After more than two decades in Cambria, esteemed singer-songwriter Jude Johnstone is leaving the Central Coast.
“I’ve loved it here so much,” Johnstone, 55, said. “Some of the best friends I’ve had in my whole life live here. Leaving that is the hardest part.”
But financial realities, coupled with a few life changes, have convinced her to head east to what she calls “the songwriter capital of the universe” — Nashville, Tenn.
Before she goes, Johnstone will play two concerts to say farewell to her fans and friends.
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She’ll be joined by cellist Bob Liepman and violinist Saul Garza on June 11 at Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo and June 12 at Painted Sky Studios in Harmony. (Sam Swinson will open the June 11 concert.)
A long career in music
Originally from Bar Harbor, Maine, Johnstone moved to Los Angeles as a teenager to pursue a career in music — encouraged by an encounter with Bruce Springsteen’s longtime saxophone player, Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, on a cross-country flight in 1978. (Clemons, in turn, introduced her to Springsteen’s producer, Charles Plotkin, who helped get her established in California.)
Johnstone has also released six albums of her own, beginning with “Coming of Age” in 2002. Her follow-up to 2013’s “Shatter” is the upcoming “A Woman’s Work: Live From the Netherlands,” which features Johnstone on piano, Rob van Duuren on pedal steel and guitar and Linley Hamilton on trumpet.
Johnstone is known locally as a consummate professional as well as “a very sensitive and compassionate person” who enjoys meeting friends at Lily’s Coffee House in Cambria, said Dino Airali, a music producer, promoter and publisher who’s lived full-time in Cambria since 2001.
“Her music and the way she shares it will always be remembered in this town,” Airali said.
Smitten by Cambria
Johnstone and her then-fiance, guitarist Charles Duncan, discovered Cambria in the mid-1980s on a weekend trip.
“Immediately we wanted to live here,” she said. “The people that end up in Cambria come here on purpose. I think it’s an extraordinary place.”
Eight years after they married, the couple permanently left the Hollywood Hills for Cambria.
“We wanted to get out of the smog … and raise our children in a small place, not a big place,” recalled Johnstone, whose eldest daughter, Emma Went, was 2½ at the time.
Although she no longer lived in Los Angeles, Johnstone said she didn’t struggle to make a living as a songwriter in those days.
“I had phone numbers. I had an address book. I had a little studio in my garage,” she said, plus the backing of powerful fans.
“Back then, records sold,” the songwriter added. “I would only have to have one (album) cut a year to make a really good living. Now that’s not the case.”
The lucrative publishing deals she once relied on dried up, and she found herself struggling to make ends meet — at one point operating a bed and breakfast out of her 19th-century Victorian farmhouse on Main Street in the East Village.
“I watched my bank account dwindle,” Johnstone said. “I had a mark in my mind — if we get to this point, then I have to sell my house and I have to make the move — and we got to that point.”
Other factors also played a role: her divorce, the departure of her grown daughters. Rachel Duncan lives in San Luis Obispo, and Emma Went and her husband, former Cambria resident and Coast Union High School graduate Corbin Went, are based in New York City.
“It just seems obvious that it’s time for the next chapter,” Johnstone said.
New Start in Nashville
That chapter will start not in Los Angeles — “L.A. these days is much more of a young person’s market,” Johnstone said — but in the Southern metropolis still known in some circles as Music City.
“The songwriting community there is like no other. The networking there is like no other,” said Johnstone, who already has a solid social network in Nashville. “All my ties are there.”
“Nashville is the perfect place for her to be,” said Airali, who’s helped Johnstone lead her popular songwriting workshops at her Cambria home for years. “I’m sorry to see her go, but I’m just so happy for her.”
Liepman, another frequent collaborator, agreed that Nashville will be a good fit for the driven, hard-working Johnstone.
Since meeting about 20 years ago, Liepman and Johnstone have played and toured together repeatedly. In 2008, the two opened for Raitt at the Avila Beach Blues Festival — “one of the highlights of my career,” he said.
Johnstone hopes her industry connections will help her make a fresh start back east.
“There’s no guarantee that I can make a go of it in Nashville, but it is the best shot I have at keeping my career alive,” she said.
Jude Johnstone in concert