At a small rock club two years ago, San Diego's effervescent noisemaking pop band, Bunky, had just finished their set. I bumped into pig-tailed vocalist-drummer Emily Joyce at the bar, and professed my love of her voice-a cartoonish yet womanly wail that sounds fit for the age of flappers or F. Scott Fitzgerald novels.
"Thank you," she replied. "You oughtta hear Liz Janes-she just moved into town. She's wonderful."
I made a mental note of the name, and ordered a beer.
Two weeks later, my producer on Fox Rox said she had met her new neighbors, both of whom were musicians. She couldn't recall their names offhand, but promised to get an album for me to hear.
"It's not really my thing," said my producer, who had an unhealthy obsession with John Mayer at the time. "But I think you'll like it."
At the next Fox Rox taping, my producer pulled out the CD-stark, yellow cover art with the silhouette of a majestic, fully racked buck standing before an irregular, pink heart. It was Liz Janes' Done Gone Fire.
A lovely, minimalist blues-folk album that wouldn't be out of place next to Cat Power and Mirah, Liz Janes' existence vexed me. As a local music critic, I was supposed to know when artists of this caliber moved into town.
"We just played little shows for our friends at places like the Honey Bee Hive and Gelato Vero. We never even advertised them," explains the 29-year-old Janes from her flat in Golden Hill where she lives with her husband Michael Kaufmann (a member of local band Soul-Junk) and their 8-month-old son, Moses.
This is typical for the shy Janes, a Washington, D.C. native who has been "coast hopping ever since" graduating from Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash. with a degree in art. When Janes initially moved to Olympia, she was a "frustrated singer" who loved music and had taken piano lessons for five years as a child, but "never practiced and never caught onto the soul of it."
In terms of creativity, Olympia is its own fertile nation-city. The town is so creative that Janes' first band wasn't your typical pseudo-cover band; it was a three-piece, horn-based experimental noise-jazz combo. No matter that Janes had no experience playing wind instruments. She just picked up the bass clarinet and busked on 4th Avenue in downtown Olympia, a call-and-response of brassy impulse.
"All you have to do is blow and move your fingers," Janes recalls. "And I just blew as hard as I could-I really wanted to make sound."
Throughout her stay in Olympia, she "just joined in the fun" with a variety of ad hoc bands with friends, a group she remembers as "pretty radical artists and musicians." With every combination, they proudly renamed themselves. So technically, Janes has played in dozens and dozens of bands.
But the first "real band" she played in was Torosectoro alongside Arrington de Dionyso, who would go on to form the ancient-folk indie band, Old Time Relijun.
On her own, Janes recorded a few of her own songs to a four-track demo tape, which she only shared with her love interest, Kaufmann.
"They were secret tapes," Janes says. "I was excited to have a little something together to show certain people when the time was right, but I really did not think that I had it in me to come out with it. I was way too scared."
Janes' secret was revealed however, when Kaufmann befriended a New York artist and musician named Sufjan Stevens. After hearing the tapes and meeting with Janes and Kaufmann in a Brooklyn bar for a few rounds of sake, Stevens invited the reluctant vocalist to his home studio to record.
At the time, Janes was "transitioning from one life to another," she explains. Her and Kauffman had been dating long-distance for years, but he had moved to San Diego to join Glen Galloway in Soul-Junk. Janes decided to move towards him to see what would become. First, however, she'd quickly stop by Stevens' studio before traveling through Mexico City for a stint.
She and Stevens laid down tracks for a day and a half, "and by the time I got back [to San Diego after Mexico City], there was pretty much a record all produced by Sufjan," she explains.
Done Gone Fire was released by Asthmatic Kitty Records, the New York indie label with both Stevens and San Diego band The Castanets on its roster. The select few who heard the album (mostly musicians and critics), were impressed.
Fast-forward to 2004. Sufjan Stevens releases Seven Swans, and critics swoon. Publications like Mojo, SPIN, Billboard and even Entertainment Weekly gush. Suddenly, journalists from all over want to know about the world surrounding Stevens-including Asthmatic Kitty and Liz Janes.
Though worthy on her own, Stevens' success will no doubt garner extra attention for Janes' upcoming second album, Poison & Snakes (set for an October release). Produced locally by Rafter Roberts (Bunky), the album features other local luminaries, including drummer Tom Zinser (Pinback), trumpeter Jason Crane (Rocket from the Crypt) and backing vocals by Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins.
For her part, Janes says she's committed to Poison, although in a very different manner now that she's married, with child. The last time she undertook a full tour was during her second trimester.
"It's one thing to ride around in a sweaty van with a belly," says Janes, who just quit her job as a church secretary to attend to young Moses full-time. "It's another thing to ride around in a sweaty van and sleep on floors with an infant son."
For Moses' part, the toddler's already been indoctrinated into the musical family, given an executive producer credit on Poison & Snakes. Even before he was born, Kaufman went to the library and checked out some tapes of Eastern music-throat singing and gamelan music, along with some classical scores-and played them against Janes' inhabited belly.
Moses even got his first guitar solo on Janes' other band, Cat the Distributor. "He just kind of bats at it like a kitty cat and tries to put his mouth on it," Janes says. "You just put the guitar direct into the recording device, and it sounds great. He's got a great sensibility."
Like son, like mother.
Liz Janes plays with Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom at The Casbah, 9:30 p.m. on July 23. $10. 619-232-HELL. www.asthmatickitty.com.