It’s melodic hard rock at its memorable and infections best. Synergy, the new album by Gardner/James was released to great acclaim in August through Pavement Entertainment, and is a wonderful tonic to the difficult times so many of us are going through due to escalating political tensions, and especially in the midst of a worldwide health crisis – aka the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pair of talented and experienced music industry veterans – long-time former Vixen vocalist Janet Gardner and veteran studio musician/sideman Justin James – have been a couple for nearly seven years, and married for the past four, after meeting backstage at a Lita Ford concert. It was nervous teenaged-like love at first sight, and since then Gardner and James have been inseparable in their creative lives as well as in parenting three teens.
While Gardner is obviously best known as the charismatic and effervescent frontperson for Vixen, James’ career has been quite remarkable in its own right. Interestingly, during a time when Vixen was on hiatus, Gardner went back to school to become a dental technician. She still retains her certification and works in this field when not on the road.
“For the most part, I was a studio musician when I first started getting into things. A lot of it had to do with the kids. It was tough to balance going out and playing shows and raising babies and young children. So, I started focussing on the recording and producing end of music and filling in here and there on the road or in the studio. I played with Brandon Gibbs, who was with the Devil City Angels and Joel Kosche [formerly] from Collective Soul and the drummer from the band Staind [Jon Wysocki]. I did a bunch of shows with those guys and also played with the band Tyketto, which was around the same time Vixen was around in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” explained James.
“I did some local stuff here in Chicago here and there on the scene, but I really started to develop a passion for writing music and producing music and I think that really helped when it came to us doing this music together. When we started writing and playing out together it was like finding your home. It’s the most enjoyable thing I have ever done. I love playing with all those different musicians, but it’s their songs and their music and there’s nothing better than when it’s stuff you write, and you can go out and perform and play.”
Synergy is the third album written and recorded by the dynamic creative duo, but the first one to go out under the Gardner/James banner. For both musicians/songwriters, nothing has changed in their approach, other than the name on the CD/vinyl cover. Previously, their 2017 album was called just Janet Gardner, while the second album, Your Place in the Sun (2019) also came out under Gardner’s name solely.
“We’ve always been a 50-50 partnership and I don’t know why we didn’t do it in the first place. We honestly didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know if we should make up a band name – we just weren’t sure because none of this was planned. It was easy enough just to use my name, and it was convenient because I kind of had a little bit more of a ‘name’ than him at that point, so we just went with it. But it truly is the two of us and has been. Now, it’s properly named,” said Gardner.
“That’s really how the album title Synergy came about. It was because we always talk about how we’re pretty good at what we do alone, but together it’s like one plus one equals three.”
“One of the ironic things is that the first two albums we did always featured both of our faces on it. People would occasionally ask, ‘why is he on there? Why is his face on there?’ ‘It says Janet Gardner, why is he there?’ If you looked at all the credits, the reality was the everything was done by the two of us playing every instrument and writing every song and producing everything. So, when we did it this time and we put both our names out there, and now it actually doesn’t have out two faces on it anymore – it’s two gorillas instead,” added James, laughing out loud.
The closeness off the personal relationship between the blissfully happy couple is on display with the symbiotic nature of their writing process, with many an unspoken word between the two and understanding empathetically and almost automatically what one another is looking for during a songwriting session. The result is a collection of music on Synergy that rocks, that is compelling, that is emotive, and which has both a maturity and a sense of hopefulness, even in the face of tough situations, all hallmarks of artists who have hit their stride.
“Wounded, the first single, was a guitar riff that I was just kind of screwing around with right before we left to go to Australia to tour at the start of the year. I thought it was too busy and didn’t know if it was going to work. Janet looked at it and thought we could make something out of it, and when we got back from Australia, we wrote the rest of the music for it. Then she came up with the lyrics and vocal melody for it. It’s kind of one of those typical, ‘love gone wrong’ songs,” said James.
“But it also doesn’t really have to be about that. It’s like we’re saying, if life beats you up, whether it’s relationships or whatever, you can’t fall and stay down. You have to keep moving forwards. And there’s a line that says, ‘I am going to save my strength for someone worthy.’ That can go for so many things in life. You get hurt, but you can’t let that make you fall; you’ve got to keep going,” added Gardner.
Rise Up is another song of empowerment, directed, in large part, towards girls and young women, but could be said to apply to anyone who has poor self image.
“I had a visual in my head as I was writing these lyrics about a young girl – it was actually our daughter London, and I just remembered being a teenaged girl can sometimes be the worst, the absolute worst. You have bad hormonal things going on, and you feel really insecure about your body changing, your looks are changing and it’s a really, really difficult time, where every little thing seems like the end of the world,” Gardner said.
“I just remember not wanting to go to school if I had a pimple, or really silly stuff like that: things about your weight and body image. It’s just such a crazy time, so this song is kind of saying, ‘it will pass. Things will get better. Things that seem like such a big deal now, later you will realize they are not a big deal.’ And the message is universal in the respect that it’s saying it doesn’t matter what other people think, it really doesn’t. It’s how you feel about yourself and being unafraid to just put yourself out there and let ‘em know you’re alive.
