Johnette Napolitano: Bouncing back, losing a mentor, carrying on

Johnette Napolitano (Photo by Todd Nakamine)
Johnette Napolitano (Photo by Todd Nakamine)

Johnette Napolitano has one of those rare gifts, blessed with the vocal ability to channel directly from your ear canal to your heart, her vocal timbre rattles you until you internally bleed. She brought that gift this week to the Hotel Café, where backed by her excellent new collaborators, The Division Men, she rolled through songs old and new.

Fittingly she opened the show with her sublime cover of “Everybody Knows” by the late Leonard Cohen. Given the nature of recent political and personal events, along with the passing of her friend and mentor Leon Russell earlier that day, the show had a somber and reflective feel to it. This was not a night for celebration as much as it was about deep reflection. The classic Concrete Blonde “vampire anthems” “Caroline” and “Mexican Moon” sounded as sultry as ever. Her campfire version of the American standard “Ghost Riders in the Sky” was particularly stirring.

Napolitano left the madness of Hollywood 15 years ago to rescue horses and create art in the spiritual mecca of Joshua Tree. The time in the desert has flavored her voice with the intoxicating scent of burning sage. Napolitano never ascended to pop darling status in the Hollywood scene. Too smart, steamy and savvy to wear any crown given to her, she reigned over her own little Hollywood kingdom of romantics, goths, rockers and punks.

She sat down with Buzz Bands LA and discussed a 34-year career abundant with success, tragedy and history, along with her resurgence, the passing of Russell and some political commentary.

It was really amazing to see you live again. Why aren’t we getting more of that?

Johnette Napolitano: Well, the band [Concrete Blonde] ended in 2012, and it wasn’t really expected then, and I was kinda was left there going “What am I going to do now?” … In the back of my mind I had wanted to do a record like (2015’s solo effort “The Naked Album”) for a long time. So I jumped on the road because I had to, really. It killed a lot of birds with one stone. Europe I hadn’t been to in a long time and the only offers I got were retro offers, you know, eighties packages and whatever and that’s just not what I do. I had been asked to do a live DVD for a long time (the just released live DVD, “The Naked Show”), the fans have wanted one forever. And so I figured this will be great, and the three years we spent looking for a place to do this, because this would also be a way for part of the world to be up to speed and know what I’m doing. It was almost like updating my resumé really. The fans wanted it bad, and for three years I’d been working on it. And also, financially I really needed to do it, because touring costs a lot of money. It’s really, really hard economically to keep it going. Things have been bumpy in the last 10 years. Its harder and harder to be on the road. All the moving parts have to fit for it to be successful, and if they’re not, then there is no audience and you can’t go out. So I got the CD done and then it became kind of a fucked-up situation. (Pause) Can this year go away? (Laughs)

Oh in so, so many ways. I’m being dead serious. Unfortunately, we buy into this false idea that on January 1, 2017 everything will start anew and that would be brilliant. But I have this bad, bad feeling it is not going to be getting better.

JN: Well, I study a bit of astrology, and I know damned well that that’s not gonna happen. I don’t really think anybody thinks so. I think people are really dreading it. But you gotta live your life one way or another, and you either appreciate it as it is, you either look for the shit that’s good and surf it, or there’s no other way to do it. And there is shit that is good.

Of course, much of it is what you wish to see.

JN: Let me tell you a story. So I’m in Texas with Laurie Sargent, who is just fabulous, she’s a friend of mine and we toured together for a couple of years. Once a month for about a week, just the two of us. It was the anti “big tour” structure, where every hour is accounted for, and it was very cool. We’d use backdrops, I’d read from my book, it was a great thing.

So I’m in Fort Worth and I pass out and people went crazy.

So we went out, and in Fort Worth, I completely Hillary Clinton-ed after four songs. I completely dropped, fell over backwards, and it was weird. Over the year I started doing shorter and shorter shows and people were starting to get ticked off about it. I’d come off stage and I’d go, “Damn, I feel like I’ve played for an hour and a half,” what the fuck is wrong? So I’m in Fort Worth and I pass out and people went crazy. Here’s the deal, before that these kids called the Division Men hit me up. They were in Paris when the shit went down. They made a beautiful video and recorded a song by Jesse Hughes called “I Love You All the Time.” A great fucking song from Jesse’s solo album. His solo album is like a Brian Wilson album. It’s crazy good. So they did the song and the video and they sent me the link. And I thought, oh my God I love these guys, this is so beautiful. So they showed up in Austin, the night before Fort Worth and they had brought a bottle of Mezcal. So I never touched the bottle, but I posted a picture of me and them with the bottle on Instagram like “Hey, look, we’re backstage …”

And so I pass out I Fort Worth and all of a sudden the shit hits the fan. People are calling me a drunk, an asshole and this and that. And then the Dallas Observer, who I had just done a great interview with, they posted it on YouTube, me collapsing onstage. And so people are upset, and rightfully so, I can’t blame them if they thought that was the case. So I went home and the doctor diagnosed me with a thyroid problem. And that was it, my hair was falling out for a year, my nails were breaking, I could not figure out what was going on, I could not make it through the day. I’m looking at people who are making it through the day without a nap, and I’m going, ‘How do they do that?’ But it is a very misdiagnosed condition because you just think you’re getting older. So what happened then was people started hating on the Division Men for bringing me a bottle of tequila.

