by Beverly Packard
Often a musical artist has a great voice, whether his own or the way he plays his instrument of choice; often there is a talent to compose compelling music, or write memorable lyrics that speak easily to your heart. Some artists are physically attractive and/or have just the right threads (think Nick Colionne, for instance), and some have a stage presence you want to bask in long after the concert has ended, so unparalleled is their ability to connect with the audience and provide a captivating visual affect by their movements and expressions. Only rarely would I expect to find all these things in the person of one artist.
I first met Janita through her publicist, who asked me to review her latest CD. Listening to the CD a couple of times, I realized the voice, the compositions and the memorable lyrics were all there. She sings clearly with a good range and at times a more breathy, sensual style that fits her songs perfectly. Besides singing words, she uses her voice quite effectively as an instrument, as well. Upon seeing her in concert twice – once at Zanzibar Blue in Philadelphia and once in downtown Manhattan at the J & R Music Festival, I saw that the stage presence, punctuated with her sweet countenance, attractive appearance, and genuine appreciation to be before us, rounded out the picture. Finally, having conducted a recent interview with her (below), the maturity and insight she demonstrates confirm my impression that she is a rather unique artist, and has the whole package.
A Finland-born singer who became a phenomenon in her own country by the time she was a teen, Janita settled in New York City ten years ago and has been working hard ever since, hoping, as every artist does, for that moment when the chance comes to touch the lives of many with her music. I believe her moment has arrived.
Her latest CD, Seasons of Life, is a well-blended variety of songs and moods. The songs have a wistful feel, beautifully expressing so many things felt by many women in their ‘seasons of life.’ (Perhaps by men, too, but I won’t speak for them.) She gives words to many things we feel but seldom express, so you’ll find yourself singing along to those songs that particularly catch you where you are in life. She captures not only the longings and discoveries women make along their journeys, but her lyrics also capture differences in men and women and how they typically approach relationships. Just reading the song titles gives you an idea this CD has been borne of the common kind of poignancy we all experience during our own seasons of hope and change.
Watching Janita perform was a pleasant and exciting experience for me after becoming familiar with her music. She sang two full sets at Zanzibar Blue, a well-known jazz club in Philadelphia with great cuisine and ambiance. She was obviously very happy to be there and perform; she was eager to sing as many songs as she could share with us that evening, and it was easy to see the crowd was mesmerized by her. The set list included, ‘That’s How Life Goes,’ ‘No Words,’ ‘I’ll Be Fine,’ ‘Enjoy the Silence,’ a favorite of many which has climbed onto the Radio and Record chart, ‘I Miss You,’ ‘I Can’t Get Enough of You,’ ‘I Only Want You,’ ‘More Than Fantasy,’ ‘Give Me A Sign,’ ‘Let Me Love You,’ ‘Heaven,’ ‘Bear With Me,’ ‘Angel Eyes.’ Band members were Jonathan Maron, bass; Daniel Sadownick, percussion; John Deley, keyboard; Tomi Sachary, guitar; and Tobias Ralph, drums.
The show at the J & R Music Festival in New York City (shown in pictures here) featured many of these songs, and the only change in the band was bass player Nicholas D'Amato. Despite the oppressive heat of that day in June, Janita and band members showed no sign of wanting to slow down and the crowd only kept growing as her music drew people in. Janita shares easily with her audience in between songs, and one example was her telling us how thrilled she was to realize she was there, right now, at this festival, singing to us, that it was really happening!
Read on to see the interview and what Janita says about her early success, her impressions of the music scene in the states, her own development as an artist and her future hopes.
BJP: Welcome to SmoothVibes, Janita! You were successful in your singing career from teenage years in Finland. What made you want to come to the USA and is it all you hoped it would be?
Janita: By the time I was 16 I had already toured around Finland twice. It's a small country, so you end up performing at the same venues year after year... I guess I had always dreamed of an international singing career and was ready for a new challenge at 17. I am a pretty realistic person and have always been down to earth, so I didn't expect to be a success here in the States straight away. I was ready to work at perfecting my craft as an artist and I'm still a work in progress. I'm sure though that I've evolved way more in the New York environment than I ever would have in Finland -- the motivation to be as good as I can be is just that much higher, when there are so many other amazing artists around you. Moving to NY was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
BJP: What are the main differences you find here as compared to Finland, especially in the world of music?
