Janet Gardner and Justin James Interview (Part 1 of 2)

Date: July 9, 2020 (via Skype)
Interviewer: Christopher Carroll
Photos: Christopher Carroll ROCK Photography

Janet Gardner and Justin James are possibly the most productive rockers in existence today. While most bands have given up releasing new music because between fans stealing it and fans only wanting to hear the old stuff (because, let’s face it, the new stuff our favorite bands are releasing these day isn’t usually up to par), it’s not worth it. Fortunately, that never got in the way for Janet and Justin. They have been on a hot streak for the last three years, releasing three albums of new music in that time. Each time they release a record, they have already written a few songs for the next one! The creativity between these two is astounding.

I recently spoke with the two of them about this when we got together for a Skype interview. I learned quite a bit in our conversation and we laughed a LOT! That’s one of the things I love about these two. They’re so positive and they always seem to be enjoying themselves, onstage and off. I shot a show that they played in Ocean City, Maryland, USA not long before the Covid pandemic hit. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to share those photos with you. Dig in, as this interview was over an hour but it’s all fun stuff!  We’ll be splitting it into two parts.  Part 1 today and Part 2 will be posted tomorrow. I hope you have as good a time as I did, hearing all the interesting stories!

Sleaze Roxx: So, first question! The new CD has a name change on it! It’s not Janet Gardner now. It’s Gardner-James!

Janet Gardner: Yeah, and on the next one, it will just be ‘Justin James’ and I will guest appear on it.

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughing hysterically]

Justin James: [Smiling] Progression, you know?

Janet Gardner: Well, you know, we’ve been partners from the beginning. And we probably should have called it that in the first place. But of course at the time, my name meant a little bit more than his [Justin looks away, scowling in wonder] so we went with that, and now it’s definitely official! We’re officially a partnership.

Justin James: When it first started for the first album, I think we were about halfway through recording it and I remember Janet asking, do we call it my solo album? I’ve been working hard at this for a long time. And  I mean, absolutely. She’s definitely put a lot more into her life with music than I have, and you know, being the husband and stuff, of course I’m gonna support you and I want to give me what you want. And, you know, it was great. It was fine. She deserved it! And just as time has gone by, I mean, it’s always been the two of us writing all the instruments and all the songs that it just kind of felt like it was time maybe to make the shift… I don’t know.

Sleaze Roxx: That makes sense. And I don’t remember if the move to the Chicago area was before you were writing this or during? Or did you write it out east?

Janet Gardner: We started it here. We started in January, right?

Justin James: We spent New Year’s Eve working on the first song. I was at my office and I came back and she said, “I got this new idea” and she had a ton of it already laid down and it just sounded great. I was like, “Let’s just do it” and boom, then after that it was just like every week, a new song.

Janet Gardner: Well, then the Covid thing happened and, you know, what else was there to do? So we went nuts during that period so it came together really fast.

Sleaze Roxx: Did the change of scenery make any difference to your writing or the atmosphere…. the mood or anything like that?

Janet Gardner: I don’t think so, because we made a little studio ‘zen’ area and it’s pretty much the same here as it was there and our life experiences are still pretty much the same. We’re boring!

Justin James: [Laughs] We don’t do anything. It’s either writing, recording music or playing shows. And if we’re not doing that, it’s focusing on our kids and our dog.

Janet Gardner: Now they’re exciting! Their lives are exciting.

Justin James: [Looks at Janet] Do you think I should tell the  story about Australia…. when we got home?

Janet Gardner: Go ahead.

Justin James: This is how exciting our kids are. So we have a 15 year old daughter and right when we were leaving Australia, which was a 23 hour plane flight, she shoots me a text and said, “Dad, I didn’t have a place to go last night so I came and stayed at your house and I had to throw a brick through the window to get in because I left my key at my mom’s.” I’m like, “WHAT? Okay, well, thanks for letting us know.” And then we come home to find out she threw a party in our house

Janet Gardner: It was DESTROYED! The house, but “Welcome home from Australia. SURPRISE!”

Justin James: Okay, so that kind of settled the fact like, I remember doing that. You know, you would always clean up before your parents got home! It just still doesn’t feel right. Like, wait a minute. Our kids are throwing parties and stuff while we’re gone!

Janet Gardner: Wow! Now we have to be the responsible people now and say “You can’t do that!”

Sleaze Roxx: Speaking of Australia, how was that? I saw some of the photos and it looks like you had some good experiences! Did anything fun happen out there?

Janet Gardner: It was all fun! Yeah, onstage / off stage, we met a lot of amazing people, saw some stuff that we always wanted to see. We saw koalas, kangaroos. It was definitely a bucket list thing, for sure. We really had a great trip!

