DATE OF INTERVIEW:
5th October 2017
Famed within the rock/metal scene for fronting Vixen, 2017 has seen Janet Gardner venture into solo album territory for the first time during her lengthy career, with the release of a self-titled album. Composed and recorded with her husband, Justin James, the record's ten tracks are melodically rich retro rockers, spiced with a sporadic metallic edge and more contemporary sound in places. This is certainly not styled around Vixen idioms in any small way; rather, it's a creatively autonomous effort that earns its solo branding. Metal Discovery had the opportunity to pose a series of questions to the lady herself, about her album, the deal with Pavement Music, and how she now regards her big hair or yore...
METAL DISCOVERY: Your recently released eponymously titled album is your debut solo release. So, why did you feel it was time, at this stage in your career, to finally record and release a solo record?
JANET: This actually happened totally by accident. Justin and I bought a new house and set up a studio room in it. We were working down there independently and just casually started to exchange ideas. It developed into something that we enjoy doing rather than watching movies or going out at night. We discovered that the spark in our personal relationship translates well into a musical relationship.
(Janet Gardner on working with her husband, Justin James)
"We were very nervous to enter into any sort of official working relationship. We were afraid that it might drive a wedge between us in some way. Luckily, the opposite happened. It brought us closer together..."
Janet Gardner and Justin James - promo shot
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2017 - uncredited
Thanks to Andy Turner for arranging the interview
Janet Gardner Official Facebook:
Pavement Music website:
MD: How was the wife/husband working relationship? Do you feel you were able to capture and convey your emotional bond through the songs?
JANET: We were very nervous to enter into any sort of official working relationship. We were afraid that it might drive a wedge between us in some way. Luckily, the opposite happened. It brought us closer together and we really enjoyed the experience of creating together. It was great because we put no restrictions on ourselves or each other and were able to really express ourselves freely and be ourselves.
MD: Press blurb refers to you as a “power duo”, and there’s no mention of any other musicians, but there are two others in one of the promo photos - one pouting with a couple of drumsticks and the other holding a bass, peeking out from over your shoulder. I’m presuming they weren’t “making up the numbers” for the promo shoot, so what can you tell us about these other two musicians?
JANET: Haha! That photo was taken the day of our video shoot. That is Nikki Skistimas and Gerald Guzman. They made up our original live band. We had a great time filming the video with them but, as it turns out, availability for both of them became a problem when we started booking shows. They’re both very busy people! Nikki is an extremely talented drummer, writer, and singer who is very busy with her husband Ralph, in her band Crash Karma. Gerald is a great guitarist and wonderful utility man that plays every instrument ever invented! He’s a very busy working musician in Chicago area.
MD: Label marketing aside, do you consider yourselves as a “power duo”?
Our current band is Richie Rivera, who is simply an amazing drummer! And Anthony G, who is a fantastic guitarist who has built himself a small scale bass (Moxy guitars is his company) to hold down the bass duties with us. He has built guitars for Justin and I as well and we love them! The first leg of our tour is complete and they are kicking major ass!
JANET: Ha! I don’t even really know what that means but I can tell you that we love working together. We really enjoy the creative process and playing live shows together.
MD: The songs have one foot in the past, but the other foot in the here and now. Did you deliberately try to mix up the old school with a more contemporary sound?
JANET: We really wanted to just let it flow freely. We definitely have strong roots in 70s and 80s hard rock music but we do love a lot of current bands and bands that have made contributions along the way. Technology did afford us the luxury of experimenting. We would try different things and if we felt that it enhanced the song, we left it in. If it didn’t, we left it out. So some of the songs are more basic while some of them definitely have more modern production to them. Justin loves to experiment with guitar sounds so he had a lot of fun messing around with that.
MD: I particularly love ‘Lost’ on the album… that track has some serious groove. What can you tell us about the genesis and gestation of that song?
JANET: Thank you, Mark! That song started with a guitar riff from Justin. We threw together a quick verse and pre-chorus, and then it evolved from there. One day, Justin was out for a few hours so I rewrote the verses. I was nervous that when he got home he wouldn’t like it, but he did like it. Then we started to throw around some lyric ideas so we knew where we wanted to go. Because of what we had decided lyrically, we knew that the chorus needed to be more melodic than what we had planned originally, so that actually took a couple of days of tweaking to get that nailed down. That song is actually the most guitar that I played on the whole album. I fiddled around a lot with the little clean guitar parts on that song.
MD: Do you have any personal favourites from the album?
JANET: It’s like trying to pick your favorite child. They all have very special meaning to us. The song ‘The Good or the Bye’ is so much fun to play live and so is the song ‘Lost’. Lots of people who have lost a loved one really appreciate the song ‘Candle’ and it’s a very dramatic part of the show. Both of my parents passed away within a few years of each other so Justin and I wrote that about them.
MD: Did you feel any sense of pressure in terms of fan expectations of what a Janet Gardner solo album would and should sound like? Or, seeing as it’s your debut solo record, did you feel free from expectations and just wrote and made the music that transpired more naturally?
JANET: Justin and I really just wanted to do music from our soul and music that we like. Part of the beauty of doing this was to be able to step away from expectations that people may have from Vixen or any other projects that we’ve done in the past. It was nice to experiment musically and to dig a little deeper, lyrically. Of course, there are a few love songs and heartbreak songs that most people can relate to but we were able to approach some different subject matter while writing this album.
