guitar. That’s what it’s there for. You can’t lay in bed and think too much or you lose your mind. That came out. I’m amazed that I do like it. It’s such a strange persistent lyric. The Persistence of Memory, which is my favorite Salvador Dali painting, is intense and to fight the persistence of memory is intense. It’s like chanting in a way. I’m not a big bridge writer. I sat down and knocked down the bridge in a voice memo.”

Napolitano has seen many of her friends pass away — the Concrete Blonde ballad “Joey” is about a rock ’n’ roll friend who died of liver failure. She says the music keeps her going.

“I must do it for them,” she says. “If they were still here, they would be grabbing a guitar and wanting to seize the day. What gave me the fire in the early days wasn’t living my life conventionally. I never have done that. I think, ‘What would my dad tell me to do?’ He would tell me to do whatever I want. I can’t tell you how much carnage I’ve seen on the highway. When you’re the first one to come up on someone bleeding his last on the highway, you don’t fucking forget it. Never mind that ‘first day of your life’ crap. Think of it as the last day of your life. I have a good friend who was my great mechanic. He would tell me, ‘Find something you like to do and do it every day.’ We lose that so easily.”

Johnette Napolitano, Laurie Sargent, 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 8, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $22 ADV, $25 DOS, musicboxcle.com.