Concrete Blonde singer rocks under the desert sky
Twenty years ago, Concrete Blonde lead singer, songwriter and bass player Johnette Napolitano was the kind of rock star who did what she wanted creatively. Today, she still is and still does.
The band has two new songs, released digitally and on a white vinyl 45 rpm record. She also sews and became a tattoo artist, going through the licensing process and learning the craft on herself, evidenced by what tattoo artists call “the graveyard,” their reachable legs.
On weekends, she goes to Los Angeles for band rehearsal, and they perform enough to have a good time but leave plenty of time to live the rest of their lives, too. Concrete Blonde will perform at Cat’s Cradle Tuesday in Carrboro.
For the past decade, veteran rock musician Napolitano has lived in the California desert, in Joshua Tree. Next year she plans to open her own tattoo place in the artistic small town. She lives on a ranch with her horses, pets and the wide open sky. It was under that sky that she wrote the cowboy song “Rosalie,” a song she wouldn’t mind Willie Nelson himself singing. She rolled joints for him once.
“Rosalie” and the 80s-style Los Angeles punk song “I Know the Ghost” were written and performed for a Texas tour last fall. In the old days, Napolitano said, you’d test drive a song, write fast, get in the studio and record it. Now it seems more practical to play it on the road a while first at this position in life, she said.
“When you’re younger, there’s a lot of competition, you’re full of piss and think you’re the best,” she said. “But after you climb the mountain, you only compete with yourself. A song has to get past me,” Napolitano said in a phone interview last week. She pulled over on her way home from Palm Springs, her dog in the car with her.
Living in the desert means she can get up and play the drums at night. Living in the desert works for the kind of person who likes silence, air, space and being alone, she said. It’s been a healing space, she said.
Napolitano wrote “Rosalie” after she had just moved into her cabin. She sat outside on the porch with a bottle of wine.
“It literally blew in. All I had to do was listen, and it was there,” she said.
These days, she said, writing is about the bigger picture.
“It’s not me, me, me. I want it to be a great song. I’m not going to live forever. It should be about the song, not who’s written it. That’s how great art is,” Napolitano said.
“Rosalie” is just a classic to her, Napolitano said, and the rough cut video was just posted online. “I Know the Ghost” lyrics are from her book of poetry, and she wanted to use it for a punk song. The vinyl B-side was added to make it interesting, she said. Vinyl was once her day job.
“I could probably grind up a shower curtain and make one. Now they have plug-ins for vinyl sound,” Napolitano said. She doesn’t have a preferred medium, though “there’s nothing like a record.”
“I love them all. It’s an amazing time to be alive because you can present your music,” she said, in many ways. Concrete Blonde performed in China for the first time and the audience knew their songs. “Obviously, music’s getting around. Kids discover your band all the time.”
Napolitano still has cassette tapes, and has a cassette player in her car and in her living room, which she uses to record. She has always been interested in recording technology, but only the cassette player is fast enough to start recording herself at the piano if she wants to capture the moment.
“It’s easier to turn on a tape. I’m just a fan; I like the way it sounds,” she said. CDs can crack, but her tapes still play, she said.
That competition with herself goes for the stage, too.
“I want to come off stage knowing I’m as close to my idea of being perfect. I want to be a better musician. I want to nail it. I’m not 22. I don’t want to see a bunch of white kids thrashing around angsty,” Napolitano said.
She said she is a better singer and better player today.
“If there are songs I don’t want to do, it’s because of my state of mind in the early years. I wasn’t happy and had reasons to be unhappy,” she said. “Some of the whiny stuff, the maudlin stuff, I wince.”
Concrete Blonde’s most successful album is arguably 1990’s “Bloodletting,” which featured “Joey,” “Tomorrow, Wendy,” “Caroline” and the title track. They also recorded the Leonard Cohen song “Everybody Knows,” which was on the soundtrack to the Christian Slater movie “Pump Up the Volume.”
Before the fame that “Bloodletting” wrought, Concrete Blonde had already been an established band that toured relentlessly. Napolitano plays sets better now, she said.
“I’ve accomplished enough, I have more confidence,” she said. It didn’t show on stage in the early 1990s, but she was scared a lot. So she’d get hammered before going on, she said.
“Anyone who says ‘you were f****** great,’ they were just as drunk. I still enjoy my vino, but that’s it,” she said. “I can’t do that anymore,” Napolitano said, of the days of waking up, putting raw egg on her face and eyeliner and then being ready to go. “I would look pretty bad if I did that now,” she said.
Today, Concrete Blonde plays to some really cool people, she said. “I’m up there to transcend and bring you all around,” she said. But some fans don’t get it. “You’re in the room with me now. Don’t hold your cellphone up in my face and record me.”
Napolitano sees a line blurring of what’s real and what isn’t, and the disconnection is hurting people, she said. “It really makes me sad. It’s not easy for a band to tour, to go out there. We want to do a good show. It takes resources. It’s a lot of work.”
When someone holds a camera under the neck of her bass, she gets distracted. If someone wants to record the first one or two songs, fine, but not after that.
“Some artists don’t even want to tour anymore because of that. The beauty of live music is we’re all here together. The minute you do that, we’re not. It’s annoying,” Napolitano said.
She used to write back every fan, and was humbled how much her songs impacted others. She reads all the mail she gets, but doesn’t want to hear therapy issues. Other people have more serious problems, she said.
Napolitano’s dad died last year. A biker and a small businessman who cleaned pools in L.A., he gave her a guitar at 16 but didn’t get her being in a rock band. Since his death, it’s like he’s bringing things back to make her peaceful, Napolitano said. She’s buying that lot for Joshua Tree Tattoo, which will be in a vintage trailer and gallery, with her tattoo art representative of the community. People there don’t know her for her rock career, and she’s pleased to grow a reputation as a different kind of artist, too.
WHO: Concrete Blonde
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Cat’s Cradle
300 E. Main St., Carrboro
TICKETS: $20 advance/$22 day of show