Janey Street was truly a street kid, New York born and bred. Three major labels spotted her talent early on and signed her to successive deals. The first was Warner Bros. when she was still in high school, after which she was picked up by Capitol Records and then welcomed to the Arista Records roster by none other than the legend himself, Clive Davis. In short order, two singles, “Under the Clock” and “Say Hello To Ronnie,” even charted on Billboard as Janey Street settled into her new oceanside home in Southern California. “Under the Clock” was in heavy rotation on VH1.
Then, as happens in the oft-fickle industry, she was dropped from Arista, left twisting in the breeze. For the years that follow, it was a struggle, but Street kept songwriting behind the scenes, writing for various television and movie soundtrack music. She also painted houses and did whatever she could to survive.
2016 sees Janey Street roaring back to the scene with an album My Side of Paradise on Blue Élan Records. We spoke with Street about the new album and the old videos.
GAMV: You and Janis Ian were actually childhood friends. Can you tell me a little about that?
Janey: Sure, yes, well. We actually met in camp, like when we were about 11. I was about 11, 12-years-old. She was a little older than me, about six months older really. This camp was in upstate New York. It was a progressive kind of place where Richie Havens– it was really a cool place where Pete Seeger, Richie Havens—I know you must be familiar with some of those people — camps where they had people, kids from New York, New Jersey, integrated the white kids with the black kids together. It was just a very progressive-thinking place. Janice’s father was actually the director of the camp and we got turned on to it.
My brother was there and I ended up going there. I was a camper and I got thrown in a bunk with Janis. We end up in the same bunk and we started talking—you know, during those days, there were not any girls that play guitar and sang their own songs. Both of us were just thrilled to meet each other because we were the only two girls back then—it wasn’t like it is now, where everybody’s like Taylor Swift, you know what I’m saying?
Our camp was great because– me and her, I never– I already had a band since I was in the seventh grade. We had a band playing every weekend in Queens. My father taught me Muddy Waters songs and I was already happening. When I met Janice, she was already happening but she was more into the folk scene.
We end up in the same bunk and we started talking—you know, during those days, there were not any girls that play guitar and sang their own songs. Both of us were just thrilled to meet each other because we were the only two girls back then—it wasn’t like it is now, where everybody’s like Taylor Swift, you know what I’m saying?
Janey: That’s really where we met. Time went on and Janice at 14-years-old had big hit, “Society’s Child,” and I was 14 and I was still playing with my band and I started writing with one of the guys in my band, Dennis.
Janis encouraged me to do some more writing. She had already tons of money in the bank and had a hit record. Me and her, we always stayed in touch. I actually turned her on to 914 and the musicians there that led her to “At Seventeen.” Because I was doing a record at 914 with Brooks Arthur and all those great New York guys. She was out in L.A. and I told her, “You got to come out here and do this.” She came out here and ended up doing “At Seventeen.”
We loved each other and she’s mostly been the one that helps me. She also got me to Nashville. You know it’s funny. She’s just been really a very important friend, professionally and as a personal friend. She’s just been a great friend.
It’s been a wonderful thing to have somebody like that – we just wrote a song together recently. It’s like we looked at each other and we could talk about when we were little kids. How many people could do that, you know?
She heard me— me and my boyfriend Dennis— singing and playing. She quickly asked what we were doing and she introduced us to her lawyer, she practically got me into the business. That’s where I got to the “Janey and Dennis” stage.
I mean you know it’s funny, but it really did come easy for us [Janey & Dennis]. But we were very talented and we were also very good-looking. We were really very charismatic. All we did was fight though. Nobody knew that. Except one time, we had a fight on stage and people thought it was part of the act.
GAMV: That’s pretty amazing. Now I know the sort of trials and tribulations of your younger days and then you headed down to Nashville. I know you’ve been there for quite a while. I want to know, is it different writing songs now or in the past few years than it was when you first started out writing songs. Or is it just the same?
Janey: Listen. No. To tell you the truth, I feel when I look back on my work and I listen to some of my old stuff, I got to say that I had my sh*t pretty together, back then. I got to the age when labels wouldn’t sign you, I mean they won’t sign you now when you’re older than 20. You know what I mean, it’s crazy. I was at that age where “Hey, Janey, you’ve got to concentrate on your songwriting,” and I got a lot of film and TV placements because most of my buddies and business producers, they went into film music around the time I got dropped from Arista, so they called me for film and TV stuff. I started to get to learn, and I loved it. I mean, I love writing behind the scenes but I had my own band, I still perform, I still planned on doing another record. I learned to wear both hats, like artist and just songwriter behind the scenes, which I had been doing that for many, many years.
