You don't hear a record like 'W' very often, that's for sure, just as you seldom encounter an artist like Planningtorock. When you play 'W' and let its melodrama and uncommon beauty grip you, suddenly all those cliches make sense: this album stops you in your tracks, blows your mind and makes you feel alive. It's a remarkable piece of work.
Planningtorock (all one word, often just PTR) is the vehicle of expression of Janine Rostron, a musician and visual artist from Bolton who has lived in Berlin for ten years.'W'is her new album, the follow-up to her 2006 debut 'Have It All', which was a full-on chamber-pop romp that established Planningtorock as anything but orthodox.
A ball of energy that landed by happy accident in the middle of the art, fashion and music worlds,
Planningtorock has allowed Janine to travel the globe performing at gig venues and arts events.
She's built a formidable reputation with a theatrical solo show that she performs, wearing white and sometimes donning a customised PTR helmet, in front of the mesmeric videos she's made for each track. Multimedia and sometimes kind of multi-gender, Planningtorock seems to raise more questions than Janine often has answers for, which tickles her. And through doing the live shows, she's realised that her songs take on a second life, which in turn feeds into her music.
While she is a new name to many, those who know Planningtorock tend to form a strong emotional connection with her work. No doubt about it, Janine is totally out there on her own, and with 'W', she's raised the bar several notches, producing a powerful soul odyssey that ravishes the listener and comfortably ranks as one of the DFA label's finest releases. "Planningtorock is about drama and soul," she says. "I've been making music for almost ten years and I feel with this record I've got closer to the music I really want to make."
So how does it sound? Well, it's melancholy and euphoric, funky and kinky, epic in scale yet deeply personal, strikingly alien but weirdly familiar, and always daring and original. There's plenty of saxophone and stacks of strings. There's the baroque boogie of 'Living It Out', its grunting and growling straight out of Yoko Ono's 'Walking On Thin Ice', and a provocative cover of Arthur Russell's 'Janine'. Psychedelic in a stimulating, mind-altering sense, on 'W' Janine stretches sounds and curdles her voice, creating, on tracks like 'Doorway' and 'Going Wrong', a queasy rococo rush that has an intoxicating quality. "I've come to terms with the fact that what I do has a big percentage of elements that you just don't know," she says, "and that's what makes it interesting."
Above all, this is a wild trip into Janine Rostron's world - 'Planet 9', she calls it, after Doris Lessing's sci-fi novel 'The Making of the Representative for Planet 8', which initially inspired this PTR set. The enchanting final track '9' refers to the "nine" in Janine (she's been called "J-9" since school), for example, and numerous references to her personal affairs enrich 'The Breaks', 'The One' and 'Manifesto'. Hence also the album title. "I've always liked the letter'W'because when you say it you're saying 'double U', if you see what I mean - it's like two of you. I always thought that was funny. It's a very powerful letter. The title is really specific and not specific at the same time - that's an important balance with Planningtorock."
Janine composed the 12 songs that make up 'W' over the last three and a half years, mainly recording in solitude in her Berlin studio. A gifted producer, she sings and plays everything - keyboards, strings, guitar, computer - and mixed the record in Sweden at the end of 2010 during an intense session with Christoffer Berg, who worked on the Fever Ray album. Additional contributions came from her Icelandic friend Hjorleifur Jonsson, who she recorded playing percussion which was later used as samples sprinkled across the album, and drummer Pat Mahoney, taped in New York. On the whole, though, Janine prefers to work alone. "I've realised that doing it on my own in my own time in my own way is the crucial ingredient."
Janine grew up near Bolton. Her darker humour comes from there. "On the album I mess around with my voice a lot and I really enjoyed that," she says. "I'm really not precious about my voice. I do love powerful, beautiful voices but on a creative level you can do so much with your voice and I loved pulling it around on this record. I mean, on 'Doorway', it's my inner-trannie singing that one."
She was raised by her mother, a big collector of "weird European pop hits" who'd take Janine and her sister to avant-garde concerts at the BBC's Manchester studios. Aged seven, she started learning the violin, at which she excelled. Immersed in classical music, playing in youth orchestras, she says she didn't listen to pop properly until she was 20. Then, mid-'90s, Manchester, she saw Royal Trux, who blew her mind. "Pretty good first gig," she says, "doesn't get any better."
After a stretch at art college in Sheffield she moved to Berlin in 2002. "I wasn't prepared for it at all, it was extremely liberating," she says. "It gave me this space that I didn't think I needed." Two years later she launched her label, Rostron Records, with Planningtorock's 'EP Eins', following it in 2005 with a compilation LP called 'Carousel of Souls' that featured tracks from the Knife and the Soft Pink Truth. 'Have It All' came out a year later.
One day she received a fan-email from James Murphy, of LCD Soundsytem and the DFA label in New York, who would later invite Planningtorock to open for LCD Soundsytem on a couple of legs of their 'Sound of Silver tour'. "What I do is more out-there than their stuff, but they just love what I do," she says. "I went off and did my thing and didn't worry about it." She also took to the road with the Knife, Peaches and Hot Chip, having been personally asked by them.
Keen-eared readers will be aware that last year Planningtorock was involved with the opera 'Tomorrow, In a Year', for which she co-wrote the music with the Knife and Mt. Sims. As a guest curator, she has programmed a night at the Donau Festival in Austria, uniting Gavin Russom, Aphex Twin and Oni Ayhun, among others. For the same arts festival she has also performed a one-off Planningtorock show called 'Thumb Sucker'.
One listen to 'W' is all it takes to realise that Planningtorock is not tethered to the facts of Janine's everyday life or to any kind of authentic or so-called honest voice. Planningtorock is about ideas and fantasy and augmented reality. It's about sentiments and emotion and exploring the unknown. And with Janine at the helm, it will always be a fascinating voyage.
Piers Martin (February 2011)