INTERVIEW WITH JANET GARDNER AND JUSTIN JAMES
Date: September 15, 2017
Interviewer: Christopher Carroll
Photos: Christopher Carroll ROCK Photography (photos 1, 2, 4, 5, 8 and 10)
I recently had the opportunity to see Janet Gardner and Justin James in concert and it couldn’t have been any more entertaining! I’m already anxious to see them again. They just finished up the first leg of their tour in support of the new Janet Gardner solo record and are getting ready to start on the second leg of that tour in December. The record is amazing! It’s completely fresh. It doesn’t really sound like anything else on the market. The songs are all unique. The production is complex with multiple layers of sound in every song. This could easily be the best record released in 2017! If you haven’t heard it, you must. Listening to each song is, honestly, like watching an action movie! There are delicate parts that draw you in yet have sinister background music, then an embracing build-up and plenty of explosions! This is a record that hasn’t been out of my reach since I got it the first day it was released. Definitely a MUST HAVE!
I got to sit with Janet and Justin before the show. These two are a wonderful couple, both genuinely cool people, fun to talk to, both perfect looking (and although I did have a cool shirt on, it sucked being the least attractive person at the table). They really support one another and seem to feed off the other’s energy onstage and off. You’ll read, in this interview, how they wrote, recorded, engineered and produced the record together, with no one else’s involvement. This is highly impressive once you hear the songwriting and production quality!
Sleaze Roxx: First of all… Wow! You guys totally surprised everyone! You are both so clean and pretty but then you come out with this album that gets so heavy! It’s thick and it’s layered and it’s really not something that anyone would have expected. How did that happen? How did the album turn into something like that?
Janet Gardner: We just did what we felt like doing! We didn’t really have any particular thing in mind so what started coming out was that.
Justin James: Nothing was planned. It wasn’t like we thought, “We have to sound like this” or “We’ve gotta have this style to it.” It was completely organic and I think, after two or three songs, we realized that we kind of had a style between us that formed into that and shaped it.
Janet Gardner: Yeah, and it’s definitely a combination of our influences. We both like heavy stuff but we also like very melodic stuff so there’s some catchy, sing along stuff and then a little bit more attitude and a little more edge than people would expect. But it’s what we felt.
Justin James: Two of the biggest influences were Halestorm and I like D.J. Ashba from Sixx:A.M. so a lot of that came out in our style because it’s what we were listening to a lot.
Sleaze Roxx: That’s interesting because D.J. has a style that actually shapes the entire song as opposed to just adding the guitar. He shapes the style. Everyone thinks the Sixx:A.M. style is Nikki Sixx’s but if you listen to the first Beautiful Creatures album, you can see, that style is all him!
Justin James: Yes!
Janet Gardner: Yes, you can definitely hear him in everything he does.
Justin James: That Beautiful Creatures album is awesome!
Janet Gardner: It is awesome!
Sleaze Roxx: As far as production goes, Justin, I know you had a lot to do with the engineering but did you produce the whole thing? Did you both do it together?
Janet Gardner: Together.
Justin James: We did it together.
Sleaze Roxx: Justin, you’ve recorded about four albums already and Janet, you’ve done about four. Have either of you produced before or is this your first time?
Janet Gardner: Well, ‘Tangerine- — we kinda produced ourselves but yeah, this is the first time that the two of us have had total control over everything we were doing so we felt really free with what we were doing. We felt free with the arrangements and to go “Hey, this would be kind of a cool turn or a cool twist” and not have to think about radio.
Sleaze Roxx: Oh really?
Janet Gardner: Well, yeah, if that’s what we felt like doing, we’d put it in there.
Justin James: Originally, when we first started this, we didn’t have a plan. We just wrote one song together [Interviewer’s note: the song he is referring to is “If You Want Me” — a cool song that has everything in it from a soft melody with an eerie, haunting background of music to a churning, emotional chorus) that came out of nowhere and we had fun with it so we said, “Let’s do another one!” Then, every week we were spitting out something else but we still didn’t know what we were going to do with it until five or six songs in.
