An all too brief talk with Johnette Napolitano: Issue 77, May 1995

Vowel Movement: An all too brief talk with Johnette Napolitano


“…it is complete now, two ends of time are neatly tied”
-from “Tomorrow Wendy”
Concrete Blonde, Bloodletting

The reason I quote this song, besides its deep meaning to the rest of the lyrics, is that Johnette Napolitano has tied two ends of time rather nicely, and is stringing up for more. As the ex singer/bassist/songwriter for Concrete Blonde, she captured the hearts and minds of many free thinking people, who were moved in some way by the band, the lyrics, the exquisite playing of Jim Mankey (Concrete Blonde guitarist) or some small thing that stuck in their heads. For me, it was all of the above and much more. That is why I smoked 17 cigarettes waiting for her to call, after drinking lattes all morning, trying to think of good questions to ask. I must first apologize for not letting a chance to talk to Holly Beth Vincent, her partner in crime in their new band Vowel Movement. That would have been too much for me in one day though. Holly is equally as important an influence as Johnette. They are two of the women who most likely gave the spunk, drive and passion to the likes of Liz Phair, 7 Year Bitch, L7 and that Courtney girl. Holly and Johnette helped write the book that these groups are only now reading. That said, and with all of my star struck babbling taken out, Here’s Johnette! 

JN: I’m calling for Gianni.

G: That would be me. 

JN: Gianni Dego, that’s great. Actually, my name in Italian is Giavanna.

That said, and with all of my star struck babbling taken out, Here’s Johnette! Issue 77, May 1995

G: I told your publicist, it would take me a half an hour just to tell you how cool you were, and there wouldn’t be an interview at all.

JN: (Laughing) Well, thank you I’m unbelievably flattered.

G: Last time I saw you was at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake, and you did the most chilling version of ‘Tomorrow Wendy’ I ever thought imaginable.

JN: That song takes on it’s own life when you’re playing it live and people are getting into it, it’s like some weird out of body experience.

G: I’ve been asking everyone at SLUG what I should ask you, and they all said “Ask her if she’s single and what she’s wearing”.

JN: I’m single and I’m wearing a robe on my couch with my chihuahua by my side.

G: Fair enough. Why did you name your art gallery ‘The Lucky Nun’? 

JN: There’s a couple of stories behind that. One day, me and a friend of mine rented a nun costume and drove around sort of as a live theater, putting a nun in different situations. We went into a bar for a martini, we went to the news stand and looked through porno. Everything became very funny when a nun was doing it, people’s reactions were very strange. Then, I was in a hotel in Baja once taking some beer up to my room and I passed this girl in the bushes who was sobbing. Her boyfriend had just dumped her, she had just had a breast removed and she used to be a nun. It was really strange to find this drunk nun, and it was really strange to find this drunk nun crying in the bushes. I guess I’ve always had this fascination with nuns, because their whole life revolves around study. 

G: Were you brought up Catholic? 

JN: No, when my grandfather came here, they were befriended by a Lutheran minister who fed them and gave them shoes, but my family is a lot more Catholic than they think.

G: What is your favorite Concrete Blonde album?

JN: The last one, ‘Mexican Moon.’ That was our major epic work. We felt really strongly about that one, and I think that Jim and I both felt that was the best playing we’d ever done. I really liked the song ‘Mexican Moon’ especially the Spanish version.

G: Well for me, it translates beautifully on the album, almost like it is a Spanish song and the first version is just in English.

JN: Exactly, I was always into that. Bowie used to do stuff in German, and Sting does stuff in Italian, but it seems that the music marketing people are the ones most guilty of segregation of anybody I know.

G: What is it like working with Jim Mankey (who myself and others feel is one of the best guitarists around).

JN: He’s one of the most underrated guitarists in the business, he’s really amazing, great to play with.

G: He doesn’t use a pick, does he? 

JN: He does sometimes, but not usually. Now he’s got his nails really long and creepy and he looks rather vampiric. We’re working together with some old friends of ours in “Los Illegals” he’s playing a lot of flamenco, Gypsy Kings type of stuff, and I get to sing and write in Spanish.

G: You did ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’ for the In Defense of Animals compilation CD, why did you pick that song?

JN: That song is to Chicano culture, musically what Led Zeppelin is to Beavis and Butthead, and it was a real bitch to record, but it’s such a cruiser song that I remember from growing up in the summer in LaPuente. 

G: Who did you listen to when you were growing up? 

JN: My mom listened to a lot of Johnny Cash, and my Dad was really into the Rat Pack, Dean Martin and Sinatra, all that fifties stuff. ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ was in heavy rotation in our house. Then I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, my parents woke me up for it, and told me to watch it, asked me what I thought of these boys with long hair.

G: That was the first show I ever remember seeing on TV.

JN: I wonder what the stars were like on that day, cuz that was a pretty heavy day. it changed everything for us. My dad was very into the 50’s Italian thing, I remember him driving us to school when Hendrix died and he turned up the radio and said “You see what drugs do” he was very against any rock and roll. Then as I grew up I did the whole black light poster rock thing with Zeppelin and The Doors. If I never hear Zeppelin again it’ll be too soon. Then I got pretty seriously into the glam thing with Bowie, Queen 1 & 2, and T.Rex, and I still really like The Cure, I just love the sound of their records. World Party, I like, and Bjork. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s pretty good, but there’s a lot that isn’t, and it’s really hard to figure out what’s hyped and what isn’t.

G: There is a lot of crap out now, but there’s some real cool stuff too.

JN: Right now I like what Epitaph has done. Those Bad Religion guys are old friends of mine, and I’m really proud of them. Punk, if it didn’t happen in the seventies, is now something that’s being emulated by the younger generation, which is very cool, but too me Brett at Bad Religion took it as far as it could go, which was infiltrating business, turning things upside down, at a different level. It was actually working within the system to change the system, and that will piss people off a lot more than just having green hair. 

G: You are doing another record due out in July  is Vowel Movement going to continue as it is? 

JN: The next record is a band called Pretty & Twisted, with Mark Moreland from Wall of Voodoo, who I’ve wanted to work with for years, and he wrote some of the songs. I will probably start touring with that in the summer. Vowel Movement was an interim thing with me & Holly between our serious stuff that we do, and if something comes up that is fun, we’ll do it. The whole point of the exercise was to be a freestyle, non serious thing.

G: Vowel Movement was not what I expected, but it was cool.

JN: We’re just gonna see where it goes, we made a video that we shot ourselves. We hued Jane Simpson, who did alot of Concrete Blonde videos, she did ‘Still in Hollywood’, and that will be available. We’ll just see what happens, we have a lot of fun because we’re both multi instrumentalists, so we just set everything up in the studio and wander around playing whatever we feel like playing. 

Sometimes, particularly when you’re writing, words fail you. Talking with Johnette was pretty special. She may not get the exposure that some other artists get, but I’m not sure that matters. She is one of the great talents of our limp. She is also one of the most genuine people I’ve ever talked to. She cares deeply about the things that are important to her, and that conviction comes through in every song she’s ever done. Even when she’s just screwing around. She’s a down to earth, all around cool person, who has concerns with what happens to us as a people. That is a very rare thing to find in the music industry. She really means the things she says. And she says them with the prettiest voice I’ve ever heard. —Gianni

Read more from the SLUG Archives here:
Consolidated: Fighting The Evil System
Record Reviews: March 1992