If one day you were to closely regard under the glimmering Georgian sun the saturated streaks that stream through the hair of Janie Chu, she might tell you she is an activist. If it was the cool carpet of moonlight that suddenly crossed your paths somewhere in Atlanta, she would call herself a singer-songwriter, a follicle in a forest of alternative rock. At this instance, at a pause with us between moments of her own, she fully embodies both aspects.
Janie Chu is steeped in the culture of Atlanta, Georgia, growing up in the northern suburb of Alpharetta. A certain kind of classical training tradition has punctuated her early musical development, as she learned to play piano from the age of six and continued her preparation, recording melodies and harmonies on a tape recorder, and singing in choirs through her late teenage years. It wasn’t until she turned 20, during her studies at Belmont University, that she heeded the Siren call of the guitar that sweetly claims so many drifting souls. Since then, she has been a multi-instrumental talent who has demonstrated the power of combining a lexicon of music with a humanitarian message that largely addresses sex trafficking, human greed manifested in corporate contexts, and the psychology of a deeply hurting society.
The Human Condition, her second and most recent album that follows up with Roots from 2006, is drenched with the commonly felt weight of the 2012 year. While it is a compilation that aptly demonstrates her musical creativity, and speaks on many social issues, it also releases the burden of negativity that comes not only with acknowledging a social environment that is desperate for healing, but offers a sort of legitimacy to any kind of pain, be it physical or emotional—when you dig deep enough, there is really no distinction.
“It’s only been recently that I’ve begun to actually write the music first and then allow the music to inform the theme,” she says, discussing the process of giving the words of her album over to the company of instruments. Talking about her influences, Janie highlights the importance of a performer’s integrity to issues that extend beyond the framework of the musical industry. True power seems to come from the ability to use a position of respect and admiration to give a voice to virtue. “I’ve always admired Bono [U2] for his consistency in addressing social issues as well as being vocal about his faith,” Janie explains. “Emily [Hains, of Metric] is a current standout in the alt-rock industry because she doesn’t gloss over social justice either. She simultaneously writes creative, sonically pleasing music while confronting the issues of our time.”
Janie Chu seems, by all means, to be in a stable sort of diplomacy with the lack of closure that many challenges in life can bring. Ripping the curtains from between the social issues that haunt the disaffected outskirts of popular music and her personal ambitions may be the most real way for her to claim a sense of completeness. “As an artist, I’m interested in the raw honesty of the human experience, and sometimes that means it won’t resolve in some neat resolution.”
From this latest album, songs like “Eve’s Dilemma” and “Monster King” are hardly dripping with satisfying closure. The words with which she colors her melodies don’t always make it clear who is the victor, and who the defeated. Perhaps it is The Human Condition that reflects on that very flux. “I didn’t know at the time that I was writing songs that it would become this theme, I was just writing out of what I was observing. But I’m comfortable with that, because real life isn’t something that just gets wrapped up in a few minutes of a song.”
READ JANIE CHU’S INTERVIEW AFTER THE JUMP…
WBM: As a vocal anti-sex-trafficking activist in Georgia, how are you involved and how did you find yourself drawn to this particular cause?
JANIE: I found out four years ago about the prevalence of sex trafficking not only in the United States, but right here in my own hometown of Atlanta. It’s deeply disturbing to hear that your city is in the top 14 worst trafficking cities, among multiple others in the U.S. The statistic says 17,500 are trafficked into the U.S. annually, and that doesn’t even begin to count the victims that are actually American. The estimate is that there are 200,000 human trafficking victims in the U.S. alone, including those trafficked or forced for reasons other then the sex trade.
I started getting involved with some great organizations here in Atlanta that I believe have made a significant impact on the issue through prevention and awareness, legislation, and aftercare programs. The more I got involved, the more I got educated on dispelling myths and wanting to share that knowledge. And the more educated I got, the more I realized that there was a surprising undercurrent of actual empathy and not just sympathy for the victims.
WBM: Has activism been a major part of your life before The Human Condition? Have you had any memorable projects or campaigns before?
JANIE: I hadn’t been as actively involved on projects before that, mainly because I was so engrossed in my own past problems. But my lyrics in songs have generally always reflected an interest in social justice issues. One of my first demos after graduating college was about the gap between social classes in our American culture. “Tears of the Nation” on Roots points to cultural or national issues, even though it was really an analogy to something else I was writing about.
WBM: Your debut album was entitled Roots. Tell us about this project, and how you evolved from the messages and self you infused in those early tracks.
JANIE: Roots was born out of a trip I took to China with my husband back in 2005. I had never been, and so much of the angst and questions I had about my identity as a Chinese-American were addressed when I went there. Speaking the language, trying all the foods and different experiences, interacting with the people made me realize that my understanding of the Chinese was very different from my understanding of the immigrant culture of Chinese to the United States. It was refreshing in some ways.
“Beautiful” [a track on the Roots album] is obviously about my encounter with the local Chinese. Going there didn’t solve all my problems regarding identity of course. But it was the beginning of healing. I came back energized to write about everything I observed, including some of the unresolved issues in my life that were brewing.