“It’s funny, with music,” says Janette King by phone from her home in Montreal. “For me, at least, some songs take years to finish and other songs take hours.”
A singer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and DJ, King released her first full-length, What We Lost, via record label Hot Tramp on June 25. The album follows two EPs, Electric Magnolia and 143. Where Electric Magnolia, released in 2015, featured a live band and bore a distinct jazz influence, her 2019 effort 143 delved into electronic R&B. With What We Lost, King continues on the path set with 143, while also dabbling in house on the title track, as well as on album-opener “Airplane.” The latter was released as a single back in March of this year.
While some of the songs on What We Lost had been in progress for some time, others came together fairly quickly over the course of the past year. The initial plan was to release the album in early 2020, but, in addition to a pandemic-related postponement, King had continued writing new material, including songs that she wanted to appear on this album. She kept up the work until January of this year.
King, who has performed alongside artists like Sudan Archives and Jamila Woods, toured North American in 2019; shortly after returning from that jaunt that she began making plans for a full-length album. Much of the material was written and recorded in her bedroom, where she has a piano and guitar in addition to a production set-up. King worked with multiple producers on the album, including longtime collaborator Jordan Esau.
As a DJ, King plays primarily in Montreal and Toronto and her sets vary from ‘90s and early ‘00s hip-hop and R&B throwbacks to a variety of sounds, like dancehall and calypso, that nod to her Caribbean roots. Although she doesn’t sample often in her work, she says that DJing does impact her approach to songwriting. “DJing has helped me to understand BPMs better,” she says. When she’s writing, she can decide whether she wants a song to be downtempo or high energy, associate that with the beats per minute and build the piece from there.
King says that she often starts with drums, creating the beats before the lyrics and melody begin to formulate. “As I’m writing the melody, the lyrics come simultaneously,” she says. With some of the tunes on What We Lost, the first takes of the songs, where King says that she “word-vomited” the lyrics, were the keepers. “We just liked how it sounded, so we kept it,” she says.
As King continued writing through 2020, her songs began to reflect the year that was unfolding. “In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, that really stirred the activist in my soul to come alive through song,” she says. The tragedy inspired the song “Change.”
Elsewhere on the album, King draws upon self-empowerment and “empowerment through activism” as thematic elements. She considers the questions that arose during the year of physical distancing. “I think that now people are having the space to ask themselves ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who do I want to be in this world?’ and ‘What do I stand for?’” says King. “They’re really choosing to see with their own eyes what’s really happening in the world.”
She points to social media as crucial to opening people’s eyes to systemic racism and social justice issues. “These things have been happening for so long, but now that we have social media, they are a lot more visible,” she says. “You can’t turn away from it these days. I think that a lot of people are starting to have empathy and compassion for people that don’t look like them and for people’s stories and honoring their own values.”
King says that she believes strongly in unity, as well as love and understanding. “Like they say, you can’t win unless we’re all winning,” she says. “One person’s struggle is all of our struggle.”
In writing What We Lost through such a tumultuous year, King created an album of personal reflection and healing. “Every time I write a song, it feels like I’m transcending something,” says King. “I think one thing that I’ve taken away from making this album is that I was able to dig deep into this spiritual sense of being creative.”
It’s also an album that could similarly impact its listeners. “ I guess that my biggest hope for people is that they feel themselves reflected in the music that I write,” says King. “One thing that I’ve taken away from it all is that it’s really therapy. It’s really healing. I hope that it is for other people as well.”