For psychedelic pop producer Janna Pelle, the arrival of her cover releases were not just an ode to the original artists, but an outlet for the throes of life itself.
Last week, Happy Mag covered the release of Janna Pelle’s two renditions of classic tracks by Tame Impala and Lady Gaga. The covers — performed admiringly by a singer whose alter-ego is Fame Impala — were notable both in their creative deviation from their originals, and their representation of music as a life-affirming force. Pelle drew from her experiences of life as a musician to add a personalised richness to Impala’s track The Boat I Row, while her cover of Gaga’s Joanne came from an even more heartfelt place.
“I have a genetic mutation called RUNX1 familial platelet disorder; a mutation in this gene is thought to be a precursor to blood cancers,” Pelle said of the intent behind her Joanne cover in a press statement. “I call my cover ‘Janne’, because in Gaga’s version, she’s talking to Joanne, where in my version, I’m talking to myself.”
While Pelle’s talent in her own right is on full display through love letters to b-sides, it’s the profundity behind her song selection that shines brightest.“I know it sounds cheesy, but music is the reason I’m alive; both making my own, and finding songs like these that resonate with me on a visceral level,” Pelle said.
Fresh off the release of two meaningful covers, Happy Mag caught up with Janna Pelle for a deep-dive into just how affecting music has been, from the ease it brings in making new friends to the “broader sense of freedom” it represents. Catch our full interview with the singer-songwriter below, and scroll down to listen to her covers of The Boat I Row and Joanne.
HAPPY: What are you up to today?
PELLE: Today, I’m actually sitting in a Latin cafe in Brooklyn having a double espresso and doing the whole other-half-of-a-music-career thing – responding to emails, booking a tour, editing an episode of my Fame Impala Podcast, and doing a little bit of remote mixing for other projects. I come into the city pretty often for shows and stuff like that, but I’ll be taking a train back to my home studio in the woods this afternoon.
HAPPY: Tell us about your average day.
PELLE: Ha… I don’t really have an average day! But I usually wake up, make some coffee or matcha, move around a bit and get some sun first thing in the morning – either walking around in the woods or doing some yoga and push ups – and then, start doing whatever the priorities for that day happen to be.
Sometimes it’s mixing, which I like to do first thing in the morning because I like to have fresh ears – sometimes it’s rehearsal for a gig, which I also love to do first thing in the morning because there’s no better way to wake up than to play drums shortly after getting out of bed – and sometimes it’s writing.
I’m writing what I thought would be something “just for fun,” but I’ve shared some of the chapters with close friends who tell me I should try and get published, so now it looks like I might be doing the whole Japanese Breakfast “Crying in H-Mart” thing and be a musician and a writer.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I teach a class at a high school called “Music and the Human Experience,” based on my Tik Tok series, Stop Mixing Sense (yes, it’s a Talking Heads’ reference). It’s not a music class per se, but more of a class on how we all perceive sound through the filter of the human experience.
And at nights, I’m either in the studio, at a show, performing, or being a piece-of-shit-guilt-free and watching sitcoms or TV series with my partner.
HAPPY: What about your ultimate day?
PELLE: My ultimate day is actually not too different from my average day, which is kind of amazing to realize – so thank you!! I guess the only thing that would make it “ultimate” would be collaborating with the people I’ve always wanted to work with – Kevin Parker and Lady Gaga, among others. I literally have dreams about them coming into my home studio – even though they obviously have access to way better recording spaces and gear than I do, I think it would be incredible to create something raw and beautiful together at my place, with all 3 of us acting as producers.
HAPPY: Tell us about your creative community.
PELLE: You mean my friends? Ha – I always joke that pretty much everything about life as a musician is harder except for how easy it is to make friends. I pandemic-moved into the NY woods and have the biggest group of friends I’ve ever had – because they’re all musicians. It’s really nice to live in a place where people actually want to play with each other and learn each other’s songs just for fun – something that’s very hard to come by in the city.
There are a few bars that have kind of an open stage vibe, where we can try out new material in front of each other without judgement or feeling like we’re putting on a “show.” Pretty much all of the friends I’ve made in my adult life have been because of music in some way. It’s really important to surround yourself with ambitious people who believe in their art because that energy is contagious.
HAPPY: What did you read or watch last that opened your eyes and mind to a new perspective?
PELLE: I’ve been reading “Tune In” by Mark Lewisohn — it’s a Beatles biography from an almost archaeological perspective of fandom, and it’s made me realize all the things I take for granted as a musician and songwriter myself. I think I take a little bit of a back seat to fandom in general, because even though I am a self-proclaimed Little Monster (Lady Gaga fan) and host a podcast about Tame Impala, there are things that seem completely magical to people who aren’t musicians or songwriters that I see as just part of the process for me.
Reading this book puts me in the mindset of a true fan, and reminds me of that magic — and the fact that it’s still magic — because even though I have access to it, I still don’t really understand it.
HAPPY: Can you tell us more about the concept behind Echolocation and how it reflects your personal philosophy?
PELLE: I’m from Miami and I’ve always been obsessed with whales and dolphins, and echolocation is how they communicate – but after my Dad died, “Echolocation” took on a whole new meaning; it became about trying to reach those who have moved beyond this world through sound and music and hoping desperately that they can somehow receive the message. And I believe they can – echolocation is the ability to locate objects based on reflected sound, and based on the reflections I’ve received, I know my dad heard this album.
HAPPY: Your album ‘Echolocation’ takes a big sonic departure from your previous work as a keyboardist and singer. Can you talk about what inspired this change in direction?
