Decades ago, I was drawn to music that seemed full of emotional honesty. It was what attracted me to the likes of Joni Mitchell, and to a certain extent, even Jackson Browne. Back then, they seemed in touch with their inner demons, and able to find poetic expression to give those thoughts voice in song. These folks didn’t just make casual missteps in matters of love and life, there were true emotional scars being sung about.
While those days are gone, the music survives—a testament to the kind of young mistakes we all go through. Now the baby boomers who once listened to that are older and, one hopes, all the wiser for it. Thankfully, there’s someone like Jude Johnstone who can take that heartfelt songwriting sensibility and translate through the filter of someone more mature and approaching middle age.
Her sophomore release, On a Good Day, is a superb collection of that very sort of emotionally riveting material that appealed to me and so many others way back when. Further, there’s no questioning the quality of this music—the arrangements surrounding Ms. Johnstone’s piano and vocal contributions are first rate.
Sadly, Jude Johnstone isn’t exactly well-known by the public—but among singer/songwriter types, she’s well-respected. She’s been a songwriter for over twenty years now (since moving from Maine out to the west coast), and her songs have been covered by several, including Stevie Nicks, Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie Raitt, Bette Midler, Trisha Yearwood, and Johnny Cash (Johnstone penned “Unchained”, the title cut of his Grammy-award winning album). Her first solo record, 2002’s Coming of Age, was praised by critics and reached the top of Amazon’s best seller list at the time.
Johnstone has a delivery that has a slight country feel at times, bluesy at others. Her voice registers somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Julie Miller (both of whom are present as background singers on this album). And as Julie Miller has her husband Buddy (and Jackson Brown had his David Lindley), Jude Johnstone is lucky to have her talented husband Charles Duncan, whose production help, guitar, and more really set the perfect tone here, track by track.
The CD opens with the infectious title track, a bittersweet paean to surviving in this turbulent day-to-day world post-heartbreak, when no one really knows how you feel: “On a good day I don’t come undone / I just wake up and call someone / And I might go out and have some fun if anyone’s around / On a bad day all the lights are red / And there’s one voice in my head / And I wish those memories were dead / But I’ll cherish them instead”. Bob Liepman’s cello accents heighten the emotive vocals.
“20 Years” is exactly the kind of adult perspective that’s lacking from most contemporary music. Here Johnstone dissects a break-up that occurs two decades into a relationship, and tells it from dual perspectives: “20 years and all due respect / She’s much too busy to reflect / She only knows she can’t connect / The dots on his page / 20 year’s and he’s in hell / The past is just an empty shell / And all he’s got for show and tell / Are the lines on his face”. It’s short of profound—yet again, rife with pain and honesty.
Johnstone goes a little bluesier in “Hard Lessons”, a song that sounds perfect for Bonnie Raitt (and there she is, singing backing vocals on it). It’s a song about trying to learn from past lessons, fighting the good and noble fight to be a better person, to choose well in love, etc. It features a wonderful sax lead by Marc Macisso.
Quiet piano-driven ballads rule the day here. “Hold On” builds slowly, a song of solace and advice to a man beset by battles raging in his head. Jackson Browne lends support via backing vocals—but Charles Duncan’s guitars take the lead mid-way through the song.
It’s all husband and wife in the delicate and lovely “In This House”—just Johnstone and Duncan and a direct line to inner emotions. This song could apply to many, the tale of a couple that have been together in the same house for ages and have grown apart from what they once were: “I know you say you love me / But you don’t do it right / We co-exist, the trouble is / That we’re not really living / In this house”.
As we “boomers” get older, our concerns have changed. “Old and Gray” can become the battle anthem for a generation reluctant to give in to aging, scared of becoming what our own parents (and their parents before them) have become: “Don’t let me grow old and gray / I don’t want to know how it feels / To be alone that way / Confusing what’s lost with that is real / And slipping a little each day / Don’t let me grow old / Don’t let me grow old and gray”. This arrangement is aided by the excellent viola of Mary Ramsey and Julie Miller’s backing vocal.
The first song written for this collection was the poignant “Evelyn”, based upon Johnstone’s real-life great aunt. Struck by Tom Waits’ storytelling abilities, Johnstone set out to try her hand at achieving the same. She has done a formidable job here (as good as many of Jill Sobule’s story songs), conveying the tale of a woman destined for great things who was scarred by a fire at age seventeen, and in a sense, scarred for life.
“Pen and Paper” is another poignant winner, a story of a woman who finds safe haven from the sirens and the cold winds in what she writes. One of my personal favorites is the starkly compelling minor-key sounds of “Deep Water”, featuring Duncan on slide guitar and effective backing vocals by Rodney Crowell. Johnstone’s poetic words convey the woes and troubles of bad relationships so well: “You can know somebody / Like you think you know yourself / Sail along the surface / Still believing all is well / Wake up underneath the waves / Pounded by the swell / This is deep water”.
Some might bemoan the fact that these are ballads, by and large, without much variety in tempo. Oh, but what fine ballads they are. “Long Way Back” is writ large with images about standing at a crossroads, watching a train, and ultimately finding the courage not to give in to the past and make the same mistakes. Raitt and Browne harmonize on backing vocals.
This fine collection closes (appropriately) with “The Hereafter”, a stunningly pretty song about dealing with death. Charles Duncan’s pennywhistle is Chieftains-worthy, and lends an Irish-ballad flavor. As usual, the lyrics achieve poignancy in their simple statements: “Though our hearts are too heavy to find comfort yet / And there are no words written to help us forget / We hold onto the memories and wait for the rest / As you make your way in the hereafter”.
These 11 songs carry the weight of age and experience; they wrestle with topics that many will find endearing. If Lucinda Williams had a less wild sister who married and had two daughters, Jude Johnstone might be her. Fans of Bonnie Raitt, Julie Miller, and others of that ilk simply will love Jude Johnstone. Yet the universal honesty in these songs should appeal to a much wider audience.
It’s rare to come across well-crafted songs with emotions laid so bare. The very talented Jude Johnstone deserves a lot of credit; as her luminous adult-themed songs glow with a generous warmth and succinct voice. On a Good Day was a discovery for me—but with talent like this, her music won’t remain a secret much longer.