Jude Johnstone is a very special songwriter and someone who has been producing wonderful music under the media radar for many years now. Her experience in the music industry is second to none and it was a real treat to speak with her when she agreed to spend some time giving her insights and thoughts on the creative process and her career. If you have not heard her music, then the following interview should certainly have you looking to add her to your collection of important artists.
When did you begin to play music and was the piano always your instrument of choice?
I started writing songs when I was 8 years old and started playing piano. And yes, piano was always my instrument of choice.
Who were your early influences when you were growing up?
My influences varied widely because of my dad, my brothers, my mom ... they were anywhere from Glen Miller, Sarah Vaughn, The Beatles, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Lowell George, Jeez Louize, so many more.
In 2002 your debut, Coming of Age, was released with notable guest appearances from Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood & Jennifer Warnes. How did you come to have them involved with the project?
I was back stage at a concert in Santa Barbara that featured Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby and I forget who else … after the show I was talking to Jackson and said, “I am gonna finally make an album at 40 years old!” and he said, “Well, that’s a great idea! It takes about 40 years before you actually have anything to say.” So, I said, “Would you sing on it with me?” And he said, “Sure.” And the same with the others that sang on it. Was as simple as that.
Were you happy with the reception that it received on release?
Well, I was on a label that my manager and I made up so there was no machinery behind it. There was no money to promote a product like what is necessary. We were with a distributer that was calling Barnes and Noble and Borders and asking them to put it in their stores but I had no prior records, audience, or reason for that, so they said no. Then I got an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition with Renee Montagne. Well, it went well and the impulse buyers on their way to work that morning stopped at the Borders and Barnes and Nobles stores to get the cd but it wasn’t there, you see, so they had to search it out on our website etc. That takes too much time. We still sold 7000 cds that morning and would’ve sold 20,000 if it had been easily available in the stores. But that’s the catch 22. So, after that, the bookstores called our distributer and said, “Where is this cd everyone is asking us about?” And they said, “That is the one we tried to get you to put in your store.” Well, of course, then they did put it in the stores but it was too late. It’s an impulse buy. So, in answer to your question, was I pleased with the reception from that the first CD, I’d say yes. But I was handcuffed.
Clarence Clemons was an early mentor and invited you to E-Street band sessions for the River. How did that experience shape you?
Clarence Clemons was my guardian angel in every sense of the term. He was my second dad, uncle, whatever you wanna call it. He brought me to Los Angeles where I lived for 14 years and worked in those early days with Springsteen’s producer, Charles Plotkin, who helped me hone my craft. I wouldn’t be talking to you now had it not been for Clarence. It’s too long a story but he was one of the greatest friends and supporters I have ever had.
You also sung on records by T Bone Burnett and Leonard Cohen and were invited to compose some music with one Mr Bob Dylan. What were these experiences like for you as a young artist and what are your memories of that time?
Oh, I was fresh in Los Angeles in those days. And not a pretty picture in some ways. Yeah, I remember singing some with T-Bone and more with one of his cohorts, Stephen Soles, who I worked with quite a bit. As for Leonard, I was invited by Jennifer Warnes to sing on his I’m Your Man album, a great privilege. Entirely because of Jennifer at the time. It was a blast and Leonard was a blast. I will never forget the experience. The Dylan thing was a fluke. His publishers at the time just sent me a “song start” of his that they wanted me to take a look at...so I finished it and recorded it and sent it back to them. They were trying to make him some money, I think, maybe get some cuts, to pay for some of his overhead, I suppose. It has only been recorded by one artist whose record wasn’t widely released. Hardly anyone’s ever heard it. I almost did a weird version of it for my current cd but didn’t have the time.
Your songs have been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Bette Midler, Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, Jennifer Warnes, Trisha Yearwood and many others. Do you write with such artists in mind or do the songs come from a personal perspective initially?
No, I do not think of other singers when writing, generally. I just write my songs cause I have to. Then afterward, I might think, “Oh, I’ll bet Trisha would really like this one.” So, I’ll send it to her. I did write this one Xmas song that’s very sad that I actually heard Willie Nelson singing in my head as I was writing it. But that’s rare. Never got it to him.
Has song-writing for others become your main focus or do you see the release of your own work as the key driver?
The release of my own work is for me, mostly, and my fans, cause I don’t have a situation that can get my records out there too far. It is like a calling card for my friends who are more famous than me to listen to and take songs from it, hopefully, and record them on their own albums so that the songs find their way out into the world.
