INTERVIEW: Janey's Sarah Otto - "Making music isn’t something I do, it’s a place that I live"
Australian brother-sister duo Janey, comprised of Sarah and Billy Otto, released their first single ‘Today Could Be The Day’ in 2016, which was featured on a major commercial for Jetstar. Since then the band have been busy pursuing solo careers, with Sarah writing professionally for Native Tongue Publishing and while Billy has been touring the world as a solo artist. In April, they released their first new music in 3 years with the glorious, synth-pop, 1980s drenched party starter single ‘L.A.’, with their debut EP expected to follow later this year. We recently sat down and chatted to Sarah about Janey, their music and the joys and struggles of being an artist.
Hi Sarah! So good to chat with you. How is everything in the world of Janey?
Hello Women In Pop! Haha, the Janey world is good, thank you for asking. Honestly, it’s been amazing having my brother finally living in the same city as me. Billy and I are not only siblings and bandmates, but we’re besties. So it’s been great to finally be in the same room, writing, dreaming and hosting some epic healthy buckwheat pancake feasts together.
Our release of ‘L.A.’ has been a very special step for us. We’ve been blown away and humbled by the global support that we have received. Our release show at the Sly Fox in Enmore was a near sellout and the new music just feels SO energising to play live. So everything is feeling right in the Janey world.
Can you tell me a little about how Janey started?
The foundations for Janey were laid some time ago when my brother Billy and I were just kids singing 4 part harmony in our cute ‘Von Trapp-esque’ family band. When our Dad put down the guitar, retiring the family band, our obsession with music got a bit out of hand. Through the years, and through many different iterations, we’ve always found ourselves doing music to some degree.
Janey, however, came about at a time when Billy was touring the world with his solo project and I was writing more pop-esque music for commercial use for Native Tongue, with my long time friend and producer, Lindsey Jackson (Tori Kelly, Jessica Mauboy). I sent the demos to Billy when he was based in Brazil, and he was like, “why the heck aren’t you performing these songs live? I’ve ALWAYS wanted to be in a band with you. Let’s do something with this electronic dream pop thing!” Billy and I started jamming the existing songs and then writing our own songs from scratch. The chemistry has always felt really natural.
Your most recent single ‘L.A.’ is absolutely glorious! It has an amazing 1980s vibe, what music inspired you when making the track?
Haha, thank you. We actually never intended for Janey to sound ‘80s’ as such, it just happens to be the sound that we like right now! We’re huge fans of bands that carry that 80’s nostalgia with synths and vocal conviction. For ‘L.A.’ we drew deeply from the inspiration well of Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Haim, The Killers and Bleachers. Billy began the genesis of the track whilst ruminating on Springsteens ‘Born in the USA’ and The Ramones ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’.
Are you both big fans of the 1980s music scene? What artists from that period do you like?
Yeah, we love it. We grew up on a healthy diet of Michael Jackson, and we love to dance. Over the past two years my brother and I have been bathing in the sounds of New Order, Cyndi Lauper, Tears for Fears, Hall and Oates, Bowie, and of course, Prince! Writing in this genre, however, is a new thing for us.
Growing up we stayed within the folk vortex. Our dad is a huge James Taylor, John Denver, Garth Brooks and Clapton guy, and he really taught us how to sing in harmonies from a young age channelling that roots-Americana warmth. I dunno, maybe we just got a little bit bored of playing acoustic guitars and banjos and wanted to make something more ‘big’. As soon as Billy cranks ‘Kiss’ by Prince in his beaten up VW van, it’s like a possession takes us over and we just feel like its our space. The outrageous, lush, ethereal, alien and anthemic nature of 80’s music makes you feel like you’re in some extraterrestrial jet-stream… or something. Haha!
The lyrics of the song is about the struggles artists have chasing their dreams – often living in poverty and having to suffer countless setbacks in the quest to make it big. Is this based on your personal experience, observations or both?
Yeah, the primary concept of the song centres around the idea of “L.A.” And that is, as an almost mythical city, the sonic hub of the world, the home to thousands of artists who believe that being there could help them get their ‘break’.
There’s definitely some personal ties to the song. Billy and I always dreamed of having a band together. After all the plethora of university degrees and career jobs that we have dabbled with, we’ve kind’ve peer pressured each other into doing music together as a full time thing. This egging each other on is a really beautiful innocent peer pressure between siblings. We genuinely believe in each other and what we could achieve.
Billy wholeheartedly wrote the sketch demo of the track as a declaration of us both everything on the line for our sonic ambition as songsmiths. However, I took the sentiment from the original idea but flipped it on its head. For me, the city of Los Angeles represents the artist struggle. A place where people will live on a shoestring budget, face endless rejection, battle with sense of self, and put the rest of their lives on the line, all for a chance at ‘the big league’. As songwriters we’ve experienced copious amounts of disappointments/hopes/rejections/euphoria/setbacks/better-shows/shit-shows. So the song as it is ties both of those two realities together.
The lyrics and video clip can get a little darker than our personal experience though, moving it into more of an observation. We’ve both never been truly poor or written music out of a deeply depressed state after doing lots of drugs. We’re middle class suburban kids who eat really healthy and like books. I think we wrote the song in its entirety in an analysis of what we see and hear from our friends and media.
