Liz Janes was reluctant to share her tape. She still calls it her "little tape," says she was "painfully shy" about it. A collection of some of the first songs she had ever written, it was raw as could be, some vocals barely discernable through the tape hiss, each song built on the few guitar chords she knew at the time.
But back in 2000, she was seeing a guy named Mike, and she felt compelled to hand over the cassette to him. "And he didn't just listen to it, he gave it to Sufjan," Janes tells me over tea in the Broad Ripple home she shares with that same Mike, full name Michael Kaufmann, now her husband and father to their two kids.
And Sufjan is, indeed, Sufjan Stevens. Janes is careful to note that Stevens "hadn't really put anything out" when he got his hands on the tape. This was before his 2005 breakout album Illinois, before his name became synonymous with symphonic, literate, sometimes Christian indie rock.
Janes remembers Stevens telling her the tape sounded terrible, but she should come down and record with him. "So I did," Janes remembers, "and when I got there, I think he was surprised; I think he just thought I was really weird." (Janes, who uses the word "little" reflexively to talk about her work, is more than a little modest about her skills.)
Janes re-recorded her songs for Stevens over a day and a half, playing acoustic guitar and singing. And then she left him with the tracks and headed to Mexico for a two-month vacation. When she returned, Stevens played her the polished, fully-orchestrated versions of her songs, which were eventually collected and released in 2001 on her debut album Done Gone Fire.
"I was gone for a couple of months and came back, and he had completely Sufjan-ed it," Janes jokes, referring to arrangements Stevens constructed around her songs that have a handmade, chamber-pop feel that would come to define Stevens' sound.
For Janes, who was new to songwriting and came to it with little formal musical training, hearing the album was a formative moment. "It made me think, 'Oh, I can write songs; this isn't just a waste of time, and maybe it is worth it to share them.' He definitely encouraged me to keep writing and to think of it as a worthwhile pastime."
Empowered and beginning to tour behind her work, Janes followed up Done Gone Fire with 2004's Poison and Snakes. But that album put a punctuation point on the early part of her career, because Janes, pregnant during the recording of the album, soon found she was "pretty busy" raising her first kid.
Which brings us to Janes' comfy, wood-floored bungalow, where she answers questions about her first full-length in six years, Say Goodbye, during an afternoon interview slotted into a daily "quiet hour" when Mom, Dad and the kids each do their own things and give each other space. Say Goodbye, released last month on Asthmatic Kitty, came to fruition once Janes had finally pieced together enough of those quiet hours.
West coast hippie thing
Janes knocked around a bit before settling in Indianapolis, with husband and kid in town, in March 2005. Born in a Washington, D.C., suburb, she moved with her family to Philadelphia while in high school, then did what she calls the "West coast hippie thing" for a couple years before heading to college in Washington state. She studied classical literature and history on the undergrad level until she hit a breaking point, dropping out and heading to Orcas Island to farm for a season.
Her family wanted her to go back to school, but she did so on her own terms, enrolling in art school in Olympia. As she started to experiment as a visual artist, she also became involved with Olympia's noise scene, plugging in and "playing really loud" with friends like Arrington de Dionyso of the experimental rock band Old Time Relijun.
"We'd go out on the street — and go blow on the horns," Janes recalls of the time. "And someone would have a show — and we'd go blow on the horns. I had a bass clarinet. Arrington had a saxophone. It was pretty atonal; there was no order. I might stumble across something that might sound beautiful and harmonious, and then I would play that a couple times. But it was completely experimental, because I didn't have any mastery of the instrument, of course."
Meanwhile, Janes secretly writing her own songs, which she describes as "ABCA, classic, folk- or pop-structured." While she was never involved with the Olympia-based indie label K Records as a performer, she soaked up what she heard, taking inspiration from the DIY ethic associated with the label.
"It was just a handful of shows that were really formative experiences for me," she says. "Seeing Phil Elverum sit down on this big stage with a little nylon string guitar and sing songs about clouds. Seeing Mirah stand up all alone with her little electric guitar in front of a room full of people all sitting on the ground all around, and just singing her pretty little songs. Jenny Jenkins playing her songs on ukulele. All of their songs had an experimentalism and a sincerity, and they were just so immediate, just one little person right there in a room with you, and there was no mystique, no production, just ideas and sound."