Janita: The biggest difference is the enormity of the music business in the States. There's so much money to be had if you make it big, that there's a lot of people in the business for the wrong reasons. In Finland on the other hand it's almost impossible to get rich as an artist -- you make a good living, that's it. In a way it's good that way, so you can't be motivated by the fortune and fame.
BJP: Who would you say influenced you most in your own musical development -- both important people in your life and also musicians you grew up with?
Janita: Tomi Sachary, my musical collaborator has definitely influenced me a great deal, since he's been involved in every song I've ever recorded. But in terms of people I've idolized, Michael Jackson was probably my biggest hero growing up. I was in LOVE with him: I had the life-size MJ bedspread and everything. Kinda iffy, now that I think of it... Musically I have also been influenced by Meshell Ndegeocello, Bill Withers, Astrud Gilberto, Prince, Stevie Wonder. Really, I think the list is endless.
BJP: Has your band been with you from the start here in the US or have they joined you more recently in your career?
Janita: My band is from the States and has been formed during the years I've spent in NY. It's still not a permanent entity, it changes depending on who happens to be in town and available for gigs, but I do have a couple of main-stays: Danny Sadownick, my percussionist, who's played with the likes of Maxwell and Incognito, Jonathan Marron, my bass-player, who's played with Meshell Ndegeocello and India.Arie and Tomi Sachary, my guitarist, who has worked with me since the beginning of my career.
BJP: From reading about you, I realize part of the transition you've gone through is to put your own poetry and writings to music. Can you tell us more about that transition?
Janita: I was a very shy girl at 13 when I first started my career and it never would have occurred to me then to show my lyrics or compositions to anyone. And as I gained more confidence through performances and being in the public eye, I guess I became even more introverted about my inner workings. I always knew that I wanted to write my own music, but I just couldn't bring myself to open up for the longest time. It took an accident, a scaffolding falling on me one day in NY to realize that life is fragile and I have to do what I want to do in life, now. We never know what life throws our way, so we have to be brave and put ourselves out there, so as not to regret not having done it later. Shyness is such a waste of energy!
I started writing songs immediately after that and have now realized that I can't live without that outlet for my emotions.
BJP: I find the lyrics and themes of your songs to speak so well to how, especially women, feel in various stages of a loving (or not so loving, as the case may be) relationship -- simple, direct, poignant words that say so many of the things I've thought and felt, but didn't put into words as easily as you have or to music as beautifully as you have. Do you find others telling you how they appreciate the way you truly have captured these 'seasons of life?'
Janita: Thank you for the compliment! Yes, love is something that truly inspires me to write, those emotions have always been the strongest for me. I'm very sensitive and I suffer from it sometimes, but feeling things so intensely is helpful for me in what I do. So I can't complain...
I have always admired Joni Mitchell for using metaphors so beautifully to express emotions, but I find that what works for me is being more direct about what I'm trying to say. It feels more honest for me to just say it like it is. People have certainly expressed to me that they have felt the same exact emotions as I have felt, which of course is the best compliment; that people have been able to relate. We are not so different after all!
BJP: You are the first singer since Basia that has left such an impression on me with the uniqueness of your voice and the way you use your voice as an instrument, as she often does. Is that mostly improvisation on your part when you're performing, or do you have most of that phrasing figured out ahead of time? (It always sounds great.)
Janita: Thank you again. : ) I tend to analyze some things in my life to the point of unhealthiness, but singing is something that has always come natural. I do it all day pretty much everywhere I go, which is why my voice is becoming something that's directly connected to whatever I'm feeling at whatever moment. I think it's the same with any musician who is completely obsessed with their instrument and play it all the time. It just becomes something you rarely think about, you just do it. I still have a long way to go, before I'm where I want to ultimately be as a singer, but the compliment you just gave me sure makes me feel good.
BJP: I haven't yet heard you're other CD, but I'm anxious to hear that, too. (I think it's called, I'll Be Fine?) How are the two CDs different?
