Jude Johnstone has just released a new album. It’s her eighth audio offering and is titled Living Room. But first, for those not yet familiar with the artist in question, a bit o’ background.
Born in Bar Harbor, Maine, Johnstone is a singer-songwriter and musician currently based in Nashville, Tennessee. According to her official website, she was “discovered” by the late E-Street band sax player Clarence Clemons. Her rockin’ resume includes seven previous platters. Her debut disc, Coming of Age, dropped in 2002.
Dozens of her songs have been covered by Laura Branigan, Mary Black, Stephen Bishop, Emmylou Harris, Bette Midler, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, and others. She wrote the hit song “The Woman Before Me” on Trisha Yearwood’s debut disc, which also garnered an award from Broadcast Music Incorporated. Back in 1997, Johnny Cash scored The Country Album of the Year Grammy for his LP American II: Unchained for which Johnstone wrote the titular “Unchained.”
Jude Johnstone’s signature sound is a mix of music genres including (but not limited to) Americana, country, folk, piano bar, and slow jazz.
Living Room (Bojak Records) is a follow-up to her 2016 release, A Woman’s Work, in 2016. The album is thusly titled because it was (give or take an overdub or two) recorded in her own living room. It was inspired by Emmylou Harris who is quoted on the back cover of the CD.
“In the making of records, I think, over the years, we’ve all gotten a little too technical, a little too hung up on getting things perfect… and we’ve lost the living room…”
Taking the comment to heart, Johnstone peels away layers of potential production to get to the gist of her musical messages. Johnstone leads the way on piano, lead and harmony vocals. She is backed by an occasional assortment of other artists including Bob Liebman (cello), David Brewer (penny whistle), David Pomeroy (bass), Mike Meadows (percussion),Olivia Korkola (violin), Tim Hockenberry (trombone and vocals), David Keary (baritone guitar), Nick Scott (upright bass), Rob van Duuren and Tim Fleming (pedal steel) and Hunter Nelson, Ben Glover, Ray Duncan, Noah Colton, Brandon Jesse and Andi and Ren Renfree (additional vocals).
Track by track
The 10-track, 40-minute album opens on “Is There Nothing.” Co-written with Blessing Offor (The Voice, Season 7), it is but an introduction to one of the album’s recurring themes of other songs that follow. This is a painful presentation of a post-mortem pairing.
“My Heart Belongs To You” is the second selection. The song includes lyrics by Neilson Hubbard, Glover, and Johnstone. It’s a great slow dance number that evokes images of couples desperately clinging to each other as Johnstone works her magic in front of a live audience in an intimate venue.
Next is “That’s What You Don’t Know.” lyrics co-written (and performed) with Hunter Nelson. This perhaps one of the best cuts on the CD. It just works so well in general and fits perfectly into the overall playlist presentation.
The quiet “All I Ever Do” is a song born of a true tale of suicide. It features lyrics that were co-written with Rodney Soares. It is somehow both new and yet strangely familiar in parts due no doubt to Johnstone’s experience and experiences. (Plus, your pensive penman is a sucker for male-female harmony vocals in intimate audio offerings in general.) It is, like much of the material here, reflective, sad yet seeded with perseverance.
By the time you hear “One Good Reason”, it should be clear that as a pianist Johnstone goes places where gals with guitars do not in terms of composition and arrangements. There is something about a solo figure behind a piano that also lends itself to a different perspective.
The rhythmic “Serenita” was co-written with Maggie Doyle. It has an identity all its own and yet doesn’t divorce itself from Johnstone’s piano-driven signature sound. “I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way” is another example of Johnstone’s abilities that actually evokes specific imagery amidst effective musical composition.
“Seasons Of Time” includes writing contributions from Duncan and Glover. This love song is both reminiscent of an old-world waltz and yet brings on the mental image of a man and a woman sharing a genuine moment in a quiet corner behind a piano somewhere. It is both old and new, timeless and timely.
The smoky “So Easy To Forget” follows. This one makes the careful listener both empathic and envious. There is true sorrow in the thought of yet another failed relationship in the world and yet who does not wish they could purge the pain in the creation of something beautiful?
The closing cut, “Paradise,” while a sad song, reveals a ray of hope appropriately placed at the end of the album. It offers yet one more wonderful glimpse into Johnstone’s talent and perhaps even her soul.
Overall, the album flies in the face of the expected industry inclusion of both up-tempo tracks and slow songs. Johnstone successfully gathers up a group of slow and oft’times sad, heartfelt slow songs that genuinely entice rather than disappoints the listener. Perhaps it is her honesty; perhaps it is the variety of musical treatments and time signatures. Maybe it’s all of this and something one can only call the “Johnstone je ne sais quoi.”
What is certain is that the evocative album includes uncluttered ballads and sincere songs rife with understated emotion. Johnstone delves deeply into themes of anguish and acceptance, pain and hope, and loss and perseverance. She effectively manages to walk the razor’s edge between personal and universal. So check out Jude Johnstone’s Living Room because, well, there’s certainly more than “One Good Reason.”