Always Play That Song: A Conversation with Freedy Johnston

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Marla Norton

In a recording career spanning more than 30 years, Freedy Johnston has won the admiration of audiences and critics alike. In September, the singer/songwriter released his ninth album, Back on the Road to You (Forty Below Records), a 10-track collection that includes guest appearances by Susanna Hoffs, Aimee Mann and Susan Cowsill. On Tuesday, January 17, Johnston will perform at The Peoples Room in Mobile. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from Madison, WI.

Southern Stages: Freedy, thanks for your time. Where is your home base these days?

Freedy Johnston: Well my driver’s license says Joshua Tree, California so that’s where I am currently. I moved out there after Covid honestly because it was affordable. My friend [singer/songwriter] Victoria Williams has a ranch out there a basically a couple of houses and she rents me a room. It’s fantastic – it’s a good place to land.

Southern Stages: We are really enjoying Back on the Road to You. Are these songs newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?

Johnston: I put a record out in 2015, so it’s songs from the last seven years. In my method, all of the song ideas are at least 10 years old or 15 in some cases. They never got finished for certain reasons and they got recycled – that’s how it is for the new record. So, they pretty much are from the last seven years, but all from different notebook scraps from the past.

Southern Stages: You have guests on the album including Susanna Hoffs, Aimee Mann and Susan Cowsill. How do those collaborations come about? Did you write songs with them specifically in mind or hear their contributions after the songs were completed?

Johnston: We had the songs and they’re all friends. I thought, “It would be nice to hear Susanna here” and I called her up and she said, “Sure.” It was more just so I could. I hadn’t seen them in forever. The songs benefit from them, of course, but it’s not like I wrote them with them in mind.

Southern Stages: With such a large catalog of songs available to you, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

Johnston: It’s funny you should ask because I acknowledge that I’ve got a lot of songs. If I do the deep album cuts, people are just as happy. I’ve been trying to change the sets up a little bit as I go through the weeks. You do it to keep yourself interested. If you have a band, you figure out your 90-minute set, rehearse it for a week, do a couple of meaningless gigs and then go out and play just that set for a year. That makes total sense because you get so good  – the opposite of the Grateful Dead. For me, I’m so easily distracted and chatty that I change my set list every night and I’ll play the song I was just talking about. So who knows what will happen in Mobile. I’ll definitely be asking folks if they want to hear a song.

Southern Stages: It’s difficult to interview any artist these days without mentioning Covid and its effects on those that tour and interact with audiences for a living.

Johnston: Covid is like the elephant in the room – it had a huge effect and it’s still having a huge effect. In my case, I was having trouble getting a record done before Covid and it was getting me down on music in general. Covid came along and I sat there alone. I’m a hermit kind of guy anyway, but that experience made me want to be around people as much as I can. It also made me like music again. Every gig I’ve done (since Covid) has been like the best gig I’ve ever done. My songs really mean something to the fans and it moves me when I move them – I cry when they cry. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I really didn’t feel that way before Covid.

Southern Stages: You’ve performed some of your songs hundreds – even thousands – of times by now. How does an older song stay fresh and relevant to you?

Johnston: That’s a pretty good question because I hadn’t thought of it that way. I hear songs differently every day – they sound different every time I play them. If it’s a song I have played thousands of times, it’s because people like them and I enjoy playing it to get a reaction from the audience and making them happy. Songs sound different on different nights – I don’t know why that is. When I’d gotten successful, I was on the road with Sheryl Crow. I was saying something onstage about “Bad Reputation” – “Here’s my single, blah blah blah, this isn’t my best song” – just bullshit that nobody wants to hear. I remember Sheryl saying after my set, “Freedy, I feel the same way about my hit single, but I always say, ‘This is my favorite song” [laughs]. It should be – it got her a lot of success. That’s how I feel about “Bad Reputation” – I always play that song because I’m lucky to have one song that people know.

Freedy Johnston will perform at The Peoples Room in Mobile on Tuesday, January 17. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $25 and can be purchased at