Thrust into the limelight with Vixen at the tail end of the 1980s, Janet Gardner was the front woman for one of the biggest bands of the era. Despite sporadic reunions since, it’s been almost twenty years since she released any new music, however all that is about to change. Teaming up with husband Justin James, the singer is at last about to unveil her debut solo album. We sat down with Janet and Justin for a chat about the disc, as well as a little Vixen history and what lies ahead for the original all-female group. Fallen hero: Eamon O'Neill.
How are you today?
Janet Gardner: We’re great. We have a little bit of a gloomy day here in Connecticut, with a little bit of rain, but no less we’re sitting out on out patio enjoying the day.
Justin James: And it’s Friday!
How was it for you working together as a musical team?
Janet: Well, we met and became friends first, and then we got married, and then we started our musical relationship.
Was that a natural move for you?
Justin: It was. It was amazing how we started doing this, just kind of noodling around with a riff idea. We didn’t know what was going to happen next, and next thing you know, in a couple of months, we’ve got a full album ready to roll. It was natural, and it was fun.
There’s quite an edgy / alternative edge to some of the tracks, which is a new route for you Janet.
Janet: Yeah. You know, when we sat down, we really didn’t have anything in mind. We started off with guitar, bass, drums and vocals, and then we experimented with a few things. You have all this at your fingertips with [recording program] logic, so we tried a few things, and with some songs it didn’t work, and in other songs it really seemed to enhance the rhythm and the atmosphere of the songs, so we kept it.
There are also hints of the sound that you’re best known for.
Janet: There’s a lot of stuff with very limited production on it also; a lot more traditional, 70s’ / 80s’ rock kind of stuff. Justin likes to experiment with guitar sounds, so there’s a lot of extreme guitar sounds going on in there.
Do you think the album as a whole will surprise your fans?
Janet: I think it already has. There’s been a lot of positive reaction because I’ve never done a solo album before. Of course, Justin and I have never worked together before, so there’s a lot of curiosity, and I think most people are pretty open to it. It’s been a great reaction, really great, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. It’s been 20 years, so I was definitely due to pop, and so was Justin!
Was it a two-way relationship when it came to recording, or were you more involved in the production side of things, Justin?
Justin: It was equal, I would say, across the board pretty much in everything; one of us would come up with an idea, the other would jump in and kind of refine it a little bit and tune it up. Production wise, we were both heavily involved in that.
Janet: Justin did more of the engineering stuff. I don’t have a lot of patience for the technical stuff, and Justin did a lot of research, got some new plug-ins, experimented with a lot of stuff, and really honed in on the sound. I do more of the arrangements and that sort of thing.
Was there any trepidation about introducing a sound that your fans weren’t going to have heard from you before?
Janet: Yes and no; mostly no, because this is not a Vixen record. If it was, I’d be a lot more concerned as people have certain expectations. But as I’ve never done a solo album before, and Justin and I are a new team, I think people might be a little more open to something a little different. I think there are some expectations, but again, there’s plenty of stuff on this album that Vixen fans will appreciate, I’m sure of that.
Did the Vixen association weigh on you at all Justin, or was it just a case of; “Hey, I’m just making an album with my wife”?
Justin: That’s exactly it. It was one of those things where when we first started, we didn’t know what our plan was, or what the intention was to do with it, so we did it for ourselves, and we did it for fun. A couple of songs into it, it definitely started to have a formula and a sound to it, and it was just what came out of us naturally. We really didn’t think about anything else other than, you know, pleasing and making ourselves happy first. The people that love Vixen, there’s a lot of stuff that they’re going to like, and it’s Janet, and she sounds better than she ever has.
Was it an easy decision to make to work together, professionally?
Janet: Definitely there’s a chemistry, and it goes across the board, so musically it’s included in that. I never dreamed that it would work out this good. It was so natural. I was concerned that maybe it would have an adverse effect on our personal relationship, but the opposite happened; we’re closer than ever with another bonding thing for us.
Justin: It was fun, because it was like one of those things where, when we had a free moment it was like; “Well, what do you want to do today? Let’s go to the studio!” We looked forward to it, and it was great. We had a blast, it was a lot of laughs and smiles.
Did you work with anyone else on the album, or is it literally just the two of you?
Janet: It’s just the two of us. Justin played most of the guitars, and I threw in a part here and there. I’d say; “Here’s what I did – you can do it over if you don’t like it!” The bass and drums, I programmed most of that with a lot of input from Justin. We’d say; “How does it feel, maybe it needs just a little more fun, maybe the bass needs to move more?”, but yeah, we did it all ourselves.
Is there any pressure for you personally Janet, given that it’s going out under your name?
Janet: Well, if I didn’t feel so great about it, I might feel some pressure. But this is the first time I’ve done it, and this is why it’s the first time I’ve done it; it’s the first time that I’ve felt this good about anything. Maybe there’s a little bit of pressure, but nah; you have to just let go of it at some point. We could have just easily spent another couple of months in the studio tweaking and perfecting, but we got to the point where we were like; “This is great the way it is, let’s just let it go”
Going back to the start of your career, and Vixen achieved incredible success very early on; what was it like when things exploded for you?
