Johnette Napolitano, the former Concrete Blonde lead singer who recently released her first proper solo album, Scarred (Hybrid), has a unique way of dealing with her garbage. She makes it into art.
"I have a fire pit and I don't have trash pickup, so I have to be very careful what I take on, which everybody should be, really," Napolitano says from her cabin near Joshua Tree, California. "I've got my dogs, so I get my dog-food cans and throw 'em into the pit to oxidize them, and cut the tin flat. I'm very inspired by Mexican pierced tin and the stuff they do in Morocco with pierced metal, so I kind of flow along those lines. Everything's outside, so it rusts up and gets real cool-looking."
Southern California native Napolitano, who also paints and writes poetry, dissolved Concrete Blonde last year after nine albums of post-X Hollywood punk, spooky Southwestern imagery and aching love songs like 1990's Top 20 smash "Joey." Though her roots with the band run deep — Napolitano met guitarist Jim Mankey when, barely out of high school, she did odd jobs around Willie Nelson pal Leon Russell's Hollywood compound; the pair's first project together, Dream 6, evolved into Concrete Blonde — Napolitano says she relishes the freedom of performing with just her acoustic guitar.
"I was in a band for a long, long, long time," she says. "I won't say that I'll never be in one again, but I really like the freedom of traveling this way — the physical ease and looseness of it, the fact that I'm a little freer and not locked into so much. I just feel really good on my own. I can hear myself think, and traveling is easier — it's just less of a circus all the way around."
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Still, calling Scarred a solo album is not entirely correct. Napolitano mixes in first-rate covers of Coldplay's "The Scientist" and the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" among her collaborations with British musician Will Crewdson (Adam Ant, Tom Jones, Pigface), who wrote the lion's share of the music. Napolitano says coming up with lyrics that matched the intensity of Crewdson's compositions was perhaps Scarred's biggest challenge.
"If it punches me in the gut, then I'm punched in the gut," she says. "The music really does evoke the emotion, and that emotion you need to be true to. It's visual [and] it's emotional, and it's my job to articulate this whether I'm playing the music or writing the lyrics and singing. In this case, these tracks took a lot of commitment to that."
As with her work in Concrete Blonde, several songs on Scarred take Napolitano to some fairly harrowing emotional destinations. "I am so scarred, I am so old," she sings on the title track. "Skin and bone and heart is old and tired, so scarred." "My Diane" is her paean to late photographer Diane Arbus, renowned for her pictures of people on the margins of society: "Make me somebody beautiful, if only in your eyes."
On the fiery "Everything for Everyone," while saluting the Replacements classic "Bastards of Young," Napolitano examines a life — probably hers, although anyone with a decade and change of service in a rock band might arrive at similar sentiments — spent in the service of others: "I was the one who wanted everything for everyone...but not anymore."
Napolitano admits it used to be hell visiting such dark places night after night on tour, but she's finally grown to love it. "I'm far enough away now that I can appreciate the songs for being good songs and not necessarily an expression of what I was going through at the time," she says. "I can actually appreciate my own songs in the way maybe other people can, without having to be in your head and know why you wrote it and what was going on then. I do lose myself in the music, but not for the same reasons I used to before."
One of her favorite physical places is New Orleans, which is harrowing enough these days for anyone. Napolitano addresses the beleaguered city's post-Katrina plight on Scarred's "Save Me." ("Walls were falling down and I prepared to drown.") She says she loves "the whole Tennessee Williams/Southern Goth thing" and has visited the city many times before, both in person and in song — 1990's "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" details a Garden District dalliance with the undead, and "New Orleans Ain't Been the Same" appears on last year's self-released Sketchbook, vol. 2.
"I would stay for months on end and just walk around and write," says Napolitano, who plays her first New Orleans gig since Katrina on Halloween night. "When we first started touring to go through the South was a real big deal for me. I was really into it."
Napolitano still has several friends in New Orleans, and when Katrina struck, she was devastated. "The toughest part was not being able to get through [to friends], and then not being able to sleep and imagining what people must be going through," she says. "I had nightmares I can't even tell you. It was horrible."
As for Texas, Napolitano says her Lone Star experience has mostly been limited to Austin. ("I love Austin.") When Concrete Blonde was on tour with Sting, one night in the notoriously haunted Driskill Hotel resulted in one of the band's most popular songs, Walking in London's "Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man."
The ghost in question is in fact the downtown hotel's namesake, Civil War-era cattle baron Colonel Jesse Driskill, who kept the Confederate Army in beef throughout the War Between the States. Colonel Driskill completed the "finest hotel south of St. Louis" in 1886 and, according to legend, lost it to his brother-in-law in a poker game two years later.
"It only haunts women, from what I've heard," Napolitano says. "I'd only told the band there was a ghost in my room, and there definitely was because it kept turning the lights on and off. The next night, Paul [CB drummer Thompson] came running in with Vinnie [Sting drummer Colaiuta], because Vinnie had met a woman at the bar who had almost the exact same story — except she had seen the ghost and it had grabbed her."
Did Napolitano know the Driskill is also rumored to be haunted by one of LBJ's former mistresses?
"Really? Woooowwww," she exhales. "That's great. I had no idea."
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