By Jennifer L.W. Fink
Janet Planet briefly considered a career as a car mechanic.
The Wisconsin-based singer was barely out of high school at the time, and had recently lost a job. “I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I went to the technical college and looked at all of the different brochures, thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something with my life,’ Planet says. “At first, I wanted to be a car mechanic because I was always driving crappy cars. Then I saw a brochure that said Early Childhood Education, so I applied and went for two years.”
Not exactly an auspicious start for a singer JazzTimes magazine has called an “exemplary vocal artiste” and a “member of the top echelon to Jazz and/or Cabaret vocalists.” Yet Planet has been working as a singer for over 25 years, entertaining audiences in New York, Chicago and around the world. She performs internationally and across the United States. Her lyrical phrasing emphasizes the emotions that accompany the music; her voice adds a layer of complexity and depth to every song she sings.
“My phrasing is based on truly communicating to the audience,” Planet says. “Everybody’s got their own style, especially in jazz, but for me, it’s about completely communicating the lyric and the story.”
Wisconsin Born & Bred
From the time she was a little girl, Planet dreamed of a singing career. “This probably sounds almost fairytale-like, but I remember thinking in first grade that I was going to be a singer with long blonde hair,” the brown-haired singer says.
While music has been a constant in her life, Planet’s path to professional musician was anything but obvious. She grew up in the Appleton area – hardly a hotbed of the music scene – as one of six kids. “My mother worked several jobs to make ends meet, so we spent a lot of time taking care of ourselves. Music was just a thing we all did,” Planet says. “One of my mother’s jobs was working at a bowling alley. Every three months or so, the guy who owned it would replace the 45 records in the jukebox and give my mother the older ones. She’d bring home the box and say, ‘here you go’ and we would just eat it up. We’d sit and listen to record after record.”
After high school, Planet worked a variety of odd jobs. “At one point, I was a janitor in a junior high school and one of my duties was to vacuum the library with a hand vac. When the engine was running, I would sing because I thought no one would hear me. At one point, I turned around and saw all the other janitors, standing in the doorway,” Planet says.
While she attended classes at the technical college (and worked to pay her tuition), Planet attended local jam sessions as often as possible. “I’d go to this place every Wednesday, and wait for my turn so I could go up and sing a song,” Planet says. “I was very, very nervous. I felt as if I was going to vomit because I was so scared. But I wanted to do it so bad.”
One day, a gentleman told Planet, “You sound OK. You have a lot of raw talent, but you could use some work.”
I was devastated,” Planet says, “because I’d finally stepped out of my shell and my singing wasn’t met with all the accolades I was hoping for.”
She didn’t give up on her dream, though. She kept singing – and starting working with Tom Theabo, the gentleman who critiqued her singing and plays guitar with Planet to this day.
“The first few years, I played for nothing,” Planet says. “I’d get in the van with all the guys and we’d play for sandwiches and five bucks. At one point, I looked under the seat of my car and found some change and had a choice: I could either buy a cassette tape to record a Christmas present for my family or buy some food. We did the recording.
“About two years later, I was on a gig and someone came up to me and said, ‘I have your Christmas tape and I absolutely love it,’” Planet says. “At first, I thought, What are you talking about? But when they said, ‘Well, I got it from somebody who got it from…’ it dawned on me: people really like what we’re doing. It’s now 25 years later and it’s all good.”
Creating a Career
For Planet, there have been no big breaks. She’s had her face on the sides of buses and been featured in multiple magazine articles, but “nothing has been handed to me,” Planet says. Instead, her passion and persistence fuel her music career.
She’s recorded 20 CD’s, including Janet Planet Sings the Bob Dylan Songbook, Vol. 1 and Of Thee I Sing, a collection of songs that celebrates the sites, cities, and landscape across the United States. She tours and performs throughout the United States (she’ll be in Waupun for a Christmas show), and teaches jazz vocal technique at Lawrence University in Appleton.
“I’m always taking chances,” Planet says. “Right now, I’m trying to sell the latest CD I did to a major label. I became a yoga instructor. I love teaching, because it completely puts me in the moment. When I’m teaching, it’s not about me. It’s about making someone better.”
Planet’s next project is a recording of Bob Dylan’s music, arranged for big band. The idea came from a listener in Norway who heard Planet’s sparse adaptions of Dylan’s music on Janet Planet Sings the Bob Dylan Songbook, Vol. 1. Now, she’s excited to record with a 17-piece big band.
“To our knowledge, this has never been done before,” Planet says.
She’ll soon be launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the recording. (Watch JanetPlanet.com and the Janet Planet Facebook page for more info.) She’s also eagerly anticipating her Christmas concert in Waupun and encourages the community to be a part of this live recording. The two area children’s choirs are The New Generation Singers from the Central Wisconsin Christian School and The Select Choir from the Waupun Area Junior/Senior High School.
“This year’s Christmas concert will have everybody’s favorites, but we’re also incorporating two Waupun school choirs and we’ll be recording the performance live. ” Planet says.
While Planet was once hurt by the word “still” – as in, “you’re still in Wisconsin?” – today she says, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. If I can give something to someone that will help them change, then that’s my path. I’d love to be signed to a major label and play all the major jazz festivals, and you know what? That’s not a closed door.”