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Freedy Johnson Loves the Muzak Versions of His Old Hits — And He’s Still Striving for Perfection

Among singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston’s prized possessions is a cassette tape featuring Muzak renditions of songs off of his 1994 major label debut, This Perfect World — which earned a glowing review from this very publication. Apparently, the Muzak people were also fans of the man Rolling Stone called an “American original,” sending Johnston a praise-filled letter that he still has today.

“I laughed my ass off,” Johnston tells Rolling Stone of the first time he heard the crooner covers of songs like “Evie’s Tears,” which is about sexual abuse by a priest. “I have a cassette of the four versions. If I’m having a down day, it’s time to open a beer and put that on.”

Johnston, like many artists in the Nineties, got an injection of fame when the majors plucked him from the New York indie music scene. This Perfect World was produced by and featured Butch Vig, praised by the press, and featured Johnston’s most famous song, the insanely catchy “Bad Reputation,” which stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 weeks. 

Despite the fact that he’s never had another hit — at least chart-wise — Johnston is no one-hit wonder who’s been banished to VH1 “Remember This?!” shows. He’s amassed a cult following of fans, who have been waiting years for his next record, Back on the Road to You, out Sept. 9 on Forty Below Records.

“I haven’t put a record out for seven years — and I know that when I used to listen to records a lot when I was younger, seven years would have been a long time between records,” Johnston says. “I would have assumed they’d gone away. It’s great to realize that the job and my ability to do it is still there.”

The 10-song record features guests like Aimee Mann and Susannah Hoffs, with “Darlin’,” featuring Mann, premiering on Rolling Stone Tuesday. “I’m fortunate enough to have friends I can call and ask to sing backup on my records,” Johnston quips as if all of us have such talented friends.

Adds Mann in a release: “I’ve always loved Freedy’s voice and songwriting. There’s something so matter-of-fact yet plaintive about his records, and that combination is incredibly compelling. I’m delighted he has a new record and am even more delighted to be singing on it.”

Looking back at his early success, Johnston still seems kind of stunned. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. “The one comment I would make about having a famous song — and one famous song — is you should love that song automatically. Even if you don’t like it, you love that song.”

Still, he’s not done trying to write one better. “Over the years, I’ve started trying to say more with less. The true master can write a song in just a few lines and say something deep,” he says. “The best song I’ll ever write will be three lines long when I’m 89.”

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