Janine Foster is a well-polished new gem in a local music scene that is already almost groaning with a luxurious richness of more-than-capable female singer/songwriters. She describes her music as a combination of hip hop beats, ethereal indie layers, soulful R&B vocals, hope, pain, love and blessings. Others rightly describe her voice as being full of raw emotion and flawless control – the combination sweeping her into the final three of 2013’s Critics Choice Award, despite being resident in New York for most of the year. An NYC enthusiast herself, Briar Vivian caught up with the woman we already know better as Janine and the Mixtape, a name she chose in part to reflect the rawness and attitude of hip hop, plus that she is herself a little tough, a little soft and loves basketball.
I heard about Janine and the Mixtape when I was in New York earlier this year. Given the context with which she was spoken of, I was surprised not to have heard of her back home. It gripped my imagination for a New York minute, a solo Kiwi female artist making new wave RnB and getting recognition in NYC.
Back in Auckland, I guess the impression stuck and happily I met up with Janine. I head to our rendezvous early, but she is earlier. Really not rock’n’roll – rather really polite and chill. Acoustics/credit card facilities prohibitive at the first two spots, third time lucky we sit at a café and talk.
There is a lot to be said for and to learn from this lady and her evolution to this point as an artist. Most were likely introduced to via her nomination for the NZ Music Awards’ Critics’ Choice Award for 2013. I’m not sure how the critics narrow things down to a final three, but Janine and the Mixtape is very much a stand-alone and stand out choice. Backed by drummer Joel Bremner she literally wowed the crowd with her confident and polished set, her pleasure in performance and the recognition as a finalist very tangible. Sheep, Dog & Wolf won, but you’d have to imagine it was a close run thing.
Musical from a young age, it was in Janine Foster’s early west Auckland teens, coping with trauma and needing an outlet, that a capacity to turn dark into light was effected. On the release of ‘Dark Mind’, her tellingly-titled first EP in June this year, she provided this insight.
“These songs are truly a piece of my heart, soul and stories. The EP is about taking something horrible and turning it into something beautiful.”
A close listen (it’s eye-glazingly great in headphones) brings appreciation of her journey and its current manifestation, which she readily explains in person.
“It was really important to me, my story had to be told first… before I could move on or develop. I need people to understand that I have come through this, it has made me a strong woman and now my choices to do what I do are MY choices, not because someone else has said, ‘Oh you need to be more sexual, or you need to be more fun or playful.’ It’s like if I’m doing these things it’s because I want to do them.”
She is her own boss, a fact further evidenced by her choice of stage name. The moniker was cleverly adopted to distinguish a shift in direction for Foster. As she has said elsewhere, she wanted something a little different, because she is a little different.
Using her full name as singer/songwriter ceased to represent the alternative RnB style Janine has forged, a more hip hop produced bass sound and the live performance which grew out of, but away from her early gigs at Auckland open mic nights from age 14. If Janine’s current music were viewed as a body, hip hop beats make up the bones, indie synth layers are the body and flesh, while her incredibly strong RnB vocals are the soul of her creations.
Studying music at Auckland University was a period of experimentation and elimination, working with looping pedals on her vocals and guitar, and finding her way to synth via borrowed keyboards.
“Going through music school everyone is trying to do their thing and I just wanted to be able to play shows with my friends. But I didn’t really fit with them, and the more I tried to fit… the less appealing I think I was.”
She says it was a difficult process to find herself there, working through the strong influence of those around her. At that point folk / indie music was predominant, while Janine was leaning to the electronic, owing to her longstanding influences and love of hip hop and RnB. It is just in the last two years she says she started making music that she wants to listen to, and to be comfortable with her sound.
“My whole thinking has changed, so I can’t even relate to what I used to think, but I remember feeling the fact that I was a girl from Whenuapai, that I couldn’t be making hip hop music – and RnB was considered by a lot of people around me to be corny and not something you spoke about liking – which is so weird to me now, because I’m so proud of it. I love RnB, I love that I can make hip hop beats.”
Unable to always perform with a band, and crucial to Janine and the Mixtape’s progression, Foster turned her hand to the production of backing tracks to perform to. She produces in Logic.
“I record most of my synths and… nothing is sort of ‘in the box,’ it’s all generally real instruments. Then I have beats that I sample…”
She muses over limitations when it comes to creative process.