Janet: It was so exciting for all of us because we were all from relatively small towns in America, and we all went out to L.A. chasing the dream. We had some rough moments of course, where we were all broke and trying to figure out how we were going to survive and do what we wanted to do, but once we got in there and started recording, the first time I heard the rough mix of ‘Edge Of A Broken Heart’, I got goose bumps. Right at that moment, I had a gut feeling that good things were ahead, and they were. It was just a great feeling the first time you heard it on the radio, and the first time you played it in front of an arena full of people. It was all really amazing.
You toured with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and The Scorpions; what was it like in that very male-dominated world?
Janet: Well, we tried not to think about it too much. We knew that people were going to be very critical, and look at us a little bit differently than the male bands. So we were just very diligent with rehearsal; we listened to tapes after every show, and picked it apart; “We’ve got to tighten this up, we’ve got to do this better”. And we tried to get enough sleep and make sure that we were ready to go once we hit the stage. We did kind of feel like we had something to prove; we knew that people were going to be looking and super critical, looking at each member, and we knew what we were up against, so we were very determined to just roll right through like a freight train.
The band split up after two successful albums; was that due to the changing musical landscape, and the arrival of Grunge?
Janet: There were a lot of internal and external factors. Our label had a fight with our manager, and we got dropped from our label, so there was a lot of stuff like that going on. Of course, the change in the music landscape; we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our third album because we knew we needed to do something fresh, but still maintain our roots. There were a lot of different ideas floating around, and two people wanted to do this, and two people wanted to do that, and writing relationships were strained. It was a rough time, and I know other bands were feeling the same thing. When you get the external turmoil, it also causes some internal turmoil, no matter how tight you are, or how much you love what you’re doing; everybody’s got their own opinions on how to proceed. Eventually we just threw in the towel and said; “Let’s just take a break, let’s just split up”.
That must have been heart breaking for you.
Janet: Yeah, it was. You’re on top of the world one minute, and the next you’re like; “What the hell just happened?!” It all happened fast, and that’s the way the music business goes; it has extreme highs, and extreme lows. But you have to roll with it, and you can’t base your self-esteem on your success of the moment. You have to say; “Hey, we’re the same band we were six months ago. Nothing has changed - we are no less than we were before”, which is very hard when all of a sudden the phones not ringing anymore, and people have moved on to other bands and other things. So it was a time to reflect on things, and obviously to get caught up on other things in life that had been neglected for the last few years. So that was nice. You try to look at the positives of it.
You got cornered for VH1’s ‘Bands Reunited’ in 2004; how was that experience for you?
Janet: It was great, and very unexpected because everybody was off doing their own thing. We had had light contact; we would email each other once in a while and talk infrequently. When my son was born, everybody send me baby gifts, and it was very nice. Everybody was definitely up for trying to patch up wounds. It was really good. It was a very nice feeling.
Did you know it was going to happen, or was it sprung on you?
Janet: Oh, I’m going to get Roxy [Petrucci, Vixen drummer] back for this one, but she helped them trick me. She said; “My husband has a business meeting in your area; do you want to meet for lunch?” I was like; “Sure”, so I get off at this place and there’s no Roxy, or course, and that’s when I got hijacked. So I still have to get her back for that one!
Things were leading up to a full blown Vixen reunion in 2013, and then guitarist Jan Kuehnemund passed away.
Janet: It was very, very devastating. The good thing was that we did all patch everything up; we were united, we were ready to go, and in the end, she ended up bringing us all together again, and I think she was very happy about that. It was a very sad time, and I don’t even know what else to say; it was horrible. It was hard to pick back up and continue moving forward, but we knew that we had to, and we figured she would want us to.
You have continued, and there has been talk of a new Vixen album; is it going to happen?
Janet: Well, we recently had a member change, with a new guitarist Britt Lightning. We’ve did a few shows with her, and we have a lot of shows coming up in August; one of which we are going to do a live capture. We’re talking about what else we could add to that as bonus material, and we’ve a lot of ideas in the works; maybe an acoustic thing.
Back to the present day, and are you excited to finally get the new album out?
Janet: Yes, you have no idea how excited we are. I can’t wait to get out there and play these songs live. I haven’t played any new music live in years. We’ve had one show - our debut show - which went great. The crowd hadn’t heard one song that we played that night, and it went over great, and that’s a really good sign.
Justin: It was really cool watching the people as the songs progressed, trying to sing along to them and do their best to do that. It was just such a rewarding feeling to us.
You must be looking forward to taking the album out on the road now that it’s being released?
Justin: Absolutely. Yeah, we’ve got quite a few shows set up for September. We’re working on a West coast run right now with our agent here in the States, and then we’re talking about heading over to the UK and doing shows out there, so it’s really exciting.
Janet: We already have an East coast run, and after that we’re definitely going to have our agent try to work on some stuff in the UK and Europe. I’ve still got Vixen as well, so it’s a bit of a juggling act, but we’re making it work.
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Janet Gardner’s self-titled album is released on 18th August, via Pavement Music.