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The life of a songwriter may not be something we often think about, often it’s easy to simply listen and enjoy the music that is given to us without fully comprehending the lack of normalcy that many artists give up to exist within the creative realm. But it is something we should concern ourselves with? Isn’t it just enough to consume and be consumed by the stories that the storytellers write?
I personally believe the roads artists walk and the sacrifices they make are infinitely intriguing, especially when the paths they walk are ones that they embark upon out of attempting to break into the mainstream or in seeking fame, but to create something of true artistry and grace. Whether or not that was the attempt, I truly believe the body of work Indovina has written while treading the uncharted path of his career is just that; graceful, impactful, and painted with the brush stroke of a true artist.
Johnny Indovina Interview
The Path to Trials Of the Writer
Inspired by the classic period of modern musicians and by the legends of social commentary to more esoteric artists alike. from Dylan, Waits, Bowie, and The Beatles, to name a few. Johnny Indovina has been compelled from a very early age to write songs that speak to the frailty and vulnerability we all face in life. Exploring the fragility of human emotion, allowing us to see through the lies we tell ourselves, as well illustrated in his newest work that we are all in many ways unqualified and unsure, yet we march on and attempt to make sense of our very existence.
As intense as that may sound, the storyteller, or writer, in this case Mr. Indovina still remains down to earth, very human, and honest. He isn’t locked away in his ivory tower, insanely scrolling poetry onto a leather bound notebook by candle light. He isn’t reciting incantations, nor studying gothic sub-culture lore. Plain and simple, he leads a life filled with friends, observations, music, and seeks the answers to questions as we all do.
The stages of his career from his first band The Models, to Human Drama, Sound of the Blue Heart, and now going solo for the first time releasing his first album simply as Johnny Indovina. Though don’t be fooled, going solo doesn’t always equate to working alone, the line-up on this album of contributing guitarists, artists, and musicians is diverse and sonically lend a sound that is rich, layered, and serves as an amazing landscape to the concept album that is Trials of the Writer.
His music is not something we can easily define. His work to me is indefinable, imaginative, and wholly unique. One of the rare artists I hold in personal regards in the ranks of David Bowie as being an artist whose songs are consistently memorable and meaningful to me without fail through the years.
His story starts in New Orleans where a young Johnny Indovina gravitated towards a life of music and storytelling, not because he sought fame or fortune, but simply put it was his path to follow. With his newest album release, Trials of the Writer he explores what life is like after what he feels, was the height of his career. Though the story is not over yet, the work and crafted lyricism in this album marks yet another exciting chapter in his suitcase of work that will live on in the minds and hearts of his fans for a lifetime.
I sat down with Johnny Indovina at a coffee shop a stones throw from where he crafted the most pivotal content that saved this album from abandonment. This is what he had to share with me….
Can you describe what the concept behind Trials of the Writer is?
It came to me very quickly; I was recalling a question that I was asked by someone a couple of years ago. They asked me if every time I performed “The Waiting Hour”, did I feel what I felt when I first wrote it? It was a great question and the answer is yes. Fortunately for the performance aspect, but unfortunate for me as a human being.
I was figuring my way through a really rough experience that I was going through in ‘87 that to this day still stayed on my back. I cannot run from it, it stays with me.
So that’s where the concept hit me… what must it be like for Bob Dylan, for Leonard Cohen, for Tom Waits? Their song list goes on and on. 20 or 50 albums down the road, are they reliving and feeling the same thing night after night? It’s this work (songwriting) which used to be just a part of you, that now defines you, and then as the years go by it just weighs you down.
Because of the sacrifices and all the things you have done for your art, the things that most people strive for, you realize that you happily gave it all away for the group of songs.
I was going to explore on within the concept what it must be like to be Dylan, or if Leonard Cohen is still missing Marianne for so many years. Though as I began writing the album, it became very clear that I had to let this turn into an autobiographical record.
