Her Haunted Head: Our Interview With Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano

As Concrete Blonde readies a December trek along the East Coast, I was fortunate to sit down and chat with singer and bassist Johnette Napolitano about the tour, the possibility of a new album, Kickstarter, ghosts that help her write music, ghosts that want to see her naked, the five songs that define Concrete Blonde, and what could possibly be the world's most expensive copy of Lou Reed's Transformer.

How are you doing today?
I'm doing great. I've actually had a really, really good morning. I was out with the horses all morning and they're on the porch right now. I'm working on the tour with my tour manager who is in Austin. We're working together to put the nuts and bolts together, travel accommodations and all that stuff. The devil is in the details. It's the kind of stuff I like to get knocked out of the way first so we can get to the party.

That's what I want to talk to you about. In December, you're going to embark on a short tour of mostly East Coast dates. What can fans expect from these shows?
We've taken it up a notch. We're doing some new things, obviously, the two new ones from the vinyl single. We have things people like and they know. We've got a lot of songs. The last couple of years since the reunion tour, we've been trying to go back over our music and rotate the setlists. If we played everything we knew for everybody, I think we'd probably be up there for five or six hours or longer. The set now is about two hours long. We can play every single thing, and someone can find the one song, "You didn't play...!"

We're trying to rotate and put in a couple of new things. We have a really good stage. We've got a great light guy that we love that we're really happy to have on this tour. It takes it up a level.

If everything goes well, are there plans of expanding the tour in 2013?
We know we have to get back to Europe so that's pretty much what our priority is next year. We haven't been to Europe in about twelve years or so. We've been on and off throughout the States the last couple of years. I've had a lot of stuff going on at home, so I had made it a policy not to leave home for more than a week at a time. I can't really do that anymore because it just doesn't pay but also because we missed a festival in Brazil that was really important because I fell off my horse and I broke my ribs.

Oh wow.
Yeah, two days before we were leaving. It was fucked. I was still going to try to go, but the doctor goes, "You can't." My lung was punctured. He goes, "You can't go on a plane. You can't do this. You're crazy." And I'm just like, "NO! I'VE GOT DO IT! YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!" So that put me in bed for two months. I got to do a lot of thinking and I need to make up for some stuff.

I'm grateful that I can still do it. No lie. I shouldn't be walking right now. I should be on a Christopher-Reeve-in-a-wheelchair level. You break four vertebrae and four ribs, you get a lot of chance to think. The future isn't this endless thing that you see in front of you anymore. It's actually a piece of time, and you're got a certain amount that you want to get done. Physically, if you're able to do it, that's a really important thing. Cliche as it sounds, you gotta have your health, man.

We did a couple of local gigs and they were great and I just want to get back into the show, which I used to be. But a funny thing happens: early in your career, you're really into everything, hands-on everything. I paint everything, I shoot everything, do everything. And then you attract more and more people. Somebody said in an analogy, some comedian: "You start attracting more and more people like lint." And then it becomes everybody else's job to do the thing that made you want to do it in the first place. And now it's this person's job to do the cover, this person's job to do the video, this person's job to tune my fucking guitar. And I end up sitting there, "Okay. What am I going to do now?" Too much downtime isn't good for my head.

So I'm kind of back into that mode now, which is really fun and really good. I think the vinyl did it. It felt good. It was exciting to make a record. It's that simple.

I loved the "Rosalie/I See The Ghost" single.
Thank you!

What was your inspiration behind the songs?
Moving out to the desert. "Rosalie" was the first thing I wrote on my porch in Joshua Tree. It blew in on the wind. I was sitting on my porch, drinking wine with my Mustang, and I had heard Willie Nelson on the radio that morning. I thought, "What would Willie do right now? Besides of course, what I'm doing: smoking a joint and drinking wine. He would probably write something a little like this..." Sometimes they come to you in one piece. It really came like that. It's just a beautiful song and I really like it.

Will these songs be on an upcoming album?
If we get that far, yeah. And I think that we might. We were just in rehearsal last weekend, and we're at the point where it's starting to look like an album. You look at everything together and say, "What is the thread for this?" I've got to say, it's kind of the way all of them have happened. I get three quarters of it done, there's like five or six really strong songs. Now, how do I fill this out with some continuity that is a common thread? Even "Rosalie," "The Ghost," they're both kind of ghosty songs. I've got ghost songs for days!