Janet Gardner: And even then, when we were done, we were like, “OK, let’s put it out, ourselves” and then we thought, “Let’s put out a little teaser video and see what kind of reaction we get.” We put that up and it started to take off! It was funny because we were like, “OK, if after a few days we only have 100 views, we’ll take it down so we don’t get embarrassed! We’ll just act like we never did it!” But, after a couple of weeks it was in the pretty good range of thousands and we thought, “This is cool.” Then, we started getting record company interest. So, we thought, “If we get the right deal from the right people…. why not” to give it that extra chance to be heard. Pavement was amazing from the very beginning! The first thing we noticed was all of the other artists they have and the musicality and you could tell that they are not dictated to. The artists are allowed to be the artists and they support what the artist does and that’s what we really needed. We didn’t want anyone to go, “OK, we like these three songs but you have to throw the rest out because we want these kinds of songs” or “We want you to do this” or “We want you to do that.” We got none of that! They just said, “Nope, we love it the way it is. Let’s go with it.”
Janet Gardner‘s video teaser for debut solo album:
Preview of the soon to be released solo album from Vixen front woman/ lead singer Janet Gardner. All songs written, performed, and produced by Janet Gardner …
Justin James: We asked two or three times in the end, “Is there anything you want us to change? Tweak something in the mix?” They said, “Nope! Perfect, we like it the way it is.”
Janet Gardner: Well, “Rat Hole” — they asked for a bleep for radio!
Janet Gardner‘s “Rat Hole” video:
Music video by Janet Gardner performing Rat Hole. (C) 2017 Pavement Recordshttp://vevo.ly/Z9OXjp
Sleaze Roxx: You two are obviously seasoned songwriters at this point. It’s one thing to write a song, It’s another to arrange it, which is normally what a really good producer is there for… to turn a good song into a song that is amazing, and then to get a really good sounding production of a song. This CD sounds really good! It’s very clear. Every instrument is easily distinguishable, and the vocals are way up front. It’s almost teetering on being too loud, which is awesome!
Justin James: We pushed it to the limit. I’m a huge fan of when you used to go to concerts and the kick drum would just break your chest open! I absolutely love that and when we were doing this, that was one of the things I focused on. Another was to capture her voice because she’s just so much more powerful than ever before and I wanted it to be heard
Sleaze Roxx: Oh yeah! Janet, you are a very good singer. You are so precise with your vocals. You have a lot of power when you want it and when you throw that ‘grit’ in there, I can tell you do it in a way that isn’t damaging to your voice. Did you ever take vocal lessons?
Janet Gardner: Oh yeah! I took vocal lessons from high school age until around 20. Most of that focused on breathing and supporting your voice properly so you can do things like that without wearing it down. Of course, I still do have issues sometime after two or three days of singing because when you are up there, it’s difficult to keep that going and to focus on technique because you are into it! You’re feeling it and you’re running around running out of breath. By the end of the night, sometimes I’m like, “Ewww…. I should have paid a little more attention!” All that comes from playing more also. Back in the day, when we were doing 200 dates a year, the first couple of weeks were a little rough! Then, the middle of the tour was great because I started to really focus and I was comfortable with everything. I was supporting my voice and it felt great. Then, toward the end, it would start to feel like I needed a break so you do the best you can! I mean, there are nights when I get offstage and I feel like, “Uh oh….!”
Sleaze Roxx: Take me through the way you two write a song together because obviously, it probably differs from the way either of you have done it before.
Janet Gardner: He’ll be down there just jammin’, cranking up his boogie and I’ll be folding laundry or something and I’ll run down there and say, “What was that? What did you just play?” And he’ll say, “Uh, I don’t know….” and I’ll sing it back to him.
Justin James: …and I’ll always say it just like that “Uh, I don’t know…” [Interviewer’s note: Making fun of the dorky voice Janet used to imitate him.]
