|The Daily Journal, Johnson County, IN
February 22, 2001
New album is deeply personal for Bloomington artist Rather than running from the darkness of the past, sometimes it's better to turn around and shine a light on it.
Bloomington songwriter Janas Hoyt has done just that with Flame, the new album from her violin-driven folk-rock band, the Mary Janes. Having fought through the pain of revealing herself, Hoyt hopes to put some demons to rest.
"I've been really frightened about these songs," she admits. "I'm starting to feel better. I feel like maybe it's a release."
Expect Flame to get some attention. Hoyt has critical cachet as a former member of the Vulgar Boatmen and a studio vocalist for John Mellencamp. The Mary Janes' 1999 album, Record No. 1, earned high praise from some of the nation's most respected music publications. Ironically, Hoyt had already lost some of her enthusiasm for the recordings, which had been languishing for three years because of label difficulties.
The momentum is in her favor this time. The new album holds the promise of a commercial breakthrough, and it should at least cement Hoyt's stature with critics, showcasing her development as a writer and vocalist. The past few years of hectic touring have seen her voice, once locked into an ethereal whisper, explode into a versatile musical instrument that coos, growls and wails with earthy abandon.
Flame's credits are a who's who of the Midwest rock scene, with contributions from 18 musicians including Mellencamp veteran Toby Myers, John Prine sideman Jason Wilber and acclaimed Michigan songwriter Jim Roll. Heather Craig, Megan Weeder and Kathy Kolata supply violins and viola. Dennis Scoville conjures up heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes with his pedal steel guitar.
Much of the album was recorded at home with rented equipment. More tracks were recorded at Farm Fresh Studios in Bloomington, where co-owner Jacob Belser also oversaw the mixing and is credited as co-producer.
The release is on Indianapolis independent label Flat Earth Records, known for its support of roots-oriented artists; and the Mary Janes already have 50 live dates scheduled in the eastern United States before summer.
This weekend brings a round of local release parties: 10 p.m. Friday at the Cellar Lounge in Bloomington; 10 p.m. Saturday at the Melody Inn in Indianapolis; and an in-store acoustic performance at 4 p.m. Saturday at Luna Music in Indy.
Flame will be released nationally on March 20 and sooner at Indianapolis and Bloomington retail locations and at www.milesofmusic.com. Independent promoters have been enlisted to tout the disc to radio stations, which should have plenty to choose from with this mix of frenetic rock, twangy country and dreamy pop.
"We're giving this record a much bigger push," Hoyt says. "We're going to see what happens."
One problem Hoyt faces is that, although the area's top players are happy to work in the studio with her, she can't afford to retain them for live performances. Drummer Jamey Reid, for example, is much in demand from Carrie Newcomer, Jennie DeVoe and other acts that simply have a stronger cash flow.
On the other hand, simple logistics will force Hoyt to make many appearances with a stripped-down version of the band.
"Until I get a bigger van, I have to forfeit a bass player or a drummer," she quips.
She is pleased, however, that violinist Weeder will be joining the live ensemble. In the Mary Janes, the strings fill the role that guitars would play in a more conventional rock band, Hoyt says. Craig, a stalwart of the live group, no longer will bear that burden alone.
"That's a real core Mary Janes sound, having two string players working in counterpoint," Hoyt says. "Sometimes the strings will support a vocal line the way that a vocal harmony would. So those strings really cover a lot of ground."
Flame also is a turning point for Hoyt as a lyricist. Emotional struggle and redemption is a general theme in this full hour of music, which closes with an exuberant cover of Tom Petty's "Free Girl Now."
At times, however, the journey is harrowing. "Bruises and Breaks" is a plainly stated tale of a woman who flees an abusive marriage and loses custody of a child in the process.
The subject matter explains Hoyt's initial apprehension about releasing the album. This story, she admits, is her own.
"It's a direct tale of escaping him and what it cost me," she says. "It cost me my son."
Though still leery of sharing too much detail, Hoyt says her experience was like that of countless other women. She married young, impulsively, and the relationship disintegrated into a nightmare of abuse and control.
"It's a very classic story," she says. "It's a bad TV movie."
Hoyt explores the subject from a more universal perspective in the album's centerpiece track, the six-minute country ballad "Subtract the Night." As Scoville's pedal steel creates its own mournful narrative, Hoyt advances the notion that those who cause calculated pain to others face two possible paths: Own up to the past and begin the healing process, or deny it and be complicit in all the world's suffering:
As it stands, all over the world
The same bully boy hits the same unwitting girl
Women cry and women fall
And you might as well be the cause of it all
"We help each other heal by being honest," Hoyt explains. "By living in denial of this horrible thing, it just makes it keep happening every day in some way."
In a decade as a songwriter and even longer as a working musician, Hoyt until now had never directly addressed her experience in her music. She is gradually coming to feel the catharsis she was hoping for.
"We did these songs, and I have had to deal with this in a way that I haven't had to deal with it before," she says. "And I do feel better. It's like, 'Hey! Hey! It really works!'"
Given the critical anticipation for the new album, Hoyt has been steeling herself for the inevitable questions about the lyrics and her past. She wants to respond honestly, while allowing the songs to speak for themselves.
"I'm still trying to practice how to talk about this stuff," she says.
Her confidence is bolstered, however, by the support system she now has. At the center is her husband of seven years, Rob Westcott, who also manages much of the Mary Janes' business. They have a 6-year-old son, who has gone a long way toward redeeming the losses of Hoyt's previous life.
"We called him Justice, because I feel like this is God's justice," she says. "Just being able to get up every day and look at Rob and Justice, that's everything. Everything else is gravy."