Have you thought of using things like Kickstarter to help fund tours or albums?

That seems to be what a lot of artists are doing nowadays.
Then I'm grateful to the universe that I don't really have to do that.

That's great then.
Yeah, we're not broke. I'm very grateful for that, like I said. I think Kickstarter's a great thing. But I think it's really great for people who really need it, but I have no reason to do that. I mean, I haven't even taken money from labels the last three years, why would I want to take money from fans? If you take people's money, then you better do the art they fucking like because the minute you don't, you're an asshole. And that's not where I'm comfortable as an artist.

I've had it before at a concert level. We used to do this revved up version of "Joey" back in the day and after everybody's heard it six million times, somebody comes out and says, "YOU RUINED 'JOEY!'" And I go, "I'LL FUCKING RUIN IT IF I GODDAMN WANT TO! WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?"

The minute you do something you don't like and they've paid... Americans are especially like this. Americans, more than anyone else. "We paid. We have the right to take a million pictures at your show. We have the right to tape it because we paid for a ticket." Well you didn't pay for all that. You paid for a show. When there's money involved with that, I'd rather do straight-up business. But when fans get into it like, "I want to support you. I love you," then you gotta do it unconditionally and a lot of people don't.

Imagine this, if you will. This is a brilliant one. What if Metallica and Lou Reed had gone Kickstarter?

People'd be demanding refunds.
I think it's brilliant. I think it's awesome, but not a lot of other people did. So I rest my case.

Let's talk about some of your older songs. My favorite song on Bloodletting is the song you all pretty much claimed from Andy Prieboy, "Tomorrow, Wendy." Your voice is so powerful in this song, especially live. I just want to know how you're able to speak, let alone sing, at the end of a show.
Singing and talking are two different things and they utilize your voice in two different ways. If I were doing a show tonight, I wouldn't be talking to you on the phone right now because I never talk on the cell phone when I'm on the road. I'll text and I like that. I used to not be able to talk all day, I can't be around cigarette smoke. Sleep is the most important thing; that'll kill me. But singing is much easier. I can be completely unable to talk but somehow the way the energy comes through, it's actually a very healing energy, which is probably why I started doing it in the first place. It was comforting to me to sing. It's comforting, that's why people sing. And it should be. It's a great energy to put through your body, a very healing energy.

All the other outputs are not. When you're talking in a club over noise, oh my God, that'll take me out so hard because you're pitching your voice so artificially. If you're also having a conversation that you don't want to be having, you will notice your voice pitch up uncomfortably. When I'm singing, by the end of the show if I've done everything right, I'm buzzing. It should be an energizing experience. It shouldn't be draining.

Let's get back to ghosts. I read online that "Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man" is based on a true story with you and a ghost. Can you tell us about that?
It's in my little book (Rough Mix) which I will be selling on the road this time if I remember to order them. It's the Driskill Hotel and it's famously haunted. The Driskill Ghost is one of the most famous ghosts in the United States but we didn't know that when we rolled in. I went up in my room and stuff started getting weird. I felt like I was being watched. I was on the fifth floor so I closed all the curtains. My key would work and then it wouldn't work. A brass key, not a card key. Every time I went down to tell the desk something, they'd get really nervous and freaky and weird.

It's three in the morning when we come home from the gig. I took a shower and I knew somebody was watching me and it was the weirdest feeling. But I got out and went to bed and I had my cat with me on the road at the time. Cats at night, notoriously, are up and doing things and the cat wouldn't come out from under the covers. I reached over and turned the light off and I rolled over and the light came back on. I reached over and did it again and the light came back on again. I knew now what was going on, that there was somebody else there because I'd felt it. I reached over and unplugged the lamp altogether and I said, "I gotta go to sleep. I know you're here. I know you won't hurt me but I gotta go to sleep because we gotta roll tomorrow."

I laid back down on the bed. The light was on in the closet and the closet door--it was just like a hand was opening it--opened so slowly so that the light shone out on the bed. And it occurred to me that the ghost wanted to see me naked and I was laughing and I go, "Oh, okay. Whatever. Knock yourself out, I'm going to sleep."