MD: Did you feel creatively emancipated in being able to write songs that didn’t have to fit a certain Vixen paradigm?
JANET: Yes. Absolutely. We knew that people were going to be expecting something “Vixenish” so we were prepared for some people to be a bit put off by the abundance of attitude in some of the songs. Neither of us saw the point in us making a Vixen sounding record while Vixen is still around to make a Vixen record. Lol! We wanted to deliver something honest from the heart.
MD: I gather you have a home studio, which is where you recorded the album… did this relieve all the pressure, in being able to record the songs as and when you felt the creative impetus to do so, without the overhanging burden of deadlines associated with buying expensive studio time?
JANET: Oh yes! Absolutely! What a luxury it was to be able to just run downstairs anytime and lay down an idea. We recorded most of this record in our pajamas and slippers. It was great not to have the pressure of an expensive studio time clock ticking and it was great that there was no one else around. I recorded all of my vocals alone. There was no one else in the room, or in the house. I had the freedom to try things and fail without embarrassment. Haha! I did find a couple of things that I didn’t realize that I could do. Justin played most of his solos down in the studio by himself and was able to capture some very inspired solos.
MD: The album was released via Pavement Music, so how did that deal come about?
JANET: This is a great story that I haven’t really been able to tell much. We had finished recording and we were thinking about just releasing it ourselves. We decided to check out a couple of options, just to see if there was a good team out there for us. We just went on the internet and looked up rock labels. We also looked up some bands we like, to see what label they were on. We kept landing on the Pavement website and had a really good feeling about them. I didn’t know anyone there and I had no connection to them in any way. We had no manager, no nothing. I just called the phone number that was on their website and left a message. I didn’t think much of it but, a couple weeks later, I got a phone call saying that they saw the teaser video that we put up on YouTube, and they wanted to hear some songs. We sent them four songs and the next day we had an offer. It was sort of meant to be.
MD: I kind of like Pavement Entertainment’s ‘consulting’ ethos, where it’s stated they want “to empower people interested in the music industry to reach their goals as independently as possible.” Obviously, you’re coming to the label with decades of experience in the industry, but do you feel that Pavement allows you the right amount of breathing space and independence?
JANET: Pavement is 100% who they say they are. When we asked for advice, they gave it to us. They definitely tried not to get in the way of the creativity but to nurture it and help us deliver what we wanted to deliver. They have been extremely supportive in all the right ways and are willing to stay out of the way at the right time and intervene only when necessary. Mark Nawara has been around long enough to realize that the best way to get the most out of an artist is to let them be the artist! It is a true partnership and we are very happy with Mark and the whole team at Pavement.
MD: In a supply and demand sense, I guess nothing’s changed with the surface dynamic of the music industry, in that artists want to get their music out there to the fans. That’s always been the case. But, of course, the music industry’s a different ball-game these days, and an ever-evolving one. As someone who’s lived through and experienced the commercial heyday of the industry, do you think it’s changed for the worse, or for the better?
JANET: Definitely a little of both. I think artists are more empowered and able to get their music out there via the internet but it’s very difficult to get people to pay for music. Why pay for it when you can just get it for free? Listen to it on Spotify… See it on YouTube… Why buy anything? I think it’s very difficult for new artists to make a living playing music. I’m very fortunate that, at this point in my life, I can do it just because I love to do it.
MD: Do you feel an immense sense of pride in what you achieved with Vixen? Apart from commercial success with the music itself, I guess you were breaking down gender barriers within the rock/metal scene and paving the way for future female rockers?
JANET: We (Vixen) have never been much for tooting our own horn about breaking down your gender barriers or anything like that. There were many female artists busting down doors long before we came along. It does, however, feel great when we were approached by women/girls telling us that they were inspired to pick up a guitar or pound on some drums.
MD: When you look back to Vixen’s past, is it all happy memories, or do you have recollections of any Spinal Tap moments during your career that still make you cringe to this day?
JANET: Oh my god! There’s plenty of both and we still have plenty of Spinal Tap moments!
MD: How do you regard the rock fashion of the 80s/90s now? In some of those old Vixen promo photos, there was some seriously big hair back then!
JANET: Quite hilarious but my hair has forgiven me since then and we now have a good relationship.
MD: Do you have any plans to get the solo record out on the road for some live shows?
JANET: Yes! We just finished the first leg of our tour and we’re having such a great time! The songs are so much fun to play live! Next up is Texas and the West Coast and then, hopefully, Europe and the UK.
MD: Do you anticipate feeling a mixture of nerves, excitement and invigoration in touring as a solo artist, independent of Vixen?
JANET: Yes, I was a bit nervous to sing the new songs that are a departure from Vixen, but it has been very invigorating.
MD: My final question then - now you’ve broken your solo album virginity, can fans expect further solo works in the future? Have the two of you written any more songs?
JANET: We do have more songs in the works and winter is coming so I’m sure we’ll be spending some time in the studio soon!
MD: Thanks for the interview, very much appreciated!
JANET: Thank YOU so much for the great questions. Your time and effort are greatly appreciated. This was a very refreshing interview and I apologize profusely for the delay!