The Janzen Boys: Canadian Folk Band Profile
Although his family wasn’t musical in general, John Janzen always wanted to make music a major part of his life. He says, “I grew up a hardcore farm boy. I was always super interested in doing music stuff. My mom played a bit of piano but my dad was pretty discouraging about music. It didn’t have a lot of value for him. We went to a little church and I did music there.”
When he turned 18, John moved away from the farm to Winnipeg. He earned degrees in English literature and teaching before moving to Japan for 12 years. He continues, “I was working on the fringes of the Japanese entertainment industry doing radio and TV, so that’s where the money came from. The joy came from having a band there. When we were in Japan, things were going well. Right when YouTube showed up in Japan, it was the beginning of viral videos and at that time we put out a silly song called Christmas In Japan. Sure enough, it ended up on YouTube’s world wide front page and within a day, it had shot up to 600,000 views.”
All of this notoriety ended up being short-lived. The band broke up after two of the band members ended their relationship. John says, “I moved back to Canada five years ago. I had sort of wrapped up my musical dreams. They were dead and buried, but then my older son Simon wanted to try busking at The Forks. I thought it would be fun father/son time. We started working on it and we got accepted to busk there.”
In the midst of all of this, John’s younger son Mick also wanted in on the act. He’d always wanted to be in a band and had started learning how to play the mandolin at the age of four. He’d never sang before but as it was a condition of his joining the band, he accepted it.
The father and sons went on a busking road trip to Kelowna. After that, they won a university new band contest and started playing some of the local Manitoba festivals.
John points out that the band has evolved a hybrid sound since their inception. He says, “We just fell into doing more alt country stuff. We started covering the Old Crow Medicine Show and Johnny Cash. My sons are starting to write their own songs but previous to that we’d just sing the songs I wrote for the band in Japan, but now it’s starting to get a little more diverse. We lean towards folk-country. It’s pretty acoustic folk kind of stuff.”
One unique project on which the Janzen Boys have collaborated is Blink’s Garden. It came out of John’s work at a homeless shelter as a community education coordinator. He would tell stories to children knowing that they’d retain the information better than simply throwing statistics at them. He says, “I just sat down and wrote this long poem. It all rhymes. I’d never written fiction before and I found it difficult to write prose. I found that if I rhymed something, I just find it way easier to write because the rhyme guides you to the next thing. It ended up being a 77 stanza epic kids poem.”
The poem eventually blossomed into a full-blown theatre production called Blink’s Garden. In turn, the project became a CD and book. John says, “We added seven songs to it and the place I work for provided funding to turn it into a CD and a book. We got a whole bunch of Winnipeg Juno award winners to record the songs. We had some good support. Begonia is the voice of one of the characters, there’s Erin Propp who’s a jazz musician and she sings on the album as well. We also got William Prince to sing on the CD. He just won a Juno for Roots Recording of the Year.”
Every song that John writes has been created in a slightly different way. He explains, “You get the 15 minute fell out of the sky songs, you get the songs that are highly crafted and take three months to write. One thing I would say is that I often write a song backwards. I’ll write the last line of a stanza first for instance. Sometimes I’ll even write the last stanza first.”
John has a lot of positive things to say about making music with his kids. He points out, “In my old band in Japan, practice was always a nightmare. You’ve got four people with busy lives trying to schedule a two hour practice once or twice a week and it was a nightmare. When you’re playing music with your kids and they live in your house, all of our practices don’t take more than 15 minutes, but we can do four practices a day!”
One minor challenge for the Janzen Boys has been the fact that both of John’s sons are getting older and their voices are changing. He says, “Simon started when he was 12 and he’s 16 now. At one point, about two summers ago, we had to change every melody. The first recording we made, he sounds so much like a teenager and in the second recording he sounds like a man. Mick just turned 13 so we’re going to go through the whole thing again pretty soon.”
In the future, there are some exciting developments in store. John says, “We got accepted to a Manitoba Arts Network showcase that has agents coming from all across the Prairies. Hopefully that’ll provide some good gigs going forward. We do want to gig more. At the end of the summer, we decided to give the theatre stuff a rest and focus on the band.”
He continues, “We’re thinking about a full length recording in the next year if we can get the funding. We want to hit the sweet spot before Mick’s voice changes so we’d like to get something in place. We worked with FACTOR for the last album, so we have a bit of a track record with them. Getting funding from them isn’t easy but we’d like to try.”
When it comes to the family band finding inspiration, John points out that they get inspired by simply being on the road together. He explains, “I’ve been going through a long term separation and it’s been rough on everybody, but in a lot of ways getting out on the road with the boys has been a creative recharge. The festivals are a place where everything is so chill and there’s no distractions. We find that we do a lot of our songwriting while we’re on the road.“