Interview: Johnette Napolitano

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Johnette Napolitano is best known as the singer/songwriter/bassist behind Concrete Blonde. 2004’s Mojave was Concrete Blonde’s final album (the band retired two years later), and Johnette has been prolifically making her own brand of music since then, and working on various collaborations, such as with the band Catfish Scar. 2007 brought the release of her solo album Scarred, and 2009 promises the release of Sketchbook 3, the third in a series of limited-edition albums. Some early tracks from Sketchbook 3 are now available to preview on her MySpace page. In addition to her musical talents, Napolitano is also a visual artist, having shown work at The Art Queen Gallery in her hometown of Joshua Tree, California. In this interview she touches upon her love of Flamenco music, her past and future, the election of Barack Obama, and much more. Including the standard Kittysneezes question about cats and dogs being fired out of guns (yes, that would likely hurt the animal, come to think of it)…

Part The First

At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?

Johnette Napolitano: Something I’m working on. I have it in my truck and I work a lot on music when I’m driving. I commute from the desert to LA quite a bit and it’s a 2 1/2 hour drive. I get a lot done on those drives.

What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?
Johnette Napolitano: Flametal. They do Flamenco / Metal. Ben Woods is a genius. I had them open a couple shows for me recently so hopefully more people will get into them… Ashes diVIDE, who I worked a lot with, and are really beautiful and I just love them . I just love that band.

What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?
Johnette Napolitano: I have a collection of antique Retablos (Mexican tin paintings), although they’re in a gallery right now. A piece of DeBusk art I bought in New Orleans many years ago.

What’s the strangest thing you own?
Johnette Napolitano: Coco, my boy dog. He’s just a watcher. He needs to watch and take note of absolutely everything I do.

Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?
Johnette Napolitano: I just had a great opening/belated birthday party at Art Queen in Joshua Tree, a great space, and it was such a great evening, my friends said it was a great party and I was really happy to see everyone have such a good time. I have a Dios de los Muertos / Saints & Crosses show up there right now and while that may be run of the mill anywhere else, it isn’t up there. I was moved to see people brought photos of their loved ones for the altar…it really made me happy…

Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?
Johnette Napolitano: I’ll be ignorant if I answer this because I’m not as up on things as I should be…but if anyone ever gets better than Picasso, let me know.

What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?
Johnette Napolitano: Oh man. Probably what I saw on the plane back from Ireland… Garage (Irish film) was a standout: and something about Iraq with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones.

What’re your top three movies?
Johnette Napolitano: The Fountainhead, Talladega Nights and the Mexican version of the life of Frida Kahlo…before Salma’s version, although that was great, too… BelovedApocalypto was just amazing. Incredible. Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte.

Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?
Johnette Napolitano: Eloy Torrez, a longtime friend and former neighbor of mine. He did the Hollywood High School Mural. A piece by David J, and I have in the gallery show right now cool stuff by David Catching from Eagles of Death Metal and my friend Hutch, who are J-Tree homies. Although those are loans for the show…it’s so nice to visit the gallery to refresh it and just sit and love being in the room.

What is your favorite game?
Johnette Napolitano: Pool. I’m a downright pool shark when I want to be. Years of waiting through soundchecks in bars. Also, Extreme Scrabble.

What sort of pie do you enjoy?
Johnette Napolitano: Humble. Although I never really enjoy it, it’s the kind I eat most.

If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?
Johnette Napolitano: That WIRED article would have been cool if it would have been written 10 years ago, bro.

Describe some horrible/otherwise amusing local commercials.
Johnette Napolitano: I don’t have a TV.

What are your five most favorite books in the world?
Johnette Napolitano: No way I could name five, but if I were to take them to a desert island, it would be the Bible, I Ching, the Qur’an and the Torah. Popul Vuh. And Dorothy Parker’s Not Much Fun, because as you can tell I wouldn’t be.

What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?
Johnette Napolitano: Things most people find titillating. Please, I’ve been in rock and roll most of my life. I’d rather watch a spider spin a web.

If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?
Johnette Napolitano: Depends on whose it was.

What would be a better weapon, a gun that fires dogs or a gun that fires cats?
Johnette Napolitano: Wouldn’t that hurt the cat?

What is your favorite meal?

Johnette Napolitano: A can of garbanzo beans, an avocado and Tabasco sauce. Mmmmmm.

What is reality?
Johnette Napolitano: This, right now, for you and me, but there is much we don’t see… like electricity… which is real as well.

Part the Second

Do you find people perceive you differently as a solo artist as opposed to your time in Concrete Blonde?
Johnette Napolitano: I don’t give a shit how people perceive me. I have my own life to live.

I read somewhere that you met one of your recent collaborators (in Catfish Scar and on your album Scarred) at a record shop in London. Was it really that random?
Johnette Napolitano: Totally random… totally.