Well, that is uncalled for. So then what happened?

JN: So I took the Dallas Observer video down. I claimed copyright infringement and had YouTube pull it down. Report on it, that’s your job. But you had no right to post the video. That’s just not cool. So Caroline from the Division Men wrote me an email saying that they were sorry if they had anything to do with what happened in Fort Worth. I said, ‘Are you kidding me? People are giving me shit all the time. I go down south and they’ll give me bottles of moonshine.’ So they were getting hated on and they’re the nicest people in the world. The Internet can be a cesspool when it wants to be.

So we kept in touch and asked if we wanted to do music together. I love what they do so they flew me down to Austin and I needed it. Because I’d been taking care of myself all summer and that devastated me. I didn’t want to play again after that incident. I never thought I was going to play again. I’d said fuck it, whatever. And it affects you, and everybody who works for you. I came home and there all the messages from freaked-out publicists. That I felt bad about, those are people’s jobs. I don’t mean to make trouble for people.

I really feel this is magic and special. And I don’t want to play unless it’s that.

So I flew down to Austin, they brought me down there and they picked me up at the airport and I took my shoes off and didn’t put them on again until they took me back to the airport two days later. It was just a great experience and I asked them straight-up how about opening for me, and by the way, how about coming out and playing with me. I really feel this is magic and special. And I don’t want to play unless it’s that. I have a lot to live up to as well. I want to be touched by God. I want this to be like nothing else. And I’ve never had harmonies before and they sing so beautifully together. I love arranging things like that. And shows were booked and they came out from Austin and bought a huge RV on the way. Who has the balls to buy an RV and just assume that it is going to get all the way to California? So they arrived at my house and we rehearsed every day for a week. This mini-tour was basically a test drive with the band, and now that I know how awesome it is, I really want to get serious next year..

Now that I feel better, we really want to put a lot of work into it. … I had people losing faith in me and the shows weren’t long enough, and let’s be honest, I’ll have to work to get that back.

It’s great to hear you’ve been rejuvenated by this. I don’t think the general public, people who haven’t performed before, I don’t think they understand the physicality of it. What I mean by that is not just being a performer, leaping about onstage. There are certain performers who really pour their inner pain, or whatever it is that is motivating the music, into the performance. What happens when you do that is you bleed all over the place. And it is draining and exhausting.

JN: It has killed people.

That is why performers turn to drugs and alcohol. It’s not just escapism. They are self-medicating.

JN: You have to access that plane. When you’ve been traveling all day and you’re in a foreign environment, if you take a plant and put it in another environment it won’t thrive. So keep yourself in that state, in order to access that plane, you will do anything you have to do that. Now I have to do things differently. I’m not 30. I have to be a little smarter to let anybody tell me that you have to out for seven months straight. Why?

It all comes down to the cost of touring. And visas aren’t getting any cheaper.

JN: No, It’s not going to get any easier. I do want to cultivate something out in the desert here. That has always been my goal all along. And it really came to be this past weekend. We were just playing music here at the ranch, outside in the barn. It just sounded great. Once I get the internet upgraded I want to start streaming things from the house. That was always my plan for my little ranch here, to have it be a creative center.

Yeah, you almost have to come from the place of a painter instead of a singer songwriter. You have to constantly be creating. You need to stay in the frontal lobe of your fan base.

JN: Oh yeah, I’ve always cultivated that. I was in a band with a couple of engineers who were making their own circuit boards out of cassette machines before anyone has computers at all. I mentioned Leon (Russell) on stage in Tucson, how he always had engineers around him, and I remember Warner Bros. laughing at him when he said the future of music was in video. So I’ve always been ahead of that curve. It takes keeping up on social media, and having to create and synch up posts and how to incorporate it all. That takes a lot of effort to enjoy it, especially with artists of my age. I like making an art project out of it, it gives me an outlet to make films and do little things. I’ve always done that.

You looked very much in your element on Sunday. You looked comfortable, safe, and among people who care about you.

JN: Exactly, it goes a long way, man. They know what I went through.

I noticed that you were upset, perhaps fragile, on Sunday.

JN: Well, Leon died.

Exactly. We’d lost Leon and Leonard in a span of four days.

JN: Leonard I love but I had never met him personally, but Leon was a very big deal. And with having to put Coco down (her dog) and True (her horse) kicking me and severely injuring me, it felt like everything is changing really hard and really fast. And I had to shelve it. Because I had to keep my focus. I had a lot to prove with these shows. I had to prove that I could keep it together. I know Leon wouldn’t have wanted me to quit. He used to go on stage with all kinds of hell going on in his life. But, yeah, it was a shock. The kids came into the house from the trailer and told me that Leon had died. And I immediately shelved it.

Do you want to share any special memories of Leon?