PELLE: Covid and Tame Impala, haha – if it hadn’t been for covid, I never would have moved out into the woods or gotten a real drum kit and built the home studio I’d always dreamed of. And if it hadn’t been for Kevin Parker [of Tame Impala], I may never have had the confidence that I could be my own producer and play all the instruments on my record myself, too.
HAPPY: Kevin Parker of Tame Impala has been cited as an influence on your recent work. How has his music impacted your approach to production and songwriting?
PELLE: Really, just confidence, mostly – I think there is definitely a sonic influence there, but it’s not like my music sounds like Tame Impala – that’s part of the struggle I’ve been having with playlisting and things like that… my music is definitely psychedelic pop, but it’s a different kind of psychedelic pop than Tame Impala.
But in terms of my approach, Kevin Parker definitely inspired me to pick up all the instruments – despite not being that familiar with them – and realizing I did hear a drum part in my head, or I did hear a bassline or guitar riff in my head – and that I didn’t need to be a “seasoned” player to play it.
HAPPY: Your decision to move to the woods and become a drummer is a bold move. How has this new environment and instrument affected the creative process for ‘Echolocation’?
PELLE: Being able to play drums as loud as I want, whenever I want, and not having to worry about whether I’m bothering other people is definitely part of the reason I’ve progressed as a drummer so quickly and was able to play my own drums on “Echolocation.” But to me, drums aren’t that different from piano – a keyboard is just finger drums! And in some ways, it’s easier to only have 4 limbs to coordinate, rather than 10 fingers.
That said, I know I don’t play drums like a drummer – I play open-handed, meaning my left hand is on the hi-hat and my right hand is on the snare and toms. To me, I think of the toms as the melody, as my right hand takes care of melody on the piano – and the hi-hat as what my left hand is usually doing on the piano, just holding down eighth-note octaves.
If you listen to the drum parts in relation to the vocal or synth parts, a lot of times, I’m just following the vocal line or the synth melody – which I know would not have been a choice any other drummer who didn’t write the song would have made.
HAPPY: What role does analog gear play in your recording and mixing process, and do you have any favourite pieces?
PELLE: “Analog drums….” haha – I always get a kick out of when people refer to a real drum kit this way, in this era of samples we’re so reliant on today – but I’m not an analog vs. digital person – I like cool sounds and I don’t care where they come from. This album definitely has a mix of both, I used a lot of synth patches from plug-ins as well as sounds from my Minilogue and Microkorg, and I used a combination of real bass and synth bass as well.
But there are certain sounds I just don’t like to scroll through – like drums – they’re just too much fun to play. That said, there is definitely a mix of sampled drums and acoustic drums on this album – I like them when they’re played in combination with one another, it gives a modern and more human feel. My drum kit has to be my favorite piece of “analog” gear in the studio – it’s a Blue Oyster Ludwig SuperBeat kit with a Supraphonic snare, and Paiste Dark Energy cymbals.
HAPPY: You have a genetic mutation that increases the likelihood of developing blood cancer. How does this knowledge affect your approach to life and your music?
PELLE: It was kind of a turning point, honestly – after my Dad died of MDS (a rare blood cancer) and I got my genome mapped and found out I might be at risk for a similar fate, I was all in when it came to music. I thought I was all in before, but I wasn’t – I majored in advertising and was still freelancing and thinking about maybe going back to school for speech therapy, but what would I be working towards if I got the news I only had a couple years left?
It became painfully obvious that music was the only thing I could imagine myself doing, because even the journey would be enjoyable regardless of the outcome. I realized I wanted to learn as much about sound, and our perception of it, and our ability to create it as I possibly could in this lifetime – and that way, if anyone ever told me I only had a certain amount of time left, at least I would have spent it doing what I wanted to do. Even if I only had a week left to live, you can bet I’d be in the studio for most of it.
HAPPY: What role do you see music playing in shaping and reflecting the current culture, and how do you hope your music contributes to that conversation?
PELLE: I think music is becoming a lot more honest lately – people are openly singing about anxiety and depression and mental health in general, but kind of reclaiming it in a way through songs that are upbeat and optimistic and danceable, rather than melancholic ballads – I mean, look at Tame Impala and the entire Lonerism audience; it’s a psychedelic album about being lonely, but the end result is a positive one because it brought a bunch of fans together who all feel the same way.
I hope that “Echolocation” is one of these kind of intense but overall positive vibes for people – thematically, it spans the life cycle from birth to death and everything in between, including the pressure of trying to figure out what you want your life to be, combined with the acceptance of life coming to an end – and how that knowledge either exacerbates or alleviates that pressure.
One of my Dad’s favorite quotes was, “You only live once, but if you live right, once is enough.” I hope it gives people who are constantly questioning whether or not they’re living life “right” a sense of clarity and calm, and if they’ve lost someone they love, I hope it makes them feel closer to those people.
HAPPY: Are there any local bands or artists that you’re particularly excited about right now?
PELLE: So, first of all, I’m really excited for my best friend, Sylvana Joyce of Sylvana Joyce and the Moment – she and her husband, Chris Smith, wrote the music for the world’s first pro-wrestling rock musical, The Last Match, and they’ll be going on a national and world tour in the very near future. I couldn’t be happier for her – if you’re a wrestling fan, or a musical nerd, be on the lookout for this show!
I’m also very excited for Vanderzee’s album to come out – I know I’m biased because he’s my partner, but I play drums on his record and his stuff is much more post-punk so I get to explore a totally different style of drumming. His new single, “The Coming Day” actually just came out last week on April 7th.
HAPPY: Most importantly, what makes you happy?
PELLE: Obviously, music makes me happy – but I think for me, what music represents is a broader sense of freedom. I am incredibly grateful to not feel trapped inside the life I am living anymore, and it makes me happy to know that I might have the power to inspire others to do the same.