Something Wicked This Way Comes… – Interview with Jill Janus of Huntress
Words by Nicholas Holmes
Photos from www.huntresskills.com
Just before her band’s first ever UK gig, Huntress vocalist Jill Janus spoke to Nicholas Holmes about the importance of heavy metal, other worldly inspiration and the demonic sounds of ABBA!
In a few hours’ time American band Huntress will pop their British live cherry in a small club beside the seaside. As the band begin setting up for soundcheck, a tiny figure in a dark hoodie glides past in the semi-darkness. This is no ghostly apparition but their leader and self-proclaimed witch, singer Jill Janus. She is petite and pretty with piercing eyes and bright blonde hair. You may have seen her. A lot of her. She is not shy about using her good looks in the band’s promotional material. Even in civvies-type gear she is striking, and takes a seat on a large couch with a comedic plastic skeleton looking down on her from the bright purple wall. It is almost Hallowe’en and spirits are most definitely high.
Jill has no worries about the first gig on these shores:
“I’m not nervous. I just want to conquer! The battle has begun! Previously I’ve DJ’d over here. I used to do that to fund the music. I have several friends that live in the UK, so I’ve done some visiting here and had a chance to see various areas. The South is quite magical especially by the sea. It inspires me to write songs about Vikings!”
Her interest in things magic has been well-documented and no doubt the rich pagan history of Britain appeals. Has she been able to visit any sites?
“No sadly I have not, mostly because I’m on a schedule where I have to do a gig or in the past DJ-ing and then having to rapidly move on. It’s never been more than a day or two and it’s always for work. So I would love to have the time eventually to visit these places, but most likely not for many years to come. Just with the tour schedule and the way things are working. One day I’d love to feel the power of Stonehenge. If I never do it in my lifetime I won’t worry about it. I have in previous. I strongly believe in reincarnation. Without a doubt.”
One thing Jill does make time for is pushing the band’s cause via social media. She is prolific on Facebook, often posting several times a day:
“I’m only comfortable with it because of the need to promote the band. I’m a very private person. That’s something that I battle with every day of my life. I have severe anxiety over it. I understand that it’s part of the game. I really enjoy interacting with my fans and meeting people. It’s been wonderful seeing faces in the audience that I recognise from the computer. It’s pretty special. However, my time online is very limited. I like to interact with fans updating information on Huntress. I never read reviews and forums. I never participate in interactions outside of Facebook.”
Jill describes her band presence in the third person which may seem odd to some, but not to her:
“For the first time in my life I finally feel I belong on this planet. There is no separation. Sometimes it’s hard to shift my emotions and leave The Crone (onstage persona) behind. It’s dangerous when she steps off stage with me, but it’s never something that’s really two separate entities. At the beginning of the journey with Huntress I wasn’t quite sure. I thought that perhaps that was like a split personality that I was dealing with. When I got up there and I started feeling this rage come out of me, these demonic shrills and banshee screams that I finally learned how to harness, I wasn’t quite sure if it was a split personality. I know now that it’s not. It’s really just cooling down after a show. I have to find ways to pull back the reins and slow down. What you see is what you get. Sometimes I’m just not as much of a maniac!”
The band has been on a mindbogglingly extensive round the globe trek promoting debut album “Spell Eater”. From US festivals to big European theatres opening for British metallers Dragonforce and their own small club shows, there is strong determination to get noticed:
“We’re touring the world right now and the response has been great. It’s wonderful when somebody gets it. I don’t do this for anyone except me. The boys are the same way. We share one vision, one purpose, one path. All of us create music that we love. If someone enjoys it cool. If they don’t that’s fine too. It’s not going to alter the way that we write or the way that we approach this. We’re very fortunate. We’ve been blessed by the goddess without a doubt. It’s been a whirlwind since getting signed and we’re coming up on our one year anniversary of signing to Napalm Records. We’ve literally been on the road since March almost non-stop. We went right to the studio, pre-production right after getting signed in November 2011 to recording “Spell Eater” which took a lot of January and February. No rest for the wicked!”
Jill has certainly been noticed for some blatantly sexy photographs of her that have appeared online and no doubt got the pulses of metal fans racing. She does not care what critics might say about that approach. She sees it as simply part of a bigger battle:
“I use sorcery to draw you in! (laughs) Without a doubt. I understand that with it you need to prove that you are talented. That you do need to have longevity. I have a lot to prove to the music industry and to metal-heads everywhere. It is a weapon. Like any weapon it needs to be wielded carefully. I’m looking forward to evolving. This is part of the fun of the path. I started in the “maiden” phase. This is where I am now. The next phase will be the “mother”. The final phase will be the “crone”. Then I will be re-born. Re-birth will happen. For me it’s fun and if others have a problem with it that’s not my problem. It’s theirs.”
