Wanderer Session #38: Janet LaBelle
Filmed in New Brunswick, New Jersey
It's Wednesday, September 15th. I'm writing these words on pages and pages of Guest Check paper from the restaurant I work at. It's only been a few hours since I filmed a great Session with Janet and yet, I already know exactly what to say. Without looking at the footage, I already know exactly how charming the little videos will be. It's around 8:30 pm now and I'm serving nachos and beer to a group of businessmen, rowdy and sweaty after another hard day of signing checks and selling sales. I find myself missing her company.
It was around 12:00 pm today when I first met Janet LaBelle. I found her music through the maze of myspace pages indie musicians all have these days. It only took a couple of days and a handful of emails for us to set up our little rendezvous in New Brunswick. She's a pianist. Of course, the only accessible piano close enough to my house is in the student center of Douglass Campus at Rutgers. It was that old, black, grand piano so tried and tested by the mesmerizing Essie Jain when I filmed her a few months back. This time, it wasn't the summer. There will be loads of students studying, sleeping, or reading all over that room. How bold could she be feeling? I asked myself.
In comes Janet in her summer dress and cowgirl boots, lugging around a fat, red duffle bag full of her clothes and records on her arm and a Taylor guitar on her back. I stretched out my arm for a hand shake. She smiles and hugs me instead. Great start.
When we got to the piano room, she set her guitar down and scanned the room full of students. Janet was quiet while I started setting up my microphone. "Do you think we find an empty practice room instead?" she asks. "Maybe. This is the only piano we can get to that I know of," I said. She was still and stared at all the people sprawled on the couches while they read, people hunched over at their laptops, people having coffee peacefully by the windows. Sweet Janet was afraid of a pin dropping and rousing up this unlikely crowd bunkered around the piano. "Ok, let's go find another piano," I whispered to her. We skip away in a rush.
For a little over an hour, we zigzagged through the cramped hallways of the music building down the street from the student center. We found three pianos. One was inside a shining, brown rehearsal hall where a couple of old men were listening to some classical records, sometimes nodding their heads, sometimes playing along with the piano before a couple of students showed up. Another was busily occupied by a bunch of students in a music classroom the size of a dorm room. They were pointing and arguing and laughing at some notes scribbled on the board while one of them banged on the keys and filled the hallways that strangely had most of its lights off. The third was an old, beat up, soil-colored piano abandoned in the middle of an office wing next to some lockers. Janet perked up and and tried to play this piece of shit. Some of the black keys were missing and some of the white keys were stuck. But she smiled and joked around. "Maybe I can make this work." She taps the dirty keys with her little fingers. She was just happy to have found a solitary, secluded place with a piano, I thought.
Throughout this mad search for a piano, we spoke a lot. We traded stories of being a musician in New York, being a filmmaker in New Jersey, being a nanny for a living, being a waiter for a living, but being happy for the time to be creative. Janet had this in-between type of personality. At times she could be both serious and funny. Both charming and silly. We spoke of Elliott Smith and poetry while she pointed out squirrels and trees so spritely. We settled on knocking off two guitar songs while on the search for a suitable piano for the third.
The first she did was on the Kissing Bridge while the trees swayed and clapped above her head. There were some uncaring students taking a shortcut through the bridge to get to class. It was a tiny little crossing. They had no choice but to slow down a little and listen to Janet's lovely voice. The second song we filmed while she sat in the middle of another, tunnel-looking bridge. The trees swayed again and crowded the stained and cracked windows to get a glimpse of her playing guitar in the middle of the wooden pathway. There were more people hobbling to class all around her. Busy, busy, busy. I was in a trance for the filming. The light, the passerybys, the trees, the way she sat or stood in the midst of a busy school day and played guitar for the film was really entrancing. So entrancing that I've decided to leave the performances alone as they are. No editing this time. No need for voices. No need for other images or words. The three songs (counting the piano one she eventually did) are in limbo between a photograph and film. I fell in love with the videos already while I watched them unfold from the screen of my camera. No need, no need. They belong on their own like bubbles of the lovely time I spent with Janet.
It was already around 2:30 pm. It was way past the time I expected this Session to take. After the second song, I sat next to her in the middle of that tunnel bridge. We spoke of self-teaching guitar and having the guts to play at open mics where no one is really there to see you. "That's what that student center feels like," she says. "Well, maybe those kids are all so stressed about papers and exams. Maybe they need an unexpected song?" I asked. She smiled again and fiddled with her guitar while she thought about it. A few minutes later, we were back in that crowded piano room. I sat close to her on the stool. I could hear her breathing heavy. I asked if she wanted to go through with the song. "Yeah, I'm ready. Let's do this." She played a really epic performance of her song "Without You" and I was swept off. The album version is great but really, there's no replacing this solo performance. For a while, you could watch her and swear she was back in her own room playing that song for the first time with an "Ah-ha" tattooed on her lips. No replacing it. No reproducing it ever again. It was the culmination, the zenith of our day.
We sat outside after the song so she could put down her riled up nerves. A girl came out of the room and walked up to her. "I just want you to know you gave me chills," she said to Janet.
It was around 3:30 pm. We had some crepes at a tiny, pseudo-French cafe on Easton Avenue. Our talks revealed the fact that we have the same poetry mother, the sublime Susan L. Miller. We spoke too of her old band, "Avery," whom I've been busy trying to find old albums of. "I think I had an Avery song from years ago in my old ipod," I said, amused by this new, musical twist. "Yup. That's us! That was me!" she says. After lunch, I let her borrow my portable, CASIO keyboard and we spent some minutes inside an empty auditorium. There was another beat up piano there. I recognized this one. David from Via Audio dropped kicked it during their Wanderer Session. There was really no chance in hell that thing could be working right. The last image I have stuck in my head was Janet sitting cross-legged in that empty auditorium with my keyboard on her lap. She was trying to play me one of her old Avery song. I got to enjoy the few seconds of its beginning before we gave up and settled for doing another time. "Maybe one of these days, you'll film my full band?" Perfectly fine. Right when our meeting started, I knew I'd be looking for new reasons to see her again.