Fireworks Magazine Online 80 - Interview with Janet Gardner

CE Updated


Interview by Dave Scott

Janet Garner is the vocalist and rhythm guitarist for the legendary all-female Hard Rock band Vixen. She has recently stepped out from the band and recorded her first solo album with the help of guitarist and husband Justin James. Fireworks picked up the phone and gave her a call to find out more about it.

Janet Gardner - Interview Fireworks

Your new self-titled represents the first new music from you for a while, what relit the fire in you to record not only new material but to do it (in effect) as a solo artist?

Justin James and I moved into a new house and we set up the studio so we went in there just to tinker around. We had no expectations and we had no idea if we could write a song together let alone a whole albums worth of material. The first song we wrote was 'If You Want Me' which ended up on the release and we kind of looked at each other and said, "wow this is really working so let's keep going". I had a little break from Vixen so we just sort of locked ourselves in the studio for a couple of months and it just kind of flowed out of us. Then we thought "okay, now what do we do with this?" ha-ha. We thought we could come up with another band name or we could get a band together... there was a lot of possibilities. In the end, we thought this was just us locked in a room together so why don't we call it my solo album because I have never done one before. Even though it is a collaboration, it does have fifty percent of me in there so we decided to go with that.

Have you always wanted to record your own solo album or was this just a decision that flowed after that first song?

You know, I am not really a solo type of person. I love to collaborate. I think sharing in the creativity and the music is really special. I'm not a sit by myself and play music by myself sort of person. So no, I didn't really ever think much about it. I was always very happy playing with Vixen – which I still am – and Justin and I found that we had a great partnership, a great collaboration. Therefore no, it was just as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone else. However, once we got this going and we were both really excited about it and very happy with all of it – the lyrical content and the music – we decided to just put it out there. That is what we did.

Now I know the reason for this, but there might be a few readers who missed out on your news some fifteen months ago, how did you come to be working with Justin as your musical "partner"?

We meet at a Vixen show in Chicago where Justin lived, we talked a little bit and started to become friends over the next year. We saw each other again a year later and developed a really great friendship, and then we figured out it was more than just a friendship so then we got married. We had never written any music together; I was a big fan of his guitar playing and he liked my singing with Vixen. We set up a studio with the intent of just making some music, not necessarily even together. When we started doing it, it just flowed and it felt great.

Regarding Justin, during my research for this chat, I noticed there isn't a lot of information around about him. What bands and acts has he been involved with previously?

He has been the fill-in bass player for Tyketto and he loves working with those guys. He did a project with Brandon Gibbs who was who was the devil to the angels with the Poison guys. Brandon did some solo stuff and Justin worked with him on that which also involved the Collective Soul and Staind connection comes, there was members of those bands involved in that. He has produced a few things and been kicking around Chicago for a while. A man of many trades.

When it came to writing, did you work on separate parts, for example maybe Justin on the music and you on the lyrics, or was it a joint collaboration across the board?

We did everything together but we were somewhat departmentalised. I am technically challenged so most of the technical engineering was Justin. He would come home after I had been doing some vocals and he was like "what is this mess... there's just tracks everywhere". It was a big fat mess. Once I get into that creative mode, I have a hard time doing the technical aspect. I have got a lot better and he has been very patient with me. He is like "there are papers rattling, dogs barking, you are clearing your throat. It's just a mess going on" ha-ha. So, he handled most of that, the mixing and such like – the production side. I do more of the musical part, the arrangements etc. I will be like "this part doesn't fit here... lets move this here... let's try this". I am more of that person. Sometimes when we are apart, he is doing something else and I am doing something, that is usually what I am tinkering with – chord changes, melodies and lyrics. I do most of the lyrics but we sit down a lot together and do them as well. I usually come up with the concept and I am usually good for a verse and chorus by myself and then I am kind of look "errrm... I am stuck... help" ha-ha. So, we sit down together and work that out. A lot of it is together but we do work separately and we are sort of departmentalised.

When it came to the recording, you have already mentioned you had the studio at home. Did you use any external facilities or did you do it all quite literally "in-house"?