When I came to Nashville, I think Nashville changes you. You either become a hack or you just become a more skilled songwriter and you know how to do it, you know what I’m saying? I think that I really kept my artist thing going at the same time always while I was doing more hacky stuff, trying to get cuts and placements, playing the songwriter game here. But I did work with so many great writers. I love to co-write. I co-wrote everything with Dennis when I was with him. And then on the Arista days, I mostly wrote alone. But that was really the only time and after the Arista days, I started co-writing even with people in L.A.
The experience of people writing was, for instance, with the guys like Wayne Carson who passed away recently. He wrote “The Letter.” Remember that song? Okay, you walk into a room with a guy like that and you have a great melody and a great hope, right? A half-a-hour later, you walk out the room with an amazing song. That’s something I have never experienced until I started co-writing and really living in Nashville.
Just those kind of people, it amazes me because they are just brilliant. I love Nashville and I do love my co-writers that are out in L.A. and I love being around with other great writers. It’s been great to meet—I think every song is a new learning experience for every songwriter. That’s my philosophy. Every time I sit down and I start a new song, it’s a new set of problems that I have to solve.
GAMV: When you write, do you sit down with a little nugget of an idea, or do you sit down and say, “I’m going to write something now.”
Janey: Well, I have different ways of going at that. Mostly I work around my iPhone, and if somebody says something that I think it’s a good title, I just put it on my iPhone. If I hear something on TV, I put it on my iPhone. If I hear a record that I like or a melody or a feel or a drum tap that I like, I’ll come home and I’ll try to get some feel like that, then try to put some— then look at my titles and then come up with a whole different thing over that kind of feel. You know what I mean?
Janey: Then I get together with some really great writers with some great concept of a song with the title and some rhymes and music, maybe just a chorus of music or verse, or everything. We just sit down, fill in the blanks and I got a great song after that, you know.
I just listen to people talking, and I listen to conversations, and I’m always aware. I just sponge it in and I write everything. I just put everything on my iPhone now.
I used to do pad and a pencil. Anything that a phrase that’s catchy, that sounds cool that would be cool title. To describe myself as a writer, some writers start out with the more linear aspects of the song. I’m a big picture person. I hear the whole thing, like I look—I say, “Man, this is it.” I can picture—I’m just very big picture conceptual kind of songwriter. Then I just work out the details later. You see what I’m saying?
GAMV: Did you come to this album with that idea that you are going to make an album of songs or did you start doing songs and eventually it became a collection?
Janey: I was not looking for a record deal at this point in my life. It was no way, I mean, if you’re 20 you get two. Around here in Nashville, you can’t even get a publishing deal as a songwriter if you’re older than 21-years-old. Do you know that? It’s insane. It’s like age is on the math.
I never thought I would ever get a record deal again ever. Arista told me I was too old a long, long time ago. I kept my art thing going because I’m never going to stop singing. I’m never going to stop performing.
I’ve been doing house concerts but mostly I’ve been writing behind the scenes, and out of the blue, Blue Élan Records got in touch with me. I wasn’t looking for a record. I mean this was insane but it’s a great story.
It turns out that the owner of Blue Élan Records, which is really becoming a really happening label with Pixar and some really hot people– Anyway, the guy who owns the company has been a Janey Street fan, like from my “Under the Clock” days. And he sought me out and he asked me if I would be interested in talking to him about a record deal and asked me “What are you targeting next?“
So I got in touch with him and boom, boom, boom, and I got a record deal. And I didn’t have any Janey Street songs! All I had was my blues stuff from my blues album, which were playing out in places.
I wasn’t really writing for myself as an artist at all. I tried to deal with these people. I’m supposed to do a record, right? Guess what. I wrote 15 songs in six weeks, and that’s My Side of Paradise.
GAMV: The album has a lot of heart, but a lot of pain. I was wondering, was it really hard to do some of this at a certain point because you really lay it out there. “I’m Not the Girl You Used to Know” and “End of the Day” — I mean, those are not light songs, you know.
Janey: I have lived those songs. You’re probably right. “End of the Day,” I actually wrote about my father, who’s an amazing visual artist and an art director. He made a living as a graphic designer in New York. He took me to museums, took me to Broadway shows. I grew up around very cool parents and a cool older brother. I had a very good situation. And anyways, so he died in 2003. It was really a very painful thing to lose him.
