Jude Johnstone Shares Her Heart
If Jude Johnstone is not yet a musical household name, she sure as hell should be. Her lusty, throaty vocals recall Lucinda Williams, Stevie Nicks, and Bonnie Raitt; her fluent, jazzy, and soulful piano chops recall Laura Nyro. As everyone from Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Bette Midler to Jennifer Warnes and Raitt knows—all of whom have recorded her songs—she’s a songwriter’s songwriter, she has an impeccable flair for producing, she’s a damn fine photographer (she took the photos for her new album “Shatter”), and she’s fiercely cut her own path through a recording industry that often wants to pigeonhole artists to one music genre or another. As she told me about Shatter, “I put everything I do on the album—there’s every genre here, and I wanted it to be that way. I don’t want to be pinned down to one category or other. It’s like a Tom Waits record—don’t tell me who I am.”
Shatter, Johnstone’s sixth album, should be spinning on everyone’s turntable by now or playing on repeat on CD players or iPods. Johnstone gathered her core group of musicians for this album: Danny Frankel on drums, Jon Ossman on bass, Dan Savant on trumpet, Marc Macisso on sax, Tim Young on guitar, Maxayn Lewis on background vocals. Showcasing every style on the album, she conducts us on a journey through blues, jazz, reggae, gospel, soul, and New Orleans stomp, careening around corners filled with light only to plunge us into darkness. All the while, she’s peeling back the layers of hurt, confusion, and mystery in search of some healing, some understanding, some love, and some knowledge of the ways of life, love, and self.
As she told me in a no-holds barred, heart-to-heart, cut-to-the-bone, and flat-out fun conversation a few weeks ago, “this album is about rebuilding. The title track is pretty deep, with a lot of layers; you have to let yourself fall apart—’shatter’—and accept that broken state, with all its shame, grief, guilt, before you can put everything together again.” Indeed, “Shatter” launches with a spare gospel piano to which Johnstone joins her aching plea to be broken in order to put it all together again; it’s not long, though, before it becomes a full-tilt gospel tune, complete with Radoslav Lorkovic’s plaintive organ, Dan Savant’s mournful trumpet, Charley Morillas’ New Orleans jazz-funeral trombone, and the gospel “choir” of Johnstone and her longtime friend, Maxayn Lewis. In the chorus, Johnstone prays commandingly, “shatter the tears/shatter the cost/so that my heart/can heal the loss/I’m on my knees/looking for peace/at the end of the day.” “Shatter” opens the album on a terrifying but beautiful note, a harbinger of the struggles and splendor of the rest of the album.
If the title track ascends to the light after crawling through the darkness, the second track, “What a Fool,” descends quickly into an inferno of dark self-doubt, fueled by uncertainty and imprudence, as Johnstone introduces a character who appears again in several other songs on the album: “The Underground Man” (from which Johnstone takes the name of the character), “Who Could Ask for More,” and “Touchdown Jesus.” “I’ve never done anything like this on a record,” she says. “I was letting out this bad guy—and I call him a man; I don’t know why—that’s inside of me that’s caused a lot of pain in my life. I even gave him a voice; this is somebody else; we all have dark and light and all have this dark voice inside us. The underground man has many layers; you can’t make a journey without taking the light and the dark together.”
The music matches the mood on these songs. “What a Fool” sounds like it’s sung by a demon straight out of The Exorcist to a frantic, disjointed, New Orleans stomp jazz that’s punctuated by a the call-and-response of the demon’s minions on the chorus. If Jethro Tull’s “My God” from its Aqualung album suddenly added smoky jazz trumpet and sultry strings, then you’d have the music on that provides the shelter in which the underground man lives. On “The Underground Man,” Johnstone captures the duality of this character richly and knowingly: “The underground man/he lives in a corner/he’ll drag you down with him/if you’ll come along/and he used to know freedom/and he used to have hope/and he even had a lover/but that was long, long ago.” New Orleans funk drives “Touchdown Jesus,” a song inspired by stories Dr. John told Johnstone. “We played down in New Orleans once and I got to talking to Mac. He told me a lot of stories about his early days in New Orleans and some of the really heavy stuff that went down in his life.” When he gave her directions to get to his place, he told her to take a left at the statue of Touchdown Jesus. Weaving the image of this iconic statue into Dr. John’s stories, Johnstone artfully tells a tale of lowdown despair and the craving for some kind of redemption: “It’s a blessing/and it’s a curse/It’s salvation in reverse/It’s the lion and the lamb/and the devil holding hands/it’s the truth and it’s a lie/Touchdown Jesus/better help me now.” Johnstone smartly reveals the irony that accompanies the search for a way out—especially by making supplication to an inert being—when even redemption is a blessing and a curse.
Even songs that don’t feature the underground man raise questions about self-identity and our journey toward wholeness. “The record is pretty spiritual, or what I’d call “spiritual,” anyway,” she says. “I don’t mean religious, or religion here. I can’t really acknowledge or put a name on the thing I’m searching for, but I’m searching for it incessantly. The record is all about finding yourself.” “Halfway Home,” which could some straight off a Laura Nyro album, acknowledges the never-ending challenges of a journey home to one’s self (or to a safe haven, anyway)—”Halfway home…she’s on her own/knowing that she is really all alone.” The album’s final track—the reggae “Free Man”—celebrates the freedom gained through struggle; the imperative of “Shatter” now becomes a victory dance in which “the opposition” is dancing at the singer’s feet; yet, the singer recognizes that this freedom can fall once again into darkness; for now, however, the singer has come to a place where exultations can be shouted and new realities embraced.
You can hear the wide diversity of Johnstone’s musical influences on every note on the album. She thinks of her music mentor, the late, great Clarence Clemmons, every day of her life. “Clarence Clemons brought me to California and changed my life forever. He was such a great friend, and I still think about him every day; he left us way too soon.” She also counts The Beatles, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Glenn Miller as influences. “My music is timely as it is because my brother was upstairs listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and my father was downstairs listening to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. That diversity really influenced me and my own music, and I’m grateful for what my family was listening to.”
Shatter fills us with the voice of a wise woman who’s fiercely honest and open in sharing her own wounds with us in the hope that we’ll have ears to hear and eyes to see the truths she’s so tenderly, beautifully, and powerfully revealing to us.
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.