Q&A With a So-Cal Icon
By Esther Sanchez
Johnette Napolitano has had an impressive music career that has spanned decades. To the excitement of local music geeks such as myself, she will be performing her newest material at two, intimate acoustic shows at BART lounge in Cathedral City on August 21st and 22nd. The Joshua Tree resident and Hollywood native is best known for her work as lead singer and bassist in the ’80s/-’90s alternative rock trio, Concrete Blonde. She is also a poet, social activist, sculptor and composer with a respectable menu of credits that is too long to list. Needless to say, I was rather stoked to have the opportunity to pick her brain.
Sanchez: “Do you believe that your family and upbringing molded the decisions that lead to you becoming a music performer?”
Napalitano: “Most definitely. I wrote my first song when I was 12 years old. Early on my parents recognized I had some sort of talent. I think it was when the ‘Wizard of Oz’ showed on TV the first time. After we watched it, I walked over to an upright piano someone had given my father because they’d owed him money, and played ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ note for note. I’ll let you do that math, but I’ll never forget the way my parents looked at each other. My Dad bought me a guitar not long after, and I think of him every show I play.”
Sanchez: “What type of music did you hear in your home growing up and how did it influence you?”
Napalitano: “My mother loved show tunes: I used to lay under the Hi-Fi and I choreographed an entire dance to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ We listened to Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, and of course the Rat Pack…Sinatra, Dean Martin, the whole Italian American thing. My father knew Mario Lanza, and was devastated when he died. He used to bring home carrots out of Mario’s garden. My mother loved country, as her people were from Texas.”
Sanchez: “What has been the most defining or memorable moment of your career to date?”
Napalitano: “My band, Concrete Blonde, played China a few years ago. That was without a doubt my proudest moment, because I don’t know of a lot of bands who have done that. It was amazing, the people were beautiful, and thousands of Chinese knew every song. We were treated like royalty and I hope to go back. We always wanted to go where most American bands were afraid to……depending on the currency, era, etc. most managers couldn’t deal with foreign touring. But, if we artists don’t reach out with our art, then we risk becoming slaves to politicians who rarely bother to speak more than one language, yet want us to hear their message.”
Sanchez: “How does this new project differ from your previous albums?”
Napalitano: “Well, it’s the first ‘album’ I’ve made after more than a year of touring solo with a guitar and it returns me to a place where I started from. My longtime friend Brian Mansell (Leon Russell Band) brought out the Mobile Media Lab to my place here in J-Tree. I am comfortable here and had been playing some of these new ones live for about a year and felt ready. We killed it, I was so excited. And I was home, which is where I like to be. I designed and rehabbed my cabin with brick floors and I have wood shutters and I know, having worked all my life in the greatest recording studios in the world, how sound works, and my place is set up for recording. I was very happy to record at home. I have before, but Brian had his state-of-the-art MediaLab trailer out here and ran lines in and just killed it.”
Sanchez: “How long have you been a desert resident and what brought you out here?”
Napalitano: “I’m a native Californian. Hollywood traffic started getting to me. I’d bought a beautiful little piece of land in Topanga Canyon and was planning to build an eco-house. I had 2 meetings with the architect and since my Dad knew construction, I knew I’d need to sell my house and live somewhere with my 3 dogs for at least 6 months. I didn’t expect to rely on anyone in Hollywood and I couldn’t find a place to rent with the dogs that wouldn’t break my bank. I kept coming out farther and farther to look, and by the time I got all the way out to the desert I thought, ‘Screw it, I love it out here, I’m just going to stay.’ I think that was 13 years ago? Maybe longer. I don’t like to think about it because that makes my oldest dog old, and I don’t like to think about that.”
Sanchez: “The music industry has changed drastically over the span of your career. Social media allows for self-promotion and computer programs such as ‘garage-band’ allow almost anyone to mix/record, and YouTube has turned obscure artists into super-stars. That being said, I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections on these changes.”
Napalitano: “I love it. I’ve been able to continue working as a musician because of it. I’m originally a studio geek, so when my peers were freaking out at Pro Tools, etc., back in the early 90’s, I was all about it because I knew damn well I would not be able to have a meeting when I was 40 with a bunch of executives asking them to open up a checkbook to finance my career. As a woman in particular, I knew damn well I wouldn’t be able to rely on anyone or anything to maintain my career past the age of 40, but I damn well intended to….I love that young people are doing amazing stuff on their laptops and IPHONES. I think my former labelmate Michael Stipe said something decades ago about arming people with cameras. Art is everywhere. It’s a great time, creatively.