Within the confines of Vocal Trance, there are names that come and go, but some names carry the kind of weight that makes people stand back and truly take notice. We had the immense honor to sit down with what can only be called dance music royalty, the incredible Jan Johnston.
TranceMag: Firstly, just have to state, such an incredible honor to interview someone I have truly admired since the start of my own journey with Electronic Music. Could you tell us how you got your big break? I’ve heard what sounds like an urban myth, where Paul Oakenfold picked up one of your releases for 50p in a record shop? Is this close to what really happened?
Jan Johnston: Thank you! That story is almost correct! It was actually BT rather than Paul. Back in the mid ’90s I released a solo album “Naked But For Lilies” and a couple of singles on A&M Records. This was back in the days of CDs and vinyl and when record stores would put surplus copies in a ‘bargain bin’… and that’s where Brian [BT] found a copy of my single “Paris” which had a B side called “The Prayer” which he loved and used the chorus line for his track “Anomaly (Calling Your Name)”
I was in London and got a call from a studio in Manchester saying this guy called BT was in the studio asking who the singer of “The Prayer” was. Thankfully, the owner of the studio was a friend of mine, our daughters went to the same school, hence him calling me to which I told him I’d head straight back up. A few hours later, Brian and I wrote “Remember” in that studio. Not long later, Paul Oakenfold, who had signed BT to his label, got involved. He had heard of “Calling Your Name” and had my fly out to America to write with BT for his “ESCM” album where I wrote “Lullaby For Gaia” and “Flesh” and after that other producers started to call!
TM: So, we’ve just had the opportunity to listen to The Travelling Vixen, and while it might not be quite the sound most fans know you for, it’s still so uniquely and beautifully Jan Johnston, diving into that mysterious place, where a lot of today’s dance music seems to have gone lost. Can you tell us a bit about the project, how it came about?
JJ: I wrote that collection with my friend Manny Ferreiros (DJ Manolo) in Boston over a few years in the early 2000s. I write all my songs in the guise of a guitar and small orchestration and then the DJ producers I work with have a good basis, a chord structure and vocal melody to create a dance version.
In terms of what I write about, I tend to exercise what’s happening or has happened in my life and express it poetically. I wrote “The Travelling Vixen” not long after the “Emerging” album I wrote and recorded for Perfecto which unfortunately did not get released. I felt in a state of being back to disappointment and the struggle of starting over and that’s where some of these songs came from. “Can’t Move On” in particular stems from this – all the people who had worked on “Emerging” had moved on but I’m still there feeling my soul is stuck on the shelf with that album. It was a tough time – I try to write from the point of the glass half full but sometimes the lyrics develop that way. “Deceit” comes across as rather spiteful, I don’t often write songs as scratchy as that but it shows just how hurt you can be.
As for the title – “The Travelling Vixen” well this came from a couple of girls I used to bump into in the clubs. They named me that – “Oh look it’s the travelling vixen!” they’d say when they saw me. I loved it and wanted to use it as an album title. I’ve never considered myself a vixen – it makes me sound wilder than I am! We were hoping to release the songs but then the music industry changed, downloads took over and the labels weren’t quite ready for the change and “The Travelling Vixen” got lost in the ether and when things settled down we felt the tracks were too dated to be released as ‘current music’.
Over the past year and a half me and my team have been working hard to get my music onto the digital stores. People like delving into old music now. Last year I released “When Everything Was Possible” – an album of drum n bass flavour songs I wrote and recorded with Jamie Myerson. We thought many years ago that those songs had been lost but I found a copy of them in a box when moving house so we put them out there and got a great reaction. Not long later Sony and Universal re-issued my old albums “Intro” and “Naked But For Lilies” so we thought about releasing “The Travelling Vixen”. I’m so happy they can finally be out there! So many people had been wanting (the second single) “Delirium” to be released – one fan told me he had been waiting since 2005 for it. We’ve even released the remixes that were done back in the day which will delight my trance music fans!
TM: You’ve worked with the absolute biggest names in the Dance music industry. Are there any up & coming producers you’d love to collaborate with?
JJ: All the DJ’s I’ve worked with in the past and the newer and up and coming have their own individual stamp so it is hard to pick an individual. However, I have a great friend, a producer named Steve Brown, who has the wisdom of working in all genres with a rainbow of abilities I’d love to work with. In the not too distant future, on the horizon is a project with Simon from Lost Witness which I am truly excited about.
