A few months ago, when I started this blog, I was worried that I would only interview people I knew. Maybe a lot of local musicians and then friends from other cities. Now, I know a lot musicians so I could go on for a long time just with those folks. But, I never imagined there would be so many songwriters I’ve never heard of before. My buddy, Julie Peel, sent my a message and told me I needed to interview Duquette Johnston. Hearing the sincerity, truthfulness and passion in his songs I completely agreed. Here’s some quotes from his answers that summarize his views pretty well, “.. I want to always be writing, sometimes things get in the way. When people tell me they are waiting to write for inspiration or something else I just don’t understand that. What if something happens to you? Write, write, write, now!…..Be fearless, do not be afraid to experiment or be vulnerable with your music and your lyrics….”
Write, write, write, now. Be fearless, experiment, be vulnerable. That’s great advice for all of us.
Current City or Home Town: I’m currently living in Birmingham, Alabama; born in Franklin, Tennessee; raised between Wyoming and Alabama
Record Label: I am very fortunate to be a part of the Pipe and Gun family and the Communicating Vessels family.
Most recent release: ‘ Rabbit Runs A Destiny’ (2013)
Band Affiliation: In the way past: Verbena 91-98, Anomoanon 99, Cutgrass 97-2002, The Blake Babies 2001(reunion tour) Gum Creek Killers 2010, Duquette Johnston Always
Over his last three records, Johnston explored his relationship with Alabama, where he’s been a fixture in the music scene for over twenty years, offering many raw looks at his time coming out of 90’s rock and roll (he founded and played bass for Verbena before the band signed to Capitol Records), the costs of fame and the toll it can take on the creative mind. But through the trials, three exquisite records emerged, each building on the others’ strengths and revealing Johnston’s knack at writing songs in his own commanding voice.
One listen through his new album, though, may be a bit unsettling for those familiar with Johnston’s older work, because it is such a departure, both lyrically and sonically. With mastermind Armand Margjeka at the producer’s helm, Rabbit Runs A Destiny runs the gamut, from stripped-down acoustic tracks to enormous crashes of drums, haunting strings and thick vocal harmonies, provided mostly by Isaaca Byrd of Nashville-based band The Bridges and singer/songwriter Natalie Prass.
“Part of my deal with doing this record with Armand,” Johnston says, “was me trusting him as a producer, because this was the first time I’ve let anyone else do that for me.” That sort of challenge can instill enough fear to limit the potential of a record, but Johnston’s unequivocal confidence in Margjeka’s abilities truly paid off, as the album’s ten songs are rich, fully developed and vivid beings, each a look at the intersection of psyche and reverie.
Another aspect of embracing change with Rabbit Runs A Destiny was the decision to only use musicians Johnston had never played with before. While Johnston and Margjeka bore the brunt of the album’s instrumentation, guitarist Kyle Ryan (Mindy Smith, Madi Diaz), bassist Adam Popick (Rachael Yamagata, James Farrell), string player Eleonore Denig (Marc Broussard, Katie Herzig) and drummer Evan Hutchings (Brandi Carlile, Sara Watkins) all contributed to the album, fleshing out the arrangements and giving them an intensity further developed by Margjeka’s adroit production hand.
Rabbit Runs A Destiny is new territory for Duquette Johnston, unveiling a voice that’s willing to be both vulnerable and strong. Anchored by sweeping, and often majestic, sonic landscapes, Rabbit shows a musician firmly in control of his craft, but unafraid to grow and dig deeper. These songs mark a new journey for Duquette Johnston, and one that’s worth hitching a ride to follow.
OSW: What is your songwriting/composing process?
Duquette Johnston: I do not have a distinct process. I mostly try to stay open to music always being around me and grabbing some when ever I can. I used to think I could only write during certain situations or in a certain state of mind, like when I was depressed or struggling with something. Now I think that is garbage, I want to always be writing, sometimes things get in the way. When people tell me they are waiting to write for inspiration or something else I just don’t understand that. What if something happens to you? Write, write, write, now!
OSW: Can real life stories make good lyrics without a touch of fiction or enhancement?
Duquette Johnston: I’m sure it depends on the writer and the experience. I’ve written several songs that were the exact story and no enhancement, well it depends on enhancement. The song “Oh 19” on my first album, ‘Etowah’, was a true story about a guy I did a little time with. He was a young dude, his dad had abused him his whole life doing things like burning him on the arm with cigars and worse. I could not believe the stories he told me and one night he came into the chapel where I was writing and the song just poured out really fast. The are real life stories that make their way to songs that no one could make up or enhance.
OSW: Do you read much? If so, does that influence your writing?