So yes, the concept came to me quickly, and then switched course. It happened when I was writing the song The Suitcase. I realized it was so personal, I couldn’t talk about what was inside of the suitcase of another artist. It had to be my batch of songs. So I veered it onto that course at that point and realized it’s got to lend itself to stay mainly autobiographical.
What prompted you to delve into the Positives and Negatives of the life of a Writer?
I never imaged this for myself when I was kid growing up. Nothing was planned, but this is what my destiny was to be. It’s only been at certain moments, later in life that the negatives hit. It’s quite different when you are 35 to when you are 56, you miss a lot of those things that were easy to sacrifice. You look back at the journey, and all you let go of easily. Sometimes you miss normalcy. The positive is that you created so much that will last forever, the negative is it is all you have in the end because of the sacrifices you have to make for your art. And that is why I feel that with The Last Song I nailed the completion of this record.
There is no more audience, but you still are the songwriter. It’s just that there’s no one there to listen. Your time is up, this is who you are, this is who you’ve been, and this is all you have. Which is basically you and your songs. All the guy has left is the suitcase of songs as he walks down the road. And he wishes for just one more night… even at that point I guess the sacrifices are worth it.
Would you say this is your most human album?
t’s definitely the most honest, because of the story I chose to tell. I am admitting that this is a struggle. It is a struggle to always write the truth. Sometimes you fail, from an ugly truth you build a beautiful lie, as the story goes on So Many Beautiful Lies.
Was there a certain person or songwriter that you drew upon originally for this album before it evolved into an autobiography?
The first person I thought of was Bob Dylan, because if I am feeling what I am feeling, then just imagine what he is feeling. How does he sing Sarah after 40 years and what is he feeling? So it started out with me imagining what that must feel like. If I am sitting here dealing with The Waiting Hour every now and then, or This Forgotten Love, what is his history doing to him.
On This Forgotten Love I remember the most beautiful feeling in the world and… it ended. So I have to carry the ending, these songs continue even after I have written them. The girl is not here anymore.
They’re all a part of your experience.
Yeah they are a part of that trail or path you choose to walk. Also, they are all your conscience. You know how you feel when you have lied or deceived somebody, but you get away with it? The song doesn’t let you get away with it, because you have to face it repeatedly .
On the track I Have Wondered, it feels like you are setting out back down the road that leads through the past.
Beginning the journey on a sidewalk down in New Orleans, I’m about to step out take the first step on the path. So focused, even the rain beating down on you is hardly even noticed.
But it covers a broader range than a lot of the other songs on the album, many of the other songs are little of moments, this is like the Writer’s overview. It touches on the whole journey a bit, and has a great verse when the writer speaks to his audience:
"What seemed so right in definition, so simply scrawled to the page
Facts blurred by romantic memory, but held like a gospels word
I’ve lived in speculation,
Armed with metaphor and rhyme
A blind man searching for the cure”
How did you go about selecting the musicians to use to record Trials of the Writer and why did you go with Michael Rozon to produce the record?
Producer Michael Rozon, he is a crafter, he takes my songs to another level. He knows just exactly what it need it to be. Sometimes I don’t think he thinks about what I want it to be, but he knows what I need it to be. He’ll like that line..ha!
The musicians, that’s an interesting thing. I had a band, Sound of the Blue Heart, and I had my musicians from the band. When I started this record, it was very much a Sound of the Blue Heart album and I had a lot of conversations with them about I wanted the sound to be.
I knew right away I didn’t want keyboards on it; this was going to be a kind of rootsy guitar based vibe and I gave them an album to listen to as a reference.
It was Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy because of the guitar work on that album. It was how I saw the electric guitar working on these songs. So we started recording the album, but after the first track (The Writer) the group split up, and I decided to continue the project as a solo album.
