Interview with Janita — “I’m the dragon. I invite you to discover who I am.”

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The long-time New York City resident and singer-songwriter, Janita, released her new album Here Be Dragons earlier this May. Tuonela Magazine had the pleasure of conducting an interview, zooming in on its universal themes. It is easy to agree that the new outing is by far her best to date, a sort of artistic zenith in her career spawning from the early-1990s acid-jazz and turn-of-the-millennia R&B all the way up to the current indie rock aesthetic. You can read the interview below.

Hi there! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. How are you doing?

I’m doing great, thanks for asking! New York is opening up, spring is here, I’ve just released an album that I’m deeply proud of––and to which the audience response has been wonderful––and I shot a terrific new music video yesterday in the great outdoors in Manhattan. What’s not to love? I feel very fortunate to be living my life right now. To borrow a line of Johnny Cash’s: “I wouldn’t trade my future for anybody’s.”

Now, the new album is out. How do you feel about it? If you had to pick one song that would best represent the whole album, which one would it be?

Well simply put, I feel this is the best album I’ve made. I’m proud of each song that I’ve written for it, both lyrically and musically––it’s my best work yet. Sometimes in the process of writing these songs, I felt some trepidation about expressing certain things so directly and honestly, for example, feeling happy in the midst of a global emergency. But it’s through the personal, that one has the opportunity to tap into the universal. And, I know I must have succeeded at least to some degree on that front, because of all the moving and intimate messages I’ve been receiving from people expressing how much a particular song has meant to them. It feels like I’ve really hit a nerve, and that’s incredibly rewarding. I feel like I’m at the height of my game as a musician, as a songwriter, and as an artist. It’s a great feeling. I think the song “Not What You’re Used To” represents the joyful defiance that’s central to this record. I’m also incredibly proud of the video that I made for this song together with photographer and videographer Anthony Friend. He captures who I am––on film––in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

In terms of arrangements, the new album is stripped down to the very basics. It kind of brings out the essence of the songs to the forefront. Was this a deliberate move, to sort of let the silence between the notes speak for themselves and let the mind of the listener fill in the blanks?

Interesting. I don’t actually think of this album as stripped down at all. However, the production is elemental, so that may be what you’re responding to. My producer, Blake Morgan, and I are careful to not draw the attention away from the song by production choices: all the elements that are there accentuate, lift, and support the song. If it doesn’t need to be there, it’s not there. No extraneous bullshit.

The album title, ”Here Be Dragons,” refers to the uncharted territories in Medieval maps. The album is about soul-searching, am I right?

This album is not so much about searching as it’s about making a statement. On most of these songs I’m putting my foot down, and being steadfast. There’s certainly vulnerability here, but most of all there’s strength. “Here Be Dragons” is not about uncharted territories within me that I haven’t tapped into. Believe me, I’ve tapped into them. Now it’s your turn. I’m the dragon. I invite you to discover who I am.

You have travelled a long way, first from being a teenage pop-princess to a kind of urban smooth jazz diva, and now into something completely different. How would you describe your current style?  

Well, style comes from the songwriting, but this is a band record. A rock band. One of the most important influences on me while I was writing the songs on this record was Elliott Smith, whose album “Figure 8” ended up influencing both my melodies and lyrics, and also later the production. Now, I don’t think anyone’s going to listen to this album and immediately think “Elliott Smith!” But that influence, on this particular album, is in there. Over the years, I’ve found my own voice, my own style, and I don’t think I really sound like anyone else. That, in my opinion, is a good thing.

Speaking of jazz, there is not much of it left on the new album, whereas your previous two ECR outings had some. Has the jazz card been played now for good?

It’s all in there, absorbed within me, and it pops up in unpredictable places. I’m sure that jazz and R&B continue to color my songwriting in many ways. Those influences are probably inbuilt at this point, but they just haven’t been as prominent as other things lately. Chet Baker, for example, continues to be a strong influence on me as a vocalist, and lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Mel Torme. It’s possible that my influences are harder to spot than the influences of some other artists. I don’t know. I find it mystifying actually. People often think I’ve been profoundly influenced by artists I haven’t actually been influenced by at all.

