Though primarily known for her work with Concrete Blonde, Johnette Napolitano did have a life before playing with the influential alternative band, something she will remind her fans of Saturday night when she plays a solo set at Joe’s Pub in NYC.
“This is the way I started,” she said. “I started when I was 12 years old with an acoustic guitar and that’s how I’ve always written songs and that’s what I love to do. I do it every day pretty much and that’s how I wrote most of the songs for Concrete Blonde, on an acoustic guitar sitting on my bed. I don’t really know any other life.”
Listeners have benefited from that life, both musically and in print, thanks to the release of her first book, Rough Mix. A second volume is in the works, and Napolitano will be reading from the first one, which – among other things – tells the stories behind some of her songs.
“A lot of fans ask what your songs were about, and as a series, conceptually, it gave me the space and the medium to do that, and the fans really appreciate it,” she said. “It was a bucket list thing.”
It’s also a rarity to see an accomplished artist willing to reveal the meanings of her lyrics. So why do it?
“They ask,” she laughs. But she does admit that she will keep a few to herself though.
“A lot of songs I will say no,” she said. “But I have enough songs behind me that what people ask for, I can pretty much answer that. I’ve been working on Rough Mix 2, and as you get older, it’s really a beautiful thing to be blessed to get older, number one, but when you can explain it, you’re like ‘okay cool, some of them I will, some of them I won’t.’ I wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for people that cared. So I feel like I owe a certain amount of explanation, and a certain amount I don’t because I respect people’s privacy, people’s lives, and I think I’m balancing it pretty well.”
She’s also reached a point in her career where art and living has become the leading motivator in her life, giving her the freedom to do whatever she wants at the age of 55, whether it’s musically, in the literary world, or just taking care of her horses and dogs in Joshua Tree, California.
“I should have reached that point when I was in my 20s,” she laughs. “When you turn 50 you just don’t care. Actually when I turned 40 I didn’t care. I was at a gas station phone booth, and I said ‘I’m 40 years old, I don’t have 40 more years to deal with this.’ And if I am lucky enough to live to be 80 years old, and I plan to, I’m not gonna do this anymore, it’s ridiculous. The sooner you realize that, the better. And you have to, otherwise your life was never worth living, because you lived it for someone else. The reason that you’re alive right now is because you were meant to be. You have things to teach, things to learn, and things to say, and I will never forget that.”
These days, the toughest days for Napolitano are when she loses old friends, like the recently deceased writer and singer Mick Farren, so when asked about the difficulty of picking a set list for a show like tomorrow night’s, that’s not an earth-shattering dilemma; it’s just something to deal with in her own way.
“That is rough,” she admits, “because I have new stuff that I’m absolutely in love with, so the first four or five songs are new, and then I have to give it up to the fans who want to hear what they want to hear. But to myself, I owe myself the new music. I live for that. If I don’t do any new music, everybody’s sticking me in the past. I’m not an 80s band; we never were.”
So what should fans expect at Joe’s Pub?
“Who I am right now and to celebrate that we’re all still alive,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Johnette Napolitano plays Joe’s Pub on Saturday, August 31. For tickets, click here