Oddly enough, I didn’t have a guitarist so I went and got Brian Stoltz, the guy who played a lot of the electric guitar on Oh Mercy!!(Laughs) I knew him from New Orleans, we never played together. I called him and said, “You know what, how do you feel about playing a few songs on the album.” He said “Yeah just send them to me.” How cool is that!!??
How did you choose the other musicians?
I had another guitarist I became friends with, his name is Paul Allen, a great studio and touring musician from Nashville who plays with Big And Rich, and had played on Adele’s album. He did some real beautiful work. And then I wrote two songs late in the recording of the album, I Love the Way You See the World, and The Last Song, and for those two we were lucky enough to get Marc Ford who used to play with The Black Crows. What an amazing job he did. Filling out the main lineup for the recording are Peter Straub (Drums) and Michael Mallory (Bass) from Sound Of The Blue Heart days. Peter and I really worked hard on all of the arrangements prior to recording.
In the writing process lyrics first, or a melody then lyrics, what is your process?
Most songs start with a line that kind of point me on the path of the subject I would be tackling. With that line I would then put a melody to it. And that is how most of them happened.
Remind me to tell you the story of how the album almost never had an ending… In fact it was almost an EP. (Laughs) Yeah, because I got in a tight spot and I was just about to trash half of the album. In fact I’ll tell you the story now, you want to hear it?
We were already in the mixing stage of the first three or four songs, The Writer, I Have Wondered, Isn’t Life Strange, and All Life’s Mysteries were already in the mixing stage, and all the other songs were written. I had ten songs total. I was about to record the ones that didn’t have a full band on them that we saved those for last, Which were Until the Last Sunset, The Suitcase, So Many Beautiful Lies, and Letter Never Sent.
So I was working on the four I mentioned and examining them to find which song would end the album. But I could never make any of them work as an ending. I changed the arrangement of So Many Beautiful Lies from where you hear it about a thousand times, and basically kept trying to mold one of those songs into an ending. So much so, that I convinced myself they were not good songs and was ready to just trash them… I was so frustrated that I called the producer, Michael Rozon and I said, “Mix these last two, we have five songs, that’s all. I have to figure out if we even have enough material to complete this album.” I was going to trash The Suitcase, Until The Last Sunset, Letter Never Sent, and So Many Beautiful Lies. I had arranged and rearranged them so much trying to find “the ending” that I convinced myself they were no good.
So I hung up with Michael, went outside to my patio, and just sat still…then I said…“As I try to understand” I went and grabbed the guitar and I brought it outside. “With the pen held tightly in my hand” and fifteen minutes later the song was written. I then called Michael back, told him I had just written the last song, and apologized for being so emotional..(haha) I then proceeded to record the other four songs exactly as I first wrote them. They were perfect, they just weren’t the ending.
So epiphanies like that are the positive moments of being a songwriter?
Yeah, I would have no need for friends if I could have moments like that on a regular basis. The last time I remember a moment like that may have been when I wrote Winter’s Life. Because up until The Last Song, Winter’s Life was the quickest song I had ever written. Winter’s Life took about an hour, This Forgotten Love was about six hours and The Last Song was about fifteen minutes. I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. We played it at the rehearsal yesterday, we had just gotten the new band, so we hadn’t really ever played it, we played it one time and we were like “That’s it” why play that again? Because it was unbelievable, I had the chills, I thought I was going to start crying or something. I was like “there it is” So it is one of my favorite stories and that it happened this late in my musical life made it even cooler.
There are milestones in a persons life where a song may be playing during a certain special moment in time, are there any stories you have been told about the impact of your songs?
Well I have had people tell me that there are songs that they credit as the song that started their relationship, with the person that they are going to marry, so it will be the song that they play as they walk down the aisle. People have told me that a parent who is no longer with them turned them on to my music, and that my music is a lasting link with their memory. Getting through deaths, being a broken person, but finding solace in the understanding that we are all broken in my words. They mention my stuff like that. Yeah I get some heavy things. That I get to part of a lot of peoples lives is amazing, and quite a compliment.