She is also not shy speaking about her unconventional inspirations for writing songs and makes a point of stating Huntress is not all about her:
“I’m often beamed lyrics or words from deep space. It’s almost like there’s a thin blue line that I see coming down into the top of my skull, and my skull opens and inside drops messages from another realm. I then sing those out. Kooky as it sounds to me it’s a very natural process. That’s how “Spell Eater” came. I was walking my dogs. All of a sudden I felt like a power over my entire body. I said out loud, “Spell eater!” I don’t know where it comes from. I understand what it means now. At the time I picked up my phone and called Blake, our lead guitarist, and I said “the name of the album is Spell Eater. Now write me the song.” Sometimes I’ll give the others inspiration. “Snow Witch” was from a terrible night in Los Angeles with thunderstorms and winds that were violent. We were sitting in our studio and I said, “Let’s write a song about a Viking that crashes into ice and this mystical, ethereal being, The Snow Witch, saves them.” Sometimes I’ll go on a story bent. Generally the boys write riffs and then we stitch them together to make something. This is not “The Jill Show”. I couldn’t do it without the guys. They’re my brothers. We’re a family.”
It was an overseas friend from schooldays who introduced Jill to the world of metal music, much to her mother’s disapproval:
“I found metal through my German pen-pal. We’re still really close friends. He’s coming to the show in Berlin. I started writing to him when I was 12-years-old and I was taking German lessons in school. My mother discovered at the age of 10 that I had a very big voice so she started taking me to auditions. I was cast in an opera production and started lessons shortly after that. The teacher then told me I was born with a four-octave range, so all my mother’ efforts went into shaping that. Making that my path. That way of life. My pen-pal introduced me to Suicidal Tendencies, which was my first love. I love thrash and it still very heavily influences our writing. As well as thrash, black metal, death metal and melodic metal too. Truly my mother would not allow me to sing metal or punk because she thought it would ruin my voice. So I was hiding it from her and recording Misfits songs in my best friend’s basement. I still have them and they’re quite endearing. I’ve always loved metal. I’ve always loved King Diamond and Alice Cooper. Those men were my idols growing up, though I wasn’t able to be in a metal band due to my mother’s pressure thinking I was going to save her from being poor. It was always something I wanted to do with my life, but I was biding my time. I knew that some day I would be able to be a metal singer, but I also understood from a very early age that I needed to get this training so I would be able to maintain my voice. I’ve always been into metal since I was a very little girl.”
So what was it about metal in particular that made such an impression on the young country lass?
“The darkness and the theatre. Often when I was in touring productions of musicals and opera I despised the people. I despised the actors and directors. I would fight constantly with them. There was just a weakness about it that really bothered me. I always having a conflict, always having tantrums. It was terrible and I was such a little bitch. With a big voice. I just thought if I could be aggressive and that be embraced by thousands of people, then that’s what I wanted to do. Heavy metal to me was always about real people. It was the pinnacle of being raised to have an amazing voice but also to be the individual that you truly are. I wanted to be in control of everything I said and everything I did. No-one directs me, no-one else writes my lyrics. Finally I’m living to my principles and no-one else’s. I’m where I truly belong.”
After years of treading water, it was her deeply personal connection to a seismic event that led to Jill pursuing her dream. In the early hours of 11th September 2001 she went back to her New York City home after DJ-ing. Later that morning the World Trade Centre collapsed and the USA was on the path to war. Jill’s party had been in that very structure. Not surprisingly this had a huge effect on her. She retreated to the family homestead and ended up re-evaluating her life:
“During that time I went home to my family to recover from financial problems and also being very ill as a result of 9/11. Being on the farm where I grew up was very healing. I started to write on my acoustic guitar, which I had never really had the time to do before. I started to learn to play even more and write music. So in a way that was cathartic to me. It also spear-headed Huntress. I had been looking for musicians for a metal band years prior to 9/11. But I always got sidetracked by DJ-ing or another type of job just to keep going. So when 9/11 happened it forced me to focus on music and write demo songs, record them and snag me my metal band! The guys in Professor and I joined forces to become Huntress. I wrote “Back From The Dead To Kill” and “Call of the Wild”. Those are two demos I recorded during that phase while being at home. I suppose everything happens for a reason, as my mother says.”