Janita: I consider I'll Be Fine more upbeat than Seasons of Life -- it has a younger energy. I'm proud of both albums, but there is more maturity in my voice and lyrics on Seasons of Life. I'm constantly growing as a person and as an artist, which of course is natural for everyone and anyone... The changes that I'm going through now will probably be obvious when I do my next project. Albums are like footnotes and it's nice to be able to see so clearly where you've come, where you've been and where you're going as an artist. That's how I think of these two albums, they are representative of the emotions and thoughts I was feeling at the time.
BJP: What is happening now as a result of more people getting to hear you and the Seasons of Life CD? What opportunities are you getting these days?
Janita: I've been traveling a lot this year and have been busy with shows and interviews, which I thoroughly enjoy. I'm in the beginning now with promoting this album and feel like this is the first fair chance in 10 years to get my voice heard in this country. It's been a struggle to get ahead and I know I'm really lucky to have gotten this far. There are so many awesome artists that I know, who are as deserving of what I'm experiencing now as me. I'm certainly going to do my best to enjoy all of these experiences to the fullest, and with this album pave the way for all my future projects. Lots of interesting opportunities are in the air and every time we do a show, something new pops up. There is no short-cut, everything is happening very organically, but right now, I wouldn't have it any other way.
BJP: What are your hopes for the future? Are you continuing to write your poetry with an eye to putting it to music? Do you write the melody lines or how do you collaborate with band members to write the songs?
Janita: I'd like to keep doing what I'm doing, hopefully increasingly successfully. Helen Keller said: "Life is either daring adventure or nothing at all." I have certainly experienced both sides of life, but right now I'm living just the right amount of adventure and I'd like to keep it that way.
I've been writing actively for some time now and have lots of ideas for a new album. I almost feel like I've gone backwards a little, that I'm not as mature as I used to be, which I find kinda weird. I guess life works that way sometimes. All of this will be going into the new project, which I will likely be writing with Tomi Sachary, my guitarist and long-time collaborator. I write the lyrics and together we work out the melody lines.
BJP: You're very comfortable on stage and your dancing and movements complement the music very well. How do you get yourself ready for a performance and what are you thinking when you're on stage? Does someone in the band help keep you focused on where you're going next in the performance?
Janita: We have great chemistry as a band and I love hanging out with the boys before and after the show. There's lots of joking around and I'm often laughing hysterically at their antics. We are way more serious on stage and I know my band-mates want to be as good as they can possibly be, I never have to worry about them. I guess all I really have to worry about on stage is doing the best I can to relate the song to the audience and hopefully make them feel like they understand what I'm saying. When I go and see performances of other artists, I'm always impressed most by the ones that make you feel like you've bonded with them on some level. That's what I'm hoping to do too.
Also, one of the most important things about performing is that you have to be in the moment -- you can't be thinking about what you're gonna have for dinner, cause otherwise you lose your energy and your intensity.
BJP: What kind of music do you find yourself listening to in your life now?
Janita: All my life I've listened to a lot of soul, R&B and hip hop, but right now I find myself listening to a lot of rock and folk music, which indeed can be very soulful too. I for example have Death Cab for Cutie, Travis, Neil Young, The Weepies, Patty Griffin and Gnarls Barkley on heavy rotation in my iPod. I know they are all very different from the music that I make, but I'm also hoping to be influenced by all of them in some way. Meaningful and interesting lyrics and heartfelt songs is what all these artists have in common. My taste in music is very broad these days.
On a personal note, I want to spread the word about Milton Nascimento, (listen to Tudo Voce Podia Ser) who is someone I only discovered recently, though he's been around for a while. I think that his is some of the most emotional music I've ever heard, even though I don't even understand the lyrics. Just beautiful!
BJP: That is so interesting -- I'll definitely look him up, it reminds me of how I feel about Amedeo Minghi from Italy -- beautiful music, and even though I have no idea what he's singing, it doesn't matter!
BJP: Before we stop, is there anything you'd like to communicate to your fans?
Janita: Yes. : ) My album Seasons of Life is in stores now and I'll be doing shows around the States to promote it. Fans of my music can sign up on my website www.janita.com to receive advance notification of my upcoming performances in their area. Peace of mind and happiness to all!
BJP: It’s been great talking with you, Janita and I wish you the very best in all your future projects, and I’ll be watching for them!
Janita: Thank you so much for your kind comments, I really appreciate it.
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photos of Janita compliments of Janita.com
Concert photos credits: Rachel Henry