Photo credit: Greg Lehming
Sculpting sound and visuals seem to come easy to Toronto-based, B.C. Native, Janel Rae Filipiak, who at the tender age of 23 already has 3 CDs and a plethora of music videos under her belt. Her vocals remind me of a person much older and weatherworn. I could hear glimpses of blues great Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell in her work. Her lyrics are impactful, whimsical, and lighthearted or full of dread and sadness. Her videos are self-produced and image-laden often featuring her abilities as an actor and dancer. She is quite the Renaissance woman.
I was inspired to interview her because I have never come across such a person who has the talent and drive to write her own ticket to wherever she would like to take her talent. She has a future as a singer-songwriter, producer, actor, dancer or any combination thereof. Recently she won an award as best female director at the Prague music video awards for her song “Clove”. She has just released her third album entitled, “I know I wear dead people’s clothes”. I spoke with Janel regarding her work, what she has accomplished and where she plans to go in the next years of her life and this is what she had to say.
You are originally from Kelowna, B.C., aren’t you?
How long have you been in Toronto?
I have been here since 2017. I moved here right after I graduated high school and then I jumped right into the Randolph School for the Performing Arts program.
What did you study there?
I was studying acting, singing, and dancing. It was busy, exciting, and terrifying at the same time. It was a 3-year program squeezed into 2 years, so it went through the summers. It was nice to get in it, was super hands-on and I was done luckily before the pandemic hit.
What did you take away from your experience at school?
They really know how to prepare you to audition, which is helpful. The highlight was the specific teachers I got to work with, some of who had done a lot of film acting. Film acting is so difficult. It is scary, and it requires such control of expression, specifically facial expression. So often when I act in my own videos or my partner’s films, I hear my teachers’ voices in my head reminding me to relax and be an honest storyteller. It is important to have teachers that are working in the industry and who work from an authentic place.
Have you had any parts in films?
I have a lot of moviemaker friends who are a part of my team. I have had a small part in a short film and a lead in one of my partner’s films. Other than that musical theatre stuff. I love being in front of the camera.
I had a listen to your music that I first received from Eric (Alper) and your most recent CD and I have noticed that there are a lot of influences in there and many styles. Could you share your influences?
I was extremely fortunate to have been exposed to so much different music growing up. So, my influences surpass music influences. One of my bigger influences is Joni Mitchell on my second album. I was introduced to her at night, at 21, I guess. I was ready at that time. At the right age where I could take in everything that she was saying and that kind of forced me to become a better lyricist and just really think about what I am saying and to help encourage others to look inward to think after the song is done. And then there’s Etta James and Billie Holliday. There’s Kendrick Lamar, Supertramp. There is a whole array of people that I love listening to. Whether or not they shine through in my CDs, they inform me as an amazing composer or lyricist in the world that I admire. And outside of music I love poetry, I love Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and just watching a lot of movies has been informative because I am a visual person and I love Tarkovsky, his films are very gritty and textured and that really helped me when it comes to producing or designing my music videos. I love all artists and I find them so informative.
I noticed the blues in your music, very Bessie Smith.
I love Bessie Smith. It is one of those things that feels like home, like it has existed forever and will exist forever.
I love jazz music so much; I think that one day I will strictly do a jazz series.
How does your music come to you? Do you wake in the nighttime with ideas?
Sometimes the ideas trickle in when I am going to bed, but most of the time I sit at the piano, lots on my mind. I may be anxious, I look around, I start improvising lyrics, sometimes I am expressing frustration. When this happens, I have something inside that I am not aware of yet and effectively it becomes a little bit of therapy for me. Not all songs are like that, sometimes I just want to play.
I noticed that some of your songs are little vignettes. I was reminded of Marc Bolan’s early work before T. Rex when he wrote short little folk tunes, some under a minute.
How much practice do you do every day?
Not as much as I would like to. I would love to do more but my hyperactivity gets in the way. With creation, I am more impulsive. With more practice, of course, I would excel more quickly. But it is in the works, I am working on it.
Sometimes life gets in the way and we must earn money to live. I teach music for a living and I really love it. I get to teach voice, piano and acting, and music video making. I have about 12 students a lot of them are from Kelowna ages 5 to sixty-one, each of them a wonderful creator. I also have a group of First Nations students, 35 amazing kids who I teach virtually as well. I have so much fun with them. They are so technically proficient that it works out so well.
How did you get into music? Did you come from a musical family?
Music snuck into me in the womb. My dad plays a little electric guitar, and I am teaching my mom voice lessons, so I am the originator of music in my family. My grandma did teach me piano, so she was a profound influence on me. My family is artsy. We always had music on at home. Arts were a part of my family. I found a friend in the piano; I realized I could sing my own songs and then I got addicted and I could not stop, and I am trying to make it work. I started singing lessons when I was 5 and my parents were so supportive from the get-go.
Your musical style encompasses blues, jazz, and alternative?
I would say so, also folk too.
Have you performed online and are you moving to more in person performances?
Early on I would write a song and throw it on Facebook and that was my language of how I would share my stuff and luckily people would respond to my stuff positively, so I did not get turned off, so it grew into my music videos with storytelling and directing through the pandemic and I did 2 shows and CD release parties. I did my first live concert. I had not played my songs live for anyone, so recently I had 30 people come over to my house and everyone got set up that night and it was beautiful, magical, and moving. I want to perform in those circumstances, in an intimate fashion with movement and I am most drawn to this kind of performance.
What other instruments do you play besides piano?
I play a little bit of guitar, ukulele, and harmonica and I got a bass for my birthday. I try to make instruments out of everything in my house. I would really like to get a drum kit and harp one day. Those are dreams of mine.
I noticed that your recordings are very deep and multilayered. How did you record them and what software did you use?
My first album was recorded using GarageBand and with the help of my friends. My second album was recorded (piano and voice) at Kensington Sound Studios in Toronto and then I took the recordings home and used Logic for the rest of production and mastering was done outside. For the last time, I used Logic and GarageBand and did all the work at home. The mastering was done outside
How do work your arrangements out, do you write music or play by ear?
I mostly play by ear. I know advanced musical theory, but I prefer to do it by ear by using a lot of voice memos and I will write down chords to get a sense of the music. I find it best to improv over my voice memos. I adjust the rest of the composition as I move forward. Sometimes the improv is the song.
Does the piano come before the vocals or the opposite?
The piano usually comes first which influences the sentiment and the lyrics follow.
Where do you see your music being performed? What is the best venue?
I can see myself at a jazz club, but I just have not tried it out to be honest. I am performing at a friend’s book launch at a comedy club next week so we will see how that goes. I must take my music out there to see how it fares. My friends say I should go to Europe because Europeans like the kind of music I make. Everything is up in the air.
I see your music veering into cabaret. Do you like the movie Cabaret?
It is one of my favourite roles, Miss Sally Bowles.
Have you toured or played live in the past?
I sang covers growing up. I sang with the symphony. I did a couple of concert venues, bars no. I have not really had the time to develop that part of my career. I graduated high school, came to Toronto and then the pandemic hit.
I keep forgetting you are not 30 years old because you are so much older in your music and the way you handle yourself.
I am 23. I am just a baby, just a kid!
What are your ultimate goals with your career?
I want to make a difference and that means being seen; it means being honest. So, I am trying to find the balance between being artistic and commercial. So, playing the game without sacrificing integrity is what I would be shooting for.
I love to perform, make people laugh, sing, paint, make gifts all from an authentic place. I would like to be able to reach people from a larger stage.
Janel is a force to be reconned with and she is only just getting started!