TM: Whether on purpose of by default, your vocals and lyrics have crept into the hearts and minds of so many fans. Do you write purely out of your own experience and hope that relates to the listener, or are there times you write out of another point of influence?
JJ: It’s not always from my own life experiences as I read nonstop. Books along with movies fill your head with emotion and stories so I pull from everything and everywhere. There are some life experiences of course – “Flesh” came about after a very intense relationship with a working partner were we knew we had to move on whilst also knowing that even after breaking up it is hard not to have those intimate moments with someone when you have known them so well. And then of course there are those life experiences which helped form “The Travelling Vixen” which hopefully people will pick up when they hear the songs.
TM: If you never found music on the level that you did, where could you imagine yourself carving out a different career path?
JJ: Well, I think I’d be out there banging on trees! If I didn’t have a studio I’d still be making noise somehow! But I’m sure it would be a holistic life I’d lead… using God’s pharmacy – nature! I really detest the idea of popping pills for a headache, use the plants!
TM: Your voice undoubtedly defined an entire generation of dance music, opening the door for a plethora of younger artists who now might be here today, gone tomorrow. Would you say there’s a secret recipe to staying relevant in an ever-changing industry?
JJ: No, it’s not a conscious thing, it’s a passion, so you have to continue whether anyone is listening or not. So the secret recipe is the core of your being, for every artist, and to continue using and loving your art.
Having persistence and stamina is key too. Unfortunately the industry can be quite cruel at times. I mentioned earlier I had a whole album, “Emerging”, ready to be released many years ago only for it to be shelved when Mushroom UK got sold. That was rather upsetting but despite the knock, I’ve kept at it. There’s a lot of behind the scenes issues which can prevent the fans from enjoying your music. But there are also a lot of creative, kind and lovely people out there that are fab to work with.
TM: What’s playing on your car radio right now?
JJ: Daft Punk, Coldplay and Mendelson.
TM: What do think of the current state of Electronic Dance Music, and where do you see it going next?
JJ: I try not to dissect or worry about change – it seems to happen, but as long as there are beautiful chord structures and the music isn’t drowning in noise it will still retain its beauty. I understand the need for the new producers and enjoy seeing them and joining them on their rite of passage – shaking things up as they do. It can be exciting – I’ve had the fortune of getting to work with many producers on such journeys like the Tenishia boys whom I recorded “As It Should” with and a re-recording of “Flesh”.
TM:Out of all the incredible tracks you’ve worked on, which would you say holds the dearest place for you personally, and why?
JJ: “Lullaby For Gaia” which I wrote for BT’s “ESCM” album. I actually wrote it for myself! It was not long after I had a painful break up and end to love. It was my way of making myself feel better… “blissful bubbles… let me sleep… rock me gently… don’t let me think”… and it worked! Sadly it was only on the US version of “ESCM”. Hopefully it can be released on the digital stores worldwide one day.
TM: What does the immediate and distant future look like for Jan Johnston?
JJ: I have lots of good projects on the table right now such as Lost Witness, DJ Nii, M.I.K.E. and also labels sending music for me to listen to with a view to writing with their artists. I have a track with Ben Hennessy called “Define Love” hopefully coming out in September so watch out for that! So the future is fab… music, music, music and with lots of refreshing orchestration!
Me and my team are also working on getting some of my other music back out there. Unlike the old days with CDs and Vinyl it doesn’t get deleted from existence after a few months – it’s there forever! Well until we consume music in a completely different way! There have been so many label acquisitions and mergers that it’s taken a while to find out who owns my music. It’s rather distressing as an artist to have your music change hands without you knowing. I want to thank my team for their above and beyond help in getting my music off shelves and back out to the fans. We’ve been in discussions with Warner Music who are re-issuing the “Flesh” and “Silent Words” singles. Cosmic Gate are also re-issuing my songs with them – “Raging” and “I Feel Wonderful” later this year. I’m determined to get as much of my music out there now! I feel I’m on a roll!
Long term, I’m working on an acoustic album… back to my singer songwriter roots! I’d like to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to Mark Farrow at Matrix Studios in Spain for helping me shape the orchestration to hold my new song ideas together as I build this album. It’s an album I’m very excited about!
Keep it mad, fab and safe… always! Jan J x
We are extremely honored to have been graced within insight to one of Trance Music’s greatest vocalists, thank you so much Jan!
Jan will be performing at Gatecrasher’s special Gatecrasher Classical concerts at Sheffield City Hall on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st October. make sure you don’t miss out
Images courtesy of Jan Johnston and Gatecrasher