At the heart of her music is a contradictory dynamic — “it’s simple yet complicated,” she says, a quality she admires in artists like Venetian Snares. Nothing on ‘Pariah’ illustrates this better than ‘Break It’, a 240bpm bruiser whose crafty, half-speed snare tics create a kind of tempo mirage. Other tracks, like ‘Old Skool’ and ‘CPU’ call back to her mid-’90s days as a teenage ghetto house prodigy on Dance Mania. The album’s strength was to work out a golden ratio between head-spinning novelty and nods to the past.
The album’s critical success is also something like a second chance for Jana, who is still best known in Chicago for what she did more than two decades ago. In 1996, she was billed as “The Youngest Female DJ” on a split EP with DJ Deeon. She was so-called because of a slot Jana secured, aged 11, at the college radio station WKCC. But seven years later, her mother, a single parent wary of supporting a precarious career, gave her an ultimatum: make music or make a living. Jana was surprisingly easy to persuade.
“On some level, I agreed with her,” she says. “The life before you ‘make it’ just wasn’t for me. I know a lot of people tell success stories about how they couch surfed for, like, three years. I don’t know — I'm humble, but I’m not that humble. I don’t want to couch surf. I don’t want to become somebody else’s burden.”
A few close friends, including the late footwork pioneer DJ Rashad, tried to pull her back into music. She was tempted, but was also adamant about earning “adult money” and so focused on her engineering degree. “My affection for music has never stopped,” she says, “but I also knew I wasn’t the strongest artist, so I spent a lot of time being kind of shy about my music.”
Lately, she’s been working on a compilation for Berlin’s Rec Room party, a preset-making collaboration with Native Instruments on their Massive X synth (“I would like to do hardware design for interfaces or systems”), and a second album she expects to release on Planet Mu next year. When Jana sends us some tracks she’s working on, we’re drawn to the ones that, as it turns out, are inspired by her lifelong battle with depression.
Music is more than a passion for Jana. By neglecting it, “I feel like I’m sacrificing my lifeline,” she says. “Music is what convinced me to stay alive when I was having issues with possible suicide. It gives me my fire.” When it comes to communicating these feelings in her music, she tells us about the track ‘Painful Enlightenment’. It has an introspective, first-smoke-of-the-day feel to it. Jana says it’s about accepting the good and bad sides of her, and taking responsibility for both.
Another track, ‘Homicidal Ideation’, is a mazy gauntlet of ruler-snap hi-hats, cartoonish voices, hacksaw bass and improvised piano figures, all of which resembles the gory fever of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film. It came about after a distressingly vivid dream during what Jana called “one of the lowest points of my life.”
“I think I’ve been dealing with depression for a very great part of my life,” she says candidly. “I didn’t know what it was. It came out a lot of times through anger, or me not talking to people. It came out in a lot of weird ways. I can’t remember the last time I was just happy and not in my head. A lot of my depression comes from the feeling of inadequacy, and having to prove otherwise. However, through this — I don’t want to say journey... I don’t want to be mean, but I really have a disdain for the woke people, because sometimes they go too far with that shit, you know? I tend to let people tell me who I am. And through that, I’m not being who I am. And through me also not knowing myself, I don’t create the best boundaries.”
When Jana felt suicidal, some of the support she received was clumsy and ultimately harmful. “When you do talk to people about this, the first thing they want to do is invalidate what's going on” — by, for example, insisting that “life is a gift” or repeating clichés about selfishness without acknowledging a person’s pain. “You want to talk about someone being selfish, you’re telling someone to put up with a life of shit so you can feel better.”