Janes moved to Gloucester, Mass. after college, where she was living when Kaufmann and Stevens heard the set of songs that became Done Gone Fire. She eventually relocated to San Diego, where she married Kaufmann and tapped into the local music scene. 2004's Poison & Snakes, recorded in San Diego shortly before her move to Indianapolis, might have been a conventional indie-rock singer-songwriter album were it not for Janes' idiosyncratic syntax and producer Rafter Roberts's dynamic arrangements, which punch up many a ballad with horn riffs and gritty guitars. Opener "Wonderkiller" is something of a cross-generational mutant, starting archaically ("Tremble at the hope of my true love's promise...his promise is not dependent upon my belief, but upon his word only"), before a substantial chorus sees Janes yelling "Kill! Kill! Kill!" at a lover "killing all of her wonder."
Janes worked with Roberts again on her latest record, Say Goodbye. Her association with Stevens continues to this day, though: She remains an artist on Asthmatic Kitty Records, a label co-owned by Stevens, for which Kaufmann works A&R and development; and reviews of her work still tend to start by comparing her work to Stevens', despite the decade that has passed the release of Done Gone Fire.
Most of the work that makes up Say Goodbye is at least four years old, written by Janes during those spare moments carved out of a busy domestic life. She envisioned them as R&B and soul songs, consistent with the soulful slow jams played on Quiet Storm-formatted radio stations. "I wanted it sparse, clean and wanted it to have a timeless sound — Rhodes, trumpet and as smooth as possible."
But she was having trouble realizing her vision on her own, in constructing her songs using the limited set of chords she feels comfortable playing on acoustic guitar. So she first took them public in 2008, when she shared a capella recordings of the songs with Chris Schlarb, a free-jazz guitarist with whom Janes collaborated on a 2005 EP of deconstructed folk songs and hymns. Schlarb came up with guitar parts for the songs, not all of which Janes could execute herself. But according to Janes, "Something about hearing them be played helped me to figure out how to play them in my own primitive way."
The ball rolling, Janes ended up laying down tracks with producer Rafter Roberts in 2009. Like Stevens, Roberts built arrangements around Janes' guitar-and-vocals songs, playing nearly all the instruments heard on the album. Schlarb ended up contributing electric guitar on four tracks.
The album follows an arc from fragmentation to wholeness, doubt to belief, angst to love. Album opener "I Don't Believe," a slow jam in 3/4, acknowledges that even a stable relationship may not be enough, even a seemingly solid faith can be tested: "Even in your arms, I get so lost and lonely / No one ever told me love could be like this...I don't believe in you / But I think of you all the time." "Bitty Thing" sees a world smashed into pieces: "Everything I knew is gone / Why is every little bitty thing falling apart?"
But Janes voices these concerns in a gentle way, striking a groove that brings to mind jazz-inflected singer-songwriters like Carole King or Joni Mitchell. She won't put listeners through undue stress as she seeks to find answers. Her ship of call rights itself for a moment on "Anchor" ("Who am I to run away and not have you near...Without you, no one's there to anchor me and tether me down") and faith provides solace on "Who Will Take Care" ("I'm helpless, in keeping you / I'm giving you over, it's all I can do / My only hope now in mystery / In mercy, benevolent deity").
By the closing track, Janes builds up enough confidence to lay out her Christian metaphysics: "Time and space are constructs of grace that keep us with our sanity. Time and space cannot replace our longing for eternity."
"I definitely have a spiritual perspective in life," she explains of the record's spiritual themes. "I'm sort of a mystic. I'm definitely pursuing divine love, but that's where it gets all muddled again, not just between my stories and others' stories, but between earthly love and divine love. So, any time that I'm considering or contemplating or trying to understand some earthly love or relationship, it's always reflected in what little things I might know or think about my relationship with the divine."
Janes will premiere the album locally with an in-store this Saturday at Luna Music Midtown, which is within walking distance of her home. She started this week with shows in Seattle, Olympia, Wash. and Portland, Ore., and may mount a week-long European tour in March. But she still has her priorities in mind: "At first, I was planning on doing a lot to try and tour and backup this record, but now, more and more, I'm just needed at home, and I'm perfectly happy with that too."