5 Questions: Janel and Anthony

Janel and AnthonyPhoto: Maria Louciero

The names Janel & Anthony have long been synonymous with DC’s fertile experimental music scene, but the duo are anything but easy to pigeonhole. As a duo and as individuals, Janel & Anthony’s musical contributions encompass a vast spectrum of sounds, styles and tones — “experimental” is just the tip of the elegantly odd-shaped iceberg.

Whether it’s Janel’s exquisite cello (her primary instrument), or her viola, bass or pedal steel playing, or Anthony’s seemingly endless iterations of guitar, the one unifying thread that ties all their sounds together is an unmistakable thrill of risk-taking. Such is the quality of their performances that the duo has played the Kennedy Center.

While Janel & Anthony have been prolific as individual musicians, it’s been a while since the duo have released an album together, but a new record is on the way, and this one is extra special — it’s the first one featuring vocals from Janel on every track. I can’t wait to hear it!

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long for our next Janel & Anthony fix. The duo recently collaborated with the Black Cat in DC to record a special improv performance for WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE. The performance will be shared via a livestream event on Zoom on Friday, Nov. 6th at 10pm.

To mark the occasion, I got in touch with Janel and Anthony via e-mail to ask them about what’s happening in their world, and how their connection to music and creativity is helping them survive a scary and uncertain time. Read on!

1) How are you both doing these days? Has the pandemic — and the election — affected your creativity?

Anthony: Well, as you know, this is a very challenging time and it’s extremely depressing to read what’s happening in the news. Given the state of the world, I feel beyond lucky that I have music in my life. All I ever want to do is sit in my room and develop ideas on my guitar. And with all of this extra time that’s what I’ve been doing. During the pandemic I was also able to wrap up and complete 4 four records and wrote/recorded two new ones.  I’ve released Six Six which is a improvising duo I have with Luke Stewart on Atlantic Rhythms, a trio recording called Pocket Poem with Michael Formanek and Ches Smith on Cuneiform Records, a 30 person ensemble rendition of Terry Riley’s In C on Sonic Mass Records and my earliest documented compositions are compiled on a record called Ignorant American which is also available on Sonic  Mass Records.  I recorded but have yet to release a “harsh” solo guitar record called tm and a solo guitar record with overdubs called In Side. These two records should be out next year. Janel and Anthony are also set to release our third record next year.  So, even though this time is very stressful and depressing I’ve been working hard to remain focused on moving forward.

Janel: It is a terrible time. I feel for so many musicians who can’t play shows or missed recording projects they cared for. Everyone is just trying to hold on. Personally, I have been balancing my time between releasing some of the catalog of my live shows and writing new music. In June, Ideologic Organ (Paris) and Editons Mego (Vienna) labels released a live album of my arrangements of pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn’s music which I was honored to curate the group for. It’s called The Heart Sutra which is out now on bandcamp digitally and will be pressed to LP via those labels this Winter. 

Another release I put out this Spring is again with long time friends pedal steel player Susan Alcorn and vocalist Meghan Habibzai on the Atlantic Rhythms label (DC). I call this collection Sister Mirror which is available digitally and on tape via bandcamp. Sister Mirror includes a recording of Villa-Lobos’s piece for cello orchestra and soprano, Bachianas Brasilieres No. 5, Aria. We recorded it at The Brink with Mike Reina a long time ago. It was a marathon recording all of the cello parts. We had performed it at Meghan’s senior recital with a live cello orchestra of which I was the lead cellist.

Side B of Sister Mirror is an early recording of Susan Alcorn and I playing live at the venue/church in Baltimore called 2640. You can hear birds singing in the rafters which is appropriate because at the end we played a piece called “O Sacrum Convivium!” by Messiaen, a composer who transcribed bird song. We had been playing in her music studio a lot and were looking at our favorite classical pieces as well as each others compositions. I got to know her work in this way and we played in other groups she organized until she asked me to arrange her work for her Issue Project Room residence as heard on The Heart Sutra. In this way, this has been a time of summing up.

2) One of the things I enjoy most about your music is the sense of adventure. Your music as a duo explores so many different sounds, styles and tones, as does your work in other projects. It feels like you can go almost anywhere.  Would it be fair to say you both share a certain creative restlessness?