We did, absolutely, and literally in pyjamas and slippers sometimes ha-ha. We would crawl out of bed and be like "I have got an idea for a part" so you would click everything on and start working. We would usually start with just bass, drums and guitar. I do the drum and bass programming and at various points we thought "should we get somebody in to do some of these things?", but then we would perfect it and perfect it and then we would say "actually, it's pretty good as it is". We would usually start maybe recording the guitars with a click track, something like that, and then we would add bass and drums to enhance what was going on. Then we would experiment from there; we would add loops or keyboards and then we would fiddle and fiddle with logic, if it didn't fit, if it didn't make the song better then we would can it and say, "nah it doesn't need anything else – for this song that is all that is there... bass drums, guitar and vocals". Alternatively, a lot of the songs have much more elaborate production because it fit and it seemed to make it move better and a lot more interesting.

Due to what you have said, I am assuming that the album was recorded by just you and Justin with no other involvement from other musicians?

No, it was just the two of us... just scrapping it together. Whoever felt like laying down a part did it. Justin is playing most of the guitars but I fiddled with a few things and I would say "you can replace that or we can skip it if you want" and he would say "no, it's great and it adds to it" so a few of my little guitar touches are on there too.

So, it really is a very personal project then?

Yeah, absolutely, Justin and I were the only hands that touched it.

Can you give me a little insight into the lyrical content of the album? For instance, I know that 'Candle' is quite a poignant track lyrically.

Yeah, I had been wanting to write that song and that had been forming in my head for years since both my parents passed away, Jan Kunamund (the original founding member of Vixen) passed away... a lot of people who meant a lot to me in my life passed away within a short period of time and it was just some feelings that I needed to get out. It was very therapeutic for me to put that into a song. That one was very personal to me.

Things like 'Rat Hole', where did you get your lyrical inspiration from for that?

As you may know, in the United States we are having a huge healthcare crisis. The debate has been going on forever and I guess you could say it was based on my frustration. To me there is an obvious culprit here and it is the profiteering healthcare insurance companies. Doctors, nurses and hospital administrators proved value, they provide the care that we need. I think the culprit is the health insurance companies just sucking the profits out of it. You know what, if you create something – a great product or I know people complain about technology companies or sports stars – we have a choice to not support them. We can just say "I am not going to buy your product because I don't like you". We have no choice with other things, we all need health insurance and we are all at risk of becoming sick. So, this one in particular really irks me, it's just not right. So other people are like "you wanna complain about those things then don't buy it" but this we must have it so it is totally twisted to me. That is it... rant over ha-ha.

Are there any other songs on that album that are particularly important and personal to you from a lyrical perspective?

Some of them are fun, tongue-in-cheek, Rock 'n' Roll... woohoo... let's have a good time. Then there are obviously ones that have a bit of a deeper meaning. 'Let It Be Over' that is a lot of things. I have a son and I am concerned about the future for him. So that is just letting some of that out. I don't like to get overly political with music, I don't think that we have the power to change anyone's beliefs or anything and I am not looking to do that. However, if it can make people think a little bit more then I am all for it.

I take it a lot of the inspiration for your lyrics has come from personal experiences rather than a wider, more general viewpoint?

Yeah, there's not really much that is fictitious on this. It is all pretty much based on either my or Justin's experiences or common experiences that we have both had.

How did you find it working on an album of new material with your husband given that you recorded it at home and therefore I assume had the total freedom when it came to all decisions?

It was great, you know when you only have a committee of two it's easy to make a decision and move on. That is part of the reason we were able to do this so quickly because there wasn't a lot of people that had to approve of it. We had nothing in mind, no record company and no other band members; it was just us. If we liked it we were good to go. It was great.

Did you find it very refreshing?

I did. I love being in a band because in a band you get everyone's input. When everyone is firing on all cylinders and everyone is putting their best foot forward you get the best possible outcome. That is very magical and very special. I love that but it does take more time because somebody might not this, someone might not like the direction of a song or another might not like the lyrics or the topic. There is endless input which is great because the final product is usually the best that four or five people in a room together can come up with. It can be extremely magical but it was nice to be able to let it flow without a lot of input.