You live in Joshua Tree, California. What attracted you to life in the desert?
Johnette Napolitano: It’s a long story, but I was drawn out there by weird circumstances… by accident, and there is no doubt it saved my life.

What do you think you might have done with your life had you not been a musician?
Johnette Napolitano: First of all, I don’t really consider myself a musician up against people like Ben Woods, or any Flamenco artist, or anyone I saw playing on the street in Morocco. I suck. However, I wish I would have dedicated myself to Flamenco earlier in life. I love to dance, and would have loved to have been a gymnast or dancer. I love to dance.

You’ve been a fairly vocal critic of George W. Bush in the last few years. How does it feel to know that he’s finally leaving office, and what are your thoughts on the election of Barack Obama?
Johnette Napolitano: Me and the rest of the world… I’m blissed out. I was very pro-Hillary, but I have to admit I was knee-jerk about having a woman in. I was beyond blissed out when Obama won. I made a cab wait while I watched the speech and was just… I still am, so very very recharged. Just recharged.

Do you have any favorite Concrete Blonde songs?
Johnette Napolitano: Not really.

How does your solo career differ from what you used to do with Concrete Blonde in terms of songwriting?
Johnette Napolitano: I wrote very deliberately for a three piece band that had to tour for a very long time, broke. No background singers, no additional musicians. We couldn’t afford that, and people generally want to see the record “live,” and I knew that. I write a lot of music, and it just can’t be contained or performed by one band or one genre of musicians, even. I’m free to work with whoever I want, however I want, and have different priorities now. I’m glad I took the time to teach myself to record my own ideas, including the sonic ones. I feel just as strongly about a delay time, or sound effect, or guitar effect as I do about a lyric, but nobody every took me seriously about that when I was in a band…

Do you typically enjoy performing live?
Johnette Napolitano: No. I love it when I’m in the song. But I have to say, it’s just really, really hard for me. How would you like to stand up in front of people and spill guts? Not easy. Having said that, I owe the people that come to shows absolutely everything I have, and they know very well I have spent many years standing out with them in the rain, signing everything I can, and I love every single one of them. Even the ones that make it very hard for me to concentrate and play. Even then, it’s only an hour… and it takes 23 hours of airports, and customs, and bullshit to get there. Every day. I hate it when artists say, “hey, but I’m not complaining…” Well, I AM! Any salesman knows how hard it is to even fly these days. It was fun back in the day, you know, you could fly your own gear, etc. … ask “Joe The Plumber:” how about leaving your friends and family for months, and having to work every night in a bathroom you don’t know with tools you’ve never worked with? There you go…. maybe things will change now but it’s been a royal bitch even to play. I don’t even want to talk about insurance and taxes. I’d love to keep this romantic for you but those 23 hours aren’t.

Do you prefer performing with a band, or being on stage alone?
Johnette Napolitano: Both.

In addition to Scarred, you’ve put out a few small-run independent releases, like the two “Sketchbook” albums. Can we expect to see any more of these types of releases from you?
Johnette Napolitano: Oh yes, and I should be finishing Sketchbook 3 (“Naked Music”) rather than doing this right now, but I like your questions. May I also give it way up for CDBABY, and everybody should work through them – they pay bills, much more than anything on major releases have.

The internet has changed the way music is distributed. Do you see this as a positive change? And what do you think of the file-sharing phenomena, with regards to music?
Johnette Napolitano: That’s the only reason I’m still around and you’re talking to me now.

Other than the internet, how do you feel the entertainment industry has changed since you first started out in music? Or has it?
Johnette Napolitano: Meet the new boss, etc.

I know I’m not the only person who considers you to be an incredibly talented vocalist. Did you ever have any formal training?
Johnette Napolitano: One lesson before we went on tour for the first time by a woman who seemed determined to destroy my voice. I won’t list the people she “trained,” but she was a downright dominatrix, and I am lucky I can sing to this day after that. Freak. But I studied Cante (Flamenco singing) in Spain, and that is a whole world… art is all that matters. I think the best musical moments… was that an earlier question?… were in Spain; I took 4 classes a day, and my gypsy teacher from Jerez shook my hand after my Palmas (hand-clapping) classes. Any drummer worth his salt knows that eastern Compas (rhythm) is very, very hard. That was an honor. My Cante teacher was amazing, and the Flamencos respect no American music but the blues, so you really have to bring it hard to them. In Spain, it’s beyond “training,” it’s reminding you of what’s important in life. It’s not just singing, or playing, it’s making your art first in your life. Then, and only then, it will come through.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like people to know about?
Johnette Napolitano: SB3, and I’m pushing Cocktails in Paradise, which is a project I’ve been working on awhile for the stage to happen… the show is up at Art Queen for the rest of November [2008], I think, and I have many plans but they depend on other people, so… we’ll talk about them later!


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