Song-by-Song: ‘The Social Animals’ by Duquette Johnston
Songs inspired by old friends, new parenthood and everything in between, the alt-rock artist tells us about his latest album
The journey taken by alt-rock artist Duquette Johnston to get to his new album The Social Animals was a long and bumpy one. Not just the undulating fortunes of a music career that has seen stints in Verbena, Blake Babies and, the almost impossible to find, Cutgrass, as well as a pair of solo albums in 2013 (Rabbit Runs A Destiny) and 2019 (Etowah), but also deeply personal struggles that include time spent in prison on a drug charge. Released and resilient, life still wasn’t done with Johnston; his wife came close to losing her life after giving birth to the couple’s first son. Thankfully, he and his loved ones endured.
Finished in 2017 and finally seeing the light of day, it’s impossible to listen to The Social Animals and not hear every hard-won step. It’s a tale of family, survival and the human condition that matches the depth of Elliott Smith with the cosmic curiosity of Jason Molina. A gripping album from start to finish, we were keen for Johnston to tell us some more about each of its 11 songs…
YEAR TO RUN
Most of the album was written during an insane time in my family’s life. My son was born, my wife almost died from a bacterial infection and the insanity of it all brought the most clarity to my life in a long time. Year To Run, chasing the sun, coming out of darkness, choosing my family and how we want to live about the noise and demands of this world. Written in the deep hours of nighttime, this song is finding the good. Being your own Light when there isn’t one anywhere else.
WHISKEY AND THE WINE
Standing, staring down the portal of new parenthood, I was scared. But I held this vision of what life could look like. Nothing is ever a death or an ending, it’s just a chance to start something new. And that can be whatever you make of it.
BABY LOVES A MYSTERY
Love is fucked up and wild. So what happens when you stay with a partner beyond what is comfortable and known. What happens when you defy what the world tells you to do and you design a life of your dreams. There is magic there.
This one is for my son. It’s what I hope for him, what I hope he sees. That he knows anything is possible. It’s a love song for my son, about seeing his mother in him. What I sang that night, when he was just a few weeks old, are the lyrics. Nothing changed.
One of the older songs on the album. My uncle raced motorcycles in the late 60s and early 70s while in med school to become a doctor. He was in a horrible accident in 1972 and was in a coma where he had visions of my life. He was in a wheelchair with a severe head injury for the rest of his life. He lived music from that chair. I spent hours listening to Elvis with him, classical, Johnny Cash, the Beatles and so much more. Without him and without my brother I would have never picked up a guitar. I wrote this song for him when he was on his deathbed.
TO MY DAUGHTERS
This song was commissioned by a friend and patron of the arts. He was a complex man, with one foot in a bar and the other in the church. It’s about the duality of this existence.
A long, long time ago I got messy drunk after being on a cocaine bender and broke my now wife’s great grandmother’s antique crystal soap dish. Naked and bleeding on the bathroom floor, that woman loved me in spite of the mess I made. Twenty years together, we’ve both made lots of messes. We still love each other.
This was a hard one, 12 verses and no chorus for years. This was written in the sleepless delirium of middle night. There is a state of love that exists beyond this physical plane, out in the cosmos. It’s complicated but it’s so easy, too.
RUN WITH THE BULLS
Rhythmically driven, I could hear this hypnotic frenzied sound. What if we aren’t running from bulls? What if we are the momentum, the catalyst, the runner, the race? I think freedom exists when we step into all the parts of our existence and we feel their energy and drive.
This is about running off together. To be young and madly in love and chasing sunshine and waiting for each other to be wild and free. We all dream of this.
This song was written in 2007 and has been arranged and recorded and never released for all these years, yet it’s the song that I end every show with. And it always ends up with masses of people just chanting, “Tonight, tonight, it’ll be alright,” because that’s the truth. It’s consolation in a fucked up world. It’s an invocation of our collective heartbeat and the solidarity that we can find together, even when the world is falling apart.