Your second release in 2005, On a Good Day, received much praise. Did you feel a media momentum building at this stage of your career?
I just put my music out there as best I can. I have the acknowledgment of my peers and try not to have a lot of expectations beyond that.
In 2007 the Blue Light release took a new direction into a more jazz-based space. Was this a conscious decision and did you feel the need to redefine your sound?
Blue Light was made because, first of all, jazz inspired writing and chord changes are my favourite kind of writing to do, particularly torch. At that time, Henry Lewy, Joni Mitchell’s long time engineer/producer, who had also worked with me on many unreleased tracks, and been a lifelong friend, died. And because that style of music was his favourite that I did, I needed to do that record to grieve his loss. For starters
Mr Sun quickly followed in 2008 and remained in the area of reflective jazz-based arrangements. The lyrics referenced songs that dealt with the challenges of relationships, hope, loss and gained perspectives on life. Did you allow character writing to infuse your songs or did they continue to evolve from personal experience?
Mr. Sun was derived entirely from personal experience. The whole record was about a relationship with the same person, from start to finish.
Quiet Girl arrived in 2011. The songs included were a return to something of a roots/country base in terms of song structures. Was this a conscious decision?
Yes, it was a conscious decision to go back to the Americana cause I felt I had, over two albums, done the work I had wanted to do in jazz/blues. For the time, anyway.
Was the title in any way a reflection of your absence from the media glare over the previous years?
No, it was about a guitar player.
Shatter was released in 2013 and saw you speak of new beginnings and seeking a sense of rebirth. Was there a new perspective shaping you at this time?
Yes. But it’s too long a story. I was in a separation/divorce at the time after 28 years of marriage. So many of the songs were about what I was thinking at that time.
Your new record is now ready for release and can you tell us a little more about the central themes and the creative process behind it?
The new CD contains songs that pertain to love, some of my traveling abroad in the last few years and what it’s meant to me.
You have been touring in Europe, on and off, for a few years now. Touring can be hard work but do you find the journey and the miles worthwhile?
Touring Europe and seeing more of the world and its inhabitants has saved my life.
You have now moved to Nashville. Was this to be closer to the hit machine factory or was it for other reasons?
I moved here because I could no longer afford to care for my 1800s Victorian house on the California coast and rather than go all the way back to Maine, where I’m from, I thought I would try Nashville, since I have so many contacts here. Still working on that. We’ll see.
Do you like playing live or would you prefer to remain as a home-based writer essentially?
I love playing Live and telling stories. And I like staying home. But staying home doesn’t get you very far. Around here, you gotta get out and be seen. So I try to do that every now and then.
When you look back over the arc of your career what reflections do you draw?
That’s a tough question. I have some regrets about missing some opportunities that I shouldn’t have missed cause I was asleep at the wheel at certain times. but at other times, I suited up and showed up and it was good. I’m grateful that other artists recorded my songs. It was a great living for a long time. It put my kids through various schools, it fed our faces. You know, I am grateful for the most part.
Has the changing distribution of music been a good or bad thing for your career?
The internet and the way music is pretty much stolen these days has been very bad for me. The artists that have recorded my songs don’t sell records anymore so unless you are writing hit singles that are getting radio airplay, you don’t make any money anymore. I mean, I made a living on album cuts from album sales and those days are kind of over unless you’re on a very big record like a Beyoncé or Adele or someone like that. There’s still money in tv and film placements but those are hard to come by. I’m working on that.
Is the present state of the music business something that you now embrace?
No, I don’t embrace where the music biz has gone for the reasons I just stated. Also, I’m old fashioned. I loved getting a whole album by an artist. The album is its own full statement. The songs are meant to be listened to together. My albums certainly are. Not to be taken a song at a time out of context. I take the sequence of each record and the meaning behind the whole record very seriously. I do think it’s sad that people just download a song and put it on some playlist on their iPod. I mean, that’s just not what I ever envisioned. It’s art. You don’t order pieces of a painting. You buy the painting.
What does the immediate future hold for you and is the glass half full or half empty?
I have no idea what the future holds for me or writers like me. I just bang away at it cause it’s what I do. I didn’t choose music. It chose me. I stopped trying to figure out if the glass is half empty or half full a long time ago and just do my work and hope I can do it again tomorrow
Interview by Paul McGee