CARPOOLS AND JAZZ CHORDS Liz Janes

Following a lengthy
hiatus in which she concentrated on raising a family, the celebrated
singer-songwriter returns with a complex, compelling new album.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“I wrote these songs a capella, driving the kids around and
taking care of the kids,” says Liz Janes when asked what was different about
her third full-length Say Goodbye. The
young mother of two – her sons are seven and four now – had taken some time off
for family responsibilities after 2004’s Poison
and Snakes
and her collaboration with LA free jazz collective Create! in
2005. She was missing her music, but having a hard time fitting it into her
life. “I didn’t even have time to sit down with an instrument,” she admits. “So
I made up the songs with just voice, just the lyrics and melodies coming
together by singing around the house.”

 

Janes’ past albums, both Poison
and Snakes
and the Sufjan Stevens-curated debut Done Gone Fire from 2002, had been written on guitar, using a
limited number of folk-centric chords. “I’m not really a guitarist,” explains
Janes. “I just love songwriting. So with the dozen or so chords that I know, I
feel like should be plenty to write a really, really beautiful song. I sort of
enjoy working within that limitation.”

 

Yet for Say Goodbye no such restrictions applied. Janes found herself singing melodies that sounded
more like classic soul than folk, in the car, in short snatches, as her kids
talked to each other or stared out the window. She began to realize how complex
her tunes were when she finally pulled out her guitar. “When I did sit down to
figure out how to accompany myself and the melodies I had written, I was
stumped. I couldn’t figure it out,” she remembers. “These were really like
these soul or R&B melodies that I just had no idea how to play folk guitar
to. I have these little folk and country ideas that I play on my guitar. But
they weren’t working.”

 

“I called my friend Chris Schlarb who is an awesome jazz
guitarist in Long Beach,
and a long-time friend,” says Janes, adding that she and Schlarb had worked
together previously on the Liz Janes and Create! album. “I had recorded some
raw a capella tracks on my computer. I sent them over to him and he understood
what I was trying to do. Only even beyond that. He came up with these chord
progressions that took everything to a new level of complexity and beauty. It
was so exciting.”

 

 “Liz would send me
bits of melody and lyrics recorded at home and I would sit down and try to work
out chord progressions and arrangements for them,” says Schlarb. “It was
difficult for me at first but I think it really helped me to become a better
songwriter as well.”

 

For example, he added, “A song like ‘Tincture 1′ was just
this beautiful lilting melody and somehow the chord voicings, which are pretty
intricate, fell into place. That short song is constructed more like a jazz
tune with a chord being played for every few notes of the melody. It just felt
good.”

 

“Chris did all the prettiest songs on the record, not just
‘Tincture’ but ‘I Don’t Believe’ and ‘Bitty Thing,'” she says. “He arranged the
songs with these really complex chords that take gigantic hands to even pull
off. When I accompany myself, I totally play a primitive version of what he did.
But his flavor and his input just had a lot to do with the vibe of the record.”

 

Janes had the songs for Say
Goodbye
percolating for several years before she decided to make the record.
“I felt like Chris and I had struck gold in terms of the songwriting
collaboration, but then I still wasn’t sure how I wanted the record to sound
production-wise,” she says of the delay, which lasted several years. “And I was
so busy anyway. I was overwhelmed. I just put it on the back burner and dealt
with what I had to deal with.”

 

Janes had met the musician and producer Rafter in the early ‘00s,
when she lived in San Diego,
when she was first beginning to play her songs in public.  He saw her first at a show, he says, and was
captivated by “the combination of roughness and beauty.” He added, “Her songs
were kind of loose, but really gorgeous. Same thing with her voice. It was some
noise-soul music, and that was new and exciting to me.”

 

The two stayed in touch, intermittently, and when Janes was
ready to record Say Goodbye, she
brought it to Rafter. “Rafter was the perfect person to have help me with it,”
she says, ticking off the reasons it had to be him. “He’s an old friend. We
have history and mutual respect for each other. He’s a multi-instrumentalist. He’s
a producer and an engineer, so he’s like a one-man show that could just do it
all.”   

 

Rafter heard Janes’ rough mixes and was struck by how her
songwriting had progressed. “Her work had become much more intensely personal
and deep,” he says. “It’s less playful, heavier. She’s been through some intense
personal changes that have brought some really beautiful and human gravity to
her work.”

 

“The songs were just heartbreaking, beautiful, tragic,
hopeful but exhausted,” he adds. “We didn’t need to do much to make them what
they are. It was all really organic and natural.” Rafter subtle underlined the
R&B elements of the songs with arrangements that favored traditional jazz
and soul elements like Rhodes, drum and bass. Her
vocals, too, are subtly phrased and jazzy and seemed to hark back to an early
1970s quiet storm feel.

 

“It’s wonderful to hear Liz in such fine voice,” says
Schlarb of the final product. “Her lyrics and performance on ‘I Don’t Believe’
are particularly stunning. Rafter does a great job of making sure she is
in the center of each song on the record.” He adds, “Also, I love the purity
and space of ‘Tincture 1.’ It reminds me of finding those first few chords
together and feeling inspired to move forward.”

 

Janes also got some help from a couple of friends from the
West Coast, singer Bridget DeKirk and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Dickson. Dickson
had been living in Lexington, Kentucky,
when he passed through Indianapolis
when Janes and her husband (Michael Kaufmann of Asthmatic Kitty records) live. “I
just happened to be working on a song that was due to a compilation when he was
spending the night,” says Janes. “So the next morning, I said, ‘Hey, while
you’re here, would you mind playing something, laying down a track or two for
this compilation in my basement?’ And he had this beautiful 100-year-old bell
set that was just really beautiful and old and had an amazing sound.”

 

The compilation tune went so well that Janes asked Dickson
and DeKirk to add elements to Say Goodbye,
working remotely from their Portland,
Oregon recording space. As a result,
you can hear Dickson’s bells all over the new album, twinkling in the
interstices of “Bitty Thing,” luminous as church chimes in the spiritual “Time
and Space.” “The bells are kind of like a driving flavor of the record. It was
magic,” Janes says.

 

These days, Janes still spends her time ferrying her young
children around Indianapolis,
but with the older one in first grade and the younger in nursery school for a
few hours a week, she has a bit more time for her music. She’s practicing hard,
her best defense against the crippling stage fright that prevented her from
performing early on.  

 

“I can’t remember the last time I actually blanked out, in
terms of just standing there and I can’t remember why I’m there, or how to play
my songs,” she says. “I can pretty much manage to get up there and play through
my songs, but only because I practice so much. It’s my safety net. I work
pretty hard against the stage fright by over-preparing. I still make mistakes. In
a way, I think that’s what people enjoy. It’s not perfect.”

 

Not perfect? Maybe so. But you could hardly find a record as
casually, warmly lovely as Say Goodbye.
Janes, characteristically, disarmingly, attributes its beauty to her friends.

 

“This whole process has been so good and so humbling. Both,”
she says. “It’s humbling to recognize my limitations. And yet, in spite of my
limitations, I’ve got this community of friends that think I have something to
say and want to help me develop my work and put it out there. It’s been really
wonderful.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Polina Osherov]

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