Justin James: Yeah, it was everything you would imagine and more. I mean, the people were so nice. The scenery was unbelievable. And all the shows we did out there were just so much fun. It was incredible. We were lucky we made it home, but there was part of us that didn’t want to come home yet! We wanted to stay there.

Janet Gardner: Literally, if we had been there a couple days longer, we wouldn’t have been able to come home. It was that close to the Covid lockdowns. So, we were lucky to get home but yeah, we missed it. And we were like, “Back to reality…. oh, well.” We enjoyed that Aussie hospitality.

Janet Gardner (and Justin James) performing “Edge of A Broken Heart” live at Prince Bandroom in Melbourne, Australia on March 4, 2020:

Sleaze Roxx: With regard to your new album coming up, you guys always seem to be going full steam on the songs. Do you ever run out of ideas? I mean, it never seems like you stop! For those who don’t know, this will be your third CD and once you’re finished writing one, you’re already writing songs for the next one!

Janet Gardner: Yeah, we were talking about that. But it’s funny how one of us is always driving the bus. We kind of take turns. Somebody gets on a roll. Right now Justin has, like, three new great song ideas. I’ve got zero! So that’s kind of how it works. One of us will pick up the ball and start running then pass it to the other person and they kind of go for a while and it always seems like one of us is on a roll. You just keep rolling forward!

Justin James: Yeah, it’s just so hard. Like she was just saying, when we finished this album, because this one came together so fast, and it was done. Then our computer crashed right when we finished it. We had already sent it off to the label and [she was] in the middle of editing the “Wounded” video. We were just about done, just one more scene to put in the video and the computer crashed. So we finally got a new computer and now there’s new toys on the new computer and we don’t have any songs to use to play with these toys! So I just [started] sitting down and coming up with ideas. This last album ‘Synergy’, it was kind of the reverse of ‘Your Place In The Sun.’ She was busy with the Vixen stuff a lot that summer so I was constantly going, and then she would come in and she would finish it and with this album. It was reversed. She had just an endless supply of ideas for this album that it was the opposite. She would start them, then, I would come in and add little things here and there.

Sleaze Roxx: The new one, ‘Synergy’ is so fun because all of the songs are a little different so you never get bored. You aren’t hearing the same song over and over. Some albums and some bands are like that, where they’ve got their little niche, and they stick with it. But you guys make it fun.

The first song ‘Rise Up” — this is an excellent beginning! The heavy drums, the heavy guitar and then those little pinch harmonics in there. I mean, that’s just the BEST way you could have kicked off the album! I loved it. It really set the tone. It’s heavy and it’s fun. Then, the chorus on that was just transformed it into an anthem. Such a fun song!

Janet Gardner: Well, I was hearing this kind of rolling riff thing in my head. A Kenny Wayne Shepherd kind of thing that I wanted to get out. So I sort of limped my way through it. And it was really slow. I kind of pictured ‘anthem’ drums. So, by the time Justin got home, I had quite a bit of that recorded, but it was not very good. And then you [Justin] came up with the beginning of the chorus so it just kind of developed from there. And then, I’m always thinking about our kids, so I’m thinking about our, daughter who trashed our house with the party [laughs]!  So that’s kind of where the lyrics came from. You know, just be yourself. Always. Don’t let anybody push [you] around.

Justin James: Yeah, 15 is a hard age and, for a girl, I’m sure it’s really hard. I think she just she hit the mark with those lyrics. And, I agree with you. It’s got that great anthem, a rock start then into the nice, open chorus. It’s almost got like a little bit of a bluesy hard rock flair to it. The rest of it has like the early ’90s feel, like you would hear from some bands like Baton Rouge or something. I thought it was just killer.

Janet Gardner: And I really wanted it to kind of keep almost the ’70s kind of feel to it — a ’70s bluesy feel. That’s kind of what what we were going for.

Sleaze Roxx: And then, to make it even better right after the solo, everything cuts out except for that guitar! A la Bryan Adams’ “Run To You.” That was awesome!

Janet Gardner: That was a mistake! We ran out of drums! Then we thought, ‘Actually, that’s cool!’

Justin James: And then it was like, ‘Well, let’s just leave the drums out of that part”.

Janet Gardner: I was like, “That’s totally awesome”!  So it worked!  Sometimes you know the universe gives you something that you don’t expect.

Justin James: Yes. I’m glad you thought that! It’s funny because, I thought it when we sent you the songs, that one stood out in my head, I’m like “Oh, I hope he likes that, I think he’ll like that one”!

Sleaze Roxx: “Running To Her”… I love that song! It starts out with that heavy bass. You have a couple that do that. I just love that sound. And then those notes on the guitar are just lingering in the air. One of the things that this song really made me think about is the fact that you can have an album that is moody or song that has a particular mood to it, but YOU guys make a song that does more than just create one mood. It goes from one mood to another mood and then another and then comes back!  I’ve told you that before but I really love how you do that because it keeps me interested. Do you guys do that on purpose? I mean, there are a lot of changes in your songs!