JN: Oh yeah, way too many. One of the first times I had seen some serious unbelievable racism when Leon married Mary. And it was so devastating to him. My first job for him, he’d pass out cards at shows that he’d have the audience fill out, a sort of survey as to what they did and didn’t like, what songs would they like to hear and so on. He saw all this coming, how to manage a fan base and enter everything into a computer, and that was my job. And the first card I picked up said “get rid of the n****r.” It was just like that a lot.

We went to see Jerry Lee Lewis, me and Steve Ripley, who was Leon’s producer out of the Church Studio in Tulsa. So Steve and I go to see Jerry Lee Lewis at the Palomino in North Hollywood where all the country people played. It’s not there anymore. So Steve and I are in the dressing room before the show, and Steve is just breathless, he worships Jerry Lee and all that. So we go back and Jerry Lee is siting on the couch and he has two bottles of Jack in front of him, one empty and one half empty, and he looks up at us and — he was so mean, so mean — and he goes, “You work for Leon?” And we’re like yeah, and he says, “Well, he was alright until he married the n****r.” He gets up off the couch and he goes to walk out the door and he reaches over and grabs my ass and then walks out onstage. What the fuck? I’m just standing there in a cloud of “what the fuck” and I felt so bad for Steve because he worshiped Jerry Lee Lewis.

You couldn’t enjoy the show after that. So I saw Leon the next day and I go, “Hey, I saw Jerry Lee last night and, look man, he said you were OK until you married the n****r.” And Leon stroked his beard and said “Jerry Lee said that?” And he just walked away. I never heard Leon ever say a bad word about anyone at all but one guy, a promoter he called a snake. But I had his back, I wanted him to know what Jerry Lee said. Steve was too scared to tell him. I wasn’t. That’s why he trusted me. I wanted him to know shit. So that’s the Jerry Lee Palomino story. There’s a ton of them man, I worked for him for a long time.

Music was Leon’s God. He just really wanted to worship all the time, 24/7, that was it.

When you worked for him it was much more of a family situation than anything else. You wanted to be around Leon all the time. He was nocturnal, he’d get up in the middle of the night and want to do something. Then you’d have to go down to Burbank and sometimes JJ Cale was there, or Willie Nelson. That’s the way he rolled. Music was Leon’s God. He just really wanted to worship all the time, 24/7, that was it. It was such a life-changer, I was only 20 at the time, 19 or 20. It was such a life changing thing to be around him. I had no idea that you could really live that way. In the world I grew up in, when I was 18 my father was like, when are you going to get married? You should have a kid by now. You know Italian-American stuff, east coast old-school whatever and I didn’t talk to my father for 17 years after because since I was exposed to this other life getting married just wasn’t life to me. I was like no, no, you gave me a guitar when I was nine, and he was like why can’t you just be a dental assistant? And I have asked myself that question many, many times over the years!

I knew Leon’s son Ted. I met Leon one at a tour stop with Willie Nelson at the Belly Up down in San Diego. Leon was very gracious but didn’t pay us much mind, whereas Willie tried to get everyone high.

JN: When Leon would get bored, we’d have something called the clone call, where he’s round us all up. Diane, his longtime assistant would round us all up. So Leon was getting a divorce. He needed a record and he needed it now. So he called Willie, apparently he lent Willie like $600 back in the day. I guess they went gambling or some shit. So he called Willie and said let’s make a record. JJ Cale was on that, Bonnie Raitt came by and it turned out to be “Heartbreak Hotel,” which went to No. 1. Leon had a songbook on the piano, he flipped through it and they recorded whatever came up. It was a massive hit and that turned out to be Leon’s divorce money. But my whole gig all night was a huge bowl of weed and rolling fucking joints all night long until I could not see anymore. And then Diane gave us all uppers. Then there was Ambrose Campbell, Leon’s longtime spiritual advisor and percussionist, he was Nigerian and Leon loved him. He was this wiry little dude. He used to say “I am a bushman, I need my bush.” He was beautiful. It was all just a beautiful thing. I was thinking about that this morning, about everyone that worked there. It was such an amazing atmosphere. So fertile.

Leon was very good at building a hive.

JN: At building a hive, that’s interesting. He could stir it up too. Sometimes he’d put two people together just to see what would happen. He was no angel that’s for sure. But the last time I saw him, he made a point. We were at a casino, and he sent someone out to see if I was there. And so I got on the bus and he just sat there and said “I really want to congratulate you on all your success, Johnette.” And he just squeezed my hand really hard. And that is the last thing I remember.

Donald Trump is the President-elect of the United States of America. Your comment please.

JN: I haven’t said anything because there isn’t anything that hasn’t already been said. And if everybody would just shut up for a minute that would be good too. I will tell you what we discussed on the road. Keep in mind that we have a Latino band, every single one of them. I’m aware of the that dynamic. I believe President Obama, when he looked straight into that camera and said “Donald Trump will never be president.” Obama is a constitutional lawyer. If anybody has the class, and he has so much class, I just love the man. For all we know, I know Barbara Boxer is trying to stir up the electoral college, to get to them before they actually put their vote in. It is possible that they could change their vote. And there is a lot of shit with the electoral college. If anyone can find a loophole to block Trump from that office and slap him with some shit, it’s Barack Obama.