“The song Flying on Faith is kind of like that too. It was the first song we started for the album and it started on New Year’s Eve of this past year and it was the thing that kicked everything off for Synergy. Even at the worst times, we try to stay positive and that’s a song where I definitely had our kids in mind, where you have to have faith in yourself. Nobody else is going to do that for you, and that’s really the bottom line in life – believe in yourself.”
“I remember I was at work and she was describing this song to me over the phone, she was so excited about it. I came home and she had almost the whole song written out and it was like, wow, that’s fantastic. ‘Let’s keep working on it.’ I don’t remember if we even followed the countdown for New Year’s because we were just so engulfed in writing this song and finishing this song. It just inspired us, and we just kept pushing forward,” added James.
“That song, to me, has a bit of a different vibe to the other songs on the album. It has more of a mature sound to me. It has so many layers, the way it builds up into the next chorus that really hits you and then opens up into this huge, awesome wall of sound. I think one of the reasons for that is because it’s one of the rare songs where Janet actually started writing it on keyboards, where normally songs start with one of us on guitar.”
Leaving Vixen after so many years in 2018 was obviously a difficult decision, but one that Gardner is at peace with, since it was good for both her health and family life – ultimately way more important than the rock and roll circus.
“It was never really a plan to do this. I was doing both for a while. When our first album came out, I was still in Vixen. And then things got pretty crazy, pretty busy and I found myself really stressed out. There were conflicts happening between who got to play where and when. Once there was a Vixen show in Detroit and I had my own show in Detroit so one had to be moved. The summer of 2018 was insane. I was back and forth to Europe with Vixen about five times: I would go for a week and then come back, the go over for another couple of weeks and then come back. All that travel was really nuts and I was just a big ball of stress. And then there was family stuff on top of that, so it was just too demanding,” she said.
“There was pressure to get together to do a new Vixen album, and at that point I was like, ‘I can’t leave my family for that long to do something like that.’ So, I decided to bow out and let them move forward with what they wanted to do, and Justin and I continued doing what we’re doing. It’s so easy, it’s so stress free now. It’s all good. Being happy and healthy is more important than anything. And there were no hard feelings. Everybody’s happy. I didn’t ever want to tarnish what we did before, and what we had by making an ugly ending to it all – it worked out pretty good for everybody.”
There was also the little matter of having to have brain surgery during this time period.
“We were playing The Whiskey A-Go-Go out in California; I think it was January of 2018 or something like that. And I woke up the next morning with the worst pain in my head I’ve ever felt. And then I started throwing up, and I just knew something was really wrong. We called the ambulance and it turned out I had a subdural haematoma, so I had to have brain surgery to get rid of it. I was down for a couple of months, and it was a rough time, but I have to say that Justin was right by my side the whole time and took great care of me,” Gardner said.
“Nobody has any idea how it happened. They thought maybe I had some kind of bleeding disorder where something went wrong, and the blood started leaking out. I went to get checked for that, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. The only possible thing we can think of is we filmed a music video a couple of weeks before the Whiskey show ad Justin and I smacked heads three times during the shoot. So, it’s possible the two were related, but no one really knows.
“It really didn’t hinder anything in my life, and I’ve got to say that I feel great, and it doesn’t scare me to do anything pretty much that I did before. But even before this, I wasn’t enjoying anything because everything was so stressful, so what’s the point? I love music and I want to love doing it and I want to be happy doing it. So, that definitely was a big part of my decision to leave the band. And it’s not like I all of a sudden decided to reinvent myself or anything, for sure. I love doing the music that I’ve always loved doing.”
One of the things Gardner and James love doing most is playing live and sharing her love for music with an audience. Obviously, that’s pretty much on hold right now, even though they are jonesing to get back on stage with the two musicians that comprise their live band .
“We have always performed as a full band and when we go out on the road, it’s pretty much the same too guys, Richie Rivera, who is a beast of a drummer from Nashville, and Anthony Gemingnani, who is an amazing bass player and phenomenal guitar player actually, but he does bass for us. We have developed this great family vibe together the four of us and we’ve toured all over Europe and Australia and the States. We just love those guys,” said James.
“One of the best parts of our relationship is that all four us, we’re all goofballs when we get together. Because the real world is so serious now, when the four of us get together, it’s just mayhem. We don’t take it too seriously. We go up there and put on the best show that we can, and we just have so much fun with each other onstage. It’s such a great release and a great time, for us and for the audience too.”
“They’re great both on and off stage, and that’s really what you need when you’re going out on the road. You’ve got to have people you can relate to and have fun together whether you’re having dinner or rehearsing or onstage or stuck on a plane for 15 hours. They’re good people and extremely talented and we’re incredibly lucky to have them,” added Gardner.
For more information on Gardner/James, the new album Synergy, and possible post-pandemic tour dates, visit www.facebook.com/JanetGardnerofficial, or www.janetgardnermusic.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for nearly 30 years. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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