Janet Holmes
…and the case of the failed hit single

I was first struck by how fabulous a voice Janet Holmes had sometime in the early ‘80s when her band SOS were doing the church hall circuit in what was then a pretty thriving gospel-rock scene in Northern Ireland – a scene, incidentally, which could be said to have nurtured the likes of current ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris fave Brian Houston, Ivor Novello-winning songwriter Iain Archer (co-writer of Snow Patrol’s ‘Run’) and cult neo-vaudevillian Duke Special.

Though I didn’t know her personally, I approached Janet in 1996 or thereabouts to see if she’d be up for recording a song I’d written with Iain Archer and Rick Monro called ‘Be The One’. She was. The track had, in fact, already been recorded in a centre of Belfast studio, garage-band style, with Rick Monro and Susan Enan on lead vocals, Iain Archer on lead guitar and all sorts of other people involved, most notably perhaps Jonny Quinn, now drummer and bona fide rock star with Snow Patrol. But I’d since taken it to a different studio, in the hills outside Belfast, where, over Christmas, engineer Gary Aiken had spotted some kind of potential and remixed it with added keyboard, guitar and programmed drum parts. Rick and Susan agreed to come and redo their vocals in line with the new arrangement, and the result was, to my ears, fabulous. (This version eventually sneaked out several years later on The Wildlife Album.)

But Gary had worked up various other possible treatments of the song, among which was one that seemed to suggest an All Saints/Eternal kind of girl-group sound. Did I know any world class girl vocalists…? But of course! I got in touch with Janet, with Tina McSherry, with Helen McGurk and with Gillian Pollock and we all met up one memorable night in winter at Gary’s studio. Tina, Helen and Gillian would record harmony vocals to Janet’s lead and rock legend Henry McCullough was also there to overdub some lead guitar. Janet’s brother Ivan Muirhead, himself a guitar legend in these parts, and his neighbour Colin ‘Hillbilly’ Henry, had also turned up to hang out with McCullough. Also present was McCullough’s wife Josie, Tina’s future husband Cormac and production/arrangement genius Steve ‘G Raff’ Jones – another gospel-rock scene protégé, who’s since gone on to record and tour with Martyn Joseph, Eleanor McEvoy, Ronan Keating and a host of other worthies. It was quite a scene, and just as well that Hillbilly – an AA member – had turned up, as Helen’s car broke down on the way home…

I was convinced that, by chance alone, we had the making of a hit single – if not for us, for someone else. And thus I dedicated a couple of months to touting around among publishers and managers the eventual Janet-fronted recording (ironically, with me on a rather smooth, digitally cobbled-together lead guitar part rather than Henry McCullough – whose visceral, as-live playing was as terrific as ever but ultimately not quite right for the track). The feedback was good, but somehow the timing was wrong, and my track-record unknown.

The whole project had never been about money or success, and it was only by chance that I’d somehow lucked into creating something that seemed to suggest gold at the end of the rainbow. After a few weeks of promotional effort I gave up and moved on. The song appeared, in both Janet and Rick fronted versions, on a very limited edition, privately circulated cassette album, Nothing Is Easy, credited to ‘The Legends Of Tomorrow’ (tongue firmly in check, obviously!) in 1997 and that was that.

But I’d heard Janet in a studio situation, had been blown away by her lead and harmony vocal prowess and knew that if the opportunity presented itself I’d love to record with her again. A couple of years later, when Market Square Records agreed to the notion of me organising a Bert Jansch tribute album – released in 2000 as People On The Highway: A Bert Jansch Encomium – it did. Janet fronted a cover of the title track, alongside myself (guitar), Ali MacKenzie (bass), Colin Reid (lead guitar), Colin Henry (banjo) and Conor Shields (percussion). The great Martin Hayes added fiddle in Seattle. Once again, the ‘Legends Of Tomorrow’ were in action…

And it didn’t end there: British blues vocal legend Duffy Power, also a contributor to the album, heard Janet’s voice and wanted to record with her for a possible comeback album. A few tracks were worked on successfully, by post, before it became logistically too complicated. Duffy’s album has yet to appear – not for any want of quality, simply a case of the record industry’s decline and consequent unwillingness to take chance’s – but the process that led to my co-funding/organising of Janet’s debut solo album, The Road To The West (2004), was in motion.

