In the late ’80s, Janet Gardner earned her place in music history as the frontwoman for Vixen, easily the most successful all-female Hard Rock band of the era. Fast-forward to 2017, and Gardner is making waves once again with her recently released – and absolutely stellar – self-titled debut solo album.
The result of a collaboration with guitarist/songwriter/producer Justin James, Janet Gardner finds the singer taking on a considerably heavier style of music than many fans might expect. Songs like “Rat Hole” and “Hippycrite” hit listeners like a nastier version of Halestorm, while Gardner’s trademark voice is often delivered on this outing with surprising grit.
“A lot of stuff was not right for Vixen,” says Gardner of the album’s overall vibe. “[Justin and I] talked about maybe putting together a band. We were like, ‘Well, we’ve both been in so many bands and we’re both in bands at the moment, so why do another band? Let’s make this sort of a duo thing. I had never done a solo album, so Justin was like, ‘Let’s make it that.’”
Gardner says that the album’s Metal-infused nature was more the result of a happy accident than a stated creative goal.
“A lot of it totally organically came to be that way. In doing that, it also inspired more attitude in the lyrics, too. They’re not all victim-y love songs. There are some of those, because who can’t relate to a love song? Everybody gets hurt by it and all that stuff, but there’s a lot more lyrical content in there, too. I think musically, it sort of calls for that. It was fun to be able to put a little attitude in there. And then there’s the opposite extreme with ‘Best Friend;’ that’s as soft as soft can be.’ (laugh)
With a handful of live dates with this new material already under their belts, Gardner and James will be hitting the stage in Texas next month and the west coast in January with bassist Anthony G. and drummer Richie Rivera in tow.
Of course, Gardner is working to promote a new album in an industry that is vastly different than the one that fostered Vixen’s rise 30 years ago. With radio and MTV no longer in the picture, Gardner has had to think of new ways to get her music out to the masses.
“It’s been unique trying to sort of navigate through it. We had this record done, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Major labels won’t touch us; we knew that. They don’t really go for artists except new artists – and mostly Pop, Country and Urban music. Rock is really not in the mainstream right now. We just started looking at smaller labels that have Rock and are still willing to put it out there and work it, because the radio outlets are few and far between. It’s tough.”
The first step in this new process was to put up a teaser video on YouTube – and keep her fingers crossed that something good would happen as a result.
“We thought, ‘Well, if this is really embarrassing and we only have 1,000 views after a week, we can take it down!’ (laughs) But it did the opposite; people got excited about it, and it started to build quickly. That got the attention of some labels, so we decided to sign with Pavement, and they did fantastic. They know what to do in this climate; we have no idea. They know what new Rock outlets they can hit up to get some promotion and airplay and just try to get this thing to build a little bit.”
In addition to taking her solo material on the road, Gardner remains committed to fronting the current incarnation of Vixen, which features fellow classic-era members Share Ross (bass) and Roxy Petrucci (drums) alongside new guitarist Britt Lightning and keyboardist Tyson Leslie. While the band has experienced a host of breakups and reformations of the years (and not always on the greatest of terms), Gardner still feels at home participating the band that earned her international fame.
“It’s kind of a sisterhood. We have disagreements, and people go their own way for a while. Then, we’ll start talking again and get back together. There’s a lot of respect and love there, and I think that’s why we keep being able to work through a lot of disagreements about what to do and how to do it – things that are natural for bands to go through. I think it’s mainly the respect thing that keeps us glued together.”
Sadly, Vixen exists in the present tense without founding guitarist Jan Kuehnemund, who passed away in 2013. In 2006, Kuehnemund (who had led various versions of the band since at least the mid-’70s) released the criminally underrated Vixen album Live And Learn with a new lineup. Although she was not involved in the group at that time, Gardner has a high opinion of the music produced in her absence.
“It was nice to hear Jan working with some people and having a little different creative outlet. It didn’t sound a lot like Vixen, but it was really good. I was happy for her that she was happy working with some people she really liked working with. They’re all very nice people. I’ve gotten to know Jenna [Sanz-Agero], the singer, a little bit, specifically since Jan passed away. She’s just a really, really great person and a really talented girl. I was glad they got their opportunity to get out there and do their thing.”
These days, Vixen’s activities are structured around the members’ personal and outside professional obligations.
“We do a lot of ‘fly dates’ because we don’t want to play crappy clubs on Monday nights. It’s just not worth it; we all have things to go home to. We sort of pick and choose shows as they come up, and we’ll continue to do that. We’re working on a live release with a couple of bonus tracks. We’re going to Nashville to record a new tune with [producer] Michael Wagener that’s going to be a bonus track on the live release, and we’re going to do an acoustic version of a Vixen song. We don’t know which song yet.”
Looking back at Vixen’s commercial peak back in the day, Gardner remains particularly fond of the band’s time touring (alongside White Lion) as an opening act for Ozzy Osbourne in 1989.
“Ozzy was great! He was such a cool guy; he has a great sense of humor. I was laughing constantly talking to him in conversations. He is so funny and so clever. He was pretty sober back then. He was in a good patch; he was working out. We would see him at the venue in the afternoon, working out, lifting weights and exercising. It was a really good time for Ozzy; his performances were all fantastic. He was spot on every night. We would talk sometimes; he’d be like, ‘Janet, how do you control your voice and stamina every night?’ He was really, really fun. And [Ozzy guitarist] Zakk Wylde was a kid; he was just a baby then – little clean, baby-faced Zakk. He was amazing every night. They were great; that was a good tour.”
Unlike many of her original contemporaries, Janet Gardner remains active and creative in a profession not commonly known for ensuring longevity. For her, the key to maintaining artistic integrity – as well as her sanity – in an ever-challenging business is knowing when to give it her all and when to step aside. When not on stage or in the studio, she works part time as a dental hygienist in New England. This duel identity has allowed her the rare and much-needed opportunity to gain strength and perspective when the music world gets tough.
“I’ve had periods of inactivity where I was focusing on other things in life. I think having those other things solid in life is really important because the music business is not super-friendly. It can be really harsh and very much a rollercoaster ride. If you don’t have your personal life somewhat together – and you don’t have a good, solid family, friends and people who love you and are there for you no matter what – it can be brutal. People say, ‘Why do these people end up in rehab? They seem to have it all. Why do these people kill themselves when they have all of this?’ It’s hard to explain, but sometimes it’s a very lonely feeling. You’re out there playing for a bunch of people, you go back to your room and all you pretty much have is you when you’re out there. It’s a very strange feeling. But I just always made sure to reach out to family and keep people I love close. I hang out with my dogs; simple things are really important and help you get through it. But for me, I went back to college; I got a real job that keeps me very grounded, too. It’s something that I like doing, and I have a lot of friends there; that’s like another family. They’re very supportive of me in my music, too. They say, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to take the week [off] to go do your music. Working here will be here when you get back. The roof won’t fall in when you’re not here.’ I’m very fortunate to have that, because that gives me a lot of peace of mind that I’m not at the mercy of such a fickle business.”
|Photo courtesy of Palmer Turner Overdrive|
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