A self-proclaimed outsider, Janie Barnett has always done her own thing. In the tumultuous and ever “conform to the norm” driven music industry, Barnett has never wavered in her fierce individualism. She shows us that the real beauty and magic in music lies in the ability to connect with one another.
Barnett has spent much of her professional career in the freelance world. An incredibly versatile artist, she has offered her voice to countless film, tv and commercial projects, as well as singing backup for iconic stars like Linda Ronstadt, Celine Dion, and Rickie Lee Jones. However, it is in her personal music that lies the true Janie Barnett. Staying true to herself, the Americana artist has put years and careful thought into finding her own authentic sound; one that truly reflects who she is.
In her newest album, You See This River, Barnett has reached the culmination of years of searching for, and ultimately finding herself. This album is the purest, self-reflective work she has released. I had the opportunity to talk to her about the album, her style, and what inspires her to continue to make beautifully relatable music.
I absolutely love your sound. What has influenced your musical style?
Well, thank you. You know, it’s a combination. I think when I was making the record what I realized as I came to this sound was that the early sounds I was exposed to in terms of bluegrass, folk, and western swing use all of these kinds of instruments that I’ve brought in to my own music now, and really influence the layers of sounds that I wanted to convey. And then coming up I was, let’s face it like a lot of women coming up in my time, influenced by Joni Mitchell and her layers of guitar sounds and poetry. I was also influenced by Laura Nyro, and all of the storytellers of my time coming up.
What was your inspiration behind making You See This River?
I’ve been a working musician my entire life, but I was raising my daughter, trying to create a good strong family life, and that means your energy gets a little dissipated, as I would say, or concentrated in this other way. So as she got older I had my eye on the fact that there was another record I was going to make and if only I could feel like I had come to the more truly authentic sound — not to use the cliche — that I never really felt I had quite found as an artist. I always talked a really good game about following your own voice and being true to yourself, but I just felt like I hadn’t found the sounds that were reflective of that.
I had been hired to be such a chameleon I was questioning who is the essential me coming out of my body. So I took these years, as my daughter was getting older, to start recording, start planning, start looking at songs and as I assembled my team of my musicians who were all my close friends, we together came to a few core sounds. The title track was really the first song that came. That’s when I felt like I found it; this is the story I’m telling. As the tracks sort of evolved we began to realize we have a record here, we have something that is a body of work that is all talking about the same kinds of stories and the sounds are cohesive. Sometimes when you work over many decades the sounds aren’t so cohesive, so when we got to that close number (about nine) it was like “I’m gonna get there, we’re gonna start formulating this vision.”
This is a deeply personal album, and I really believe that shows in every song. Was that easy for you to get so personal, or did you struggle with it?
I never struggle with that because as a storyteller you have to embrace the bare truth one way or another and be brave. There’s really no choice about it. It’s just a matter of how specific you are going to get. I remember hearing an interview with James Taylor and he had a wonderful song that he really wrote about his brother Alex who had passed away. You wouldn’t particularly know that about the song he was talking about because he morphed it into another character, but it was still a deeply personal song. What I tell people is, when you’re a songwriter everyone is always asking, “Who’s this song about?” But all of the songs are sort of composites in a way, except the ones that are truly first person. You See This River is a story that I’m telling about myself, but mostly you embrace the essential truth of the story you want to tell, then you look for how that story and song is going to voice the truth.
How do you remain authentic and true to yourself in the music industry?
I basically stay outside. I stay outside the mainstream. I always have. My freelance life has been the ultimate mainstream, basically working in advertising. All the commercials that I have worked on and even commercial film, TV soundtracks — it’s all very mainstream, but it’s not about you it’s about the skills that you execute for someone else. In terms of my musical expression and my art, I’ve just never felt like I could be comfortable in my own skin on the inside track, so from the very beginning I was an outsider. My attempts to be an insider felt so lame. The music that I was doing at that moment never felt right. We used to do showcases for record labels. There was a showcase for Chrysalis, which is long gone, and there was a showcase for Sony. It was like, “This is great! I’m not sure what’s up with it, I’m not sure why it’s not right.” I would go home and be a little relieved that I wasn’t going to be on a major label at that moment and then I thought, “I know why it’s not quite right because this is not quite me.” That was a tremendous relief. I never felt like I could conform and I came up in a time where there was a lot of pressure to conform to the MTV world and all that stuff. This particular record, which is independent of course, has also been sent to independent radio stations, hundreds of stations, who are all playing the record just because they get to do exactly what they want. So, everything that’s happened so far has been on an entirely independent basis and that world is thriving. The goal is not to sell a platinum record, the goal is just to put out a piece of work you believe in and reach people who care about it and can connect. That’s the goal, the numbers are secondary.
