Jude Johnstone has had her share of unforgettable moments during her three-decade music career. Fresh out of high school, she found herself seated next to Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band’s sax player, on an airplane. Afterward, he was so taken with the demo she sent that he invited her to recording sessions for The River and got her hooked up with Bruce Springsteen producer Chuck Plotkin in L.A. Then there were the singular songwriters—T Bone Burnett and Leonard Cohen, to name two—who recognized in her a kindred spirit and asked her to sing on their albums, and the legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson who’d show up early at her weekly gigs just because he enjoyed helping her decide which songs to put on the set list. Once, she even received an out-of-the-blue invitation to pen lyrics to music composed by Bob Dylan, who’s not only the archetypal singer-songwriter of the modern era but a pretty darn infrequent co-writer.
There’s a good reason why these sorts of informal encounters have opened so many doors for Johnstone along the way, and it’s not dumb luck.
“It’s all because of the power of the songs,” she says. “When I met Clarence, I was 18 years old, so the songs were not quite as well-written. But there was something going on that he heard, and he just plucked me out of Bar Harbor, Maine and I never went back.”
That’s no exaggeration. Ever since then, this child of a tiny, blueberry-picking New England town has made her home within shouting distance of Hollywood, and made use of her gift for emotional excavation combined with her love of sophisticated songcraft. She draws the listener in with the 11 new compositions on her sixth album, Shatter—released on her own BoJak Records—just as she’s drawn in some of the most discerning song interpreters of our time.
Johnstone arrived in L.A. in 1979 only to find that the major labels lacked the imagination to take on an artist who blended confessional singer-songwriter and Tin Pan Alley sensibilities. So she kept right on gigging—at one point holding down a residency at the very same club as Al Jarreau—and writing songs for herself. For a short time, she was signed to a fledgling publishing company. But it wasn’t until she began operating more or less outside of the music industry machinery—without the muscle of well-connected song pluggers behind her—that her songs really began crossing boundaries of genre and geography onto albums by Stevie Nicks, Bette Midler, Johnny Cash, Jennifer Warnes, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, a formative influence-turned-friend, and Trisha Yearwood, who’s cut several of Johnstone’s songs, beginning with the intimate ballad, and blockbuster hit, “The Woman Before Me.”
Recently, Johnstone discovered that her Dylan co-write had, in fact, been recorded by Tim Hockenberry, a singer who made quite the impression on the America’s Got Talent television audience. Now that they’ve actually gotten to know each other, he’s planning to record several more of her songs for his next album.
And that’s how these things tend to happen for Johnstone. “All of my cuts, other than Johnny Cash, I just got myself, because I happen to know the people that cut them enough to be in the room with them and hand them a cassette tape,” she says with a laugh.
“Trisha was a little different,” she adds. “I had written a song, it was a country song, and I’d never done that before. It just emerged from the well, and I didn’t know why. I didn’t listen to country music and I didn’t know anybody in country music or Nashville per se. So I said to my manager, Bob Burton, ‘Who can I get this song to?’ He said, ‘Well, I know Don Williams’s live sound engineer. Maybe we could send it that way and get it to Don Williams’s producer, and maybe he could take it some place.’ And that producer was Garth Fundis.”
“Eventually Garth called me and said, ‘Listen, I love this song, and I’m about to produce a brand new artist named Trisha Yearwood. We’re doing a showcase for all the record companies. Somebody’s gonna sign her. We’d like to be able to play this song in the showcase.’ I said, ‘Go for it!’ And like a week later she signed with MCA and they put the song on the record.”
As much as Johnstone loves to hear other singers sing her songs, there’s nothing quite like hearing her bring them to life herself. A decade and a half after the cuts began coming her way, she finally started recording her own independent albums, a development that landed her on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Fundis had a hand in rounding up top-tier Nashville players and producing her polished folk-pop debut Coming of Age, which featured such fans of her songwriting as Yearwood, Raitt, Warnes and Jackson Browne. For the next one, On a Good Day, Raitt and Browne were joined by a couple of additional guest vocalists with stellar roots-leaning song instincts, Rodney Crowell and Julie Miller.
Embracing her affinity for the big band records her dad played growing up, Johnstone took a jazzy turn with her third and fourth albums, Blue Light and Mr. Sun, introducing swanky horns and some of the L.A. scene’s finest, including drummer Danny Frankel (Bebel Gilberto), guitarist Freddy Koella (Dylan) and bassist David Piltch (k.d. lang). Next came Quiet Girl, with contributions from Harris, J.D. Souther and Johnstone’s old friend Clemons.
Her latest has what she calls her “core guys,” Frankel on drums, Jon Ossman on bass (Chris Botti), Dan Savant on trumpet (Sin City) and Marc Macisso—a cohort since her northeastern days—on sax (Al Stewart), plus gritty new guitarist Tim Young (Sophie B. Hawkins) and an R&B, pop and rock session singing legend she’s known for some thirty years, Maxayn Lewis.
Johnstone’s albums, which she’s been producing on her own since Blue Light, have never been thrown-together collections of her latest songs, but that’s even less the case with the uniquely character-driven Shatter.
“I’ve never had this happen on a record before,” she observes, “but what emerged during the course of making this record was a reoccurring character. I call him ‘the underground man.’ He’s that dark side of me. I think of it as a male character—not sure why, but that’s just the way it comes out. I used a special vocal sound on it that’s different than all the other songs on the record, because he’s a character and I wanted it to be evident.”
The shadowy, slinking back alley character Johnstone conjures during songs like “The Underground Man,” “What a Fool,” “Who Could Ask For More” and “Touchdown Jesus”—the latter of which was partly inspired by a visit with Dr. John in New Orleans—is a testament to what she can pull off as writer, performer and truth-teller.
“All the darkness and sort of Tom Waits-y characters on this record were just my way of describing our bad self, the bad self that wants to take you down, the person that has the low self-esteem, the addictions, that wants to undermine your success as a human being,” she explains. “And ‘Shatter,’ the title track, is about getting rid of all that, letting go of the fear and the shame and the guilt and all the stuff that we harbor and letting your true self come through, and listening to your true self. And that’s been a process that’s taken my whole life to find. This whole record is about that rebirth, the dark and the light side of it and the unabashed truth of how bad it can get and how good it can get.”
Johnstone shows that she still has the ability to surprise her audience and herself, not only by slipping into character but by the way she uses language. Instead of saying “shattered,” as you’d expect—and thereby describing a helpless state of being—she claims the word “shatter” as a potent imperative. She’s the sort of songwriter who feels compelled to wade into turbulent emotional waters with eyes wide open.
“It is complex stuff,” she says, “because relationships just are complex. No matter how you slice it, love is dark and light. And I never get tired of writing about it. It’s not the only thing I write about, but it is the most powerful thing that I write about. I have to dig as deep as I can to get to some place that the last writer hasn’t already. So I just have to tell as much of the truth as I can. There are occasions when you ask yourself, ‘Am I going too far? Is this too freakin’ sad?’ But I don’t think so.”
Now, if Johnstone were in the business of spewing unprocessed feelings, the results might be too freakin’ unintelligible. But the other important element in what she does is finesse, or to put it another way, harmonizing her personal expression with fine-tuned pop accessibility.
“The craft element is important to me,” she shares. “I do like it polished. I do like it symmetrical, and that’s thanks to all these Beatles records I heard as a child. I like it simple and concise and to the point, nothing out of place.”
And there just aren’t a lot of songwriters who do all those things so well that their songs sneak up on people the way Jude Johnstone’s do.
—By Jewly Hight