Janna Pelle: The Shameless Advertiser & Musician Brings Us “Key Change”

Janna Pelle sings and plays keyboard at her Album Release concert at Pianos, for her latest record,  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 Pelle performs at Pianos for her album launch celebration, 11/10/2014 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. Janna Pelle at Pianos (l-r): Jamie Pitrelli (Bass), Leo Freire (drums) and Janna Pelle.

“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.”

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“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!

Tinderbox Arts’ Showcase at CMJ: Reviewing Artists who have been on Music Historian

Alyson Greenfield performs solo during her set at Pete's Candy Store, 10/23/2014 as part of CMJ Last Thursday, I went to The Tinderbox Arts’ CMJ showcase at Pete’s Candy Store. This show was made possible with the help of The Catalyst Publicity Group, and hosted by Alyson Greenfield. The performance included a line-up of five bands – most of which have been interviewed by the Music Historian – that performed between 9pm and 12am the next day. This showcase was a great replacement for the Tinderbox Music Festival Alyson had hosted in the past.

Before I get into reviewing the show from last week, I want to share a little history about the Tinderbox Music Festival. In 2010, Alyson learned there was a large community of female musicians who desired to be part of a new women’s music event, specifically reflecting the current landscape of emerging talent (tinderboxmusicfestival.com/story). The festival continued annually for four years. In 2012, CocoRosie headlined the festival. Then in 2013, Deerhoof, the art-pop band headlined the fourth and last Tinderbox Music Festival.

During the four years of this large festival, Alyson established Tinderbox Arts, a company that focuses on booking shows for artists, public relations and consultation, and the former official producer of this large event. This year, she has decided that all of her company’s efforts would focus onto showcases that bring together both male and female artists who are on the firm’s roster – Todd Carter a.k.a. The Looking, Janna Pelle, Alyson, Fiona Silver, and Sylvana Joyce + The Moment.

Todd Carter a.k.a The Looking opened the set with songs from his 2013 release Songs for a Traveler. These songs included “Blue-River,” and “Old Man River.” Then, he sang a cover of the avant-garde songwriter from the 1970’s Hugo Largo’s “Second Skin.” As the guitarist plays the opening chords on his tin-like sounding Strat guitar, Todd takes time to feel the driving harmonic rhythm. Very silently calculates the volume at which he should project his voice during the sudden skin-crawling crescendo within the chorus. Todd was very precise in his vocal execution, as was his entire three-piece band on their instruments – electric guitar, drums and piano.

The Looking’s most notable skills include their ability to make music sound just right – not too loud nor soft – in any performance space. Further, if you like art music that is void of automated technology and involves instruments of classic rock, please check out this band the next time you want to head out on the town. The Looking as part of Tinderbox Arts showcase at Pete's Candy Store, 10/23/2014

Janna Pelle followed The Looking as the second act. Her ensemble included a drummer, whose set had snares, an electric bassist and a piano played by Janna. The most memorable number in her set is from her 2012 album, Shameless Self-Promotion, titled “Accessory.” This track feels like Tori Amos and Fiona Apple if they were upbeat and fearless about admitting their need for sex. The lyrics in the chorus are You are my favorite accessory/ you look so good on me/ there ain’t no other piece of jewelry/ that does what you do to me.

In terms of melody, the song does not finish on the tonic, but with a half-cadence; giving the feeling this light-hearted physical affair our songstress is having will not finish anytime soon. Our heroine might take a break, but she will not put her needs on the back burner anytime soon. Or so I hope.

In addition to songs about sex, “City Life” is one song that talks about the confusion of The Big Apple. In the chorus, Janna sings Where, where, where do I go?/ So many directions/ I don’t know where to go. The song opens with a driving cymbal and snare in the rhythm section as the bass plays a syncopated and jazzy line. On the keyboard, Janna holds out the chords for whole notes across her measures.

Janna Pelle's set at Pete's Candy Store, as part of Tinderbox Arts showcase for CMJ, 10/23/2014 During Jana’s performance, Sylvana Joyce sat down next to me to say “hello.” As Janna takes the listener further within her song, Sylvana starts to harmonize with the remainder of the chorus, I guess I’ll have to figure this out on my own. This lyric, without any pun intended, serves as a mantra for several artists.

Between performances, I also had time to mingle with other active musicians. I was introduced to a young composer who works full-time writing children’s music professionally for an app development firm. This composer has toured all over Australia with his old band, completed his Masters in Composition at NYU debt-free, and opened his own studio in Brooklyn. I would not be shocked if he had to figure out his way in the business independently too.

