Jude Johnstone says it’s difficult to identify the best concert she has attended but gives the nod to Bonnie Raitt.
Johnstone, who has opened several shows for Raitt, points to Raitt’s performance on May 24, 2015, at the Avila Beach Blues Festival on California’s Central Coast.
“It was astonishing,” Johnstone says. “At 65 years old, she and her band sounded better than ever. And I mean that — nothing short of perfect.
“Bonnie is honest and utterly herself,” says Johnstone who has recorded seven albums and had her songs covered by Stevie Nicks, Bette Midler, Johnny Cash, Jennifer Warnes, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood and Raitt. “In her stage patter, she is exactly who she is — funny, warm, real, and off the cuff with nothing rehearsed. She talks freely and is comfortable in her own skin. That is truly admirable at all levels.”
Johnstone says concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, though, have influenced her most as a musician. After graduating from high school, she sat on an airplane next to the late, great Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band’s sax player. He became enamored with her demo, invited her to recording sessions for Springsteen’s landmark 1980 album The River and introduced her in Los Angeles to the Boss’s producer, Chuck Plotkin.
“Because of my early association with Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and the many shows I attended, I have to say that I was amazed and influenced by them,” Johnstone says. “Their performances were theatrical but, nonetheless, completely mesmerizing. The energy and tirelessness that he [Springsteen] exhibits at every show is simply breathtaking. There is just no one else like him.”
Ireland became a special place for Springsteen in 2007, when he released his two-CD Live in Dublin album, and the Emerald Isle is where Johnstone heads next month to promote her new CD, A Woman’s Work. She plays dates in Ireland and Northern Island, beginning Nov. 3, and one date in the Netherlands.
“I always look forward to playing in Ireland, Holland, Germany and Sweden,” Johnstone says. “The audiences are fabulous, the venues are incredible, the landscape is pure poetry. It is so inspiring to play abroad. I have played Ireland twice. Someday, I probably won't come home.”
Johnstone is also “pretty excited” about A Woman's Work. Johnstone ”It is an unapologetic record —pretty raw, recorded live in the studio in two days,” she says. “It is very much introspective and focused on the female perspective.”
Most songs were written after Johnstone’s 28-year marriage ended. “I did a lot of contemplating about what went wrong and my and his part in it,” Johnstone says. “I traveled to Ireland for the first time four years ago when we first separated and started ‘Road to Rathfriland’ then, but I couldn't finish it emotionally until now.
“A Woman's Work refers to all the things women tend to do for everyone around them that are often taken for granted — the self-sacrificing that accompanies marriage, motherhood and the like. It seemed like some of the songs had that theme in common in one way or another. I also decided to include ‘The Woman Before Me’ which was a No. 1 song for Trisha Yearwood 25 years ago. I had never released a version of it myself and thought this was the right CD to finally put it on.”
How does A Woman’s Work differ from Johnstone’s previous albums and fit into her catalog? “Prior to this new album," she says, "I released three CDs I would call Americana — for lack of a better word. Two are more jazz/blues oriented, and my last one, Shatter, was a grab bag of all of that. A Woman's Work is much more raw and quietly contemplative than the others. It is a songwriter's record. The basic tracks were recorded live in the studio in two days with minimal overdubs. It was the album I wanted to to release now, the songs I wanted to sing after what seemed like a very long couple of years of re-adjustment and acceptance.”
Shatter was released in 2013 and attempted to document her life. “Well, it's been a long road for me,” the singer-songwriter says. “I started young and saw a lot and lived a lot. And I didn't always make the best choices. Shatter is the diary of that journey. And, hopefully, it shed some light on several subjects for myself and, more importantly, those who heard it.”
Johnstone says she has changed “immeasurably” as an artist since recording her 2003 debut album, Coming of Age.
“Especially musically,” she clarifies. “Lyrically, I have always worked very hard to stretch myself with each song. But musically, when I made Blue Light [in 2007] and Mr. Sun [in 2008], which were more jazz influenced and recorded live with some of the greatest session players in Los Angeles, I had to really up my game on the piano, and those guys taught me how to do it. Especially bassist David Piltch, who made me feel more confident from the start and schooled me on how to approach the instrument more like a player and less like a songwriter during those sessions. It transformed the way I look at the piano — now and forever.”
Johnstone was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, and began writing songs at about age 8. Ten years later, she met Clemons and spent time with him in New York and New Jersey as Springsteen recorded The River.
“I stayed in New Jersey at Clarence Clemons' house for a month or so back in 1979 after he discovered my music and asked me to come there,” Johnstone recalls. “He wanted to introduce me to some people who might help me get heard. He told me they would be doing a big concert with an unbelievable lineup of musicians at Madison Square Garden called No Nukes, a benefit for Musicians United for Safe Energy. He thought I ought to see it. So I did. I met all my idols there. A crew filmed backstage and the concert and released it as a movie sometime later. After No Nukes, the band was flying to L.A. to play a wedding reception for their light man, Mark Brickman, and his bride, June. Clarence decided to fly me with them to meet their record producer, Chuck Plotkin, who lived there. Off we went and, after meeting with Charlie, we decided I would move to Los Angeles, so he could mentor me. That was the only reason I ended up in Los Angeles (in 1979).”
After moving to the West Coast, numerous artists covered Johnstone’s songs — including “Unchained,” the title track of Johnny Cash’s Grammy-winning 1996 album — and she sang on albums of Leonard Cohen and T Bone Burnett. In 2002, she and her manager, Bob Burton, decided to release a self-released debut album on her own label, BoJack Records. Guest stars on the album were Raitt, Warnes, Yearwood and Jackson Browne.
Johnstone’s second album, On a Good Day, featured guests Rodney Crowell and Julie Miller, and her 2011 CD, Quiet Girl, had guest spots by Clemons, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy LaFave and J.D. Souther.
What are Johnstone’s future musical aims? “I would just be grateful to make a living as a songwriter which I was able to do for so many years,” she says. “But the music business has changed so dramatically in the last few years with the Internet that I can't survive on just album cuts anymore. Artists who cover me rely on their live performances to make a living now, because people pretty much just take the music now. Unless I get placement in television or films or a hit on the radio with a big artist, there's not much revenue anymore. I'm living in Nashville now, but it's hard to say whether or not I'll be able to stay here. I hope so. I like it here. Although I miss the ocean.”