Janet Gardner: [Laughs] But I’ll point out the one I’m referring to and then say we have to lay that one down before we forget it. Then, we’ll fish through the ideas and start to think of where to go next with it or maybe, what it should be about. I always have topics! I always have things I want to talk about sort of stashed away and he’s like, “Oh that one would be a good one for this!” But, it happens all different ways.
Justin James: We had the one song “Let It Be Over” where she had the whole thought in her head of what she wanted the song to be about and we just built it from there so that one was the opposite of the way others were created.
Janet Gardner: Yeah, he came home from work and I was like, “Look! I recorded 48 vocal tracks!”
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Janet Gardner: He’s like, “……. Wow!” I’m like, “Whaddaya think? It’s a song that’s only vocals so far!”
Sleaze Roxx: That’s the one that has all of the “ooo’s” and “haa’s” in harmony… That was a really cool idea! Speaking of that, how do you come up with a percussive, interesting hook like, “Hip-hip-hip-hip-HIP- hippy hippycrite?” How does something like that even pop into your mind?
Janet Gardner: Well, I wanted to write a song about that and I had it going the other way, actually…. The phrase going and then ‘You’re a Hip hip hip hippy hypocrite” but then, it didn’t feel right so I turned it around and started with “Hip hip….” And then the lines in between. It was just this thing in my head. I didn’t know exactly how the phrasing was going to work. Then we changed the chord changes in the chorus a few times to get it to end right because I wanted it to have that hook line at the end, “And I can hardly wait” and it wasn’t turning around right so we tried a few different chord changes. It always just starts with something in your head then you have to figure out how to make it work musically!
Sleaze Roxx: Interesting! Now it shouldn’t have been surprising to me but it was exciting when I was listening to the record and could hear little melodic similarities to songs on the ‘Tangerine’ record like that ending line you just sang in “Hippycrite” because it’s your style or writing melodies… It’s dark but friendly!
Justin James: The best of both worlds.
Janet Gardner: Right because of the way it turns around… It’s poppy but comes back around into that dark riff. I like that kind of stuff! I hear that a lot in my head.
Sleaze Roxx: Right! Another is ‘The Grind!’ The chorus sounds so heavy that you could have written it with Ramstein but right before that is the most beautiful little melody!
Justin James and Janet Gardner: [Laughs]
Sleaze Roxx: Do you just write individual pieces and later put them together?
Justin James: I think that one just happened. You [to Janet] came up with that whole idea to go from that sweet and pretty piece and then boom!
Janet Gardner: In a lot of modern rock, they have the girl singing the pretty part and then they have some guy going “BLA LAA LAA LAA” [growling]. I felt like… like both of those and I want to do both of those! So I got to do the pretty part and the ugly part. We just throw things back and forth and when something works, we know it. When there’s something missing, we both know that too and sometimes, if we get stuck, we’ll walk away and then come back later and go, “Oh, I know exactly what this needs” and then we’ll be able to finish it up.
Justin James: It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep does when you get stuck.
Janet Gardner: Right, and it’s hard to do that because you just want to pound at it until you get it right… but sometimes it won’t come at that moment. You have to walk away, ya know, get some food, maybe go to bed, wake up at 4:00 in the morning and go!
Justin James and Janet Gardner [in unison]: I got it!
Sleaze Roxx: Your voice doesn’t only sound heavier; in some of these songs you have, kind of, a mean tone to it. You really cover the gamut, vocally, on this and that’s something we’ve never really heard before.
Janet Gardner: You know it’s funny. I tried a lot of different things partly because I was by myself. I didn’t have anybody else in the room, listening or producing. I had no fear of trying something because what’s the worst that could happen? I’d laugh at myself? Which I did, several times. I was like, “That was hilarious, and I can’t do that!” But I discovered a few things about myself that I’d never done before. I never knew I could do a falsetto scream! Everything I’ve ever done was full voice or a light falsetto so I put a few of those in there.
Justin James: She did a beautiful ‘Tom Keifer’ at the end of “Your Problem Now.”
Sleaze Roxx: What is the worst part of being Janet Gardner?
Janet Gardner: Wow….
Justin James: Dealing with me!
