GREENWICH VILLAGE, MANHATTAN: Sometimes a record is just a recording, and sometimes it’s a resurrection. For the soulful soul-searcher Janita, her newest album Haunted shows how a singer and her muse can find a way to flourish again.
Recently released on Greenwich Village-based label Engine Company Records, Haunted sees one of Europe’s most expressive exports finally finding her true voice. A highly exposed pop star in Finland since adolescence, Janita moved to New York City in the late 1990’s at age 17 to Blow it Up Big. Although a contract with Sony soon followed, along with three albums (1998’s Janita, 2001’s I’ll Be Fine, and 2005’s Seasons of Life) and a pair of Top 40 hits in the ensuing years, artistic satisfaction was conspicuously absent.
If the sonic purity and emotional intensity of Haunted sounds like it’s coming from somewhere very real, it’s because it is. Hearts broke in the making, as Janita split with her longtime collaborator/life partner Tomi Sachary even as he served as co-producer on the album. Along the way, Janita connected with co-producer Jamie Siegel and ultimately crafted a collection of songs that leaves her adult contemporary reputation – foisted on her by years of chart-chasing advice – in the dust.
Over the sharply crafted guitars, keyboards and drums is Janita’s voice, now at the top of it’s soul-drenched game with added control, restraint and range, to tell it like it really is.
Freedom Through Music
“It’s been a heavy process, but a liberating thing,” Janita says about the painful act of splitting with Sachary while making Haunted. “It was beautiful for us to be able to conclude our career and relationship together, but it’s a story of independence for me. A lot of the record was me fighting the boxes that I had been put in musically and artistically: My other albums had been directed by other people and for me to make this album is a fight that I had to put up. I felt like it was most important for me to be honest and real, put something new out there, rather than lie about where I was in my life for the benefit of the person I was working with.”
Tracked primarily with her full band at Longview Farm Studios in idyllic North Brookfield, MA, Janita took every opportunity to move away from her R&B reputation and towards an edgier sound that reflected her newfound love of Radiohead, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey. One chancy tack was to record her vocals live with the band – a move that proved to have both benefits and setbacks.
“At the point where I realized I wanted to do everything with a live band in a room, that’s when it started coming back to that soul thing,” she explains. “It went from alternative rock, back to what was natural for me. At Longview Studios we recorded everything in the whole room with the band, and I actually sang at the same time as the band.
“The reason we ended up redoing the vocals was that everything came through my mic, so it didn’t work out. It does lend a consistent sound to the record, while two songs ended up being produced separately, ‘Haunted’ and ‘Out to Get You’. If they jump out, that’s a good thing.
“I was aware that recording the vocals live with the band might not work, but I felt it was important to go back to the way that people used to make records. We didn’t even use a click, which sometimes was interesting. It made it a different kind of recording session — had I not been singing, the energy would have been completely different. They were able to play off of me, and grow quieter or louder naturally.”
Mix. Master. More.
Siegel’s credits include Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston, and Joss Stone along with Taking Back Sunday and Smashing Pumpkins. His production of the starkly confessional driver “Haunted” and tensely artful “Out to Get You”, along with subsequent mixing of the album, helped Haunted to take another turn.
“Tomi was supposed to mix the album,” Janita says, “but I ended up getting frustrated. We were parting ways, and the whole process was painful at that moment. So I took the masters and ended up working with Jamie, as well as recording some vocals and guitars at JRock Studios in addition to what we already had. He was really quick with the whole mixing process, and I didn’t even have to be there, just give my comments.
“It might change in the future, but I felt like it was important for me to take a step back and let somebody else do their thing. I definitely gave my feedback on the mixes along the way, but you can get so very deaf in the mixing process. It’s better to have a pair of fresh ears on it. Someone who comes a little later can be objective about it.”
Says Siegel, “When I first spoke to Janita about producing her record we had decided that it was time to add some edge to her sound. I’d seen Janita perform in the past and much of her older material was very mellow. Her voice is intense and beyond soulful, so I knew I would be a great match for her project because I come from a rock background, but have also worked with tons of R&B/soul artists.
“On Janita’s new album, we layered heavy guitars with some really interesting ambient textures and a bit of drum programming to push her music in a slightly more aggressive direction. The sound I was going for on Haunted was a mix of polished/beautiful meets raw/aggressive – exactly how I would describe Janita’s style.”
In the mix phase, Siegel concerned himself with setting the tone for the artist’s new musical direction while still maintaining the integrity of her past works. “We’re talking jazz harmony and string ensembles meeting Marshall stacks and Memory Man delays in a dark alley,” he notes. “It was a delicate process but we had the best time working it out.
“I’m really happy with the way Haunted turned out. Janita had a lot to say lyrically and emotionally, and I’m glad I could help her get there. The album is beautiful and pulls from multiple genres seamlessly. Janita and I definitely have a mutual respect for one another’s talents and I think it’s fairly obvious to hear that in the final product.”
The album was first mastered and edited in Finland, but when Engine Company Records founder Blake Morgan took on the record he insisted on a resequencing of Haunted, along with a new mastering pass that he took on himself in his downtown facility.
“The new sequence/edit made the album a lot leaner and meaner,” Janita says. “I had mastered with someone else, but sometimes at those big mastering companies they do so many jobs all the time they’re not putting their heart and soul into the process. I felt it was a really transformative thing, mastering with Blake. It brought a lot of analog sound into the album which was missing. There was too much high and low end before — this mastering brought out the middle, which is really important.”
Although she’s still young, Janita knows what it feels like to have been through the mill. “My major label experience wasn’t a bright point,” she says of her time with Sony that began in 1998, when she was in her teens. “Every time I voiced my opinion I was looked at as a cocky artist. When someone is young, the vision of the artist is not encouraged at all.
“Now when working with Engine Company I’m really happy that I’m encouraged to find my vision, find myself, and express myself the way I want to. Everything is a discussion and open to my input. I don’t think I’ve had that experience in my life, even with the smaller labels I’ve worked with. So for the first time I’m happy to be in charge of my career.
“Blake Morgan is a stand-up guy, and I’ve never had a fairer deal with a record label. I’ve never actually known there could be such an ethical environment in the music industry as the one I’m in now. It feels like a collaboration, not a label.”
Right Place, Right Time
Helsinki may rock, but Brooklyn is the exact right latitude for Janita. “I think this year I’ve made New York my friend, finally,” she reflects. “There’s so much that the city has to offer, and it can really fill the well for you creatively if you know how to use it to your advantage. You can concentrate on the negative, or you can just go with the flow — and going with the flow means exploring all the different sides to it.
“I spend a lot of time in the park. We have nature (in NYC), it’s not only high buildings and cut-throat people. I’m just trying to live my live according to what feels right to me, and being in NYC is such a gift I hardly see the negatives at all anymore. As an artist, it’s not about record sales or having your face on the cover of every magazine, it’s fulfilling yourself artistically, and working with people you admire.”
No question that loving where you live is essential for bouncing back, but as Janita points out, there are other necessary steps to take. “I think the key to all of it is working on yourself,” she says. “Getting to know yourself is the most important thing — knowing what you want to do and who you are artistically. In order to do that, you have to realize nobody else’s opinion really matters.
“You have to do what’s right for you. You can’t really be a great artist until you’ve found what’s unique about you, and what your specific contribution to the world is. Once you’ve found that, and you get really good at what you do, every door is open.”
— David Weiss