Duquette Johnston on His New Music, Hardship, and Hope

black and white photo of Duquette Johnston by Miller Mobley
A musician and songwriter (Verbena, Cutgrass, Gum Creek Killers, Duquette Johnston and the Rebel Kings) as well as an independent business owner (Club Duquette), Duquette Johnston has been a fixture of the Birmingham music community. He’s like a southern Neil Young in his vocal and guitar stylings with a desperate yearning for hope and resolution to the issues that seem to constantly haunt humanity.

Released nine years after his previous record Rabbit Runs A Destiny (Communicating Vessels), Johnston teamed up with Single Lock Records–a Florence-based label co-founded by John Paul White of the Civil Wars–to put out The Social Animals this past February. Inspired by a flurry of life changes, triumphs, and obstacles, the record rotates between hard-charging barn-burning rock ’n’ roll and a cosmically atmospheric Americana that weaves relatable storylines throughout each of the album’s eleven tracks.

We spoke with Johnston about the inspiration behind the album (especially “Tonight” and its accompanying video), writing songs in the middle of hardship, his decision to partner with Single Lock, and reconnecting and recording the album with John Agnello (The Hold Steady, Waxahatchee, Hop Along) and a team of musicians including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly.

Magic City Bands: It’s been nine years since your last full-length record, Rabbit Runs A Destiny, so I’m sure there have been a lot of events that have happened in your life. What were some of the major things that influenced or impacted the writing and recording of this album?

Duquette Johnston: It was just super organic. After Rabbit came out, we were just home because my wife was so sick and we had a newborn. I was just writing, and we were together as a family nonstop.

I didn’t start out to write a record. I just write and I still do that. Then I’ll go through stuff and pull stuff out and vibe on which songs are really jumping out at me. It’s a gut feeling like “this is natural, I want to play this again.” If it excites me, I know it’s right. Everyone has a different method, but for me and the way I’m created and how I function best, it’s from that excitement and gut feeling.

For this record, I was just writing songs and songs and songs. I wrote a couple before our son was before like “Run with The Bulls” and “Year to Run”. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s a reflection of what I was going through and what I was experiencing and what I was fighting to do and what I was fighting to survive. It just poured out that way.

Then I started compartmentalizing songs because I had rough ideas for something like 160 songs. I don’t know; I quit counting. A lot of them are garbage and will never see the light of day. Some of them were just riffs, just parts. But I save all of them because you never know what will jump out at you later.

That was the writing. Then I started demoing, and as I was demoing, I reconnected with John Angelo after 20 years. I had worked with John when I was in Verbena for pre-production on a record. I had always felt a connection and vibe with John. I tracked him down, so we met up in New Jersey and had coffee and I gave him a copy of Rabbit. I started sending him demos and then we were off to the races, so to speak.

We took a long time, and I did a lot of pre-production, so when we went in to record, we weren’t messing around. We were focused, and we knocked it out because we had very limited time to record.

The writing process was just me writing all the time. The process is just to get up and do it, to show up every day and to write no matter what. It might not work, it might work. The more you show up, the more you connect to it and the more you’ll flow with it.

Duqette Johnston Social Animals by Paul Prudhomme

MCB: Where did you record with John? Did he come down here, did you go up there, or was it a mix?

DJ: We went back and forth about what we were going to do. I sent Steve Shelley the demos, and he was down and said we could record them at the Sonic Youth studio. Steve lives in Jersey, Emil Amos, who plays bass. lives in New York, John’s down the street from Steve in New Jersey, the studio is in New Jersey. It was just easier for me to fly up there.

To backtrack a little bit, New Year’s Eve 2015, my wife and I sat down and wrote out our intentions for 2016. What did we want to do? What did we want our life to look like? And that was the first time we’d ever done that, and it gave me a lot of focus on where I wanted my life to go. I wanted to make a record with John Agnello and I wanted to open up what became Club Duquette. Little did I know that nine months later we would open up Club Duquette and I would fly to New Jersey the next day to start the record.

We did all the rhythm tracks at Sonic Youth’s studio. I was there for one week and knocked out all the bass, drums, rhythm guitars and some of the vocals. When that week was done, I came home and two months later, John came down. We went into the Communicating Vessels studio with Brad Timko. We brought in David Swatzell from Wray and Unwed Sailor, Seth Brown from Lady Legs for keys. Taylor Hollingsworth popped by and put a baritone guitar part on a song and a couple riffs on another. My old buddy Greg Slamen put some synth on a song. Bekah Fox, Rachel Roberts, and Najee Waters sang backup vocals.

We spent a whole week at Communicating Vessels and knocked out all the overdubs. They were long days, too. John stayed with me. We would cook breakfast, go into the studio and record to midnight, one, or even two in the morning, then come home and sleep for a few hours, and then get up and do it again.

Then on January 1st or 2nd [2017], I flew back to New Jersey and we mixed the record at a place called Water Music, which is no longer around unfortunately.

MCB: You originally planned on putting it out that year, but you decided to hold off. What was the reason for that?

