Janette King

Photo by Sarah Armiento

Janette King finds the sweet spot between ’90s R&B & club music on What We Lost

“Music that’s good will withstand the test of time. I can’t remember what the Top 40 songs were from last year, but if you want me to name a really sick-ass ’90s R&B track, I can.”

The new Janette King album What We Lost is, in equal parts, a throwback to R&B soul-pop and ’90s club anthems and a testament to the quality of modern music coming from Montreal. 

In both these aspects, this is music that knows what it’s doing, from a creative talent who channels her past and present without pretense to say exactly what she means and do precisely what she intends.

King performs Saturday as part of the FME de l’Avent, happening in Lachine along the canal all weekend. We spoke to her last month to learn more about her roots as a ’90s baby and keeping music honest.

Darcy MacDonald: So I hadn’t heard of you until last month. And now I’m obsessed with your album. If you would, please tell me a bit about yourself, your background and how you got into music?

Janette King: I was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. But my parents are Caribbean. And I grew up with music around me all the time. Like, anytime it was the time to clean the house, there was music. Any time we’re making dinner, there was music. There was always music around our family, so I grew up being very attached to music in terms of just feeling very spiritually connected to it. But my whole existence in music started off as being a dancer. So I trained in dance for a few years when I was in elementary school, going into high school. And then a friend of mine was like, “Hey, my brother’s in this band — the Boom Booms, in Vancouver — and we’re looking for a background singer. Do you think that’s something you’d be interested in?”

I’d always, like, written poetry and stuff. And I never really thought of myself as a singer. But everybody around me did. Anyways, I was like, “Yeah, sure. I’d love to try it!” And then I was hooked. I just thought, “Being on stage singing is amazing. I want to do this all the time.” And that’s how it started.

DM: What sort of musical influences were you exposed to early on with your family? 

King: Well, I would say most of the music was my parents’ music. And they listened to a lot of roots-rock reggae, and lovers rock, and lots of dancehall. And also American R&B, so like Whitney Houston and BB King, and just very Black, Caribbean-influenced music.

DM: So when did you come to Montreal? And were you working with other groups when you got here? Were you still doing the backup thing?

King: I got to Montreal in 2015. When I got (here) I was in a band, like I was part of this electronic music duo (called So Close) that consisted of me and my buddy. And we were just kind of playing shows around town. And we played a few small festivals and shows and stuff like that. And then my friends moved back from Montreal, and I was like, this is probably the universe saying, ‘Okay, I think it’s time to do a solo project.’ That was around 2017 or 2018. And then that’s when Janette King kinda came through. 

Then in 2019, I put out an EP titled 143, which means “I love you” in MSN Messenger code. I’m that ’90s kid. 

DM: Your music is very clearly informed by ’90s club music .And lyrically, it’s very straightforward. We can understand exactly what you’re talking about all the time. How much of that is intentional? And how do you kind of bring the poetic aspect to that level of transparency?

King: I think when I started out writing poetry, I remember making the decision. Like, I remember being a 10-year-old little girl and making the decision to be very literal in my poetry. I remember this moment, actually, just like, sitting down at my notebook and being like, “No, I don’t really want to put metaphor into what I’m saying.”

Because I really want my messages to be clear and understood by everyone. And I think when you say exactly what you mean, anyways, people can interpret it in whatever way they choose, just because that’s how language is. I think that I think people themselves when they hear the music will create the poetry for themselves. You know what I mean? They’ll kind of weave whatever story they want to weave from what I’m talking about for themselves. 

I think it’s really important to me to, like, say exactly what is in my heart and exactly how I’m feeling. It’s so funny, I was actually in an interview the other day where I was explaining to the interviewer that I’m not a poetic lyricist. Like, I don’t say, ‘Oh, the mountains/ and the sky opens.’  Like, I don’t. I’m more like, ‘You walked into the room at 3 a.m. And I knew from the look on your face….whatever. You know? 