How did it feel returning to writing and recording after the break and not having done that for a while?

Ohh, it was incredibly satisfying. It felt so good. It was like turning on the tap and letting it rip. We were on fire after the first song. We started making goals like "this week we are going to complete a song by Saturday" and we would do it. We would get up in the middle of the night if that was when we were inspired and just kept it going. We very rarely got stuck. When one of us would drop the ball for a minute, the other one would pick it right up and start running. It was not forced, nothing at all was forced.

I often ask how does a completed album sound compared to the original ideas but as you have said, you never really set out to start and album so I take it there was no original idea to compare it to?

No, we had no plans what so ever. It just came out like it came out. Even part way through we thought "is any of this making sense together" ... "are people going to go what the hell is this"? At the end when we listened to the whole thing there was a common thread because of us and our sound together.

Did you get any input or thoughts from any of the other Vixen members?

Not really, we were on a break so everybody was off doing their own thing. They have been very supportive and great through this.

I have read that a few months ago you were looking for locations for a video shoot. Firstly, what track was the video for?

Yeah, we decided to do a video for '...Hole' which we had thought about even before we got signed. After we were signed by Pavement, we asked them what they thought before we went in and filmed it. We were pretty much ready to go and they came back with '...Hole' without us even saying anything so we knew then that it was the right song to do a video for.

Is there still work to do on it or is it now finished and if so when will it be released?

It is done and ready to go. I think it will be out on the street date which is 18th Aug.

Do you plan to record any more videos for songs of the album?

Yeah, we would like to. It is really not my favourite thing to do. It is not my avenue of expression but during this last one it was a lot more hands on and now, all of a sudden, we have some ideas for other songs that we might want to do. We will see what happens. It is hard work, and when it's not your avenue, Justin and I have become very do it yourself about things and this was one that was like "wow". When we did Vixen videos back in the day I didn't really do much... I performed and did what you do. It's a different avenue and I am now kind of interested in exploring it a little further.

You signed Pavement to release the album. Was this always the plan, to sign with somebody, or was it an offer that came along that was too good to pass up?

That's exactly what it was. We didn't know what to do. I thought we could just release it ourselves and see what happens. Maybe we could throw it on iTunes and get some printed up and put it on Amazon. We were kind of heading in that direction and looking into things. Then Pavement came along and we really loved (first of all) their enthusiasm, we loved the other bands on their label – they're still signing and their roster is becoming incredible, very great quality from different genres, we are the really the only eighties type band on their label – and we loved the way they had a really good custom plan for us. They loved the music as it was and they didn't say "okay you can do these five songs but you have to record five other different songs because we don't like these". They didn't do any of that. They have been incredible so we are really happy we did what we did.

I see you have announced some live dates in the states so you are obviously taking these songs and yourself as a solo artist out on the road. Are we ever likely to see Janet Gardner as a solo show in the UK?

We are hoping so and our agent is working on it. We told them to look for anything and everything. If there is a good package we could fit on, an opening slot or even headline dates if you can get them, whatever you can come up with we really want to do it.

Have you already put together a band for when you hit the road?

Yeah, we already played a show in Chicago a few months ago and it as so much fun. We have Richie Rivera on drums and set, he is amazing and a Nashville guy, so we are definitely using him. For a bass player, we have gone through a few people, it depends on people's availability so we are still working that out. Gerald Goosman who played guitar for us during the initial show that we did said he would be willing to play bass so that is a possibility. So that is it, we are going to do a four-piece.

As mentioned at the start, you took a lengthy break from the music business, now you are back and recording new material, how different have you found the business compared to the earlier days?

It is completely different, there's nothing the same about it ha-ha. The good things are that you can make a great sounding record in your home without having to leave and with no expense. You can make good sounding music without spending a tonne of money on studio time and stuff so that was great. It allowed us time to experiment because there was no time clock ticking. We weren't wasting hundreds of dollars while we sat tinkering around; that was great. As far as the business end of it, it has completely changed because obviously people get their music in different ways than back when Vixen was making records.

