the mary janes

The Spectator, Raleigh, NC
September 22, 1999
Sound Check
Rick Cornell

Sweet Janes

Janas Hoyt explains getting to here from there with The Mary Janes

It's been an all-American kind of summer for Bloomington, Indiana's Janas Hoyt. First, her voice is all over a John Mellencamp release that came out not long ago - an album of rerecorded greatest hits - and it doesn't get much more red, white and blue than little pink houses. "Isn't that just a big ol' slice of America," offers Ms. Hoyt with a long-distance laugh. The night before our phone call, she sang the National Anthem before a baseball game in Indianapolis at a new ballpark called, get this, Victory Field.

But it's also been a painful summer for Janas Hoyt: in late July, her father, Philip Andrew Hoyt, passed away after a long battle with cancer. At the first show that Hoyt and her band The Mary Janes played after her father was laid to rest, Hoyt opened with an a cappella song that she had written named "The Kachina Song," its title a reference to the Hopi gods who transport loved ones to the clouds after their death. And several weeks later when she got the phone call about singing the National Anthem, she thought "that's something my dad would get a real kick out of... It was like he was hanging around, somehow pulling little strings here and there."

Those are the kind of actions and sentiments you'd expect from the person who is the reflective but spirited voice and pen behind The Mary Janes. The Bloomington-based foursome whose debut, the conveniently titled Record No. 1, represents the other big musical event in Janas Hoyt's summer of '99. Its release also represents the culmination of a long journey, as Hoyt and company actually began recording the album back in June of 1996. "You've got these people in a studio with six days and no money," she says. "What you're listening to is first or second takes of everything." The financial backing for the record then dried up and things sat for months. A session the next year yielded another six songs, and then more waiting. "The record took place over 2 to 3 years, and there were probably (only) 21 days spent on the record. It's strange because it sounds very heavily produced, but it was kind of like a slow-baking process."

With omnipresent strings (violin, viola and cello all make appearances) and Hoyt's appealingly airy vocals, on paper Record No. 1 seems like a candidate for floating away on a cloud of froth, but it remains adamantly earthbound thanks to a solid roots-, folk- and a vaguely Celt-rock anchor that can get downright crunchy at times. "Never Felt Better" and "Sigh to Signal" are both crash courses in how to capture the best of two worlds, beauty and the beat, and the former boasts one of my favorite opening stanzas of the year: "Well, I buckled my bows, tied off my debts/I howled at the moon, smoked a chain of cigarettes/I cut out my heart, spit it into the fire/Watched the steam rise." As a friend said, Record No. 1 is rock music for grown-ups.

The jumpy "Part of Me Now" is the song most reminiscent of a band in which Hoyt spent a number of years, cult favorites the Vulgar Boatmen. That outfit - part Velvet Underground and part Rolling Stones, if both had been gritty, soulful middle-American bands - was actually a tale of two states, as Indiana-based singer/ guitarist Dale Lawrence collaborated with Florida-based singer/ guitarist Robert Ray to gradually compose one rootsy pop/rock gem after another. In fact, The Mary Janes take their name from the opening song on the Vulgar Boatmen's 1989 beyond-swell debut You And Your Sister. And it was three years later that Hoyt and fellow boatwoman Kathy Kolata first started to visualize the concept of The Mary Janes.

The Boatmen and The Mary Janes both capture the "collective community" feel of the Bloomington music scene, with musicians being shared, folks sitting in with one band and then taking a seat in another band for a while. The underappreciated John P. Strohm has worked with The Mary Janes, helping Hoyt getting the record started, doing some engineering and playing on a few cuts, while Mysteries of Life drummer Freda Love (who was in the Blake Babies and Antenna with Strohm) held that slot in The Mary Janes for a while. And cofounder Kolata has left the band, come back, and left again. "It's a small town," explains Hoyt. "Everybody knows each other."

OK, but that doesn't necessarily mean that everybody knows the lyrics to every song by every Indianan, which apparently surprised some folks when Hoyt started those recording sessions with John Mellencamp. "I didn't know the songs 'cause I'm not a Mellencamp fan. I mean, I'm not not a Mellencamp fan, I just hardly ever listen to anybody. Most the people I listen to are dead... So it was a little funny when I said 'I really need the words [to "Rain On The Scarecrow"].'"

Hoyt was supposed to tour with Mellencamp last year, but she never heard back from his, er, camp. (We doubt it had anything to do with not knowing the words to "Rain On yhe Scarecrow.") Hoyt now recognizes the serendipity in the situation. "I met up with my current drummer because I wasn't out with them. Then he brought the bass player, and now I have this incredible rhythm section (Mark Minnick and Dan Hunt, respectively, with violinist Heather Craig rounding out the line-up)" She continues, "In all the years with The Mary Janes, I've had great drummers and great bass players, but never at the same time. I feel like if that's what was supposed to happen, it (the Mellencamp tour) would have happened. So, I've been spared some awful fate. It's been a good year for The Mary Janes." And a summer of loss and triumph.

The Mary Janes appear three times in the Triangle: an "all-out rock show," Friday, Sept. 24 , 11 p.m., at Humble Pie, 317 S. Harringotn St., Raleigh. $ 5. 829-9222; an acoustic show, Saturday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m., at Borders Books, 1751 Walnut St., Cary, Free. 469-1930; a semi-acoustic show, Sunday, Sept. 26, 10:30 p.m., at the Lakeside Lounge, 227 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh. $5. 833-6557.

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