Duquette Johnston
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Duquette Johnston

Birmingham, Alabama, United States | INDIE

Birmingham, Alabama, United States | INDIE
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Solid Lou Reed-meets-a-better-guitar-player-than-Lou Reed rip on the A-side, “Roll Baby Roll,” that it’s really, really good and ends almost too soon. That’s right Dookie, leave ‘em wanting more! The flip, “Rise Up Children,” kicks in after an intro with a beautiful major chord wall of sound and it’s something to behold. I bet looooooser Arcade Fire fans would love this, but who gives a fudge? (Still haven’t actively listened to that band, and I never will; how’s that open-mindedness for ya?). Needlessly ornate packaging in the 4AD vein that doesn’t do these two meat n’ potatoes good time rockers justice. Czech it out! (http://www.communicatingvessels.net)
(Mike Pace) - Dusted Magazine


Solid Lou Reed-meets-a-better-guitar-player-than-Lou Reed rip on the A-side, “Roll Baby Roll,” that it’s really, really good and ends almost too soon. That’s right Dookie, leave ‘em wanting more! The flip, “Rise Up Children,” kicks in after an intro with a beautiful major chord wall of sound and it’s something to behold. I bet looooooser Arcade Fire fans would love this, but who gives a fudge? (Still haven’t actively listened to that band, and I never will; how’s that open-mindedness for ya?). Needlessly ornate packaging in the 4AD vein that doesn’t do these two meat n’ potatoes good time rockers justice. Czech it out! (http://www.communicatingvessels.net)
(Mike Pace) - Dusted Magazine


The video for Duquette Johnston‘s single “Roll Baby Roll” is a directed by Jason Hamric and features surreal vintage vignettes set to Johnston’s driving boogie and infectious holler-along refrain.

The song “Roll Baby Roll” was featured on the season finale of ABC’s Private Practice early this week. In one fell swoop nearly eight million people heard the song. Even though we dont’ really watch much TV (too much music, man! lol), it’s good that so many shows nowadays feature talented artists who would otherwise not get that level of exposure.

“Roll Baby Roll” – Duquette Johnston and The Rebel Kings, new single for the season finale of Private Practice

Johnston is currently in the studio with producer Armand Margjeka, putting the finishing touches on his new record Rabbit Runs a Destiny, due out later this year. - indie rock cafe


Psychedelic Southern rock isn't done any more authentically than by Duquette Johnston. The Alabama native takes a personal look at a troubled road amidst loud guitars itching for a Drive-by Truckers session. Currently in the studio working on a follow-up to 2006's Etowah, Johnston and his recent "Nothing to Fear" demonstrate a digestion of Lucinda Williams. – Chase Hoffberger - Austin Chronicle


Started out at the Creekside Lounge to see Duquette Johnston and the Rebel Kings at the Birmingham, Alabama showcase. I met Duquette when he was in Verbena many years ago (’96-ish) and we’ve traded a rare e-mail or two every couple of years up until the last two or so years where he’s shown up on MySpace. His live show was more rocking than his debut Etowah - kind of Neil Young / My Morning Jacket / Drive-By Truckers-ish. Good ol’ rock from the South. Been listening to his acoustic CD-R that he gave me a copy of that afternoon - hopefully you’ll have a chance to hear it soon.

by Chip Midnight - atomicned.com


"duquette johnston's quivering tenor echoes of neil young" - nashville scene


Duquette Johnston
The Golden Son comes home

By: John Seay
I first met Duquette Johnston in the spring of 2003. At that time he was still going by his first name, Daniel, and was very nearly the skinniest man of his age – early 30s – that I’d ever seen. I recognized him right away from the cover of the Souls for Sale album by Verbena, the local band that briefly achieved national notoriety before finally imploding in 2004.

By that point, I’d also seen Johnston’s then-current band, Cutgrass, play several shows, including one opening for The Strokes the previous year. At that time, meeting Duquette was like being promoted to a higher level of connectedness. Through him you were once-removed from Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, Will Oldham, and — thanks to the fact that Dave Grohl produced Verbena’s second album — twice-removed from Kurt Cobain.

At that first meeting, Johnston was engaging. He was warm, talkative and clad, as he still often is, almost completely in denim, with short, spiky hair protruding from his head as if he’d either just woken up or needed to go to bed (the latter being more likely). Johnston was dirty and unshaven back then, and he very often acted stupidly and was considered untrustworthy where money was concerned – due to what was at that time the apex of his illegal and unhealthy recreational activities. Even upon first meeting, it was readily apparent that he was ready to stay up all night – and was armed with the substances necessary to achieve that goal.