We ended up with a double-album’s worth of recordings, from which 12 were selected – running a pretty eclectic gamut of styles. From a personal point of view I was delighted that Janet recorded six of my own songs, with five of them making the album. Among these a new version of ‘Be The One’ was recorded, once again up at Gary’s place and once again at the very end of the rather protracted recording process… and was yet again not in any way a hit!

The track which seemed to go down best with radio stations was a cover of Lyle Lovett’s ‘If I Had A Boat’ – tellingly, perhaps, the one song on the album which probably reflects best the kind of music that Janet is most comfortable with, which we put out as a promotional single in early 2005 and which she‘s performed on local TV twice to date. Aside from originals, I’d brought in largely up tempo songs by the likes of the Smiths, Anne Briggs, Leadbelly and Sweeney‘s Men, with Janet bringing in generally slower material by Ralph McTell, Paul Carrack, Lyle Lovett and Isaac Guillory plus one of her own.

The resulting album was pretty eclectic – largely my idea, to avoid falling into an ’easy listening’ trap, which in retrospect may have been over-thinking. There are, I believe, some great performances and great tracks there – and from IMRO six-monthly statements it’s clear that many are receiving airplay somewhere on the planet – though perhaps at the expense of cohesion. Janet has a wonderful, smooth easy listening kind of voice and it took me, at least, a long time to realise that fighting against this was probably foolish. That said, I do believe the process of stretching herself to make a lot of disparate material work was a valuable learning curve and I suspect that the grit and imagination in arrangements that‘s apparent in her recent hoped-for ‘second album‘ recordings – more stripped down and more sonically ‘of a piece‘ than the first album – is a product of having gone round the houses, musically, in order to come back to the kind of music she most naturally does best.

The recent recordings – songs by Randy Scruggs, Free, Steve Earle and herself – have been made at Cormac O’Cathain’s Belfast studio, with a very effective three-piece unit: Janet on vocals and guitar; Colin Henry on dobro, guitar, banjo, harmonica; Stephen McClintock on bass guitar, lead guitar and mandolin. Cormac has added programmed percussion and may add piano. Certainly, further recordings will feature a wider range of musical textures. Meanwhile, one of these recordings – a cover of Matraca Berg’s ‘Oh Cumberland’ – can be heard on Live In Hope: The Wildlife Album 2 (2005).

While I’m no longer involved with ‘Project Janet’ financially – a case of simply running out of what little spare cash I had and realising that however wonderful the music we were creating, it would probably never recoup – I’m still part of the process in terms of moral support and suggesting material to record. Of course, now that I’m no longer in the syndicate no doubt the Chairman of EMI will choose this time to come calling and the lottery will be won! But I remain proud to be associated with such a world-class talent, and however it happens I’d like to think that talent will out. We shall see…

Check out Janet’s own website at: www.janetholmes.com

Janet Holmes – The Road to the West

Update (June 2010): Janet’s second album ‘Wonder Why’ came out in 2007. My chief contribution was moral support – no CH songs this time – and it is, of course, recommended! Check out Janet on MySpace. Also in 2007, Janet came to the rescue by fronting ‘Free! Free At Last’ – a loose homage to Free, the band, which was recorded for my ‘Freedom & The Dream Penguin’ album (pseudonymously credited to The Field Mouse Conspiracy, given web-based release in 2008). Her brother Ivan Muirhead plays blistering lead guitar on the track. Check it out via www.CDBaby.com under the band name. Most of the vocals on my new, as yet untitled, songs collection for late 2010 will be mine – a real departure – but, all being well, Janet will be in there on backing vocals on a couple.

Updated June 2010