So the additional tracks that are accompanying the album are those bonus tracks or b-sides from the album and where do we find them?
As of right now and probably for the first couple of years they will just be on the full album as bonus tracks in Latin America. It won’t be in the states just in Latin America.
Did you add these songs because you felt like there was something missing?
We did that because we wanted to give something special back to Mexico. When I was working on the record deal we had a big discussion about how it would be great if we had a union between myself as an America artist and a Mexican artist, and maybe do a duet. I thought it was a great idea, and then I met Ely Guerra. I first saw her while I was sitting in a diner and she was on TV and I was like, “Who is she?” So with the help of a friend in Mexico City, we found and approached her with the idea.. And it turns out she is legendary there, she won a Grammy for album of the year 2009. And she is Just a beautiful person, and an amazing vocalist. I wanted to do a Dylan song so I said let’s do Ring them Bells. And then I thought we should have her do the lead vocal on one of the existing tracks so we did I Love the Way You See the World , and we share lead vocals. Then I was told that I needed to write something new especially for the situation, so I wrote The Truth Inside a Lie.
So your popularity in Mexico…
God bless em’
What do you think it is about the Mexican music scene or just the people out there?
I find that they are more passionate. I can’t find a better word, they are just a more emotional, passionate group of people. They dig into the written word. So my words, like Death of an Angel, they are like “We have to know about this Death of an Angel”. Then they read the words and they realize it’s about them, it’s about me, its about all of us. It’s about an aspect of their lives. They really relate to these feelings that I touch on. lose that again. And it’s repeated along the journey. So I think they took to those kinds of things.
Love’s Way, that seems to really touch them. When I play it, I just go into the first word “Love” and that’s it, I can’t hear another thing I do for the rest of that song. They are singing every word, they are grabbing the people next to them. They are pumping arms, they are crying. It’s like a deep experience going on amongst the crowed. Again God Bless them, because without them we probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking.
How did you first come to learn that you had such a huge following in Mexico?
It was a great surprise to me. It was 1995 and Amy Jonas who managed Christian Death and Eva-O approached me and asked if I’d like to do a concert in Mexico City. I had done an album with Eva-O. So she hooked us up, and I remember talking to the band in rehearsals I said, “Okay guys we are going to go to Mexico. So we have to forget that we are Human Drama, we are not doing The Troubadour, we are going to another country and playing for a new group of people. So we have to treat this like we are a new band. It’s like playing The World Inside for the first time, we have to go and arrange our set, and play it and make an impact because we are going to a strange place.”
So we went down there, we took the stage we opened up with Never Never, we started it and when I started singing they started singing. And I thought, “What the fuck is going on here?”
How did your music make it down here? Did you have distribution?
RCA must have gotten a feel down there pretty strongly because I was signing albums after the show into the morning hours. T-Shirts, all bootleg T-Shirts, they had Songs of Betrayal down there, not just made it there, but made an impact. It was better than playing The Troubadour, they knew every word I said. Was a really odd, and nice surprise.
What are your favorite spots down in Mexico?
Mexico City. Mexico city is my favorite, but we do well in a few cities. One of the best shows with Sound of the Blue Heart was at a festival in Puebla where we headlined, and it was just amazing. So yeah a lot of nice places for us there.
Have you decided on an album debut concert venue?
I know where our first one is going to be because we always do our debut show at Bar Sinister, because the owner and I are old friends, 20-year friends and it’s just our thing. So the first one will be at Bar Sinister April 19th. And that is where we will play some of the new songs. That will be the first place to physically buy it, you can get it on Facebook right now. And we did vinyl for this too, beautiful.
One last question, after you are gone how would you like to be remembered?
After I am gone I just hope people feel it was important that I was here and that my time here was well spent and that I made some type of an impact on humans.
-Interview by Chris Nichols