Janet Gardner: No, we’re psychotic.

[Interviewer’s notes: At this point, Justin and I both crack up so much that I can’t make out the rest of her sentence but by the look on her face, it was intense and humorous.]

Justin James: It’s never intentional. A lot of times, you go into the start of it going “Okay, this one’s gonna be simple. This one’s gonna be straightforward and there’s not going to be eight changes throughout the song.” It never happens for us. It’s more like, “It’s just getting repetitive. Let’s throw another part in there. Let’s throw this part in there. Let’s have this weird chord or weird sound to it.”

Janet Gardner: And “Run To Her” — I’m a huge fan of like, Del Amitri and those kinds of ‘pop but with a rock edge’ kind of bands. And it was inspired by that kind of sound. And then of course, the chorus turned into [smiles]…. I don’t know, ‘different’!

Sleaze Roxx: “Wounded” — hopefully, everybody’s already heard this one since it’s already been released. This one is really cool and I love that soft kind of eerie guitar and vocals section that was right before the solo. You guys always throw something into each song that comes straight out of left field. In this one, it’s those spooky little tones ringing out on the guitar and even in the vocals in that section. It lays out a very eerie feel that goes right into the solo.  That really stood out for me.

Justin James: When that part came up, right before the solo, I remember trying to come up with something different to throw in there and it almost reminded me of, like, a George Lynch-ish kind of eerie sound to the way it was playing. And then yeah, when she layered her vocals over it was like, “Oh, this is great.” I mean, we kind of did that on ‘Your Place In The Sun’ too, right before the solo and just love the way we get that ‘rollercoaster ride’ a little bit, and then “Boom”!  It kicks off again!

Janet Gardner: And those kinds of sections, too, are a really good place to make a statement. You know, the song’s just rolling along, people listen to the lyrics, they tune in, they tune out, but when you do something dynamic like that, everybody kinda starts to listen, so you want to learn to take advantage of those moments to really say what you want to say.

Janet Gardner / Justin James‘ “Wounded” video (from Synergy album):

Sleaze Roxx: Wow! That’s interesting! I like that. “You Can Kiss This” — clearly a love song [laughs]. I love the guitar stops and starts. Listening to the vocal lines in this one made me think about Janet’s feel for vocal melody. When you hear a song, it often almost sounds like somebody’s singing a structured poem. Janet, I love the way that YOU do it. You never really seem locked into a structure or the rhythm of a poem. You actually kind of dance around that structure! It really makes one pay more attention to what you are saying because it seems much more genuine.

Justin James: I definitely don’t lock into anything before I sing it. I have the lyrics. They have sort of a rhythmic pattern. I kind of know how I want to put it in there. But it all changes when I start singing it. I start scratching things out.“There’s too many words here. There’s not enough words here.” You know, and I never plan it too much. And that’s the way it comes out the best. And that keeps it from sounding too planned. And to sing-songy, kind of, like you said, every verse line is a little bit different but you still try to get it to make sense to people. You don’t want to just say nonsense. I think that’s helpful, to not lock into anything completely until I’m in front of the microphone doing it.

Sleaze Roxx: Nothing about the songs you guys write is basic. Nothing sounds basic or boring. I love that. “Say You Will” starts out with piano. Who’s playing piano? Is anyone playing piano?

Janet Gardner: [Justin points to Janet who laughs] I’M playing piano!

Sleaze Roxx: Are you really? I was wondering if that was some kind of like guitar transformed into a piano sound on computer. Very nice!

Janet Gardner: That song, I actually wrote a while ago when I was still in Vixen and I was thinking maybe it would be a song for Vixen, but it was about Justin. So it was always kind of awkward to go, ‘Okay, help me finish writing this song about you!’ So yeah, I actually originally wrote it on guitar and then, after I had played the guitar, I thought ‘I think it would be a little moodier and a little better on the piano.’ So I’ve kind of adapted the chords into that little rolling piano part and then Justin played that ‘did did doo doo’ part! He goes, “I’m hearing a part, move over”!

Justin James: That’s right. I did have one little piano part in there.

Janet Gardner: And it made it! It was great! It was perfect.

Justin James: Well, with that song, you know, we love Def Leppard. And “Love Bites” kind of has that delayed little bell sounding stuff, thrown in there. So, we were kind of pulling from that a little bit too as we were working on this one

Janet Gardner: Yeah, some little, kind of, harsh moody, keyboard pad. We messed around with probably 50 of  those. “Oh, no, that’s not quite it. No, that’s too voicy. No, that’s too stringy.” We didn’t want it to be identifiable as any instrument sound. So we finally landed on one that we could agree on and that was that.

