The Social Animals
In 2014, Duquette Johnston and his artist wife Morgan had their first child, after many years together. But their joy became complicated, as Morgan fell ill with a bacterial infection and nearly died. When Duquette, who'd been gearing up to promote his third solo album, stepped away from the music business to take care of his wife, it was the beginning of an unexpected new chapter in his life.
And at first, one full of uncertainty. Fortunately, he'd just landed a song placement in a TV spot for University of Virginia Children's Hospital, appropriately enough with a cover of Delaney & Bonnie's “Never Ending Song of Love.”
“I'd stopped everything in my life at that point, so that commercial was like a little nest egg for us,” Duquette says. “I was just taking care of my son, and taking care of my wife, trying to get her back to being the best woman she could be. In the middle of that, I started writing songs. It was a slow process, but I wrote constantly. All I had was my wife, my son and my guitar.”
He also had a budding idea for a new business. Opened in 2016, Club Duquette is a combination clothing store-art gallery-performance venue that has blossomed into a cornerstone of Woodlawn, a vibrant, historic neighborhood in his native Birmingham, Alabama. “We wanted to have a space that was about community,” says Johnston. “It was a place where we could bring people together using art and music and fashion and tear down walls and barriers.”
The result of all Johnston's expanded creativity now takes shape in The Social Animals, a new album that reverberates with hopefulness and an awe for the mysteries of our dandelion existence. “I was holding on for one more year to run / so I started closing eyes and seeing sun,” Johnston sings on opener “Year To Run.” That song, “Whiskey and Wine” and “Baby Loves a Mystery” quickly establish the record's palette of spiraling guitars and deep cavernous beats wrapped around Johnston's airy, yearning voice. It's a lush, inviting sound, with echoes of both On The Beach-era Neil Young and '80s spectral pop like The Church and Cocteau Twins. Other standout tracks include the slowburn swoon of “Motorcycles,” the dream-weaving lift of “Mystics” (“We are family, it's all I need. . .”) and the anthemic, lighters-aloft closer “Tonight.”
Though the album has been finished since 2017, Johnston says, “I don't think it was supposed to come out back then. I don't think the meaning behind some of the songs mattered as much as they do now. That song 'Tonight' is a good example. The chorus was like a chant I wanted to scream at the world, 'Tonight, tonight, tonight, it's gonna be all right.' We need to come together, we need to have love for each other. Now, over the last several years with the extreme political BS and COVID and the lack of caring on some people's parts, to me, the song is more powerful.
“Because we can be all right,” Johnston says, emphasizing a belief that's central to his outlook. “We can lift each other up. We can change things, if we keep our hearts in the right place.”
Johnston's optimism is born out of much personal evolution and expansion, over what he calls his “wild, incredible life.” Raised in Birmingham and the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, he started playing music and promoting punk rock shows in high school, which led to him playing bass in late '90s Merge Records buzz band Verbena. “We were having all this crazy success, touring with the Foo Fighters, then everything fell apart in my life,” Johnston recalls. “I left the band, my home life at the time fell apart, and I started doing drugs. I thought I had to live in misery to create great art. But that is a freaking lie the world will tell you.” In the early '00s, a drug charge landed him in Etowah County Correctional Facility. Resolutely positive (“There is beauty in darkness if you seek it out” Johnston says in Etowah, a short documentary about his time in lock-up), he got out and and went on to release four solo albums, including Etowah (2006) and Rugged & Fancy (2010). “Music is center for me,” Johnston says.
His latest release The Social Animals features a core band of Steve Shelley (drums), Emil Amos (bass), David Swatzell (guitar) and Seth Brown (keys), and teams Johnston with acclaimed producer John Agnello (Waxahatchee, Hop Along). “John Agnello got what I was trying to do, and he took the sound to a completely outerwordly place,” Duquette says. “I'm really into mysticism and ancient symbolism and all these different things, and sonically, I hear things as I see them. For inspiration, I listened to a ton of jazz stuff like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and especially Kamasi Washington, and those guys talk about getting lost in their songs. And also there being space for things to happen. I love that.”
Indie label Single Lock Records has also given Johnston some much-needed space in his day to day life. “I like the personal connection there,” he says. “My friend Jeffrey Cain from Remy Zero and The Church really made the recording of this record happen. He was the one who said, 'I think Single Lock's a great home for you.' They run it like family. With records I've done in the past, I've had to take on the role of everything and I can't keep doing that. I'm running the store, and trying to design clothes, and my wife's a full-time artist and we have a kid. It's chaotic and busy.”
As he looks forward to a new year that hopefully will make touring less complicated than it's been during the pandemic, Johnston is clear-eyed and grounded about being an artist. “I just want to live a creative life,” he says. “I've been in the music industry since I was 18 and now I'm 48. I want to do things that feel great to me. I'm not sweating, I'm not chasing anybody down. I have to make records, and I want to make records that impact people. I've been through so much craziness. I think that extreme contrast has allowed me to understand so much of life that so many people will never see and understand. It's like walking between worlds – it's beautiful. If my story and my experiences can open other people's eyes, then everything I've done is worth it.”