Janet Gardner exploded onto the music scene in the 1980s as the lead vocalist of the legendary female rock band Vixen. Her powerful vocals propelled the to the top of the Billboard charts with crossover hits “Edge of a Broken Heart.” “Cryin’,” “How Much Love,” and “Love is a Killer.” In an era primarily dominated by male rock musicians, Vixen’s all-female line up didn’t come without its struggles but the band held their own. At their height the band found themselves grinding out 200 shows per year, opening for industry heavyweights such as Deep Purple, Ozzy Osbourne, The Scorpions, Kiss, and Bon Jovi. Their undeniable musicianship, matched with Gardner’s unique and powerful vocal style, propelled the band quickly to Gold Album status and earned the band critical acclaim. Vixen’s undeniably hard-earned success, along with their predecessors, would help pave the way for the legions of female-fronted acts making waves in today’s music industry.
In 2017, Janet Gardner stands ready to write the next chapter in her already impressive career. Teaming up with guitarist/songwriter/producer Justin James (who has worked with members of Staind, Collective Soul, and Tyketto), Gardner has ventured into the solo realm to unleash a new side of her musical creativity. Together, Janet and Justin have penned a powerful collection of emotionally charged songs with gritty grooves, infectious hooks, and inspired lyrics that merge hard rock influences from the last four decades. The result is a perfect blend of modern hard rock with a touch of old school flare that will turn the heads of generations of rock fans.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Janet Gardner and Justin James to discuss their love of music, navigating a successful career in today’s music industry, their creative chemistry and the making of Janet’s unrelentingly kickass new solo record!
How did music come into your life and what led you to pursue it professionally?
Janet Gardner: I came from a musical family. My mom was a pianist and organist. She played the organ in church when I was growing up and my dad played the violin. My parents were avid music fans and there were all different types of music playing in our house. I started singing and playing piano when I was very young, probably when I was around 6 or 7 years old. Then I picked up the guitar when I was around 12 and haven’t put it down since!
Justin James: I started really young as well. I remember seeing pictures of myself at 3 years old and I had a little plastic toy KISS guitar. Every time MTV was on, I would imitate what I was seeing and pretend I was playing along to the music. I also had an older brother who was a guitar player. I looked up to him a lot. As time went on, I thought, “I want to do that!” I was 6 or 7 years old when I started noodling with the guitar. I couldn’t hold it and I had to lay it down like a piano and have it sit flat on my lap because I couldn’t reach my arm around it! [laughs] It started there and by seeing bands play and having a cool older brother that would take me to concerts when I was 9 years old, it got me thinking, “This is what I want to do! It looks like so much fun!” From there, there was nothing else I wanted to do! No other career appealed to me! It was always about getting up on stage and rocking out with a guitar!
You both spent your lives in the music industry. What does it take to navigate a successful career in the music industry?
Janet Gardner: Ya know, I have no idea! [laughs] If you know, maybe you could tell us! [laughs] We could always use a few pointers! Honestly, from a musician’s standpoint, you have to be honest and real. People know when you mean it and when you don’t. I think it’s as simple as that! If you are expressing your true emotions and soul people gravitate to it and if you’re not they don’t.
Justin James: Yeah, I think that is the key. You have to believe in what you’re doing and if you believe in it wholeheartedly, then other people will believe in it naturally.
Janet Gardner: Yeah, I think that is the key to longevity. Sure, there are a lot of quick, flash-in-the-pan pop stars that come and go but that is all manufactured and none of it is really real. It’s all just kind of plastic. That comes and goes but to really reach an audience that will stay with you, I think putting your heart and soul into your work is what you have to give them.
I’ve been asking a simple question lately to musicians that yields interesting answers. What does rock ‘n’ roll mean to you?
Justin James: For me, it’s fun in its truest form. It’s an escape from all the bullshit that we have to deal with in the real word every day. It’s exciting. It’s happiness. It gives you energy! Rock ‘n’ roll, and music in general, is a language. If you are feeling down you listen to some blues rock and if you are excited you listen to some heavy, fun rock! It’s a feeling all its own! I love it and it’s truly something I could never live without!