Anthony: I’d say that’s fair. For me it doesn’t really feel like I have a choice.  I have to work on music. I need it. I get very down if I’m not able to work on musical things that are interesting to me at the moment. I know that we both love all types of music/sound and yes, playing music with Janel has always felt very adventurous. I think a lot of that has to do with our love of free improvisation. We’ve always freely improvised between our compositions in the live setting and that really helps to keep things fresh.  We’ve rarely done sets of fully improvised material which makes this performance that you’re about to show very exciting for me. We just showed up and played what we felt. Improvised situations have been some of the most rewarding musical experiences for me over the years.

Janel: I don’t like to get too comfortable. It’s death to me in a way. I think a lot of artists feel this way but I like having a broad knowledge base musically speaking. It makes me more flexible. I also really enjoy a challenge. Honestly, being versatile has been the only way I could continue making music. I am interested in playing multiple instruments so I have access to that ability when it’s called for when I’m in the studio with Anthony or solo or with any band I’ve worked with.

I credit musician, engineer, producer Mike Reina for that because he first allowed and encouraged me to try different instruments when we were working on my first solo album, Mellow Diamond and my second solo record, Songs for Voice and Mellotron at The Brink. Also, I have suffered from tendinitis for decades and can only play an instrument for so long without developing inflammation and pain in my arms. It developed in college when I was over practicing, something like 8 hours a day, and I became debilitated. I was unable to play the cello, open doors, write or type, or even wash dishes etc. for about a year. Regardless, being able to play a viola or bass or a pedal steel simply helps me continue creating bc each one uses a different set of muscle groups and is held in a different position. That’s how I continue to work in music even though I’ve had this physical problem for so long. For me, being versatile has been the key to survival I’m not sure I could do another job. I am a terrible employee.

3) You’ve been making music together for years. It must seem intuitive at this point. How has your process evolved over time?

Anthony: It’s always felt almost telepathic when Janel and I perform together.  We don’t even have to look at each other and we know that something is about to shift or change.  There is no way for me to explain.  In this performance you can see it at the end of this set.  We turn off our loops at exactly the same moment without any cues.  That’s what it is. 

Janel: As Janel and Anthony we’ve worked intensively for years of recording and playing shows which served as a laboratory for us, musically. When we started working with Mike Reina at The Brink we took our time to get our second album right. We’ve done a record at home before (LP Cricket Cemetery Fifth Anniversary Rerelease) but we of course prefer working with him. Generally we bring our song ideas together and play them for each other and then the other person contributes something and we build it jumping off of one another’s ideas which is a lot of fun. We haven’t had a lot of energy for much duo writing for the past few years because we’ve been so busy but it’s been good to take a break. We started writing our third album in 2012 and have been working on it through the finishing touches in 2018. Since then it’s been sitting on the shelf because we just couldn’t let go of it. Watch for it next Fall on Cuneiform Records.

4) Are there any sonic avenues you have yet to explore that you would like to? A slightly related question – might there be a possibility of newly recorded Janel & Anthony music in the near future?

Janel: We have been sitting on a mainly vocal record for several years. As I said, we have a hard time letting go of records. We recorded Where is Home at two different studios before making The Brink home. We’ve always had a backlog of music because we are partners in music and in life and we’d rather hang out when we’re together than work. That’s changing though we’ve been taking some time for an artist in residency for a few months and we are really excited to try some new paths as a duo.

Anthony: Like I said earlier we have a third record coming out next year.  It’s very exciting for me because Janel is singing on every track.  I love the new music and I can’t wait for people to hear it!  

5) These are dark and scary times for a multitude of reasons. When you look at the state of the world, is there anything that gives you hope?

Janel: We were just talking about this today. We feel honored to have worked in a scene with an audience of very deep listeners and thinkers. That is ultimately where we feel hope and where we feel the most free. The experimental music and free jazz communities in D.C. have meant everything to us.  We got to know ourselves as artists at places like Pyramid Atlantic where Sonic Circuits used to put on shows, Bobby Hill’s series Transparent Productions was centered at Bohemian Caverns, Luke Stewart’s work with Capital Bop and at Union Arts and I did a residency at Twins and we played who knows how many shows there. We love the welcoming nature of these groups of people who just want to listen and be taken somewhere for a while and they don’t shy from being challenged sonically. It’s refreshing to call on your bodies instincts to play creatively and with abandon. That personally brings me joy and I hope you’ll enjoy this Janel and Anthony set of purely improvised music. Thanks to you and to the Black Cat for having us!

Check out their website here, the duo’s Kennedy Center page here, & Anthony’s Bandcamp here, and the Cuneiform Records Bandcamp here.

And be sure to watch their special performance for the Nov. 6th WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE Livestream on Zoom!