Duquette Johnston: I wish I read more. I have a stack of books sitting next to my bed that I are taunting me on a daily basis about my lack of reading. Well they do not really taunt me, it just feels that way. I have written whole albums pulled from verses in the bible, I would read a verse and write an entire song around it. I am extremely influenced by visuals, paintings, photographs, and film. When I write I can see the visual story unfolding in my mind and it helps me paint that picture.
OSW: Your blog features a lot of nostalgic photos, especially images focused on motorcycles. Do you have a strong connection to riding and James Dean or On The Road storylines?
Duquette Johnston: I am a pretty nostalgic man. My childhood was very surreal, looking back, and I seem to gravitate towards images of travel and rebellion. Growing up I split my years between Birmingham, Alabama and Buffalo, Wyoming, school in Alabama and summers in a very small town on the edge of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. I guess all that travel caused me to desire to be on the road a lot. I love home, but if given the chance I will drive across country in a heart beat. My father raced motorcycles when I was a kid in the 70’s for Husqvarna and my uncle Mike raced before I was born. My uncle had a horrible wreck and never rode again, but he was obsessed with music and that had a tremendous influence on me.
OSW: What influence do Brad Laner and ‘Medicine’ have on your work?
Duquette Johnston: Wow, Brad Laner. My first band, which at the time of us hanging with Medicine, was called Shallow. I can not remember how we got turned on to all the shoegaze and noise stuff going on in the early 90’s but we came across Medicine and made sure we opened for them when they came to town. Brad’s guitar sound was mind melting. He was running it through a four track recorder and back into his amp and pedals. At times it sounded like a chainsaw, yet all the songs still had a melody to them. He and Kevin Shields opened my mind to the possibility of noise being completely beautiful and using sounds in unique and creative ways. On my new album ‘Rabbit Runs A Destiny’ I finally worked with a producer who understood that and was not afraid to experiment with noises within the roots songs I was writing and giving them new life.
OSW: What is your favorite songwriting lyric?
Duquette Johnston: I have so many, but I love this from Leonard Cohen
“Well you know that I love to live with you,
But you make me forget so very much.
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us.”
OSW: What advice would you give to young songwriters/composers?
Duquette Johnston: Keep writing, never stop writing, even when you write stuff you think is crap or a throw away. You have to get that out of your system. Be fearless, do not be afraid to experiment or be vulnerable with your music and your lyrics.
OSW: You used fan funding to help the release of “Rabbit Runs a Destiny”. Do you see fan funding as necessary part of releasing an independent album or do you see it as a tool to help connect the fans to the creative process?
Duquette Johnston: It really depends on the artist. The thing about the state of the so called music business these days is that there are no real rules or set ways to release an album. What will work for one person will not work for another. For some people it is the only actual way to make the recording and get it out, so then it is necessary. I think it is an incredible tool for connecting fans to the album , not just the creative process, it gives them ownership in the project. Crowd funding in some circumstances cuts out the middle man of the music biz. It is truly incredible that I can sit in my house, if I wanted, record a song and promote to everyone around the world with out being able to go all over the world. If you can get people to get on board and give them great incentives for contributing it just builds the relationship between artist and fan. I love talking with fans and emailing with them, so it was a no brainer for me. My fans are incredibly supportive so if I can give back to them I am a very lucky man.
OSW: If you could go back and be part of any album session what would it be?
Duquette Johnston: Damn what a great question and a tough one. Being a rabid music fan there a so many albums I would have just loved to been a fly on the wall at. I’d say, ‘Tonights the Night’ by Neil Young, The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’, The Ronnetes ‘Be My Baby’, and hell any of the early stuff up in the Shoals from Rick Hall at fame and Jimmy Johnson and the boys at Muscle Shoals Sounds. I met Jimmy a couple of years ago, if I see him again I’m going to ask about recording with him. There is a live Chet Baker album I would have loved to just be in the club for. Great question man. Hell I can not stop writing out this one, ‘Loveless’ by MBV, this list could go on and on.
OSW: If you could sit down and talk about songwriting with anyone, who would it be and why?
Duquette Johnston: Neil Young! Some people will read this and go yeah well that is obvious and who wouldn’t, but he has been the guy for me my whole life. His songs have always evoked an emotional reaction in me and I love his dedication to his family, plus he seems fearless in his writing. Neil is Neil and uncompromising, for better or worse. I also would love to talk with Leonard Cohen and E (Mark Oliver Everett) of Eels, I’m dying to make an album with E.
“SIlver and Gold”
All interviews and Bonus Materials, including Duquette Johnston, will be archived alphabetically HERE for easy access in the future.
Thanks for spending some time here,
Our Scattered Words