I asked around. I told the band about it. It turned out Sting's drummer, Vinnie (Colaiuta), had been drinking with a woman at the bar and she said she'd had a drink knocked out of her hand and the ghost only haunts women. They say it's Colonel Driskill and you can smell his cigar smoke. Sometimes, they'd see him playing the piano in the mezzanine so they locked up the piano now. He's a very famous ghost and nobody can tell me, man! I'm pretty susceptible to that.

Prior to that encounter, did you believe in ghosts?
Oh yes, since I was a little kid. I hear them. I'm clairaudient. I'll hear voices warn me. And I believe that's where my music comes from because I don't have the knowledge to compose a lot of the stuff that I do. I have to sing it and learn the chords after it comes to me. It just comes to me, dreams, the whole deal. It's a very important part of my life. It always has been. So to me, it's just natural and normal.

You guys can go from in-your-face punk to soaring, moving ballads and back. If you had to pick five songs that define Concrete Blonde, what would they be?
I'd say "True," off the first record. I'd probably say "Rosalie," because the latest are always my favorites. We're doing something new now that we've never done, it's called "Lady Day." It's a song I wrote for someone else about Billie Holiday and it's just amazing. We just did that for the first time at a gallery show a couple of weeks ago and it just sounded great. I'd have to say "Joey" or I'd be lying because that's an important song. That was the first time I realized that people were listening. I should pick a hard and fast one, but I don't really care about those so much anymore. We play them, but I don't really feel all that close to them. I don't really feel connected to them anymore because it was a different time in my life. I don't want to be inspired anymore by city chaos. It's not good for my brain. I guess "Still In Hollywood" is really important. There's a version we did of "Little Wing" that was when we were at a really good time. We were still really happy. It was before it all got too... much. That always takes me back to that and it's Jimi Hendrix so I don't have to take any responsibility for it meaning anything to me biographically. Is that three or four yet?

You've listed about six or seven, I think, at this point.
Well that's enough then!

Two more questions and I'll let you go. What was the first album you bought with your own money?
With my own money? Jesus. I don't remember that because all my records my aunt who gave me all her records: Donovan, The Stones, The Byrds, when I was really young, like ten. But the first record that I got and I knew I wanted to keep, and I'm ashamed of this because I stole it from the Los Angeles Public Library: Lou Reed's Transformer, ladies and gentlemen! I'll give it back to them if they really want it.

You must have some hellacious overdue fees from that.

Finally, you guys are playing a music festival. You can get any five artists, living or dead, to perform on the bill with you. Which five do you choose?
Amy Winehouse, who I actually did see and was phenomenal and I could probably keep her in line and get her to do a good show if she wanted to. I think I'd like to see The Moody Blues. Billie Holiday. I saw Led Zeppelin and they were terrible. I walked out on them. They were terrible so they're disqualified.

Oh, you know what? Mozart. I would love to see Mozart. Such a fan of Mozart. His whole life just fascinates the hell out of me, not to mention his music. I'm sure he was quite manic. He was like, "I'M UP ALL NIGHT BECAUSE THIS MUSIC IS COMING IN MY HEAD!

I would've loved to have met Joe Meek. Have you seen Telstar: The Joe Meek Story?

No I haven't.
Oh my God. That is one of the best rock 'n' roll biographies I've ever seen. Kevin Spacey's in it. It's fucking awesome. It'll kick your ass. It's tragic, but it's true.

[I later received an email asking to add flamenco dancer and singer Carmen Amaya to the bill.]

Well thanks for taking the time to talk with me today and best of luck with the single and the tour.
Thank you!

More Concrete Blonde: Official | Facebook | Twitter | CD Baby

Upcoming Tour Dates:

12.12.12 Sinclair Music Hall, Boston
12.13.12 Irving Plaza, New York City
12.14.12 Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ
12.15.12 World Cafe Live, Philadelphia
12.17.12 9:30 Club, Washington D.C.
12.18.12 Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, NC
12.19.12 Variety Playhouse, Atlanta
12.21.12 Park West, Chicago
12.22.12 Varsity Theatre, Minneapolis

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