DM: As I listen more to this project, it finds its own poetry, as you were saying. At some point, it stops being like, “Wow, she’s so straightforward,” and it’s just like, this is this artist. This is Janette King. And on top of that, the beats and the production are so fucking cool on this album. Please tell me a little bit about how this music came together.

King: From the production element, it’s kind of like a compilation of a bunch of my friends, really. It’s me and a bunch of my friends coming together to write this album together. So it’s pretty obviously eclectic because of that. I think that we all blended our different styles together, in the creation of the beats for this album. And the bass was done by all of us working on different songs. So it’s funny because it’s not a band, but it felt like it at different times. Because we all have different sounds and different ways that we like to produce our music. And somehow it sounds cohesive, and I don’t know how that happened (laughs)

DM: I love the ’90s-style club drum packs just dropping every now and then. Fuck, it’s so good. 

King: Honestly, that’s inside my soul. And I feel like it’s inside of the souls of the producers that I worked with.

DM: Did you play any instruments as you were growing up? Or did you just kind of learn about composition as you were working on projects? 

King: I taught myself guitar and I learned piano when I was studying jazz at Vancouver Community College. And on a good day, with a few beers, I can play some pretty good drums

And I think it definitely helps in terms of the language when I’m communicating with different producers, just being like, “Oh, that C minor chord would be nice with like a nine on top.” To be able to say things like that really helps.

DM: Let’s talk about dance music for a minute. Where does your love affair with that ’90s club sound come from?

King: For me, it came from my love of dance. And I think dance is what led me to all these different types of music. I entered into house music through learning house dance. And, you know, I’m also a DJ. So my own research into finding these types of music came from that, as well. I found house music — or, I should say, it found me — and then I just fell in love. And I just had to learn more and explore that world. So it really came from dance.

DM: That’s really cool. So like, straight up, your instructors would have mix CDs playing in class?

King: Yeah, they would be like, “Okay, warmup time!” And they would put on a track and we would all just be, like, “What the fuck is this?” And then that’s how it becomes intergenerational. Music that’s good will withstand the test of time. Music that’s good becomes classic. I can’t remember what the Top 40 songs were from last year, but if you want me to name a really sick-ass ’90s R&B track, I can.

DM: And how did you decide about what themes you wanted to talk about on the record? 

King: I decided what I wanted to talk about on the album based on what was actually happening in my life. Dealing with a loved one who is going through addiction, or feeling like I’m kind of losing my identity or questioning reality, even — things that I was experiencing just kind of came through.

The thing that I wanted to portray in that song (album closer “Found a Way,” which deals with a friend’s struggle with addiction) I can only observe from an outsider perspective, not actually having experienced that myself. But it seemed to me like he really just wanted to find a way out. 

And it’s not like it was a personal thing that he was trying to do to me. It was more just like, “I really need an escape.” That’s what I really wanted to come through. I think that some people see (addict behaviour) as a personal attack, or see it as like, “They’re doing something to me,” or “They’re not honest with me!” When it’s really just about that person needing to find their way out of it.

I think it’s really important to take into consideration the light with the dark in life in general, for sure. Like, there aren’t more good than bad people. They are just people that do good and bad things. 

DM: I heard someone say recently that they’d never want to be judged by either their best or worst day. 

King: That’s pretty Taoist. (And judgment is) part of the human condition. But that’s the Taoist way. Like, you don’t see a leaf and think of it as a good leaf or a bad leaf. It’s a leaf, you know? 

When good things happen to you, it’s just a thing that’s happening. We put all these pressures on ourselves, and all these judgments, and they just rip us apart, eventually. And to reconcile that takes a lot of inside work.

DM: Last thing: how excited are you to play this stuff out live?

King: I can’t wait. And what I’m gonna do is incorporate dance into my live performance. That’s what’s gonna happen. ■

Janette King performs at at Parc Riverain de Lachine (600 Chemin des Iroquois, Lachine) on Saturday, August 7, 5 p.m. as part of FME de l’Avent. She will also be performing at FME in Rouyn-Noranda, Sept. 2–5. For more about What We Lost by Janette King, please visit her website.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.