Janna Pelle, a young advertising grad from the University of Florida in Gainesville, builds her portfolio by helping promote a musician she knows very well – herself. Why? When a first-time professional steps into the competitive world of advertising, marketing and communications, she must stand out. Doing so sometimes requires some shamelessness.
“I had a band in college,” Janna beings. “We were called Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps. We performed covers and originals around campus and venues around the city, we were the house band of the University of Florida family events, and we performed at all of the parents’ weekends.
“My band – who were also my best friends in college – and I had just finished an album. As I was graduating, I knew I wouldn’t be in Gainesville anymore, but I did not know yet that I was coming to New York City to do music. Shameless Self-Promotion was the first album I had made without the band, and I started working on it knowing that I was going to be on my own soon. My drummer was going to law school, my bass player was going to be a teacher for Teach for America, and my guitarist would become an Apple Techie.
“When I worked on Shameless Self-Promotion, I had an opportunity to do something different. I also started working on that album knowing I would pursue music. I hate saying the word “pursue music” because I’m [already] doing it, why say the word pursue? So, I finished the whole album in a relatively short time. I had a bassist and a drummer do their part, and I produced the entire album. I knew I needed to have a product ready by the time I would decide to move where I wanted.”
I asked Janna, “And you were studying advertising?”
“Yes, exactly,” she answers. “As a result of this advertising endeavor, I felt so certain I could take a year or more without working in an agency, and do music. I am still building my advertising portfolio in the process – my album, logo, merchandise, and posters I have made for my shows are all a part of that now. At this point, I feel a certain confidence in wanting to do music as my full career. Shameless Self-Promotion was the product I needed to have before I moved to New York.”
Before physically skimming the back cover of her cd-case that proved her record was recorded in Gainesville; I stop for a second to see a nude shot of Janna on the front cover. She has her knees folded and placed up below her neck and on her feet, she wears lightning white go-go boots with her logo on them. This photograph has tasteful nudity which does not even touch risqué. Plus, I certainly could not have thought of cooler visual to match the phrase “shameless self-promotion.”
I then listen to tracks on this album like “Machine” and “Accessory,” and feel excited about Janna’s music. As I research her discography and find her 2014 release, The Show Must Go On, I learn that she courageously shares with listeners the tough experience of her father, who battled cancer. When I sat down with Janna to talk to her about her upcoming album Key Change, I discovered a lover of music history seeking to include a niche audience, in addition to her target listeners – conservatory students. Janna has come to the right blogger. I feel delighted to welcome her as my feature interview subject for November on Music Historian.
Prior to starting Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps at UF, Janna’s musical journey started at the tender age of 6, when she enrolled in piano lessons with a teacher, Rachel Currea.
“My parents enrolled me in piano lessons when I was 6. I was enrolled because I have hyperextension of the inter-phalangeal ligaments. My parents did not know how that would affect me later in life, so they wanted me to exercise my hands.
“They met Rachel, who is still one of my best friends – she’s amazing. My parents told her, ‘Whether she learns little songs only we will hear, or becomes musical; we want her to have fun and exercise her hands.’ So that’s when I learned to enjoy playing.”
Janna did become musical, and eventually enrolled in a piano magnet high school, where she performed in state-wide classical recital programs. Throughout Janna’s high school education, Rachel acted as her trainer. When the young pianists had to decide on what to major in, Janna decided to continue with music without focusing on it as a degree.
“I realized I did not want to major in music, but I still wanted room for it in my schedule. Gainesville is a great music town, so I was able to form a band. I was greatly influenced by classical, rock and a little bit of jazz. Although I was no longer taking classical lessons… having a band… that experience was just as formative as my classical lessons.”
Hebrew music also slips its way into Janna’s repertoire. I wondered whether she liked Klezmer music – music I happened to play with a college ensemble at Syracuse University – and she claims her chord changes resemble that sound, but the instrumentation is very different. Listeners will not hear a wailing C-tuned clarinet in Janna’s music. However, the chord changes she talks about resonated a little with me, especially in her song, “Machine.” Further, she quotes a measure of a popular animated cartoon series television show from the 80’s. Can you guess what it is? Visit her website, www.jannapelle.com, listen to “Machine” and let me know in the comments section.