Janet Gardner: You know what? At this point in my life, I’m pretty happy being me. Sure, there are things I wish I did better. I wish I was more organized. I wish I was more business-like. A lot of things like that but all in all, I’m really happy. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m with the love of my life. We’re out here making music that we love. People seem to be enjoying it. It’s all good!
Sleaze Roxx: Justin, don’t let that influence your answer! What’s the worst part of being Justin James?
Justin James: That’s tough [Interviewer’s note: No kidding dude, you are married to Janet Gardner! Lol] Kinda like what Janet said, life just seems so good right now. It’s so complete. It’s almost too good to be true! The fact that we get to do what we love and we get to do it together and travel and just have fun playing. I can’t think of anything… well, waking up super early some days if I really wanted to nitpick!
Janet Gardner: Yeah, part of our problem is balancing everything in our lives because during this run, we would go home and I’d have to get up and take my son to school. I had to get up at 6:30 in the morning and then we’re playing some of these shows at 11:00 at night. Then we’d get home and there are suitcases. We don’t really have time to unpack and get organized. It’s hard to do because we’re so busy and our lives are in ten different places. Fun though!
Sleaze Roxx: Coolest rock star story?
Janet Gardner: Oooooooh…. Man!
Sleaze Roxx: Most interesting… doesn’t have to be the best! Or the nicest…
Janet Gardner: Well, I don’t want to piss anyone off! I don’t like that. There’s no need to piss anyone off. Ritchie Blackmore was an interesting guy. You wouldn’t think he has silliness about him but he does. He would play practical jokes on us. One day, he rigged our dressing room with stink bombs so we walked in and it smelled like a giant fart. We thought, “Who in the hell did that?” Ritchie Blackmore! Mister dark, medieval man let off stink bombs in our dressing room.
Sleaze Roxx: So then I shouldn’t even ask you who the biggest asshole you’ve ever met in the music business is.
Janet Gardner: No.
Sleaze Roxx: Justin… How about you? Wanna tell me who’s the biggest asshole is that you’ve met in the business?
Justin James: [Laughs] Nah!
Sleaze Roxx: Janet, did you just tell him to say that?
Justin James: I just got kicked under the table!
Sleaze Roxx: So, where did you two meet?
Justin James: Chicago.
Sleaze Roxx: Janet, you were out there playing a show?
Janet Gardner: Yep.
Sleaze Roxx: So, Justin… How do you walk up and ask Janet Gardner out? I mean, you’d never met her before…
Justin James: Right. Actually it took over a year to happen! We met at this show. I was there with a couple buddies and I saw her walk out and at first I’m like, “Is that Janet? Holy cow!” She was more beautiful than I ever remembered and it was the first time in my life that I was ever speechless because usually I can’t shut up. All I could do was just stare at the floor, put my hands in my pockets like an eight grader at a school dance! I just looked at the floor and said, “Hey… how are ya…” and we exchanged very few words that day. Then, a year later we were both at Farm Rock in Chicago. We met again there and started talking. That’s where the friendship developed.
Janet Gardner: And I got him really drunk and took advantage of him.
Justin James: She almost killed me! She almost killed me that night.
Janet Gardner: I gave him a giant cup of Makers Mark.
Justin James: I thought it was a shot! I was like, “Oh, cool, sure, I’ll take a shot real quick.”
Janet Gardner: There were about four shots in there.
Justin James: I just downed it and my throat lit up and I couldn’t breathe… but I had to play it cool. Basically, I had to run around the corner and go [heavy breathing noises]. I’m sure that loosened things up a little bit so we just joked with each other and had a good time just talking. After that we started texting each other, getting to know each other for a few more months and then, that was when ….. you asked ME out then, technically.
Janet Gardner: Uh yeah… this is how it went.
Justin James: I’m a wuss!
Janet Gardner: First of all, I had to give him MY phone number! We were messaging on Facebook and I said, “You know, this is well and good but… here’s my number if you ever want to call or text.” He said, “I’m a little shy… I was going to ask you but I didn’t.” So that was the first thing. Then, we’re talking, we’re texting and I’m like, “Uh… you wanna meet somewhere? You know, we can meet halfway…” So we decided to meet at Cape Cod. He flew in to Providence and I picked him up so we still had a long car ride together.