Johnston also had already managed to alienate a fairly high percentage of people in Birmingham; he owed money to several friends; and had screwed over many more during nights when reality was clouded by substances, when things were said and done that would not be remembered by Johnston the next day. After awhile, he’d angered even those who had either defended him or merely tolerated him. He could not show his face in certain establishments. He delved even deeper into a deviant lifestyle, and then one day he found himself in jail.

We did not hear from him for six months or more. Some of us forgot about him, others let their resentment stew, still others let it subside. When next he returned to Birmingham, he had gained more than 100 pounds, was fresh from a rehabilitation center and was religious. With fingers now thick as sausages and his formerly bony frame now pudgy and pushing against his Western-style shirt and trademark denim, it looked like he’d found both God and a couple dozen cases of Twinkies. Nevertheless, his weight gain was testament to a healthier lifestyle.

In many ways, Johnston was like Lazarus, having similarly stumbled upon a second life. He’d descended into the depths of depravity, had only narrowly avoided jail time, and now had risen out of it all smelling … well, like patchouli (he always did have the heart of a hardened hippie). Besides all of that, he also had a head full of songs, scribbled lyrics he’d written while at Rapha, the Christian halfway house where he was sentenced to six months and stayed for a year. His songs from Cutgrass were good, solid rock ‘n roll numbers, manipulated and made better by the all-star and revolving cast of musicians he always managed to surround himself with.

These new songs, however, were different. Gone was the gravelly growl of his former self, replaced with a reedy and sweet voice. He was singing in an entirely different and higher register, and his songs were stripped down, mostly acoustic affairs about sin and redemption. As for the man himself, he emerged from his ordeal cleansed. He even ditched his first name Daniel in favor of his middle name Duquette, partly in an effort to distance himself from his previous life; it also was something like a baptism.

From fame to LaLa Land
Johnston first arrived in Birmingham at the age of seven, when his parents relocated here. After his parents divorced, Johnston remained in Birmingham during the school year, and spent his summers in Wyoming, where his father had a ranch, and where Johnston fished and rode horses and generally engaged in a relatively normal — and in many respects, privileged — childhood. He attended good school districts and had a good relationship with both of his parents. However, his unsupervised summers fomented rambunctious behavior.

“I was a crazy kid,” he says. “If someone dared me to do something, I would do it. The first bad thing I did as a kid was mooning. We were mooning people from my house and my dad found us. It was the only time he ever spanked me … probably because my pants were already down.”

Though as a youngster Johnston took violin lessons, his childhood antics often led to broken bones that prevented him from progressing very far on any instrument. After violin failed to pan out, he took piano lessons. Broken bones curtailed that venture, as well. Johnston’s daredevil demeanor also interfered in other aspects of his life. He began smoking in the fourth grade, and smoked on and off until he was 13, when he quit until his senior year of high school. He continued smoking until a year ago when, in an effort to preserve his voice, he quit again.

As Johnston aged, the rambunctious kid who could easily be dared to jump ditches or moon passers-by became the guy who easily was swayed by the actions of those around him – and prone to addictive behavior. Perhaps not surprisingly, his relationship with music developed concurrently with his appetite for self-destruction. After abandoning the violin and piano, he finally picked up the guitar, currently his instrument of choice, and he learned to play by following along to song songs on the stereo.

“Even with that,” Johnston says with a laugh, “I never really learned how to play, because I kept breaking my arm.”

Johnston briefly attended Vestavia Hills High School before transferring to Baylor, a private school in Georgia. In high school, Johnston predominantly was a stoner. He had several friends die — some on purpose, some from overdoses — and these deaths served to temporarily scare him away from anything harder. In many ways, Johnston did not adequately mourn the losses of his friends, nor did he deal with them until years later. At the time there were other things Johnston could do to mask his hurt, including delving into music.

Aside from one performance in high school, the first band Johnston played in was named Volume, and featured Scott Bondy, with whom Johnston would later form Verbena. Despite his intention of being an instrument-less singer, Bondy convinced Johnston to play bass. Eventually Les Nuby, the future drummer for Verbena, joined the band on guitar. When guitarist/singer Anne Marie Griffin was added to the band, they changed their name to Shallow. Before long, Shallow became Verbena and released the Pilot Park EP on Merge Records. The EP was well received critically, and the band released its first full-length album a year later, Souls for Sale in 1996, also on Merge.

