Johnette Napolitano on turning 50, music industry excess and the demise of her famous band
Raw-voiced Johnette Napolitano, best-known for her work with Concrete Blonde, knows how to do a lot.
She can make art outside her five-acre home in Joshua Tree, Calif., using reclaimed, found materials. ("I drive around in my truck. It's the desert. There's always something around.")
She can dance and sing flamenco, something she's been doing for 20 years. ("Oh, my god, you don't know abuse until you've studied flamenco in Spain.")
She can make pots, an art she learned by studying under legendary potter Juan Quezada in Mata Ortiz, Mexico. ("He's a serious legend, and that's one of the greatest experiences of my life.")
She can live minimally. In her small home, she cohabitates with just her instruments, her computers and a few precious keepsakes. ("I think people are stressed. The more they have, the more stressed they are. I've been there.")
And she's still writing the velvety, groundbreaking songs that brought Concrete Blonde to our headphones at one point or another. Solo disc Scarred was released this summer, and unlike the rehashed, half-assed new discs from rock giants of old, Napolitano isn't dropping albums just because. "I put them out, because I honestly like what's there."
You just turned 50.
Sept. 22. I started the party Sept. 1. It did not end until Sept. 31. I went to Burning Man. I had my best friend come out from England. We did a full-on Thelma-and-Louise ... just ripped it up. You only turn 50 once—and I'm damn lucky to be there.
How do you write?
I almost always start out songs with a title. Almost always there's just a good line for a title. It's like working from the top down. You know what your statement is. Now how do you justify making that statement? Once you have a title, you're pretty home free. I don't really have a process, though. I'll sit and bang something out. A good bottle of wine will always kick off something.
You've been writing songs for a while now. Have you ever experienced writer's block? And how do you get through that?
This sounds corny, but the music, it just comes. And if it comes, I better pay attention to it. I have the opposite problem sometimes. I get burned out and I want to go do something else. I have to remind myself that this is my job. It's funny because I'm a working-class person. The way I was brought up, I'll feel guilty if I'm sitting there writing a song and playing guitar. I'll feel like, "Wow, I should be repainting the trim on the house or something."
I read somewhere that you like karaoke. Did you do that incognito? Did people recognize you?
We'd just get hammered and go do karaoke. What's funny is the bars we went to—we'd go the old places. Nobody knew who I was. There's this one that's particularly scary because it's right by Paramount Studios. That was the best place. You'd have all these people who had just gotten off the bus in Hollywood, and they want to make it.
We'd get up, and we'd just shred it, and we'd come back to the table, and there'd be shots all over the table. These really bad, smarmy, polyester-jacketed dudes are like, "You've got a great voice, little lady. I'm a manager." We'd just sit there, like, "Thank you," and let them buy us drinks.
What was it like to work with the Talking Heads?
It's easily up there with Concrete Blonde as being one of the most valuable musical experiences of my life. I mean, how would you feel, you know?
From your vantage point, what do you think is going to happen to the major label music industry?
Huh. Well, they could have been on top of it so long ago. They're so self-absorbed that they weren't. I worked at A&M Records for a little while.
What were you doing over there?
Everything. Typing up tour schedules. Sending posters out. Reporting ticket sales to the sales department. I saw every possible thing that could be done wrong, done wrong. That was another valuable experience. I was asked to work on the Christmas party, and the budget was 80 grand. I was just appalled. That's a lot of money. I could make four records for that. That's the way it worked in those days. There was a lot of blow. I saw money given to the wrong bands for the wrong reasons and circle in the wrong people's hands. And people who really deserved it and were worth investing in didn't get it. I ended up quitting the job without notice because something went down that I thought was so disgusting. I didn't even pick up my paycheck.
What years did you work there?
1980, [around] when we put out the Dream 6 record [Dream 6 was the first collaboration between Napolitano and Concrete Blonde guitarist Jim Mankey]. In fact, we recorded our first record, and I didn't tell anyone at A&M I was even a musician. The way they found out is it was reviewed in Cashbox magazine or something. And they came downstairs going, "Is this you?"
Does Concrete Blonde have anything in the works?
Nah. We're finished.
Yeah. And we're good with it. We're finished, as you know it. We had a really hard road of it, and we're one of the most ripped-off bands in this business. I don't think either one of us really care to even pimp the name out. We don't want to tour. It's logistically, financially and physically a hassle. I'm not really interested in doing that anymore. I'm much happier on my own. I should have probably gone on my own a while ago.
Johnette Napolitano will perform at the Santa Fe Brewing Co. at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1. David J of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets opens. Tickets are $18 in advance and can be bought at the Santa Fe Brewing Co. (35 Fire Place) or through The Lensic (211 West San Francisco Street). Go to www.ticketssantafe.com or call (505) 988-1234 for more.