Your stage-look has been labelled as one resonating with the air of David Bowie’s ”Thin White Duke”-era and the new album cover has some Bowie-vibes, too. It prompts me to ask, what would you cite as the main influences regarding your artistic evolution at the moment?

I’m a cinephile these days, and I’ve been taking many notes from the old films that I’ve been watching for the last few years. I’m visually particularly influenced by menswear in the 1920s, and I would cite Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn as style inspirations. I find it a humbling compliment that my fashion instincts end up drawing comparisons to David Bowie, whose style I so admire too. With fashion, just as with music, one’s influences combine to create one’s own personal expression. We’re all products of what we absorb, so I try to make sure I spend my time in worthy pursuits.

In one interview, you once said that your first ECR album, ”Haunted,” (2010) felt like a debut. In a way, it really was. Do you play any of your older material live anymore?

“Haunted” was indeed a game-changer for me. I’m very proud of having been brave enough to take that step then, as it meant risking a lot of the success I had already achieved. But as an artist you can’t afford to try to hold on to success, you have to keep your expression fresh and honest. Had I not taken that step, I wouldn’t be the artist and the human being I am today. During lockdown I’ve actually been experiencing quite a bit of joy in relearning to play a few songs on “Haunted” on guitar, and I look forward to adding them into my repertoire once live concerts start up again. In recent years I’ve been focusing on playing songs off of my last two albums, but there are some great songs in my catalog, and I think it’s time to play them again.

You seem to have some sort of a Midas touch when it comes to picking covers. Of all artists, you have covered Tom Waits before and did a marvelous job. On your new album you have a go at Peter Gabriel’s classic song, ”Digging in the Dirt,” and your voice really fits that song perfectly. What’s the story behind this choice? 

Wow, thank you! That’s a sweet compliment. Well, “Digging in the Dirt” blew my mind when it first came out. And back then, I wasn’t even tapped into its meaning lyrically, that came later. The song has been a regular companion for me throughout the years, but it’s lyrical message became particularly timely in the #metoo era. I started thinking that this song, sung in a female voice at this time in history would be powerful. “I’m digging in the dirt / to find the places I got hurt / open up the places I got hurt.” Pretty heavy, isn’t it?

With the live scene being in a state of global turmoil at the moment, how does it look like over there? Do you think we will be seeing Janita live shows any time soon? And if so, do you have plans to perform in Finland? 

I recently got vaccinated, as have 8.27 million other New Yorkers, and New York is now starting to open up fast. There are some signs of an approaching Roaring ’20s already! And, I’m excited to have a concert booked for Tavastia on October 6th in Helsinki, for which tickets are already on sale. I’m keeping my thumbs up and my fingers crossed that everything will go as planned, so I can perform a great show in Helsinki with my band.

Moving to New York was, undoubtedly, one of the best decisions you made in terms of career moves. Is there anything you miss from Finland – besides maybe the obvious non-musical things such as ruisleipä and salmiakki?

I like how you phrase it––thanks for that. Living in New York has certainly helped sharpen my skills as an artist in a way I doubt would have been possible anywhere else in the world. But I do miss Finland for many reasons. I miss my friends and family of course, but I also miss the shadows and light on a summer evening, I miss wild strawberries, cross-country skiing, and having a delicious bowl of Finnish split pea soup after, at the ski-lodge. Sure, New York is my home, but Finland is my home too. I’m deeply proud of being a Finn.

Thank you for the awesome new album and your time! Do you have any last thoughts you want to share to our readers?

Thank you! It’s been a pleasure. I so look forward to coming to Helsinki and Tavastia in the fall. I can’t wait to celebrate together with my Finnish audience. I also know that it will be powerful and emotional simply being together in one space after all this time. I hope Tuonela’s readers will join me in that celebration.

Yes, I think we’d better mark our calendars!

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