Janet Gardner: Yeah, it’s the same for me. I love it as a fan. I love other people’s music. A lot of people ask me, “When you listen to other people’s music, do you pick it apart? Do you critique it because it’s also what you do?” The answer is no! [laughs] I don’t! When I listen to music and it moves me, I’m happy! I don’t care what the drum sound is or what the guitars sound like. I don’t even care if the singer can sing! If it can make me feel something, count me in! That’s the beauty of music. Yeah, there are technical aspects to it but at its core is emotion. It’s all about expressing yourself and to me that’s the ultimate! You get to express yourself through rock ‘n’ roll and make a connection with people through music. It’s so cool to be able to share things with people, who are often total strangers, that you typically wouldn’t share if you were sitting directly across from them having a typical conversation. That’s really cool!
The two of you make beautiful music together; pardon the pun. How did you cross paths?
Justin James: A couple of years ago, Janet was playing out in Chicago, which is where I’m originally from. I went out to the show with a buddy and we ended up meeting backstage. Not to get mushy or anything but it was one of those moments where the moment I saw her, I was speechless! I didn’t know what to say, I felt my heart racing and I was staring at the floor like a total goofball! I don’t even remember what I said, if I was capable of saying anything at all. It was just a brief meeting between the two of us. About a year later, there was another festival out in Chicago and we ran into each other again. That was when we actually started talking, got to know each other and became a little more comfortable with each other. We kind of cyber-communicated for a few months and realized we had a really, really strong connection and bond together. Obviously, we are now married, so there was an attraction there! To make a long story short, once we were married, we moved in together. We had always talked about making music together, just being musicians, but also had that fear that one person would write something that the other person wouldn’t like or not feel. We didn’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. One day, right after New Year’s, I was messing around on the guitar and playing different things that came to me. Something caught Janet’s attention and we sat down together. She tweaked it and added her ideas to it. The next thing we know, in less than a week, we had written our first song together. We had so much fun doing it! At that point, we still had no plans and we didn’t know what we were going to do but it quickly developed into one of those situations where we looked forward to working together! Each week, we were spitting out another song and before we knew it, we had more than enough songs for a full album! That’s how it all came about! It was just one of those things that was a fun bonding experience for us and I think it worked out pretty good!
Janet Gardner: Yeah, it did! The great thing about it was that we didn’t plan it, so there was absolutely no pressure of any kind! It was all about having fun through writing some songs and making music together. I had ideas and he had ideas, so we threw them together to see what we came up with! With every song, we became more and more confident with our own ideas and each other’s ideas. It was a beautiful thing and I love it!
I will tip my hand and tell you I enjoy the album. It’s a great mix of what we know from Janet’s past work but it’s as fresh and exciting as anything on rock radio these days.
Justin James: Very cool, thank you!
Janet Gardner: Thank you! I’m really glad that’s how it came out. We are both ‘70s and ‘80s people and that’s where it all started with us. We’ve never really lost that but it’s really fun to experiment and we love a lot of new, modern rock too, so why not incorporate some of that into the mix! I’m glad that you like it!
Justin James: Yeah! What was fun about this was it was just the two of us recording it in our home studio, so we didn’t have the pressures of record executives or anyone else rushing us, pushing us or forcing us to go in a certain direction. With technology being what it is these days, you have access to an enormous amount of effects, tricks and stuff like that, so it was fun to have the freedom to experiment with different things. There were moments where we said, “Wow! I never thought that would have worked but it’s really cool!” Of course, it went both ways and sometimes some of the things we tried didn’t work but it was a fun process. For me, I was playing in a lot of other people’s bands in the past and it had been years since I had worked on anything of my own and the same was true for Janet. We had the fire in us and it was so refreshing to work on something new! I think that was a big part of why we were able to turn this around so quickly. Janet is amazingly creative and most of her ideas enhance whatever it is we are working on. To make that happen, you have to have a mutual trust in each other. For example, I would come up with an idea and instead of it being solidly stuck in my head, she would come in and say, “Try it this way … ” or “Rhythmically, play it this way … ” That was great because I knew whatever she suggested was going to work!