“Sometimes the biggest blessing is to have less, because you make it work, I mean my Macbook is six years old and it crashes all the time.
“When away from home I didn’t have synths to borrow from friends, or players… so I ended up singing my instruments in… and adjusting the voice until it sounded like an instrument. So I had quite a lot of stuff that made my production actually have its own style.”
Vocals and a few instrument tracks for her ‘Dark Mind’ EP were recorded at Roundhead Studios in Auckland. Janine made the beats and went into the studio with friends on bass, keys and drums. Later she would cut it, bedroom production style. With the key strength in her dynamic vocal ability, the music is a platform to carry her voice, though she achieves beautifully crafted soundscapes, which provide an experience of depth and dimension in audio.
“I like to think of everything almost as a painting, like the sounds will swirl from left to right, they will move around.”
A relentless work ethic and striving through personal and musical evolution seems to drive Janine. Not wanting to fall away from music into a day job life once out of university, she set her sights on performing in NYC, then worked and saved to get there. Via email she independently lined up a bunch of shows, including a residency at the popular NYC teeth-cutter, Pianos, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was a month long trip that drew wide approval and developed a taste.
“You might have niches here [NZ], but they are just so much bigger there, and I probably didn’t appreciate what we had to offer here… I was gonna go for the easy encouragement of what people had said to me over there …
“You would walk down the road and people will be like, ‘What’s up mami?’ Or, ‘You look nice today,’ you know, people just do that on a general basis. Same with when you do music, they will come up and say, ‘That was amazing, I’m impressed.’ Here people play it cool, so it was probably a little boost that I needed.
“So when I came back here… I felt like that’s where I needed to be, and you know, turns out… I did really need to be there.”
Eighteen months later Janine went back to the US on a year-long, postgraduate visa. A more testing version of reality met her, and an involuntary appreciation of the $1.50 bagel and filter coffee combo.
“Life was very different the year that I lived there as opposed to the trip I did the first time, because you’re right in it and it’s all real. I learnt a lot of hard lessons… a lot of things went really bad, but at the same time I was still creating and that was good, and I was still meeting people… Pulling myself out of that, being able to set up a life, it made me more sure of who I am, and a lot stronger, and it’s all been very, very important and necessary for the music and for the people I have met through it.”
The singer/ songwriter/ producer/ instrumentalist/ videographer is also shrewdly self-managing, and through connections Janine managed to catch the attention of some important blogs which backed her. Billboard, Complex and Vibe posted several times as she released singles from the EP and new video work.
“That was pretty big for me because I had always wanted to be on that.”
Vibe, the first to post, invited her in for a chat. Impressed with her passion, hearing of her experiences and seeing how far she had come doing it alone, their response was, ‘We wanna help, how can we help?’ A solo dance in her Brooklyn kitchen ensued.
A VH1 reality series surrounding a tattoo parlor in Harlem, Black Ink Crew, played and credited ‘Dark Mind’ during a major moment, which brought on 30-50,000 thousand plays and thousands of new followers online.
With such breakthroughs, Janine misses having her people around. She speaks gratefully and respectfully of her family and the fellow musicians who have supported her.
“Whatever you define success as doesn’t really mean anything unless you have people you care about to celebrate it with and people who understand it… coming home is amazing.”
She found it a great honour to have been nominated for the Critic’s Choice Award, saying it was a lovely feeling to know people have been listening here.
Having returned home just ahead of the live performance final in mid-November she is sticking around NZ for the rest of summer, working on new music, new videos and performing. She hopes to return to the States next year, hopefully for a festival or two. The overarching goal is to continue to create, travel with and survive off of her Mixtape creations.
“It’s funny how I have grown up in the opposite world, in a completely different world, and yet how well I fit, completely organically fit. It’s actually quite scary. It’s like, ‘Was this my life in another life?’ And without trying – I am not trying to be anything. For some reason this is where I fit, my voice has a natural urban inclination to it anyway. Naturally we fit in in certain places, it’s crazy that it can be so far away.”
She does see a certain openness and realness in New Zealanders that has held her in good standing, a quality that not found as easily in the USA.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am or probably fit in that scene if I had grown up in the States. I definitely appreciate my roots and upbringing in NZ, and the NZ music scene and the open mics. All of that shaped me and what I am creating now.
“Music is a means to do good, to do something that’s bigger than just myself, or bigger than the music. It is about a bigger purpose, without the bigger purpose I don’t feel necessary.”