Did you ever consider the crowd-funding route?

We did but we realised we didn't need really any money at the moment we were recording. We had the means to do it without that. Therefore, we thought we would rather just put it out there and if people like it they can support it and buy it. It also means we still have that route available in case we do want to do something different that would require hiring musicians and studio time to get drums tracks and do things a little differently which is a possibility.

Having completed your first solo album, I know it is early but I would love to know if the experience has fired you up to even remotely consider another solo record in the future?

Definitely, we already have ideas kicking around for the next one. Now the flood gates have opened and there is more music in the works.

What was the highlight of recording this album and conversely is there anything you would change if you could go back and start again?

No, no regrets because we are already working on new stuff so things can always be done differently in the future. It is what it is, we were really happy with it and we definitely got to do a lot of things that both of us have always wanted to do. Of course, there's maybe a couple of little things but I am not going to mention it because then people will listen for it so I am not going to give away any of that ha-ha.

So, you have a couple of little tweaks in mind and take a slightly different approach for the next one but nothing that you would say "we should have done this"?

Absolutely. Nothing is every perfect and I have never been one hundred percent satisfied with anything I have ever done. This is a good thing in a way because you are always growing, always learning and always getting better at what you do. If you think you are the greatest thing ever you are not going to get any better. However, there is a point where you have to let it go and you have to put it out there and share it with people otherwise what is the point. We could have picked more at it, done remixes, changed the sound, done this, done that and kept tweaking forever but you do reach a point where you have to say, "this makes our point so let us let go of it".

Turning our attention to Vixen to close, I see you have announced a new recording recently. Can you tell me about the new live album and when it might be released?

We are going to capture a live show, it is going to at the Arcada Theatre in Chicago on 12th August. That may change logistically but that is the plan for the moment. We will get one of these upcoming shows. Then we are going to also add a couple of other little surprises on to it to kind of sweeten the pot a little bit. I am not going to tell you what they are because that might also change a little bit but there are definitely going to be two additional recordings added to the live show.

Following on from that, have you got any plans to head into the studio to record an album of new material?

That will definitely happen, it's kind of like what we were talking about earlier in that collaborations take a lot longer timewise than a solo project for the reasons we talked about. We are also geographically challenged so it is hard for us to get together. However, there are some email threads floating around with some ideas that are going to blossom at some point. I don't know when that is going to happen but it is definitely in the works.

Do you have any long-term plans to return to the UK to play live as Vixen?

We are always looking at that. We have been hounding our agent for years about getting back over there. We did Hard Rock Hell a couple of years or so back but that was it. We went there for one show and turned around and came home. We would love to have a show like that and then build upon that... get some other shows in the UK and Europe. It is in the works.

I also see you have a couple of new faces in Vixen with the addition of Britt Lightning and Tyson Leslie.

Tyson is the bomb, we love him. He is so much fun to work with and is so talented. Even with our background vocals – with him singing – have jumped from great to phenomenal. He is a blessing and we love having him in the group. He is a busy guy, as long as he can show up and play with us we will be happy to have him. As for Britt Lightning, she is an angel, a great guitarist, a sweet person and ultra-talented. We are really lucky to have her too.

I assume you have all played together for a little bit now?

Yeah, we have played four or five shows and there is of course the usual "we are not used to her and she is not used to us", but every show gets better and tighter and it is coming along great. By the time we do the live recording, it should be super tight and sound fantastic.

With your new solo album now ready for release and stuff for Vixen in the pipeline, what does the next few years hold for you? Is there anything you have in mind that you really want to and have planned to do?

You know, you always have goals. I would love to have both Vixen and my solo band out there playing as much as possible. You just never know what is going to happen so you have to seize every opportunity as it comes so that is what I would like to see happen – lots more opportunities to get out and make great music. If I was to pass away tomorrow, I would rest easy knowing that I had a great life full of wonderful experiences and so much great music. I'm a happy camper and any more of that I can grab from here on out I am totally up for it. I couldn't be happier, at this point in my life I couldn't ask for more than what is happening right now.

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