Janet Gardner: Yeah! And vice versa. If someone has a strong vision for something, we trust each other and go with it. It’s all about the give and take! You can’t do an effective collaboration if you don’t respect the other person’s vision. With that said, we really didn’t have many moments of, “God, this just isn’t working.” There were a couple but we just moved along to other songs, so there were very few times that we were stuck. We just kept the flow going. Sure, we could tweak and tweak and tweak forever but you reach a point where you have to say, “This song is very well represented as it is. Let’s leave it. Let’s move on.” That’s a hard thing to do but somehow we managed to stop tweaking, put it away and now you’re hearing it!
Janet, you’re known as one of the best frontwomen in rock. How do you view your evolution as an artist?
Janet Gardner: Obviously, I have been doing this for a long time and, in life, a lot of things happen to you that can change your perspective, not only on life but where music fits into that. Trying to achieve a good balance in life is a huge challenge for anyone but when you are in something as crazy as the music business, it’s even more challenging. Musically speaking, everything I listen to and I like goes into my soul and ends up coming out in a song somewhere, as well as everything I experience. I think the evolution is more of a maturity. You do hone your skills as a songwriter along the way. You get quicker at saying, “OK, this isn’t working. Let’s change it. Let’s make this pay off better.” I think the biggest evolution comes down to maturity in the songwriting department.
Your fans will be very happy with the new material you created. With that said, how does this solo record impact Vixen?
Janet Gardner: Like I said, we didn’t plan this. We did this when Vixen had a little break in the action. We do most of our stuff during the festival season, so I had a couple of months and we just did this. In Vixen, we had a guitar player change and we have a new guitar player, so that also allowed a little bit of time for me to reach out into other creative areas. It’s not going to have any effect on Vixen.
It won’t be long before you hit the road for tour dates in support of the album. What excites you the most about that prospect?
Justin James: These songs pack so much energy and so much punch to them. I’m so proud of what we did together that I can’t wait to get up on stage, kick ass and have fun with it! I’m definitely excited for everyone to hear these songs, both on the record and in the live format where it’s powerful, loose and loud!
Janet Gardner: Yeah, we played one show in Chicago. We played all of these songs and no one had ever heard them. You know how hard that is when you go to a show and you don’t know the music! You want to hear familiar stuff but the reaction to these songs, no one ever having heard them before, was phenomenal! I couldn’t have been happier with how people tuned into the songs! By the last chorus, they were singing along! It was awesome! It’s going to be even more fun when people show up and they’ve actually heard the songs! I can’t wait!
That’s great to hear! You have been in the music industry for a long time. What’s the best way for fans of your music to support you as independent artists?
Janet Gardner: Yeah, things have changed a lot from the time when I first started making records with Vixen. There are a lot of good things about it and a lot of things that make it challenging. The Internet is great because anybody can get their music out there. The hard part is making sure that you stand out from everyone else! The best thing people can do for the artists they love is actually pay for music! You need to actually download the music that you like as opposed to just hearing it for free. We don’t do this for the money. I want to be very clear about that. We do it because we love it! Anybody who likes it and gets it however they get it, we are fine with but if you truly want to support an artist — buy their music! Go see them play live! Buy a T-shirt! Those are the best ways to show your support.
Both your collaboration and what came from it will inspire a lot of people. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as artists?
Janet Gardner: Like I said, be as honest and real as possible. Express yourself as effectively as you can and people will appreciate it! Get out there, play and enjoy the journey! Life is short!
Justin James: Absolutely! Life is short, so take chances! You’ll never get anywhere if you just sit at home in fear of what critics might say or people who might knock you. You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t get out there and try. You never know where the journey will take you, so don’t be afraid to get out there and take a chance!
I know our time is short. However, you should both be proud of what you created on this record. It’s a solid rock record and it’s exciting!
Justin James: Thank you so much, Jason! With us doing this and it being new, you never know what people are going to think. It’s definitely different than anything we have ever done before, so there is always that wonder of what people are going to think about it. It feels so good to hear you say you connected with it!
I definitely did! It’s a homerun, kids! Keep the good stuff coming! I can’t wait to hear what comes next!
Janet Gardner: That’s great! Thanks, Jason! We look forward to seeing you soon!
Justin James: Thanks again, Jason! Talk to you soon!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.