Justin James: We still didn’t know how this was gonna go, like, in what direction.
Janet Gardner: This could be really difficult if we don’t click but it wasn’t awkward. We had the two hour ride together. We talked the whole way, laughed and had a great time, so…
Sleaze Roxx: Awwwww…
Janet Gardner: And then there was something you had to do,.. Oh, you asked me to get married. He finally was the one who asked something. Before then, it was all me [laughs].
Justin James: [Laughs] That’s true, I did do that one.
Janet Gardner: You did the big one.
Sleaze Roxx: You two seem like a great couple, like you get along well. Justin, you are always smiling! Every time I see you, you’re smiling.
Janet Gardner: I’m not. I’m always scowling!
Justin James: Nooo!
Sleaze Roxx: I’ve seen you scowl once.
Justin James: She’s got the best smile in the world. That’s why you always see me smiling!
[Interviewer’s note: Janet smiles and blushes.]
Justin James: It’s been great. Everything, our friendship, our marriage, doing the album.
Janet Gardner: Well, when you think about what we’ve done and what we’re still doing, I mean, this could be strenuous on a couple. I was nervous about that when we started writing as a couple because, what if this causes some friction? If this doesn’t work well, if we can’t compromise well, if somebody’s feelings get hurt, this could get ugly. But we made it through that beautifully and it brought us closer together. We’ve had nothing but fun.
Justin James: Yeah, it’s been a blast!
Janet Gardner: Every time we had a disagreement about something, one of us would give… quickly. We picked our battles carefully and we got through that beautifully. Then, we thought, we’re going to put together a band and play these shows as a new band. This could get ugly too! But, again, we’ve had nothing but fun!
Sleaze Roxx: Well…. I know you don’t want to answer this one…
Janet Gardner: Oh no….
Sleaze Roxx: You and [former Vixen guitarist] Gina [Stile] were tight…
Janet Gardner: I don’t want to answer.
Sleaze Roxx: And you don’t have to.
Janet Gardner: I don’t… because…
Sleaze Roxx: No good would come of it?
Janet Gardner: Yeah.
Sleaze Roxx: Moving on from that, you have [new Vixen guitarist] Britt [Lightning] in the band. I remember seeing her playing in Paradise Kitty, in LA, then she jumps into Vixen! I’m sure there is an adjustment period. How are things going?
Janet Gardner: Things are going great. Every show gets a little better, a little tighter. Everybody’s getting used to each other. I mean, the three of us have played those songs eight million times… and we got Tyson, on keyboards, at the same time so there were two new members. The biggest difference I’ve noticed is the background vocals. It’s like five great singers singing at the same time. It sounds amazing. And Britt’s really sweet, really great and she’s doing a great job.
Sleaze Roxx: So, what’s next for you guys, together or apart, either or… both… What’s on the horizon?
Justin James: Probably write more songs. We’ve already shot around ideas and stuff, and especially with the convenience of living together, we’re able to do it so easily and have fun. We were talking, after this. We have to have some down time or what’s going to happen? So, I can see a little of that, then promote that, push this. We have more shows coming up in December and January. Now we are close to lining up something overseas.
Sleaze Roxx: What’s the best way to find out about these shows?
Justin James: The Janet Gardner Facebook page is the best way.
Janet Gardner: Yeah, we post the events as they come up.
Sleaze Roxx: And, what about Vixen?
Janet Gardner: We have a live album already recorded and we are adding two new songs to it! We are going to Nashville to record them. We’ll record those new song, then do one or two acoustic songs while we’re in the studio working on the new ones.
[Interviewer’s note: According to a post on Vixen’s Facebook page, this has now occurred.]
Sleaze Roxx: Well, that will be interesting! Thank you guys so much for sitting and talking with me! I love the energy and especially love the honesty. You’ve given us a special look into your lives and I appreciate that!