INTERVIEW BY PETER DARRELL
great weather for MEDIA is thrilled to present a very special musical event on Sunday May 31st, 6:30 to 8:00 pm, at New York City's Parkside Lounge featuring Venus de Mars, Janna Pelle, and Debridement author Corrrina Bain.
As an introduction to the event, Peter Darrell catches up with Janna Pelle. A classically-trained pianist turned DIY Pop performer, Janna combines elements of rock, soul, and dance into her theatrical live performances.
PD: Hello Janna! Nice to be chatting with you at last, and so excited that you will be performing on the bill at Venus De Mars' record release show at the Parkside Lounge on Sunday May 31st.
So okay, I have to mention this fabulous quote: "Janna Pelle is the love child of Lady Gaga and Fiona Apple with the alter ego of David Byrne." I also know you are a fan of Against Me! (who Venus recently toured with and whose lead singer, Laura Jane Grace, appears on her new album Flesh and Wire.) That's an eclectic and exciting list. What draws you to these performers? And I would love to know what other artists inspired you to take up this career.
JP: This is a great question, and I think it's tricky because most people equate, "who are you influenced by" to "what do you sound like" and most people would tell me I sound nothing like David Byrne or Against Me!, but music is about so much more than what genre it falls into. The quality that draws me to these performers is their freedom on stage (and off.) I love their music because it is truly original, which also takes a lot of freedom to write. I'm also really influenced by Dale Bozzio, the lead singer of Missing Persons (they have a song called "Noticeable One" and the lyric "I am one of the noticeable ones, notice me!" which has become my anthem over the last year) and classic piano men like Billy Joel and Elton John. I've also been called a female Freddie Mercury. That was cool when that happened.
PD: It has been my pleasure to see you perform a few times around the city, most recently at Piano’s in February, for the launch of your single and video City Life. I am struck by the multi-media presentation of dance, visual style, and film that you incorporate into your shows. Do you see yourself first and foremost as singer/songwriter, or as a performance artist?
JP: I really hate the term “singer/songwriter” because it’s become a genre, and I sound nothing like that genre. So when I introduce myself to people, I do lean towards the word "performer" or "alternative-pop artist" because it has a closer connotation to what my music looks and sounds like. But, the music is still the most important part, and the performance art is there to enhance the message of the music, not distract from it. I put effort into making sure that whatever visual elements I incorporate into my shows or music videos also relate to the song, first and foremost.
PD: I am also taken by the feeling of community you create in your audience. It reminds me of Amanda Palmer. How do you approach forming this connection?
JP: I hope this doesn’t sound contrived, but I'm not really sure how to answer this question—I'm just being true to myself and inviting people to come along for the ride. There are some artists who want to attain this certain level of untouchableness—like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna— that they’re the "Queen" of sorts. But I feel like I maintain a certain level of approachability, and it's important to me to never take myself too seriously on stage. Of course I want the audience to respect me as a musician and performer, but I always want to show my sarcastic playful side, too. And maybe my advertising background helps a little.
PD: How long have you been performing, and is your performance style still evolving? What are your earliest musical memories?
JP: I have been playing piano since I was six years old, and I guess "performing"... we had recitals! One of my earliest musical memories was hearing a song on the radio in the car, then arriving home and immediately figuring it out on the piano. That's when I learned I had a good ear. I also remember "The Distraction Game"—a game my piano teacher made us play. We would be having a group lesson and the object of the game was for all the other students to distract the kid who was playing the piano. Slamming doors, coughing, putting the cat inside the piano, etc. It taught me to never let the audience know I made any mistakes. And boy, do I still use that one today.
But in terms of writing and singing and performing my own music, I really started in college, with my band Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps. We played all around Gainesville, and were the house band for many University of Florida events. My performance style has changed a lot since then, and will continue to evolve forever. I’d get bored otherwise!
PD: There is a lot of talk, especially from older residents, about how New York has changed and is now less exciting. How is your generation reacting to this? There certainly appears to be a lot of impressive up and coming musicians, writers, and artists around. Where are your favorite venues to perform and which of your contemporaries should we be looking out for?
JP: I don’t think it’s less exciting—I think it's more expensive, so that makes it inherently different— but there is a lot of impressive stuff being created, and if you don't believe that, you're just not looking in the right places. It may be harder to find nowadays because there are so many more channels than there used to be, and thus, so much more crap, but I am so grateful to be living in New York. The amount of talented musicians, producers, actors, fashion designers, poets, and visual artists that I call friends is unparalleled to anywhere else I could live. But it’s not only the talent that's impressive, it's our drive to not just be a big fish in a small pond…one day, we'll be big fish in the big pond that is New York City. That’s what my song, "City Life" is all about.
My favorite venue to perform at in NYC is Pianos (because it’s good for branding, and they have great sound, AND the sound guys and bartenders actually treat the musicians with respect!) But I also really love The Bitter End—there’s something about that place, it's history, and the caliber of musicians who still play there. Some people say it's lost its allure, but I disagree. On a normal Monday night you can jam with Billy Joel's sax player and a bunch of other renowned session musicians—and for me, the younger generation, it's intimidating at first, but ultimately so rewarding and important to be accepted by the generation who came before.
That said, my musical contemporaries to look out for are Sylvana Joyce and the Moment (gypsy drama-rock) and Ellis Ashbrook (progressive-funk). Trina Merry, the body paint artist who worked with me for my "City Life" video, just moved to NYC from San Francisco, and she's doing a lot of live painting in the City in the near future as well as a new body paint project on zodiac signs. And stay on the lookout for anything coming out of The Flea Theater. I go every week to Serials, their weekly episodic plays. Seriously, I feel like I'm watching the future SNL cast in-the-making whenever I go! What can I say, I have eclectic taste?
PD: Aside from the Parkside on May 31st , what’s next for Janna Pelle and can we expect any new releases in the near future?
JP: I'm working on a new album called Key Change—my first concept album, where every track is performed with a different keyboard instrument from harpsichord to synthesizer. It's like an audio history of the evolution of the piano! And it was inspired by David Byrne's book, How Music Works, which is all about how music evolved due to the spaces it is performed in. I just launched my PledgeMusic campaign, so pre-order the album!
Sunday May 31st 2015 6:30 to 8:00 pm Parkside Lounge NYC
FREE! (2 drink min) 21+