Another song that excited me is the one she performed at the CMJ showcase I reviewed last month and the one that gets listeners most excited – “Accessory.” Through the lyrics, Janna turns a romantic male partner into an object, calling him “her favorite accessory,” and how no other piece of jewelry can do what he can do to her. I asked her about the metaphor between sex and fashion. Janna explains:
“You hear the expression ‘trophy wife,’ but you can definitely have a ‘trophy husband,’ or even a ‘trophy relationship.’ You can carry around any kind or relationship as an accessory really.
“The song is all about liking the presence of a person in your life and what they represent. There is nothing wrong with wanting someone as an accessory. You are proud of them and you want to show them off like an expensive bracelet. So, it is not always a negative form of objectification. You feel proud and it’s sweet when you want to show somebody off like that.”
While materialism seems to largely lingering in the background of Janna’s lyrics, the artist does not consider herself a highly materialistic person at all. She defines herself as a sentimental person. Her 2014 EP, The Show Must Go On – a dedication to her father, Tony Pelle, demonstrates this more intimate and emotional side.
Janna felt a need to write songs when her father was diagnosed with MDS, a type of cancer which is also known as “pre-Leukemia.” According to Janna, it goes without saying that songwriting served as a form of therapy for her. However, she felt humbled and happy to learn that it helped her family and listeners battling the same sickness.
“My aunt would tell me, ‘Every morning when I wake up, I listen to “Kick It In,” and look at the slide show you made about my brother [Janna’s father]. That’s how I start my morning.” That was what she did until the day he died. She always used that as therapy.
“There is a song on there for my Mom called “In Your Free Time.” [My Mom] is so devoted to other people. I know that helped her and my Dad a lot. My Dad got to hear all of the album before things got bad. Looking back, I sometimes I think I was so naïve writing these songs, but I wasn’t, I was hopeful. That’s all you can be in these situations.”
The MDS Newsletter featured Janna in one of their issues and distributed information about The Show Must Go On to all of their patients and support groups. People also started donating money to the album, which Janna in return gives to MDS research.
“That was also therapy for me, to know I was actually making a difference, raising money and awareness. I also received emails from patients and their family members who said, ‘I found your album, and it helped me express what I’m feeling now.’ That it really stuck with them. I knew the album would be therapeutic for me, but I didn’t know it would be therapy for so many other people.”
“That is good business right there. People showed and demonstrated how your product helped them,” I remarked.
“I think I would like to go into Non-Profits. Honestly. I will never feel as fulfilled as when I did knowing that I was helping people get through a seriously tough time,” she replied.
Fast-forward a few days to the show Janna put on for the release of her next full-length, Key Change. This performance took place on Monday night, November 10th, at Pianos in the Lower East Side. Here, she performed with her drummer, Leo Freire and bassist Jamie Pitrelli. She also welcomed poets, dancers, Sylvana Joyce and Sean Cunningham to sing and play violin with her in the song “Crazy,” guitarist and singer-songwriter, Jade Zabric, and even welcomed The Super Market Fairy (aka Sally Graves) to come and pass out small samples of organic food to the audience. The most sentimental portion of her show included a verbal message to the audience before she sang, “One Day at a Time.”
“If there is anybody in your life you maybe take for granted,” she said as she played the chords of her song on the keyboard, “think about them when you hear this song. Remember that you don’t live your day to the fullest until you tell them you love them.”
It was certainly one of the most memorable shows I have seen on the Lower East Side. The amount of additional talent involved reminded me that there is room for everybody in music. While she might be promoting herself, Janna, like Alyson Greenfield, understands that artists live in a community where they have opportunities to support each other.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my article, in which I talk to Janna about the inspiration behind Key Change. In the meantime, I leave you with this:
I’m never one to directly ask a reader to listen to an artist’s music, but if you want to try and recognize the theme song of a popular animated cartoon series from the 80’s quoted in “Machine” of a listen to it here. If you can recognize the theme song, please write it in the comments below. Thank you!