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November 2007: Johnette Napolitano was in Vancouver promoting the release of her solo album, Scarred (Released May 28, 2007 on Hybrid Recordings.) The album has been released to critical acclaim and her gigs have remained consistently outstanding. I had arranged for a telephone interview the day after her Vancouver gig during her stopover in Seattle.
After a quick introduction, we launched right into a metaphysical exploration. Johnette recently turned fifty on September 22, and I fixate on numerology and delve into what 2008 holds for her. She’s entering into a ‘five’ year which is going to be a nice, more active and fun change from her hard working and focused 2007. I also brought up the topic of writing as in... has she ever though about writing a book? (I have February marked off as a good month for this.) Johnette confirms that while in New Orleans she was informed of an apartment becoming available for January and February. She was planning to hole herself up and see what creativity transpires.
I brought up three selections I have read of hers that I really enjoyed - one has to do with Marc Moreland, one to do with her Grandfather’s death and the last one centers around a fellow she gives a ride in Mexico. (I believe it was called Are you Okay?) Of all of Johnette’s writings these three pieces have stayed with me as among her strongest, and we talk about authors doing well when they write what they know.
Speaking of ‘what you know’, I began asking about men who may have been influential in Johnette’s life, and wouldn’t you know it, she’s quite the man’s woman. She has worked with, crossed paths with, been involved with so many amazing artists, musicians, creative males that it is hard to start narrowing down the list. When I mentioned her father, whom she’s always had a good relationship with, she informed me that he had remarried (5th time) on July 7th. So how was it? I didn’t go. It turned out I had another obligation that day, and although my Aunt kept saying, Oh you’ll come, I knew I wouldn’t. It’s not like I have not ever seen him get married.
In fact, Johnette is in such a good ‘space’ that it appears turning fifty is the best thing that’s happened to her. She laughingly recalls, I think I celebrated my birthday for the entire month of September, maybe even a bit longer. I am now in the official club. It’s an honour to be fifty. If you are forty-seven and whining, I don’t want to hear it. When you’re fifty, then you can talk to me and complain. Until then, forget it. I start laughing and ask Johnette if she’s starting to embrace the wearing purple with lots of rouge stage of life. That’s right. I make the connection between turning fifty and the realization that Johnette doesn’t have to go to her Dad’s wedding. Turning fifty gives one official permission to stop behaving as a responsible child, and start focusing on living one’s own life.
That could very well be she concurs. I haven’t even been in touch with my siblings compared to years past. Johnette is the oldest of four, two sisters and the youngest, her brother, John. She also had an adopted younger brother who sadly passed away last year. His death was extremely hard on Johnette as she was close to him, even bringing him on the road during her Pretty & Twisted tour. And now he was gone; he didn’t even get to see thirty. As we discuss loss and, God knows, Johnette has experienced enough of it in her life, we touch upon a mini lesson in life. Lesson being that her adopted brother was somehow meant to be in her life. If he was only meant to be in the world for a short amount of time, then he certainly had lived it to the fullest and experienced travels that many of us will never see in our lifetimes. He was meant to live in Johnette’s lifetime. And she was meant to be in his.
I ask Johnette if it is true that she was a child prodigy. Yes, she said. I did all those enrichment programs throughout school, but after grade twelve that was it. My Mom’s attitude was: you graduate, find a husband and start your family. How confusing it must have felt to be brimming with so much potential and ability only to be met with - All right, that’s it! You’ve reached the end of public school. I also confirmed that Johnette married her high school sweetheart (from the age of fourteen) right out of high school. She was eighteen years old. He was in the Navy and by the time she turned twenty it was over. That’s a lot of living in twenty years.
After much talk of family expectations, the satisfaction of being in love, and freedom from family ties, I brought up her performance from the night before. I have to get her take on some crowd behaviours that drove me nuts. First I ask if she ever notices when people talk through her performance or when cell phones go off. Oh, you’re talking about those four that were on the side? Yes! The one fellow talked nonstop throughout the performance - I had to walk away. Either that or slap him. I acknowledged that I appreciated her humour regarding taking her picture. Okay, everyone. Get it over with - take my picture. Yeah, yeah, I’m singing Joey. Like anyone can tell the difference? So, I inquire, what should I do when I see someone clearly videotaping you, after requests not to, while you are singing Joey? Well, did you notice how I covered my face with my hair? Yes, I noticed. That’s why. There’s always someone who’s going to do that. It’ll go on Youtube and I’ll have it taken down. If you are in the audience and see that, just tell the doormen. They know what do do and they are pretty good about it. She talks of a performer she knows who has a mirror on his mic stand so that every time a flash goes off, the picture is only flash.
When I realized how aware Johnette is of the audience, I feel it must be even more disruptive to hear cell phones and audience chatter. Well, add to that a manager afraid people are going to wonder if I drank just because I am thrown off in mid song by someone answering their phone. (Hey Johnette’s partied with the best of them, but I don’t understand this ‘management concern’ because... well, I’m Canadian.) Oh, you’d wouldn’t believe some of the reactions if you forget a line or briefly stop. Is she drunk? What’s wrong with her? I had to laugh when I realized this was really a concern and invited her to stay on in Canada because if a musician is not on the stage with a drink and some green in her hand, Canadians wonder what the hell’s wrong with her? We expect our musicians to imbibe. And speaking of imbibing, I asked how she stays in such great shape and she shared that she works out religiously, and goes vegan when touring because she just feels better.
I commented on her set selection, and how pleased I was with the song choices. I also add that there is degree of sadness when I hear her perform ‘Joey’ and ‘Souvenir’ as these songs remind me of Marc Moreland, and how much his talent is missed. Yes, she agrees. There was a time when it bothered me to think of those people who are gone, but now I have reached that stage where I feel I’ve lost so many I have to live life for them. I have to sing for them, and celebrate them. I asked what prompted her to sing Chaplin’s ‘Smile’. She just laughed and said, That’s so that people realize I know more than the chords C & G on the guitar. I have been playing guitar since I was twelve, but sometimes people might wonder.
I shared with Johnette that I had purchased her Scarred CD and was really enjoying the tracks, but I felt she seems like a split personality. I know you write your songs, but they’re so different from one another, especially in their wording. Often it is easy to pick out an artist’s songs because there is a familiarity, but I don’t know what the hell you’re going to come out with next. Are you sure you're not channeling someone? She started laughing and replied, Well, I wouldn’t be surprised because I was told, years ago, by a psychic that I had two men (from the Sunset Boulevard/ Gershwin style era) who were on either side of me and they were using me for their work. Johnette even agreed that she has written some songs and wondered ‘where did that come from?’ because she’s using vocabulary that she would never use. After hearing that I added, Oh Great! Now you have all the more reason for attitude - fifty year old triplets in one body! All the better if that’s the case because between the three of you, we should get another thirty years of tunes.
Johnette was gracious and generous with information as we explored American politics; President Bush; Heidi Fleiss’ theory that a bill will be passed allowing a foreign born President to preside over the U.S. (thus paving the way for a certain California governor); the present situation of deploying both parents during a war when there’s a bill in place that does not allow that, and The Universal Service Act being presented once more to the House for consideration. Without a doubt, Johnette has an informed opinion on everything.
As we were heading toward the second hour, I allowed Johnette to extricate herself from my phone clutch and thanked her for her generosity with both her time and of herself.