Yeah, it’s a great time for independent music. I’m new to the music journalism world but I’ve already interviewed so many artists determined to just do their own thing.
Yeah, there are so many great musicians out there, just like there are so many writers publishing their own books. There’s so much great talent out there and all you can hope is that you are game to connect with people whether that’s 10 people or 10 million, you just want to connect, and that’s what you’ll be happy with. All the women I know, of every age, are just feeling like they just can’t do it unless they do it honestly. If some goofball tells them they need to put on some fishnets it’s like, “Have you listened to my music?” They’ll laugh, we laugh. That’s pretty funny.
You have a lot of incredible artists featured on You See This River. What was it like working with them?
Everyone who contributed to this album is amazing. The players are just consummate musicians, every one. Some of them I’ve known for decades and some of them are new to me. Carmella Ramsey, who is a fantastic fiddle player — she’s like the real deal fiddle player — and again, this is what we’re talking about, she’s not a slick, pop-country fiddle player, she’s from West Virginia and she just plays it rough and beautiful. She was living in Brooklyn for a couple years, that’s how I met her and I just got lucky to have become friends with her in my little Brooklyn circle, Of course, she’s married to Kenny Vaughn so I met him that way. In fact, that session I was on my way to Nashville to record them and I was on the plane that had a connection in Fort Lauderdale where there was an active shooter episode, so I never got off the tarmac. They had to do the session without me in the room. We had to do the session on FaceTime. That’s the modern world these days. The thing I could say about the players is that I didn’t have a ton of money for this record but I always pay people something and give that mutual respect. It’s that thing that no matter how big a player gets, they want to connect with other musicians and if they can do it, they will do it. Some of the players I’ve known for years just played in their bedrooms for hours and hours to get it right. The drummer Sammy Merendino who has worked with Cyndi Lauper and toured with her, he’s a big drummer in town, but we’ve been friends for 30 years so there was never a sense of, “Oh I’ve got this big guy on my recording.” They are all just colleagues.
Is there a particular message you hope people will take away from You See This River?
One of the messages is that life is messy. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve come to understand as I grow and change. The answers that we come to, whether it’s social constructs or relationships of all sorts or parenting, is that you’re never going to come to a final conclusion as to how you should be in the world and how you should relate to certain people, or how you should answer these questions. There’s always going to be deliberation, there’s always going to be a little messiness. Some relationships you have incredible bonds that don’t fit into a category. That’s really something I’ve noticed throughout my entire life, that the love we find between human beings is not always easily categorized, including parenthood and partnership in parenting. If you can accept that and that you’re not going to be in control of everything, that you don’t reach this moment where you can control everything and you know every answer, you become wiser in that and you can calm the hell down and sort of embrace the days of ambiguity and just be open-hearted about it then you start to have a really full life. I think that deliberation is throughout the songs.
That’s a really beautiful message.
In regards to your music, what are you most excited for?
I’m going to start doing more shows. For many years, I didn’t do any shows. Also, the shows are becoming bigger shows. They’re at bigger venues with more exposure. In December we’re going to play City Winery in New York which is a big step up for me. I’ve played the venue in support of other people, but this will be a step up in terms of what I’m doing. Then I’m going to warm up for Paula Cole later in December. I have this concept with my City Winery show where I’m inviting new guests and exposing my fans to other artists who I think are wonderful, and I’m hoping that will continue and that 2018 will be filled with a little more traveling and reaching out to new audiences. Also bringing along some other Americana artists I think are like-minded and collaborating more. I think the collaboration at this stage of my career is so meaningful and I think, honestly, in our culture so many of us feel alienated in other areas of our lives. To collaborate as much as we can in common areas is really important. So, I’m hoping the next year is going to bring a lot more of that and that I can make that happen for a lot of us.