Sleaze Roxx: “I Promise”  has a churning guitar rhythm, but a very happy feel. I really like that.

Justin James: That one, I actually wrote that riff. I don’t know if we were still working on ‘Your Place In The Sun.’

Janet Gardner: [Nods] It was a ‘left over’. It was one that was like, “Well, we could put one more on there or we can save it till the next one”

Justin James: Yeah,, and I remember at soundchecks when we’d go out to promote ‘Your Place In The Sun.’ That was my soundcheck riff.  I love the way that it sounded. And so it got put to the side and we’re a couple songs into this album and on both,   ‘Your Place In The Sun’ and this album, the first two songs we wrote were ballads. We were like ‘Okay, we need a heavier song, we need something rockin.’ So I said, ‘Can we pull this one? Can we bring it back out and see what we can come up with?’ So we pulled out the demo version and then she came up with that clean guitar over the verse where it just drops down and it was just… It was perfect! It was just like, ‘Oh yeah!’

Janet Gardner: That was one of the times when Justin went to work, and I started changing everything [laughs]. I was like, [in a whiny voice’ ‘He’s gonna hate it!  He’s gonna come home and go, ‘What did you do? This is terrible’!”

Justin James: “Woman” [laughs]!

Janet Gardner: And he didn’t.  He said, Nah, that’s great.’

Sleaze Roxx: That’s awesome. That it’s not just like an ‘I’ll write the music. You write the melody line and lyrics’ kind of thing. It’s a nice little marriage of you writing something and then he comes in and kind of reforms it a little and you touch it up. I love that.

Janet Gardner: No, It’s great!  We, like, just stomp all over each other’s ideas.

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Janet Gardner: No, seriously, there’s really no defensive sensitivity. I can’t say enough about how great it is to work with him. I can’t say enough, because there’s never a bad vibe. Ever! I mean, we don’t agree on everything, but there’s never like, that baby, pouty feeling kind of nonsense. It’s always whatever’s best for the song. And we’re always the first to admit that maybe someone else has a better idea, then he will come in and change something that I’m thinking. And it’ll be like, ‘That’s way better.’ Yeah, it’s amazing.

Justin James: From the first album to this album, I don’t think there’s been a song that one of us has written, solely.  Everything has been a joint effort. And you know, maybe somebody wrote 70% of one song, but there’s always those little touches that the other one adds and having that second opinion come in, it usually always does enhance it. We literately just trust each other and just kind of roll with it. If somebody hears something, you live with it for a day and you’re like, ‘You’re right! That is better.’

Janet Gardner: Yeah, none of the songs would be the same without the other person’s input.

Sleaze Roxx: I kind of thought about that too, when I was talking to you about how you guys have so many different parts to songs. Do you remember how like The Beatles wrote?  Where John Lennon would write a part one way and all of a sudden, it would change into a completely different part that Paul McCartney wrote? I wondered if it worked that way with you two. Are you very different types of songwriters?

Janet Gardner: Yes. And no. We have a lot of common ground. Like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I would have done something like that, too.’ And then there’s other things where it’s like, ‘I never would have come up with that!’

Justin James: Right! I mean, I think at this point, we’ve definitely developed a sound but it’s our touch on our songs, and they’re always reminiscent of something. I mean, everything’s been done before, in some way, but yeah, we definitely do have our own little things. She’s into more of a ’70s blues hard rock, guitar thing. I’m into ’80s, more of that. Ironically. But we both have that.  I like ’70s and obviously she likes ’80s, so we have that middle ground there too.

Sleaze Roxx: “On A Wire” — Now, that’s just a cool song. It’s got so many sounds in it. I don’t think any of your songs just sound like just drums and guitar. There’s always even a different kind of guitar sound added. You know, little weird things happening in the background. You hear a little dings every once in a while. That’s awesome! I mean, I imagine that you’d be sitting there like for hours and days just building layer upon layer on the songs? Is that the way it goes?

Justin James: Sometimes!

Janet Gardner: Yes, on certain songs.

Justin James: Yeah, “On The Wire” definitely was one that was kind of the problem child on the album. Not because of the writing but there was so much going on there that when it came time to mix it and break it down, there were so many sounds. It was so hard to carve a space for every little thing so that it can be heard.

Janet Gardner: Right and it was the typical case of like, ‘Uh oh, now you’re missing that little ‘ding ding’ part’ you were talking about in the chorus, the little sequencer things.’ All of a sudden those would be gone. And then we turn that up, and then all of a sudden the guitars were gone. And then the piano was gone. So that was kind of a nightmare to mix. But those songs are fun, though.

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow (on August 2, 2020)!

Janet Gardner / Justin James‘ “Loney We Fight” video (from Synergy album):