Musician Libby Johnson is small and pixyish, fair-skinned and red haired like an Irish girl, with a cute, youthful face. We interviewed her in her apartment at the Chelsea, as her husband Dan worked at his computer in the living room and her two kids romped about until Dan asked them go into the bedroom and read a book. At one point Libby interrupted the interview to check on some potatoes she had in the oven. (They smelled really delicious.) At the end of the interview she gave us a couple of CDs, so who says blogging doesn’t have its rewards? Libby’s voice is smooth and sexy, and her sound is eerie and nostalgic, evoking misty mornings on lonesome country roads long ago. In “Another Life” she sings: “Your face in the L train window finds you looking back to another night, to another life... And the way back, the way back is blind...”
Tell us a little about your music.
I’m a singer/songwriter. My songs are focused on the lyrics. So the writing side of the profession is of the greatest interest to me. I have a background in Folk music and the Blues. My mother was a folk singer and she taught me to play the guitar when I was about twelve. I also started writing songs at about that time. It never occurred to me to do anything else—though I have had a lot of really strange jobs.
What was your strangest job? When I first moved to New York I answered an ad for a singer in a Japanese piano bar. It was a bar for Japanese businessmen. I thought they would want me to play the piano and sing Jazz standards. Well, I did play the piano some, but a large part of my job turned out to be sitting at the businessmen’s tables, entertaining them. I was basically a Geisha girl—though it was all above board and nobody ever acted bad. In those days I made a living playing in piano bars. Also, at around that time I formed a band with my sister and we recorded an album in the Chelsea Hotel. We were called The Mood Elevators.
Where did you move to New York from? Boston. But I’ve lived all over. I was born in Germany. My dad was in the army. We lived in Connecticut and then we moved to Africa for six years.
Did living in Africa influence your musical development? Actually, I didn’t hear a lot of African music while I lived there, just British and American music on the radio. But living there was a unique cultural experience. It made me aware of the difference between here and there. I would say the influence was more personal than musical.
Has your songwriting been influenced by any Chelsea Hotel artists?
Patti Smith. I’ve read all her books, and I’ve also sought out the books of anyone she was interested in. So for instance I’ve read Rimbaud. I’ve always been a big fan of Bob Dylan and I’ve never wavered in my adoration of him. I’m also interested in Brendan Behan. I’ve been studying my family’s genealogy and reading Irish Literature and I know he was a big IRA supporter.
How did you end up at the Chelsea this time? It happened suddenly. We had a handshake deal for another place, but that fell through. So we put our stuff in storage and moved in here. My husband and I are both musicians and when I walked into the hotel I felt I was home. Nobody was looking at me funny. Most of our friends are musicians and there is something different about that. When we first came to look at a place the kids were throwing a hat around in the lobby and they hit a man sitting in a chair with it. He just laughed and threw it back. That doesn’t happen just anywhere.
People have ended up staying here forever when they thought they were just passing through. It’s been a cool place in many ways. Most of my places have been larger and this is totally livable—though the kids are bouncing off the walls. But I wouldn’t mind staying here at all. I wouldn’t miss my stuff.
Do you think the Chelsea has a creative spirit? On some metaphysical level objects absorb the energy of the people who use them. The Chelsea Hotel is sexy and creative, and there’s so much love for this place that that spirit has been preserved. But the thing that concerns us is whether it can remain accessible to artists. A young artist moving to New York today can’t really set up shop here. It’s a privilege to live here. This is a special place.
We feel like the Chelsea can’t just be an aging community.
Yeah, it would be good if there was some way to keep it affordable. When I moved to New York I lived in the East Village in basements with water on the floor and cockroaches. But that’s not the way New York is anymore. Certain things that happened here were just firsts. There can’t be another Janis Joplin or Patti Smith.
Have you written any songs here? I rehearsed with my band here last night. One of my band mates is a huge fan of Arthur C. Clarke. One time he wrote a song based on one of Clarke’s stories and he wanted Clarke to read it but he couldn’t get in touch with him. Nobody would give him Clarke’s number and he wanted to be sure the song got to him, so he bundled up a bunch of books that he thought Clark would like and hid the song in one of them and sent the package to the Chelsea Hotel. Clarke called him and said he liked the song. My band mate helped arrange for the plaque to be placed on the front of the hotel when Clarke moved to Sri Lanka. Everybody feels that the Chelsea is special.
Libby Johnson has two new CDs out: Annabella, and the soundtrack of Trust the Man (starring Julianne Moore and David Ducovny), both on Wrong Records. Annabella has been getting a lot of airplay on XM radio, and can be heard on a show called XM Café. Libby is on tour over the holiday season, check out her myspace page for a list of upcoming shows.]