Janet Simpson is a Birmingham legend. She was part of Delicate Cutters, Teen Getaway and Wooden Wand. She’s collaborated on projects like Timber. She’s been a part of Birmingham’s DIY rock scene for 30 years.
But she’s never once released a solo album of her own until now.
She’s 44, and she had nearly given up on music. But she found some new energy in a new musical partner, and she found a lot within herself that she didn’t know was left. And she wrote and recorded Safe Distance, out today on Cornelius Chapel Records. It’s really, really good. For me, it’s some kind of straight line between Fables of the Reconstruction era R.E.M. and Out of Time era R.E.M. Which made more sense when, after all of these years, I learned that Janet is a Georgia native raised in the 80s.
We talked about the record, about what Birmingham sounds like and about a dude that moved here from Montgomery that helped Magic City legends find new ways to create.
You’ve played in so many bands here and you’ve been a part of so many collaborations. Why was now the time for the first, true solo record?
I don’t really know why the timing worked out that way. I’ve been in bands for 30 years now. My first band was when I was 14-years-old, which is kind of hard to believe. While I was in Timber with Will [Stewart] and touring with him doing backup vocals and guitars and keyboards, I started writing music that wasn’t a good fit for Timber; it wasn’t a good fit for anything else. I didn’t have Delicate Cutters or Teen Getaway anymore. I was just thinking, “This feels more like me than anything I’ve done in a while.” I wasn’t going to hide–maybe hide isn’t the right word–but sometimes, when you’re under a band’s name, you can be more collaborative. It’s a more social project. But this felt real personal, and it felt right to do it under my name.
How important has this musical partnership with Will been over the past few years and how has it helped bring out a new creativity within you?
I haven’t said this many times out loud, but at the time that Will got in touch with me to collaborate on Timber, I was at a point where I think I was done. I think at that time, I didn’t have anything new to say musically. I didn’t really have any faith in my voice. I just felt like I had run out of things as a musician. I was starting to consider that maybe I was done. Maybe I should look elsewhere for my creative energy.
When I said yes to creating with him, it was kind of a last ditch effort to see if I had anything left. Honestly, Will is such a fun musician to collaborate with. He’s such a fun, easy person to work with, because he’s so innately musical. And he was very encouraging. I think I needed that kind of encouragement from someone that hadn’t been working with me for all of these years. So, I kind of blame him. [laughs] For me getting back into it as deeply as I have. And I’ll say that’s been really great. And really fun. He made me have fun again in a way that maybe I didn’t know how to make it fun for myself.
You’re probably not the only Birmingham musician that’s been doing this for 30 years that would say that. Everyone has played in all of these bands together in so many variations, and now Will shows up and suddenly has gotten involved in 900 bands with all of those people separately. Sort of weird how it worked out.
He has endless energy and endless ideas. When you see someone that has that kind of energy and that many ideas, it makes you think, “Okay, I want to hang around and see what happens.” And that’s been super helpful. Maybe it doesn’t hurt that Will is younger than me. [laughs]
When you stopped touring with Wooden Wand, was that kind of when you laid things down until Will got in touch with you?
It was right around that time. I think Will reached out to me around the end of 2014. We started working together then and released the first Timber EP in 2015.
It’s hard to believe it’s been that long ago.
I know! I know.
Will there be more Timber?
I don’t know. We’ve talked about it. But as you know, we’re both involved in a lot of projects. I think we have some stuff we’d love to work on together, but in due time. I expect we will.
The first single on this record, “Nashville Girls,” has a sound that’s interesting to me. You’re clearly making a statement about about the Nashville scene, but it also sounds like an Americana song that somehow sounds like mid-80s R.E.M. It’s got this jangle rock thing. Was that an influence for you? A lot of the record has the same vibe for me.
I grew up in North Georgia, and I didn’t move to Alabama until I was 21. So R.E.M. is probably my biggest influence, musically–the most formative years of my life as a teen. There’s no doubt how much R.E.M. and Peter Buck, particularly, factor into how I write a song and how I hear guitar. That’s definitely in there, however intentional or unintentional.
Did you drive that sound or did you let Will and the rest of the band do their thing?
It’s really organic. I might give some guidance about where I want some textures, but the core recording happened with just me the bass and drums. I had Will come in and do some overdubs. I worked really closely with Brad Timko, who was the engineer on the album. I gave him some reference points for how I wanted things to go sonically–the overall vibe I wanted the record to hold. One of the funny things is that I told him early on, “I’m not trying to make a ‘Americana’ record. No matter how this comes out. I’m not trying to sound like something specific. If I have an instinct, I want to go the opposite direction if I can.”
If my natural instinct was to put a pedal steel somewhere, then I want to try to take it somewhere else. And as much as I love pedal steel, that never came up. That was never in my imagination for the way that this album sounded. My recording with Wooden Wand was a big influence. He would write a very straightforward song, and he would say, “How can we deconstruct this and not make it sound like what you would expect?” Deviate from what you know is how it became fun in the studio.
It’s kind of a sound that finds a way to mix Americana and Athens. And maybe that’s what Birmingham sounds like.
I think Birmingham has a really cool and unique geographic position when it comes to music. We’re in between Texas and Memphis and Nashville and Atlanta and New Orleans–all of these different influences, we’re in between. We move in every direction and we have influences from every side. Some sounds here have a strong bend toward Memphis and the blues. Some people have a strong bend toward country. Some people have a strong bend toward jazz or college rock. But I think all of those things meld our sound and that’s kind of what’s cool about being here.