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No Concrete Plans

No longer Twisted or Blonde, a more confident Johnette Napolitano has her heart in her solo material--despite setbacks that have foiled the album's release.

April 04, 1998|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a member of Concrete Blonde and her offshoot band, Pretty & Twisted, Johnette Napolitano endured internal shake-ups at both Capitol and Warner Bros. Her luck with labels has been so bad that her close friends joke about it: "If you want company turmoil or executive turnover, sign Johnette."

The veteran singer-songwriter's situation looked good when Island Records signed her last year. But the Johnette jinx struck again.

Chris Blackwell, who had signed Napolitano to a solo deal, left Island. Davitt Sigerson replaced him as chairman in January, and the label dropped Napolitano and her album, "The Sound of a Woman."

Napolitano, though angry and disappointed, seems determined to focus on the positive, such as her new material and current string of live dates with espanol rockers Maria Fatal, including tonight's stop at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana.

Reflecting on her unsettling business affairs, Napolitano said, "Well, it is consistent. Controversy surrounded [Concrete Blonde's final LP] 'Mexican Moon.' It happened on 'Pretty & Twisted.' And it's happened once again.

"Sure, I was bummed when they told me they weren't going to put out the record. But speaking truthfully, I was at the bottom of their totem pole, and I've come to understand that I don't have any control over that end of things.

"This new record was supposed to be released in April, to coincide with these live shows, and we could have postponed these gigs," Napolitano said in a phone interview from her Hollywood home.

"But I thought, 'Why wait?' The Fatales and I have been rehearsing for about a month now, and we're excited and ready to play. It's new material, and I don't know what's out there for it, but if my heart has ever truly been in something, this solo record is it."

Napolitano describes the songs as "introspective and life-affirming," from a hard-rocking, spiritually-tinged tribute to women ("Todos Los Santos [All the Saints])" to a ballad ("I'm Your Queen") celebrating the mutual love and respect between a man and woman: "I'm the diamond in your ring/Without me, you can't be king."

"It's all about realizing you have the power to pave your own way," said the L.A. native, 40. "Many things conspire against you . . . that mislead you into believing that you are powerless. But all it really takes to uncover the truth is courage. Now with that awakening does come responsibility, because if you're unhappy, it's ultimately your own damn fault.

"I don't think self-examination is many people's first priority when they wake up in the morning. But this has been a heavy time for me."

*

Much of Napolitano's prior work, particularly in the highly praised and influential Concrete Blonde, had a dark streak of personal and urban turmoil. Gritty songs such as "God Is a Bullet," "Still in Hollywood," "City Screaming" and "Train Song (Edge of Desperation)" echoe the struggles of everyday life.

More recently, though, she has turned to more varied, challenging projects, including lending a hand to two rock en espanol bands and completing her first film score.

Last year, Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey collaborated with Los Angeles band Los Illegals to record "Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals." Napolitano also co-produced the Maria Fatal album "Pasiones, Torturas y Otros Misterios" and enlisted the group to open a mini-Concrete Blonde reunion last May at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. Maria Fatal is Napolitano's opening act and backup band.

Napolitano has shared her talents with the cult-movie world as well, composing the score for "Pep Squad," which debuts at the Cannes Film Festival in May. She describes the film by 22-year-old Steve Balderson as "a twisted, dark comedy that could be the 'Rocky Horror [Picture Show]' of the '90s."

The transition from unpredictable, hard-edged rocker to a multidimensional, self-confident artist began about two years ago while touring with the Heads, a group featuring three former members of the Talking Heads (minus David Byrne).

"I learned a tremendous amount playing with them," said Napolitano, who sang lead vocals and played guitar on the trek. "Tina [Weymouth] and Chris [Frantz] just threw me in to see if I could swim. And here I was, actually singing 'Psycho Killer' and 'Take Me to the River.' I mean, those are some pretty big shoes to fill. It was very hard work, but in the end, it was so good for my self-esteem.

"We did this amazing song called 'I Can Do Anything," which is about being confused but finally coming into your own. In life, everyone has that moment, that choice where either you go on or stay behind. Moving ahead always involves risk and a tremendous amount of faith. But when you do it, you realize what is possible, and it's like a feeling of rebirth."

Napolitano points to David Bowie, Elvis Costello and Neil Young as inspirations for the commercial risks they've taken to follow their artistic impulses.

"They all like to experiment, and some of their records have been a [commercial] bust," she said. "But I don't think Elvis Costello gives a [expletive] if a record of his flops. Look at their longevity and sense of commitment to the craft. To be constantly challenging yourself and growing . . . that's what the life of an artist is all about."

* Johnette Napolitano and Maria Fatal play tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $16.50-18.50 (714) 957-0600.

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