Luckily pop princess Susan Cowsill entered the picture, bringing some much-needed sweetness and light. The result is At Least We Have Each Other, due this summer. A desperate man begs for a ride from his girlfriend while stuck at a gas station in "I Am Sorry." A trucker ponders his lonely life, while hauling questionable cargo in "Sweet Senorita." Imagine Raymond Carver's rubbed-raw characters, singing country, rock and folk.
Johnston feels particularly lucky in having landed Graham (of True Believers fame) and "Flower Girl" Cowsill, whose other family were bona fide stars in the 1960s.
"Jon Dee and I had been fans of each other for a while," says Johnston, best known for the hit "Bad Reputation." and other character-study songs. "We'd written a couple of tunes about doing lousy jobs in restaurants, and the whole album was gonna be like that. Then, in 2009, we saw Sue perform at SXSW and she killed us." With Cowsill in the band, the subject matter of the songs diversified and most of the record was written in three days.
Cowsill chuckles when this ridiculously brief amount of songwriting time is referenced. The woman whose singing siblings had four Top Twenty hits in the 1960s (and inspired the TV show The Partridge Family), says the writing process did have its hours from hell.
"After we'd written a bunch of songs, the guys said they needed one more and I had to write it! Now telling me to sing is nothing. I've done it for decades with everybody from my brothers to Alex Chilton to my sister-in-law, Vicki Peterson, from The Bangles. But writing? That comes from God! You can't order it up; it's too mystical. Then Jon Dee started bullying me," Cowsill says. And cracks up laughing.
Yep, Graham, tough Zen Master that he is, decided he should throw Cowsill's showbiz past in her face. It proved to be the cold water she needed. "J.D. literally scribbled me a note with a picture of a sad bear on it. And the bear said, 'I'm Susan Cowsill. I've been on The Ed Sullivan Show and sung with Johnny Cash. And now I can't write one little song. Poor me!"
Graham then essentially locked Cowsill in a room. Alone, she summoned her strength and found inspiration in the band's Creation Myth. Then came up with a winner.
"The backstory of Lil' Sis is, I was found in a grotto and placed in an orphanage for the first 33 years of my life," says Cowsill, pokerfaced. "That's when I found out I had two erstwhile 'brothers,' Freedy and Jon Dee. It was particularly poignant for me, because in real life, I had actually lost two brothers, Bill and Barry, in recent years. Anyway, I started playing and came up with 'I Never Knew There Would Be You.' The guys loved it. Sometimes you need to be locked in a room, I guess."
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Jon Dee Graham, in conversation, certainly doesn't sound like a vicious jailer. In fact, considering the catastrophic car wreck he had a few years ago, not to mention his son's recent health problems, this Texan is almost supernaturally cheery.
"When this began, I didn't know if I could write songs with Freedy, I'm so in awe of him," says Graham in the raspy voice of a seasoned smoker. "I mean, when I heard (Johnston's second album), 'Can You Fly,' I thought, 'Why should I even try any more? I can't touch this.'"
Graham, well known for his electric guitar playing, as well as writing for those True Believers (which featured pal, Alejandro Escovedo), finally got over his pen envy of Johnston. Then things went swimmingly.
"I'm sort of a spontaneous writer, rough and ready," said Graham. "Freedy, on the other hand, will fret and parse and pick at a lyric till it's either perfect or dead. We have gaps within ourselves, though. That somehow blend nicely."
Considering that Graham's 2008 car crash nearly ended his life, he also knows not to sweat out a songwriting session.
"What bones did I break? Man, what bones didn't I break," says the native Texan. "Two vertebrae in my spine, every rib on my left side. I sheared off a knee cap, my lungs collapsed. I was on every kind of pain medication imaginable. Which, unfortunately, is not as much fun as it sounds."
Hopefully Graham, Johnston and Cowsill, will be hitting the road this Spring to promote At Least We Have Each Other. Coming full circle, one of the first stops is a March appearance at SXSW.
Particularly stoked about all this activity is Johnston. Once a solitary man, he's audibly excited to collaborate again-soon-with his sister and brother.
"As good as this record is, I'm mostly looking forward to doing another one, soon. I've really got the taste for playing with Jon Dee and Sue. Now," he says, chuckling, "all we have to do is create another Kickstarter campaign and raise another ten grand. After that? We'll be on our way."