Though that album did not change the musical landscape, it was popular among other bands and the press, and still is mentioned occasionally in major music magazines. A mixture of The Rolling Stones’ swagger and Nirvana’s aggression, the album earned Verbena the opening slot on several national tours with bigger bands, and the attention of Dave Grohl, who offered to produce the band’s second album, Into the Pink, set for release on Capital Records.

Johnston, however, would not make it to the recording session. In 1998, a week before the sessions started, he left the band. Demos had already been cut, plane tickets had been bought. The reasons for Johnston’s sudden departure depend on whom you ask.

Johnston remains mum. “I’m not real good at talking about why I left the band, because there were a lot of circumstances that led to me leaving, some of which are nobody’s business,” he says. “All that is between me, Scott, Les and Marie. Crap happens in bands, especially when there’s money involved.”

Whereas Verbena had been a hard-working band – rehearsing nearly nightly – on his own Johnston was not so disciplined. He’d started Cutgrass before leaving Verbena, as something to do during downtime. At that time he had a wife and a child — proof that all those x-rays he’d had as a child had not rendered him sterile. He intended on focusing on Cutgrass, finding steady work in town and on being a husband and father.

“I was trying to be more prioritized,” he says. “Obviously, I failed in a lot of those areas.”

The next several years are a bit of a blur for Johnston. He delved deeper into drug use and eventually divorced in 2001.

“I lived in LaLa Land,” he says. “I ended up not having a job. I was trying to make records and living in this fantasy world, trying to write music and having way too much fun. I was incredibly depressed and messed up. Because it went from partying on weekends to partying every day, there’s a lot stuff I don’t recall.”

Unraveling musician
One thing Johnston does recall is his arrest in 2002. He was returning from a trip to the Ocoee River on I-59 in Etowah County when he was pulled over and arrested for possession of marijuana and felony possession of cocaine. It was at this point in Johnston’s life that I initially made his acquaintance. It was apparent, as is often the case with people stuck in downward spirals, that he was self-medicating in a desperate effort to avoid mental clarity, the kind of clarity that might force him to deal with certain issues. Instead of inspiring Johnston to clean up his act, the arrest only encouraged his deviant ways. In reality, Johnston’s lifestyle was such that he could not stop.

Because the court system is not the swiftest government entity, it was over a year before Johnston ever set foot in a courtroom. Though he was facing up to 10 years in prison, in 2003 he was instead placed in TASC, a rehabilitation program that consists of drug tests and counseling sessions. Johnston’s behavior, however, steadily worsened, with 2004 his lowest point. He lost the only job he’d had, working for a multimillion-dollar healthcare start-up company in Atlanta. He was set to embark on a tour with Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, but got kicked off the tour before rehearsals even began. He wasn’t even able to see his daughter.

“I just kept fighting it,” he says. “I look back and think about how childish I was. I felt like it was so unfair that I couldn’t see my daughter. The truth is that if you’re strung out on something, you don’t need to be around your kid. And my own drug problem was increasing.”

Johnston’s music career was as unproductive as his personal life. Because even at his lowest points, Johnston possessed a magnetic personality, he was able to surround himself with talented musicians. It seems like nearly every prominent local musician at some point played with Johnston in Cutgrass. That list includes such luminaries as John P. Strohm, Matt Patton, Taylor Hollingsworth, Jody Nelson and Ned Oldham, brother of Will Oldham.

Yet even though talented musicians surrounded Johnston, he failed to release a single piece of music. Cutgrass limped along for six years before Johnston finally disbanded it, never having released any music to the public, save one track on a Skybucket Records local music compilation in 2004. If nothing else, this dismal fact is a testament to how illegal substances shift priorities around in an unhealthy and unproductive fashion.

And then there was Johnston’s pending legal problems. If you scan the list of people thanked on Etowah, Johnston’s new album, you’ll find the name Judge Russell, the man to whom Johnston owes his freedom. After failing several drug tests, after blowing nearly every opportunity he was given to escape jail time, it was District Judge William Russell who gave him another chance.

“Judge Russell gave me a chance to do the right thing,” says Johnston. “Even after the community corrections people said I wasn’t trying. You can really convince yourself of all kind of false realities when you’re doing cocaine everyday. I was convinced that I was invincible. So I kept messing up. Judge Russell gave me one more chance.”

