Birmingham, Alabama-based singer/songwriter Duquette Johnston has been making music for three decades. In the ‘90s, Johnston played bass in the alternative rock band Verbena, touring with The Foo Fighters. Since 2006, he’s been putting out solo records. His fifth album, The Social Animals, released last month on Single Lock Records, was produced by John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Waxahatchee) and featured Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums.
Johnston first played SXSW back in 1995. He told 360°Sound before his March 15 gig at Austin’s legendary Continental Club that he was thrilled to be playing just his second show since the pandemic began. We had a chance to catch up with Johnston that afternoon before the gig, during which he discussed the new record, how his children influenced his songwriting, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: Your new LP The Social Animals came together over the course of eight years, during which your wife developed a life-threatening condition after giving birth. You were quoted as saying you had “a radical break from the old way of living and looking at life.” Tell us more about that.
Duquette Johnston: It gave me a lot of hyper-focus and prioritization on what mattered most in my life, instead of the constant hustle and grind. I’ve never really worked for anybody else. I was always trying to do all these different projects. Through her getting sick, we really shifted our priorities and focused on our physical and mental health and tried to design our life to live as creative a life as possible, making music and art and more. It gave me a huge shift. That was the first shift, and the pandemic made me slow down even more, which is great, and allowed me time to really address much deeper personal things and work on myself and our family.
In addition to your music career, I understand you also run a boutique shop called Club Johnston in Birmingham.
I started that the day before I made this record. At the end of 2015, we were trying to figure out what we were going to do. My wife was healthy again after being really sick for a couple of years. I wanted to make a record with [producer] John Agnello, and I wanted to figure out how to open our own shop to be able to host art and music and sell clothes we dig and make stuff we dig. It just turned out that September 10, 2016, we opened our doors and the next day I flew to New Jersey and started this album.
A lot of the songs on The Social Animals were written around the time your son was born. How did your children inspire the songs?
I started writing the bulk of stuff for this record before my son was born. The song “Run with the Bulls” has a line that says, ‘I hear the wolf, he’s calling,’ and my son’s middle name is Wolf. I didn’t think I could have kids again. I have a grown daughter who’s 24. My wife and I found out we were having one, and there was a lot of time to reflect on things, especially after he was born.
I’m always writing. I don’t just sit down and try to write for a project. I try to grab my guitar and play through something every day. I would write while my son was asleep next to me. I would write while my wife was holding him. I would just sing songs into my phone. I would demo them.
At that time, I was being a father to a son for the first time. I was taking care of the wife that was sick, but with the radical change in my life, it was like what am I going to do to show my kids you can live the life that you want? And how can I make sure that I’m trying to leave this world a better spot for them? It’s become more and more important to me.
Any songs on the record that you’re particularly happy with how they turned out?
The crazy thing is I’m stoked on the entire album. I think it’s rare an artist gets to say that, but I love how the entire album turned out sonically and the performances on the songs. I love the last track “Tonight” because I waited so long to get the right version on the song; it’s one of the oldest songs on the record. I love “Holy Child,” that’s about my son. “Forgive Me” and “Whiskey and the Wine” are two of my tops.
The album artwork of you in red is striking. How’d that come together?
I really wanted a stunning image. The photographer who took it, Miller Mobley, is probably one of the greatest photographers of our time. We met for breakfast one day and I started sending him a mood board with all these iconic jazz album covers and photos from different jazz clubs. While I do not play jazz, I listened to more jazz than anything when I was writing this album. The imagery from a lot of the albums really stuck with me. The album is not a color treatment, it’s just a filter on a light and that’s the photo that he took – super close-up and I’m holding some palo santo in my hands.
What did producer John Agnello and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley bring to the sound of the record?
Agnello was the key to doing the layering I wanted to do. He understands making acoustic records with depth and sonic textures without losing focus on the song. When we went in to record, I loved that Steve didn’t want to use a click track. And I don’t like using click tracks if we don’t have to.
I wanted it to be all about the rhythm on this album, the drums and bass, that was the most important aspect because that laid the foundation of the movement and the swing. There were no egos when we went in to track this. Everybody did what was best for the song. There’s a reason you bring in a producer, and it’s to stay out of the way and trust them and let them do their thing.
John really dug in. Even when we were mixing, we were tracking, we would re-mic things. Something would stand out and I would mention an idea and he would suddenly be micing up a Leslie speaker and running a guitar lick that’s only like 10 seconds long – those little elements that someone brings. Sometimes you need to get out of the way, you’re too close to a song to know what’s best for it.
What are your future plans?
Keep making records and get back to playing as many shows as I can and come back to Austin sooner rather than later. Hell, the first time I played SXSW was in 1995 so it’s crazy being out here in 2022 doing it. That’s my plan, to live as creative a life as possible and hopefully connect as many loving humans to each other as possible. I’m a raging hippie, and that’s my goal in life.