So yeah, today, the song ‘L.A.' represents the dichotomy between two realities. The euphoria of chasing the dream, while still going through the trauma and struggle to get there. While the song is sonically overwhelmingly positive, you will notice at a closer look that the song leans toward sarcasm, and is almost a parody of the artist dream, with lyrics like, “Take me… Break me… Fake me, City of Angels”.
What is it about the music industry that makes artists put themselves through such hardships in order to achieve a music career?
I think a lot of us artists see art making as nourishment. Making music isn’t something I do, it’s a place that I live. Music is my channel to the universe. As Abba once penned:
“Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty, What would life be? Without a song or a dance what are we? So I say thank you for the music, for giving it to me”.
I can’t live without my craft. Thus, although the industry can be difficult to penetrate, and although the ups and downs occur on the regular, music is a life force and I feel like I need to push through as a brace custodian to share a song worth singing about.
With the countless opportunities open to musicians now – Spotify, YouTube, social media – do you think it is easier or harder to break into music now than it may have been ten, twenty years ago?
Music-making is happening at a more saturated level than ever before in the history of our planet. And it’s now about online streaming platforms - and every teenager in their bedroom studio is trying to land a place on a trending Spotify playlist. As team Janey I think we are more excited and hopeful than despondent about the current opportunities for indie musicians. People all over the world can hear your music and access your brand with one click. Social media gives interested folk and fans such intimate access into the band - and this wasn’t an option 20 years ago. I think the challenge is now to bring something different to the table with branding, live shows, sound and messaging. Billy and I don’t want to be thrown into ‘cool for coolness sake’ indie band category out there. If we’re going to be seen as cool we’d prefer to be ‘cool for a cause’; women’s rights, animal rights, ocean guardianship, mental health - these are messages and themes in our branding and I think it’s really helped to set us just a little bit apart from everything else that is happening with indie pop music.
Being half-Malaysian, we really want to break into the Asian market. And with the internet, this is a reality for us now.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to achieving and sustaining a career in the music industry?
Hmmmm, money! My husband and I have our own online health company. The success of our business has opened up resource to help feed Janey - and this is a cool thing because it means that Billy and I can really focus on writing music that we actually like, songs that actually say something without us having to compromise with the desires of a large record label.
But yeah, my attention at the moment is divided, and that’s tough for me. Billy is also producing bands for a living to make ends meet. I know that if money wasn’t an issue that he’d freakin’ love to be creating ideas for Janey and his own project everyday.
In Australia I think it’s difficult to make a real living as an indie band. After all our overheads, we don’t really make much money from playing live shows. And we know that streaming platforms aren’t going to pay off your mortgage unless you’re playing at a really high level. I think being signed to a good publisher has been key for some of my success - having a couple of my songs getting sync deals with brands like Jetstar and Netflix shows has been lucrative. I think this is a largely untapped into area that songwriters should be considering. There’s definitely money to be made by having songs placed in the commercial space.
You are a songwriter and producer with Native Tongue, what advice do you have for the young artists you work with on how to sustain a career in the music industry?
Write songs everyday. Write in collaboration with writers you like. Songs are currency. And the more you write with other people who are awesome, the more your sonic flavour cross-pollinates into the songwriting atmosphere. I also think pitching is really important and Native Tongue has really taught me that. More artists need to find channels in which their songs can be pitched to creative agencies and corporate bodies. So find a publisher that believes in you and has connections. Or work harder and get better until they do.
How do you find the work you do with Native Tongue inspires the work you do with Janey?
Writing for Native Tongue was actually key in the creation of Janey. These songs were born out of writing for a fun ad brief. I really like writing to briefs. It can really get you out of a creative rut or out of feeling too comfortable in a certain sound. That certainly was the case for me. Before I started writing for ads, I wrote mostly melancholy folk music. If you’ve heard any Janey songs, they’re anything but that!! Getting me out my usual creative patterns made me realise I actually LOVE synth. That I actually LOVE a big pop anthem. That I LOVE music that makes you move. That was a really cool discovery for me.
Is it ever difficult to ‘give away’ a song you write for another artist and not record it yourself?
Thankfully not yet. When I approach a song, knowing that I’ll give it away, I’m a little more detached from it. It’s like babysitting a puppy I guess. You love it, but you know at some point you gotta give it back. Ha ha!
There has been a lot of debate within the entertainment industry over the last year or so on gender equality and sexism. What is your view on this topic from the perspective of not just performer, but also ‘behind the scenes’ as a writer and producer?
Yeah it’s interesting. It doesn’t take long to realise that us gals are super outnumbered, particularly in the production space. A lot of the time, as a female musician, it feels like you have to work harder to prove yourself, which is a frustrating and intimidating feeling. But I think that’s slowly changing. As our numbers in this space rise, I think the perception of female aptitude will become more of a given. In the meantime, we just have to do the hard yards, put ourselves out there, and support and cheer each other on throughout the process.
The debut EP from Janey will be out later this year, what can we expect to hear on it?
The songs are more honest and compelling than anything else we’ve ever released. We definitely go there with the ethereal dream pop thing, but we also take a step deeper and softer through some lush groove pop tunes too. Our next single “Hurts Me Like Hell” is a lot more reflective and ‘feely’ than ‘L.A.’ I think Taylor Swift fans might like it.
What else do you have planned for the rest of 2019?
We have more new songs coming this year! We have another two ready to go in the next few months. Planning to release an EP before the close of 2019. We’ve got a full band playing with us which is going to be flipping mental! We LOVE live shows and think there’s nothing more exhilarating than a live interplay between a band and a doting audience.