Currently on the smooth jazz charts with her sultry debut single “Enjoy the Silence,” the native of Helsinki, Finland—who is making her Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival debut this month—has come full circle from her days as an award-winning teen superstar in her native country  

By Jonathan Widran

Every October thousands of smooth jazz fans from across the country flock to the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival to see their favorite artists, but often it’s the talented newcomers who generate the most buzz and excitement. This year, all eyes and ears will be on Janita, the 27-year-old beauty from Finland whose sultry voice has been all over smooth jazz radio this summer with her sensuous debut single “Enjoy the Silence.” 

Janita has played a few live dates since the May release of her breakthrough album Seasons of Life, most notably sharing a June 24 bill with Brian Culbertson and Nick Colionne at the Mable House Barnes Amphitheatre in Atlanta. She also performed Sept. 29 and 30 at Quincy’s Jazz Café in Houston. But her real coming-out party happens in Catalina with performances on the festival’s second and third weekends. Janita and her band––which includes musicians who have played with some of her top musical influences, including Meshell Ndegeocello and India.Arie––hit the stage Saturday afternoon, Oct. 14, and the final night of the festival, Sunday, Oct. 22.

While fans can expect a lot of sexy vocals, neo-soul textures and emotional lyrics (as on her second single, “I Miss You”), one thing Janita won’t have is performance jitters. She may be a new voice in the smooth jazz world, but the stage has been her home since she was in her early teens, when her debut album was released on a Finnish label and she became an immediate sensation in her native country. From ages 13 to 17, she toured Finland, won two Emma Awards (the Finnish equivalent to the Grammy) and was the spokeswoman for a government-sponsored anti-drug campaign. When she was 15 she was voted “the most sensual woman in Finland” by readers of one of the country’s popular weekly magazines.

“The music I was making back then was much more pop-oriented than the adult contemporary style I embrace today,” says Janita, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

“But the funny thing is that unless you smoke, which I don’t, the voice doesn’t change much after that age, so the quality of my vocals is the same. I think the biggest difference now is that I’ve found my own voice and I write my own songs with Tomi Sachary, the producer who signed me to his label when I was 13. 

“Finding my own voice as a writer was a wonderful revelation,” she adds, “and, obviously, over the last 10 years since moving to the U.S., I’ve grown up and have a lot more life experience to draw from. The other thing I like better about being a smooth jazz star than a Finnish pop star is the freedom to be anonymous in a big country. Back then, I rarely had any time to myself and couldn’t even relax and read books, which I love to do. I was always on a tour bus. I enjoyed that life, but it’s easier now. Nobody’s watching over my shoulder and I feel liberated in many ways.”

Janita’s transition from Finnish superstar to budding smooth jazz star has taken 10 years. At 17, she moved with Sachary to New York and, thanks to his connections, quickly scored a deal with Sony Music. Being on a major label and working with many top R&B/pop producers would be a dream come true for most young artists, but for Janita it turned out to be the start of an education about the harsh realities of the music business. 

“This was before Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera came along,” she says, “and when the executive suites started shuffling as companies changed and merged, which happens all the time, some of the new guys didn’t understand the idea of a white Finnish singer doing R&B. So that first album I recorded was put on hold. Then when Britney hit, they wanted me to be like her, which wasn’t me at all. After two years with Sony, I didn’t feel it was a great place to be. I found that I had no say in what I wanted to do, no voice in any artistic decisions being made about my career.”

Another powerful event that happened during this time inspired Janita to realize the importance of staying true to her instincts and ambitions. She was walking down a Manhattan street one day when a piece of scaffolding fell from a construction site and hit her on the head and back. She was not badly injured, but her mind reeled for a long time afterward with the realization of just how fragile life is. She started writing poems and songs, and knew that if she was going to succeed, it would be with her own material.

While writing songs with Sachary as she tried to figure out what direction to take, Janita tried her hand at bartending and performing at underground jazz clubs and seedy East Village pubs. She put out one smooth jazz-oriented album during this time on an independent label. It got a bit of airplay, but the unfortunate timing of its release—two weeks prior to 9/11—hurt its chances for greater success. Her goal during that time was “simply about being happy, finding meaning and discovering my musical niche.

“Once you’re out there and getting more successful, it’s easy for people to gloss over the hard times,” she says, “but I spent a lot of time staring at the wall, wondering what I should do. It was an unfamiliar place for someone who had found stardom so easily and so young, but those times really helped me open up and become a true artist. Once I decided on my current style, Tomi and I got interest from major labels, but found that nobody was willing to take the risk. This type of project is harder to develop and establish, and majors are all about the bottom line. That makes me appreciate the commitment I have from Lightyear Entertainment and Arnie Holland (the label’s president). They are very dedicated to letting the world know about me.”

She continues, “I think that’s why I identified with the Depeche Mode song ‘Enjoy the Silence.’ It wasn’t a huge hit here, but it was a smash in the U.K. in 1990, so people don’t immediately say, oh, it’s just another cover song. Even though the rest of my album has original material, I felt it really represented my life as an artist and I wanted to launch with my re-interpretation of that song.”

While Janita spends a lot of her down time going out and socializing with friends, she truly does enjoy the silence when she finds it. She loves reading (19th century Russian author) Dostoevsky and books by Paul Auster, who writes about Brooklyn. She likes Dostoevsky’s dark and melancholy world because it reminds her of the Finnish culture and the beautiful but stark landscapes back home. She chose to settle in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan because the latter would have been too much of a transition from the smaller city of Helsinki, where she was raised. 

Considering herself a citizen of the world, she is also currently studying French. “Both in my career and personal life, my home is not in one place anymore, but it’s wherever I truly feel good,” Janita says. “I love Brooklyn because there are a lot of great restaurants and bars, and I love going out and having fun. During the times I was idle, I was always looking for that elusive peace of mind, and what truly works for me when I’m not reading is working, keeping my mind active and doing what I love, which is writing and singing. I also do yoga when I can. 

“Life is all about finding the right balance,” she adds, “and I am really looking forward to once again having the opportunity to sing and entertain people. In a way, my success in smooth jazz is like coming full circle. When I was 14, I was on a tour bus with 11 guys, joking with them all the time. And now I’m much older and wiser, but still out there, doing what I enjoy. Connecting with a whole new audience motivates me to keep writing great material, and it’s always so exciting meeting new people who tell me they’re inspired by my music and lyrics. That’s really what being a professional singer-songwriter is all about.”

Janita is scheduled to perform on Oct. 14, noon, and Oct. 22, 7pm, during the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival at the Avalon Casino Ballroom, 1 Casino Way, in Avalon, California. For tickets or more information, call (866) TRAX TIX, or log on to www.jazztrax.com.

For more information on Janita, visit her website at www.janita.com.

Discography


I’ll Be Fine
2001
(Carport)

Seasons of Life
2006
(Lightyear Entertainment)

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