Once I got settled after his death, I went through a whole period—you know, I thought I was the only one left in the family to deal with it. After I got settled, that song just came out of me..
GAMV: Well, the whole album is very heartfelt. With you saying that you haven’t been writing for yourself for a while, then all of a sudden you have an opportunity to do this album. This is a lifetime album. It really is. It’s got so much history, so much of a long, long road behind it.
Janey: Yes, you know, “House of Mirrors,” we picked because of the kick ass vocal thing that I know how to do. There was nothing else on the album that was like that. Funny enough, “House of Mirrors” was a song that I co-wrote with two other writers here.
It was mostly my thing. I was pitching it to a big-time producer who was working with a group on “American Idol” that was doing a blues thing. And so we went in and we wrote that song. That was the only song that existed before I got this deal. We went into the show and had a guy singing on it and everything. Okay, they were asking for Adele mixed with Alabama Shakes, so we wrote a combination of those two things and I thought we nailed it. We had a great singer on the guy, and we sent it in. They didn’t use it. So I had them changed the key, and I went in and sang it.
It was one of the candidates that we were looking at and my producer said, “You know, this song, you are a kick-ass singer. We need a moment where you could show everybody that you could sing like this.”
GAMV: Yes. And you know, there’s not too many people that can pull off the rough and sweet thing that you can. The whole collection is something that I don’t think we see that much at all anymore.
Janey: Thank you. I think you’re right about that in a sense that the industry, everything has gotten so superficial. There’s still good, really good talented artists around that are making good careers. I’m not saying it’s all one thing because nothing’s all one thing. But it is hard to find real stuff in the music business at this point, right?
These guys at Elan Records are just wonderful. They’re really, really, really, very, very supportive of their artists. They’re like a modern day, David Geffen label. If you remember that label with Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, you know that whole scene?
GAMV: Yes. I mean, artist development is something that I don’t think anybody does anymore, and these guys really seem like they’re interested in doing that.
Janey: They’re in it for the long road. If this record doesn’t sell a million copies, they’re not going to say, “See you later.”
GAMV: I do want to get to the “Under the Clock” video. What you remember from shooting that? It was your first big, big thing and that video looks expensive.
Janey: It was. It was $80,000 in 1985.
GAMV: Wow. What do you remember from the day? What do you remember from the concept and stuff?
Janey: Well, actually, what I remember is that the director came to me. He came up with this concept about me at a rebel station with the clock and some weird deep dark thing. I read the script, then I said, “Uh, uh. This is not what this song is about.”
To give you some background, “Under the Clock” is another song that came out of me in five minutes. And it was about a real place in Flushing, Queens. Suburban houses surround that area on the Main Street, Flushing. There was a cigar store, and there was a clock. Everybody would go, “Hey, I’ll meet you under the clock.” And that’s where people bought their drugs.
When I moved to L.A. in the early 80’s, I was sitting in my kitchen and I started to think about the days under the clock and how we used to hang out under the clock and go dance in the city and all my friends and all the guys in my band. We were kind of an underachievers, I guess, I would say and we were kind of rebels. We were just stoned all the time. We were just roaming around. We just didn’t give a sh*t about anything kind of thing.
So I rewrote the script, they gave us $40,000 more and that’s how we ended up with the script that was really about the song. Just me and the bunch of guys, running around New York City with pizza and just being crazy. It was a wonderful experience but extremely exhausting. We did all the external and internal shots all in one day. I remember being in the first part of the video, when we sing with a guitar and the hat.
Stephen: Right. And the Twilight Zone part?
Janey: That was shot at three o’clock in the morning, in some apartment in Queens when we were wrapping it up and had food and stuff. It was like an acid trip or something because it was about my life too. It was real. It was really like reliving my old days under the clock.
It was really cool. I loved doing it. I had a great time. I remember everything about it. I remember the extras, the experience, shot with the pizza, and all these people in New York standing around, tons of people and we’re giving out pizza all the time because I had to have it where the pizza– the cheese on the pizza melted in your mouth.
It had to be a certain way. I was so into doing these stupid details things but the pizza guy kept on making pizza. We couldn’t get the right shot, so we’re giving out free pizza. They’re like millions of people standing around watching us shoot this video. That was cool. It was cool. I had a great time.
It was in those days, they had different video stations all over the country and I really– the video went up right the chart, like the total video chart, it was just up there. It really did well as a video. I was all over the place. Everybody would say, “You’re on TV.” You know how it is.