Guest Spots: Pop singer Liz Janes on her noisy, experimental past

Though her music might not immediately suggest it, adventuresome pop singer Liz Janes has a particular fondness for noise and drone music.

Janes entrenched herself in the vibrant Olympia music scene before joining Sufjan Stevens and Asthmatic Kitty for albums like Done Gone Fire (2002) and Poison & Snakes (2004). Those albums put a unique spin on classic Americana and blues, but her upcoming album, Say Goodbye (Asthmatic Kitty, 12/7/10), is a pop/soul record built on Janes’ inescapably experimental roots.

Here, in a personal recount of her musical history, her songwriting theory rings especially true: “You can choose any two points to be A and B, and there is always a way to connect the two.”

Liz Janes: “I Don’t Believe” (Say Goodbye, Asthmatic Kitty, 12/7/10)

Liz Janes: “I Don’t Believe” (Say Goodbye, Asthmatic Kitty, 12/7/10)

Drones Are Forever
by Liz Janes

I was a hippy living in a trailer in the coniferous rain forest of Olympia, Washington. Eventually, my endless meandering through the woods brought me into the little downtown. It was there that I stumbled upon the gentle and brilliant rock-poet solo performances of Mirah, Phil Elvrum, and Karl Blau; the kinder-pop of Jenny Jenkins and Super Duo; the pop punk of The Need; the hot, spastic, urgent noise of The Nervous System; and the shrieking, sexy soul of Old Time Relijun.

This sparked for me a new interest in culture. This K Records / Olympia scene was really vibrant and producing truly original and interesting art. So as I was drawn further into culture, and out of the woods, it just got better and better.

At a show one night, I asked a friend, “When is your friend’s band going to start?” His reply was, “They’ve already started.” I looked at the stage puzzled to see two male figures hunched over random junk piles of equipment in different areas of the stage. The sound in the room was a subtle and minimal variance of static, bleeps, tweets, and feedback.

Now, I may have been a hippy from the woods, but I’d heard contemporary electronic music, with all of its bleeps, skids, and abstract effects. Whatever these guys were doing was really OUT. Outer than out, and I wanted IN.

Discovering the free expression of noise was an epiphany. This was a genre where a non-musician could participate as well as a trained musician, and the dialogue was as varied as any you could imagine.

This band was called Therefore (consisting of Michael Kaufmann and Wayne Feldman), and they soon after went on to play a 22-hour show. I spent hours sitting at that show before class, after class, before work, after work, and when I should have been sleeping, until it was over.

A guitar hung suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the room. Multiple organs had keys taped down with electrical tape, [there was] a giant duct-taped drum kit with a vintage marching-band bass drum, basses and guitars [were] plugged into amps, [and] radios [were] dialed into white noise. The entire gallery was punk-aesthetic perfection, and the combinations of sounds, experimentations, drones, and rock-outs were endless and ever changing.

It took LOTS of patience to sit and listen for so long — but the rewards were actually life-changing. I found as I exited the gallery each time that my sense of hearing was extremely heightened. The sounds of the world, the bus, the town, the people, [and] the muddy bay were all suddenly MUSIC! Not random sounds, not the side effects of normal daily human activity, but MUSIC — with purpose, meaning, and a message.

Well, I befriended these guys and just had to figure out where they were coming from. They were smart, and they were on a mission with their artwork — very serious and very high-art minded. However, they were not snobby, and they accepted me into their world. They gave me an out-of-tune guitar and said, “Play” — and a whole basement full of cool folks playing loud, unplanned, and unpredictable noise ensued. I was in heaven. Every time that a different combo of friends rocked out in the basement, it was given a band name. We had a riot of fun referring to these one-off experimental sessions as all the bands we were in. This was good times.

Somehow I met Arrington de Dionyso and Samuel Pixley, who were forming an experimental noise cooperative called Toro Sec Toro. They invited me to join, and Arrington lent me his bass clarinet. Have you ever played a bass clarinet? It’s as tall as a person, all black and chrome, and is a reed instrument — which meant that all I had to do was move my fingers around on the keys and blow. Could anything possibly be more fun? I don’t think so.

The college radio station KAOS had local noise artists like Jim McAdams spinning experimental music of all genres, like Sun Ra, Sonic Youth, John Cage, Jandek, and Brian Eno, making easy access to the world of “out” and experimental. With summer came The Olympia Experimental Music Festival, where I realized there was a whole world of freaks like us and elatedly watched performances by Aerick Duckhugger, Dead Air Fresheners, Noggin, and Wood Paneling, and even performed with Wayne Feldman (of Therefore) as our duo called Cat The Distributor in which we wore matching baseball uniforms and took turns playing a guitar and a drum kit until we were bleeding and on fire. Yes, good times indeed.

My whole life I’d loved and related to music intensely. But I had always been surrounded by little damn prodigies and critics. I was sure that since I hadn’t given myself to training at a young age, I would never have a musical voice, never have anything to add to the great and ever-growing vocabulary of sound and music.

Discovering the free expression of noise was an epiphany. This was a genre where a non-musician could participate as well as a trained musician, and the dialogue was as varied as any you could imagine. This new musical vocabulary included everything from the exchange of sparse and melodic single whispered notes, to noise as earsplitting and raucous as any person could handle, to the grumbling and endless eternal drone. What all of this music had in common was its spontaneity and real spirit of exploration and discovery. It was as though we were not setting out to rhyme and meter the music to suit us — but we were opening ourselves up for the music itself to order us.

I felt that each instrument had an inherent beauty, and that I could do no wrong with any of them. The instruments didn’t need me to make music, but the music was already within these objects. Similar to the concept in the New Testament Scriptures when Jesus says that “the stones will cry out” in praise of God, even if we don’t (Luke 19:40). It became apparent to me that music was so much bigger than me. [The fact] that these instruments, these objects of beauty and sound, would bring forth creation because of or in spite of me — and did I want to participate? Yes!

It was at that time that I began privately composing songs on the guitar, and my process has always been informed by my “noise” education. I learned the importance of silence, how to listen, and how to “call and respond.” I developed my own theory of relativity in music — the way you can choose any two points to be A and B, and there is always a way to connect the two. So really, anything is possible, and there are no rules.

These days I write ordered songs with lyrics, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and everything! But the musicians I work with always smile and shake their heads at how disordered my ideas are. They are always puzzled at the way I connect the dots, but in the end, they work out the math amongst themselves, and the music is just the way I want it to be. I think, really, that they appreciate the unconventionality and the challenge of making sense of my music, and I think that they stick with me because of the emotional impact of the songwriting. It works…somehow.

This “stones will cry out” philosophy runs deep in me. If these instruments made of wood and metal hold such intense, inherent beauty, then how much more are we as people gifted with the same qualities? I feel that it is my job to respect myself and others as amazing objects of creation. It is my job to trust that beautiful things are bound to come forth if only I open up and sing.

I try not to analyze this, as I am very prone to the paralysis of self-consciousness and fear of being judged. The important thing is to just keep doing, keep making, move forward, produce! If artists stop to ask why they create, then it is the end of creation. Please leave those questions to philosophers and just make art. If you’re not sure what to do or say, then just make noise! I promise you, it will all work itself out from there.

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