Man – and woman – cannot live on metal alone and Jill is no exception:
“I’m obsessed with ABBA! Obsessed. “Lay All Your Love On Me” is one of the most demonic ABBA songs. If you listen, smoke some weed, turn of the lights and hear “Lay All Your Love On Me”, there’s something demonic going on in that song! I think they sold their souls to some deity! (laughs) I’ve seen Heart recently and I cried. If I met Ann Wilson I would probably breakdown or something. She is the best female rock n’ roll singer. My all-time favourite singer in the world is Freddie Mercury. I’ve dissected his voice on many nights! His voice is godly. When I hear his voice, either driving in the car or in a grocery store, I get the chills. To me he’s still very much alive. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about Freddie! ABBA, Heart and Queen. Black metal is my favourite genre. It has a pure beauty. I also like some straight up country! I grew up on a little farm, so Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers…(laughs). I love music!”
With so much time spent on the road there have been inevitable Spinal Tap moments:
“We had one just now when we discovered our back line for the UK. It’s pretty hilarious. We know there need to be some compromises but the drum kit we just got has black sparkles! Black glitter! I have trouble remembering a lot of the tour. It’s not because of being wasted. It’s just happening so rapidly that it’s really hard to keep track of the days, where you are. You move so fast you don’t really have time to sightsee or sit back. Make sure you’re healthy, take care of business. Destroy, conquer and move on!”
Jill does her best to take care of herself and the band on tour, which is no mean feat. She is particularly careful about protecting her voice:
“I live a very strange existence. Very strange. When I decided to abolish all other ambitions and focus only on Huntress, that’s when shit got weird. I used to DJ. I used to party and drink a lot of liquor straight. I miss booze. I really do. Then I decided to focus only on this one goal and to be successful at it I had to give up everything. So now I live only for the voice. She rules me. It’s very strict discipline. I read interviews with King Diamond and they ask, “How do you maintain your voice?” and he’s like, “I smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of coffee!” Not me. I don’t speak in the mornings as long as possible and then I only speak through my nose. A strange technique I learned from my vocal teacher. By the afternoon and I’ll do interviews before 6pm. Then I have my series of vocal warm-ups prior to the show. After the show I meet and greet fans for about 15 minutes and then it’s complete vocal rest. I do not talk at all. And I’ll go to bed. Watching a movie is a luxury for me, but generally it’s take a sleeping pill and knock yourself out. I have a really hard time sleeping in the “coffin bus”. That’s essentially what it is.
On top of that I’m on a series of supplements that maintain my health and I have a couple of secret weapons that I use if the voice is a little bit tired. I inject myself with vitamins once a week. I inject the boys as well. During the day I work for a doctor so I have a very good sense of how to stay healthy. The most important thing on tour is I have to eat every hour. So I’m a little squirrel. I have my little sack of nuts and berries that I carry with me and I’m constantly eating. If I don’t eat every hour or every two hours, not only do I get cranky but my stamina goes and with what I do on stage there’s no way I could maintain it.”
Jill says keeping her day job is a vital way for her to stay focussed when not touring:
“Fortunately I do work when I’m home in Los Angeles and I was able to work that out with the doctors. For me that’s grounding. I’ll be the first one to state that I’m crazier than a shit-house rat! (laughs) When I don’t have structure is when I lose my mind. Tour is a very structured thing. Tour for me is not partying. It’s great because I have structure. I have a schedule and I know that I need to stay healthy and I have a list of things to accomplish. When I’m off the road that’s the danger zone, so that’s why I make sure I hold down a day job. I’ve got to keep busy. I’m very blessed to still have that job that I love. I’m a bit of a hippy nurse! Hippy nurse in the day and heavy metal banshee at night!” (laughs)
With that the hippy nurse heavy metal banshee whizzes off to prepare for the show. More Facebook updates, vocal warm ups, some power snacks and then squeeze into black spandex topped off with a proper fairytale-style cape. Jill Janus is clearly a determined woman. One with an almost child-like sense of wonder in what she is doing. She is engaging and endearing in equal measure and clearly not afraid to poke fun at herself. The undoubtedly enormous trauma of 9/11 has driven her to make a real effort to achieve her dream. That spirit is more than worthy of admiration.
Hail Huntress!!! \m/
Huntress will return to the UK to play Hammerfest V: In Fear of the Dragon, 14th – 17th March 2013. Accommodation packages are sold out and Day Tickets are on sale now at http://www.hammerfest.co.uk
Huntress official website: http://huntresskills.com/
The debut album “Spell Eater” is out now on Napalm Records: http://www.napalmrecords.com/