DJ: I wanted to not rush it. We had waited so long to record it. The last record had come out in 2013, and I didn’t start recording this one until 2016. Now people are just cranking things out constantly. I wanted to move a little slower and correctly. There’s a time to move quick and a time to move slow, and this was a time to move slow. Find the right home. I sent the record around. I connect with everyone at Single Lock Records. I connect with [label partners] Ben [Tanner], Reed [Watson], John Paul, and Will Trapp, the whole family. Jeffrey Cain from Communicating Vessels had put out my last record, and he agreed that this was a great home for the album.

But Single Lock had a lot going on, so we had to go at a slower pace. We were planning the release, and then the pandemic hit and we hit pause. I didn’t want to try and work a record during the pandemic. That first year especially and last year, I had to make sure my family was good. I couldn’t give the album everything I wanted to give if I was trying to keep a business open and take care of family. My wife’s art took off in 2020, we were homeschooling our kid because he was home with us for over a year. So we waited, and now the time is here.

MCB: What was the meaning behind the title, The Social Animals?

DJ: The meaning has changed as the album has sat and waited for the right time with the universe. I took a pic at the zoo that had that on it. I thought it fit humanity. Then as the pandemic progressed the meaning shifted. We all need each other we all want and need connection and to know we are loved. We are Social Animals.

MCB: The song that really struck me on the record as well as its accompanying video was “Tonight”. Could you talk about the song and inspiration for the video?

DJ: That song is the oldest song on the album. Most of the songs were written much later. I had recorded a version of “Tonight” with Gum Creek Killers and we gave that away on NoiseTrade. But I still wanted a proper release for the song. When we were in the studio and John asked me about any other songs that I had, I played them “Tonight” and everybody just went with it.

That song was written about my reflection on what was going on in the world years ago. It’s been a long time. Some of it was personal stuff and things going on in my marriage, but it was also other things like what was happening in the world with a lot of social injustices and violence and murder and police brutality on minorities. It came out in the song (“Baby, don’t you worry” and “Times are moving swiftly and there’s danger in the air”). It was about seeing all this crap and everyone wants you to focus on the bad. And I didn’t want to. I was saying that if we pull together and stand up for each other and take care of each other as humans, we can make this alright. We can make this world a better place, and I still believe that. You have to be vocal, you have to be kind. Sometimes we have to be kind to people we don’t agree with.

That song was about hope for me, and it still is. My dream for that song is it gets people singing it and gives them some hope.

With the video, we decided to start doing those ourselves and see what we could pull off and execute, sometimes quickly because of timing with our life. The original plan was to drive around and pull up to strangers and give them flowers. I was going to borrow this old 1976 Jaguar from this dude that I knew and drive around with a Jaguar full of roses and give them away. The car thing didn’t work out and thank God because I knocked over all the roses in my 1995 Honda and the backseat was flooded with water and soaking wet.

So I just started messaging people I knew who were close to East Lake and Woodlawn and had time during the day to shoot. It was super cold and no one was out on the streets, so we couldn’t just go up to strangers because there was nobody around. The first guy I give flowers to is named Cliff and he’s been living on and off the streets in Woodlawn. We’ve known each other for years. We connected over my past and his past, when I was locked up and he was locked up. So I saw him walking around, so I jumped up and gave him a flower. He ended up taking it and giving it to his mom, which was really great.

I had my buddy Daniel Carl Fox who shot the “Year to Run” video and has filmed this documentary that we’re going to be putting out about Etowah until now. I would jump out of the car with a flower and he would follow me. None of it was set up. We just wanted to do something that would make people smile and bring them joy.

Duquette on street by Miller Mobley

MCB: I know you said the songs aren’t necessarily autobiographical, but there are definitely themes of legacy and fatherhood and giving advice to the next generation on this album.

DJ: What the songs are is a reflection of my journey. I’ve occasionally written songs about stuff I see, but it’s my journey in what those are. “To My Daughters” was written about a man I knew, so I’m still connected to the song and it relates to me from having kids.

I’ve never forced it, and I’ve never really been consciously aware of what I’m writing. There are times when I don’t want to think and just pour something out and move on. Every writer is different. Some want to go meticulously line by line and refine it. There are people who write better lyrics and some write better riffs. Each songwriter is different.

There’s no telling what the next album will be like lyrically. But with this one, we’d just had a kid and my wife almost died. We almost lost everything we had. Multiple times during that time period when I was writing a song, we were a day away from being foreclosed on our home. We were broke, we had friends bringing us groceries. A guy I used to work with paid five months of my mortgage off. It’s unbelievable the people that stepped in to help us, and I’m really grateful for all that.

Everything I wrote was just while I was living and laying around writing songs, staring at my kid, staring at my wife. What can we do to turn our life around? What do we want our life to be? It’s not easy. Life can be really challenging, and even more challenging for others. You just have to choose your mindset of where you’re going to fall. It doesn’t make anything easier, but it gives you some guidelines on how to function. I just hope to continually learn and improve.

The Social Animals is available on all major streaming services and on physical formats such as CD and vinyl. To purchase a copy of the album, visit duquettejohnston.com or singlelock.com.

Duquette Johnston will play a free, all-ages album release show at Seasick Records on Sunday, April 10th. Presented by Birmingham Mountain Radio, the show will kick off at 6 p.m. with DJ Suaze followed by Johnston and his band at 7 p.m.

Photos by by Miller Mobley. Design by Paul Prudhomme.