Johnston initially met Russell after failing a drug test. The judge ordered another drug test administered, which Johnston again failed. Johnston, in an act of desperation, insisted that the sample be sent to the lab for re-testing. The judge consented, but told him that if it came back positive, he was going to jail. In the meantime, Johnston found himself incarcerated.

“I remember I was wearing a three-piece suit in Judge Russell’s chambers,” Johnston says. “I had this mentality that if I were wearing a suit he wasn’t going to think I was on drugs. Meanwhile I only weighed about 120 lbs., so the thing was hanging off of me.”

Fortunately for Johnston, his attorney convinced the judge to sentence Johnston to a six-month stint at Rapha, a rehabilitation center in Etowah County. Russell said that if Johnston could complete his stay, all charges would be dropped. The move was the definition of clemency.

Don’t go back to Etowah
Though Johnston was thankful, he remained unconvinced that reform was needed.

“I thought, ‘I can fake this for six months and then I’m free,’” he says. “But just three days into my stay, I lost it. I knew I needed to change. Some people can party only every once in awhile, but if you cross that line to where it’s an everyday around the clock thing, it’s hard to come back. I went past the recreational stage. I thought I had to do drugs for my image, because it was what I was supposed to be doing.”

Rapha, which is another word for God and means healing, taught Johnston that he had a serious lifestyle problem. It helped him come to terms with the aspects of his past — his divorce, not seeing his daughter, losing so many friends at a young age — that he had been avoiding thinking about. The center also put him back in touch with his spiritual side. Though Rapha did not impose religion onto people, it did ask that residents establish a personal relationship with God. Johnston became a Christian.

“Being a Christian means that I struggle a lot,” he says. “But things aren’t that bad. No matter what, God loves me. I’m a little more of a hippie towards it. And I still struggle with it. I haven’t been to church in a couple of weeks. But I pray a lot. I prayed before every single song I wrote. It’s what helped me. When you’re in jail, you have nothing and no one.”

After his stint at Rapha ended, Johnston stayed on and worked as a resident advisor for the center. Late at night, Johnston visited the chapel and wrote the songs that would become Etowah, songs that are full of allusions to faith, the Bible and Johnston’s sordid past. The song “Temptation” is nearly straight from the Bible. One song, “Oh 19!” chronicles the story of a 19-year old meth addict Johnston met at Rapha. The first song on the album, “Etowah,” Johnston wrote while in jail. The song contains the straightforward lyric, “Don’t go back to Etowah,” which was a promise Johnston made to himself to never return to his former life.

Johnston recorded his trove of songs with the help of local musician Jody Nelson, of Through the Sparks. The version of “Golden Son,” the centerpiece of the album, was recorded during Johnston’s first weekend pass back to Birmingham. Instead of revisiting his old haunts where trouble awaited, Johnston visited Nelson and recorded songs.

“Jody brought an extreme amount of understanding to the project and poured his heart into it,” Johnston says. “We spent months on the sessions. He brought a different twist to songs, adding arrangements, both musical and vocal. Jody helped me find harmonies I wasn’t hearing.”

The songs soon found their way to Greg Summerlin, owner of Superphonic Records, a local label. Recognizing the raw beauty of the songs, Summerlin released the album in November last year. After many years trying, Johnston had finally written, recorded and released his own album.

However, the real journey for Johnston, both musically and personally, has just begun.

“I’ve asked a lot of people for forgiveness,” he says. “Hopefully I can keep on the right track. People fall, but I don’t want to. I have to be careful. I was miserable on drugs. Now, I don’t go to places where drugs are, like out at bars at two in the morning. I don’t want to go back to that lifestyle. For the little bit of high you get from drugs, there’re so many more bad things. And if I got arrested again, my life would be done. Say goodbye to Duquette.”

Whether or not Duquette Johnston ever makes it in the music industry is overwhelmingly secondary to the advances he has made in his personal life. Johnston went from street urchin to good person, and contributed to the world a collection of emotive and powerful songs, to boot. This self-proclaimed Golden Son, after a long and twisted journey, has finally come home. Welcome back, Daniel.



Write to editor@bhamweekly.com. - birmingham weekly


Discography

Etowah 2006, the single Babies and Diamonds was played on many AAA stations and specialty shows.

It Sings Because It Has A Song, 2009

Rugged and Fancy, 2010, had play on the Loft on XM radio

Roll Baby Roll 45 (b-side Rise Up Children) 2011, featured on the season finale of Private Practice May 2012.

Rabbit Runs A Destiny, coming spring 2013

Photos