The consummate jazz vocalist speaks about a life best lived out on stage, upcoming performances and her idea of a perfect KL weekend.
Options: When did you realise you wanted to sing?
Janet Lee: There are two parts to this answer: First, I knew singing was for me because it gives me an otherworldly, feel-good sensation in my everyday life. I had felt this since young. Second, in 2005, things came to a head and I knew I had to make a choice: continue with a new job in the fashion industry or take my best friend’s advice and ‘just quit and hustle’ as my own person on stage. I picked the latter because the urge to sing was just so strong.
As a performer, what have been the hardest parts of life during the pandemic?
Worrying that I was losing my relevance and connection with my audience, despite adapting the minute the pandemic hit. I quickly learnt how to live stream from home in order to ‘meet’ with my audience. Another major challenge was to always shut down the weary, non-productive thoughts about impending financial issues from not having an income during the lockdowns. Somehow, I managed to make ends meet during those long periods of not working and learnt how to calm my anxiety.
What lessons did Covid-19 teach you, though?
I am not really sure what the virus taught me but the lockdowns definitely showed me that we are more resilient than we think. I learnt a little about quieting the noise within me but it is still an ongoing journey. I had time and my circumstances at home forced me to dig into the dark side of myself that I had not known about all this time. With the help of some friends, books and professionals, I faced the “dark side of the moon” and had all the uncomfortable but necessary conversations with myself.
And how does it feel to be able to perform in front of a live audience again?
Hopeful. And my belief in the goodness of the performing arts as ‘medicine’ for the soul has been reaffirmed. Many times over, people come up to me to express their gratitude and relief to be able to be in the same space as live music and live singing once again. I tell them it is the same for the people on stage too — we have longed for the same interaction and exchange.
You are known particularly as a jazz vocalist. Tell me a little about The Malaysian Real Book.
It is a 442-page music book that collects 241 Malaysian-composed songs, written in the format of lead sheet, with lyrics. This project is the brainchild of the Malaysian Jazz Piano Festival committee, with additional contributions from the local music community. I get goosebumps just thinking about how spirited and selfless the collective souls behind this ground-breaking project are. This is a world-first, where a nation can publish its very own Real Book. We now have an actual product — a book in print and digital formats — which we can hold in our hands, know that our musical heritage and legacy is documented, and has the potential to reach a wider audience.
What advice would you give young people looking to make a career in music?
Personally and frankly speaking, if I were a young person in 2022 wanting and hoping to break into the scene, I’d probably feel a little overwhelmed by the speed at which things are happening around us. With all that shine and the celebration of usually only what is sensational and exciting in our industry, it is easy to overlook that the work of music is so much more vast and in-depth than what we are made to see on the surface.
At least from my own understanding and whatever little formal training in music and the performing arts I have had, I learnt that one chooses to make music because of an innate desire to be a servant to the art form. This is the eternal paradox of being an artist and also my pet topic of discussion: How the performing arts are, at once, all about the artist and yet not about the artist.
That said, it is not all doom and gloom of course. With all that high-tech, easy-access and open-to-publish platforms we have in the palm of our hands, if anyone (young or old) is determined to create a voice on the scene, there is much room for budding artists to publish and showcase. I would definitely advise to first find your joy, serendipity and satisfaction in making music; be so genuine and authentic in your approach and message that any passer-by would not fail to be touched by your sincere voice. The rest, the business side of things, the street-smartness of managing your art, should and will follow, once you start finding your joy in creating.
What are you reading right now?
Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone and George Orwell’s The Orwell Reader, which comprises works of fiction, essays and reportage.
What are your upcoming plans?
I have a bunch of live performances I am preparing for while deep in the production of a new album with my group, The Shang Sisters, which we hope to release by April! I will be performing over four nights at Aurum Theatre’s JIN Gastrobar for a Valentine’s Day special between Feb 11 and 14, and then over Feb 24 to 27 at Jao Tim KL, where I am one of the performers in the WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble’s Paper Moon over KL concert, which comprises two shows — Purnama and Murakami and Jazz.
Describe your perfect KL weekend.
An early morning walk in a park or the Lake Gardens. Walking on the streets of KL, attempting street photography is an indulgence of mine. This would be followed by a late brunch, consuming enough food to last till dinner. Then it would be time to go home, enjoy some peace and quiet, do household chores, burn incense, sip hot tea, listen to music and read, accompanied by an afternoon gin and tonic. Then I would sit down to a slow and small dinner, with ice cream to finish. And I would fall asleep while reading a book.
This article first appeared on Feb 7, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.