I then talked with Alyson about the company she manages while she continues paving her career path. Watching her performance at the line-up, Alyson exhibits how she consistently paves her way in music. I first interviewed Alyson in 2012. She was premiering the music video for her cover of LL Cool Jay’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.” At that time, she had already recorded “Understand the Sky,” which was on her album Tuscaloosa – a record that compiled acoustic guitar. In this album, her songs addressed the toils of women taking on the music business and living with the societal stereotypes often placed on them. In addition, synth-themed songs acted as meditations regarding the experiences we don’t immediately acknowledge, like human nature.

In her most recent performances from 2014, Alyson has kept her synth-work, put the acoustic guitar aside temporarily, and made room for hip-hop. Her collaboration with beatboxer Shane Maux in the song “Uncharted Places,” and other tracks – including one where the two rap about the industrial development in Brooklyn – serves as valid proof of this bold stylistic move.

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Turning to Fiona Silver’s set, I must say her music sounded a lot better at Pete’s Candy Store than it did at the Knitting Factory. I accredit this a lot to the great sound system and the engineering, a small space, and finally, the performance skills of the songstress and her band. Fiona brought with her an electric guitarist who played a Les Paul – a perfect accompaniment to the moments Fiona pulled out her strat and ukulele. Additional players involved a drummer and bassist.

The beauty of photographing Fiona and her band up close is that I could get a better shot of her, the Elvis mic she brought and better capture her incredible stage presence. Fiona’s style of blues-singing has always been described as smoky. That night, I heard a few new tracks that brought out more fiery vocals and melodies than the firm and gentle “Sweet Escape” and “Sand Castle.” Songs like “Coming to Get You,” does not exhibit the light strumming of a uke, but a guitar melody with a metal slide. Her last song for the set, “Long Gone” resembled something more of rockabilly and surf rock.

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These irresistible tracks got the audience to request one more song. In honor of the night that would quickly draw to a close though, the songstress left the spotlight open for the next scheduled act.

Sylvana Joyce + The Moment were the second to the last act. They opened with their latest single, “Rosie” – a song which marries classical and heavy metal music together, and repeats several beautiful minor cadences. Further, their sound is that of rock, cabaret, and classical with an Eastern European flair. Think Klezmer and Romanian folk.

The music by this band spiced up the response of the crowd. Sylvana and her crew drew in young fans who, in that cramped performance space, busted out dance moves appropriate for a punk rock concert. When I listened to the band’s next song “Chin, Chin,” the rhythm in the chorus made me want to get up and dance the sarba (pronounced Suh-R-Baa). This dance is similar to the hora but with a lot more staccato-like step and bouncing.

Sylvana Joyce + The Moment rock CMJ show, 10/23/2014 Sylvana Joyce + The Moment’s music combines both American and Romanian style. Depending on where you come from, your ear will pick up one element more quickly than the other. In order to fully understand this music, one must not think about why these different elements would work well together in the first place, but instead physically feel how these components work together to make one union. With songs which are 5 minutes long, at least, there will be plenty of time to absorb the experience of this band.

Shayna Leigh closed the night with an unplugged performance. She played with an acoustic guitarist. By the time she got up, it was already 12:30 AM, on October 24th. Although I couldn’t review her performance the way I reviewed the previous bands, I can tell she is a talented songwriter. Her original song “Crash” felt composed like a pop song. I could clearly hear a verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and then, a section that might have been built on a deceptive cadence (think the dominant chord, or the 5, going to the supermediant, the 6).

When a show runs that late, I will say; it is not only audience members who become tired. The artists – especially those with day jobs – also become a little too overwhelmed. Some of the audience members told Shayna, while she was taking a breather between songs that her water bottle looked like a vodka bottle. She responds, “I wish it was, I really do. But I’m not that type of person.”

It was during Shayna’s set I noticed more verbal interaction between the audience and the artist. After a long and busy day, this can be quite refreshing. Sometimes listening to music live is not all about the music; it is about the absence of structure and the presence of personable experiences within performers while they put on a show.

My experience at the Tinderbox Arts CMJ showcase this year felt like a reunion filled with music, catching up, interaction and listening. Even in a large and robust places like New York City, there are moments when we can break down barriers and get close to the artists.

Music Historian’s thoughtful interviews with independent artists show just how the musical landscape is evolving. Looking to the future, I hope to work and help the public get closer to these talented musicians through my blog. I just have to take things one step at a time. Happy Birthday, MH!

Works Cited

Greenfield, A. (2014). Story. Tinderbox Music Festival. (About). Retrieved from http://tinderboxmusicfestival.com/story/