|The Daily Journal
Johnson County, Indiana
September 16, 1999
On The Beat
Critics' favor gives Mary Janes shot at national exposure
For an artist who has some momentum and general buzz going her way, Janas Hoyt seems oddly humble in her goals and cautious when quizzed about her work and life.
It's not that there's nothing to talk about. This summer - after a couple years of piecemeal recording and various delays - the Bloomington resident and her band, the Mary Janes, finally released their debut album, Record No. 1. The folk-flavored collection on the small Delmore label immediately won accolades from such prestigious corners as the Chicago Reader, Seattle Weekly, Salon.com and No Depression, the newsletter of the so-called alternative country genre.
The Mary Janes play Saturday at The Willard in Franklin, but then they're off on a couple months of fairly serious touring, seeking new ears from Wisconsin and Missouri to New York and North Carolina. Meanwhile, Hoyt has gained further attention for her vocal work on John Mellencamp's most recent release, Rough Harvest.
But Hoyt, who also is juggling a home life that includes a 4-year-old son, is not the hard-sell, self-promoting type.
Until recently, she felt it presumptuous to call herself a songwriter, thinking "that I couldn't presume to write songs that were of the level of the people that I revere."
She's not sure how many copies of Record No. 1 were pressed, and she has no particular target for sales. She simply wants to be successful enough for her bandmates to quit their day jobs. "We're all musicians, and we'd like to not be doing anything else," the guitarist/vocalist says.
Now in her late 30s, Hoyt graduated from Indianapolis' North Central High School and went to IU, but later dropped her studies to pursue music. She first became known to regional audiences in the early '90s as a member of the Vulgar Boatmen, the Indianapolis roots-pop outfit that generated international praise if not much commercial success.
Although the Mary Janes as an entity dates back a few years, it only recently solidified into the current lineup of Mark Minnick on drums, Dan Hunt on bass and Heather Craig on violin.
The album, on the other hand, features a cast of a dozen musicians who contributed everything from viola to cello to harmonica to pedal steel. It was recorded over a period of about two years on discounted time at Bloomington's famed Echo Park studios, and it is being distributed nationally through an arrangement with Steve Earle's E-Squared label.
Despite the country and folk vibes of the acoustic instruments, several tracks have a radio-friendly pop feel. One obvious AAA-format single would be "She Flies Away," a bright tune with a harmonica hook and clever wordplay about a free spirit who leaves the domestic world behind, or at least dreams about it: "She takes to the road and she ties it in a bow / and she wears it round her neck like a charm."
But the Mary Janes wouldn't open their album with such an easy choice. Instead, Record No. 1 begins audaciously with "Shooting Star," which clocks in at 7:41. The dreamy epic begins with a lone guitar and gradually adds strings, piano and other elements to create a huge, gorgeous wash of sound.
At other times, the album's violins and Hoyt's lilting voice evoke a vaguely Celtic atmosphere, as on "Never Felt Better."
The range of sounds has been a Rorschach test for critics, who have compared the band to everyone from the Velvet Underground - whom Hoyt cites as a particular influence - to the Cowboy Junkies and R.E.M.
The disc probably would appeal to folks who bought Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road last year, and might even please some Sheryl Crow fans. Occasionally, the strings verge on chamber music territory, and coupled with Hoyt's delicate enunciation, the songs call to mind the solo work of another former Mellencamp collaborator, Lisa Germano.
And since we're on the subject, what was it like to be brought in as a hired gun for Indiana's best-known rocker?
True to form, Hoyt is not keen to name-drop or capitalize overtly on the Mellencamp connection. "I don't like to talk about that," she says cryptically. "That takes me through a world that I don't want to exist in."
Pressed for an answer of any sort, she admits she gained something from the brief experience of working on Rough Harvest: "a feeling of confidence or focus. A feeling that you can walk into a situation and do what you say you do."
To reveal much more, however, would be selling herself in the way Hoyt wants to avoid, opening that "big Pandora's box of merchandising" that runs counter to the quiet spirit of songwriting.
Besides, it's not Hollywood time yet. On a day-to-day basis, Hoyt is occupied with the comfortable patterns of marriage and motherhood. The Mary Janes have nearly enough new tracks in the can for a second album, but plans are up in the air. She won't say when it might be released, or what label it might be on.
You just never know.
"It might be good to record a few more songs," Hoyt says. "It's a process, and it involves a certain amount of money."
Find out more about the Mary Janes at www.themaryjanes.com.
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