Janine The Machine may be brand new to the industry, but Tricky Stewart is far from that. The chart-topping, Grammy award-winning songwriter, producer and more has been a major presence in the music industry for over 20 years now. Mariah Carey. Rihanna. Pink. Mary J. Blige. Celine Dion. Beyoncé. It’s no cliché that the list could go on and on. Those names are powerhouse enough for some to not even try to top it. Tricky Stewart isn’t most people though. Chicago, his hometown, may have been his point of entry into music but Atlanta has been his point of ascension. And he’s not ready to come down. It’s why he’s shooting his new shot with the young, female artist he met as he worked with trailblazing Indian American singer/rapper Raja Kumari, with whom Janine co-wrote songs.
The two vibed so instantly that, within nine days, Janine had moved from L.A. to Atlanta to work with him. “Her voice, the tone,” Stewart says, seated around a table in the main lounging area in his longtime Atlanta studio, RedZone, is what drew him to working with Janine. “I always like to be involved with people’s careers where you know exactly whose singing the moment that you hear them,” he explains.
Stewart’s interest in working with Janine as a solo artist may have come unexpectedly but it was a moment for which she was well-prepared. “I’ve been doing music since before I can remember,” says the caramel-kissed beauty whose signature blonde braids cascade down her back. “I play a bunch of different instruments (piano, guitar and the gamelan)…I went to the University of Michigan…and I did a double major…[in] music and communications. So I’ve always been super involved in creating music, and writing my own music.”
In addition to writing her own songs, Stewart brags that Janine, a fellow Midwesterner hailing from the D via Southfield, “does all of her own recording. She does her own vocal producing and a lot of times the structuring of the tracks.” Janine says that her “Janine The Machine” stage name comes from “being super-involved in every aspect of the creation process. So it’s that I engineer my own vocals. I write my own songs,” and “edits her own videos,” Stewart chimes in.
There was no hesitation, says Janine, about working with Stewart. “Honestly I just felt super blessed. Like I felt humbled,” she shares. “It felt dope that somebody would believe in me enough to allow me to be in this position, so I just wanted to make sure I worked hard and met those expectations.”
Her debut EP, High Places, which dropped in April, boasts a big sound and lyrics that are simultaneously playful and impactful. “It’s really a lot of about female empowerment. I’m big on that because I think we as women need to stick together,” says Janine.
Songs like “86,” which talks about having to drop a dude, and “No Chill,” a sort of 21st century update of Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew,” is putting guys who pursue her relentlessly even when they have a girl on blast; flip the “woe is me” script for which a number of female artists are known. “You need the ‘woe is me’ records because somebody is going through that and they need to hear that. I’m not going through it so I’m not writing it,” explains Janine. “I really want to write stuff that makes people feel good. I don’t want to sit and cry over a nigga…Live your life. Go, be a strong woman. Enough crying.”
Fitting into the current rough and tumble male-dominated music landscape isn’t easy for a “sugar and spice” upstart. Stewart, who says this phase “has to do with ratchet culture,” believes that female voices are largely absent because “a woman is only willing to go so far in order to fit into the culture and the guys are willing to go as far as they have to go all the time to say the most outrageous thing. And we’re just in this season of what’s the most outrageous thing that one can say or how many pills can they pop. Those aren’t subjects or layers to women that they’re willing to expose, even if that is their life, because the judgement is completely different. It’s a double standard.”
Stewart says it’s been hard to crack that code and that’s what working with Janine is really about. “It’s about really digging into that beat culture but, at the same time, offering them a new voice that’s also easy on the ears . . . It takes a gifted songwriter, honestly, which we have [in Janine], to figure that part out and how to make a record like ‘86.’ That’s not an easy record to make over a beat like that, but if we can get the girls to have a record with beats they like to dance to and with a girl saying I got to ‘86 your ass,’ then that’s what gives us that opportunity to kind of bridge that gap.”
Some music veterans lament the current state of the music business but Stewart embraces it. “Streaming has brought a whole new vigorous energy into our business,” he says. “[If] you can figure out how to create a hit artist, a global artist, while owning the masters, with having a global distribution model that doesn’t cost any money, it’s a pretty good deal at the end of the day. We’re playing the lotto but we’re rolling up our sleeves because we understand the idea that the harder we work the luckier we will become.”
That work ethic, says Stewart, is a requirement to win in this industry. “The people that win are the people who work the hardest,” he schools. “This is not a talent business. This is a mentality business. The singing business is for The Voice. It’s for American Idol. That’s the singing business and church. This is the entertainment business. This is a mentality business. Madonna and Janet Jackson, there are people that can do a lot of things better than them, but are you going to outwork them? No, you’re not going to do that. That’s what you’re not going to do. You’re not willing to. People don’t know what it takes to really be Beyoncé. They think the shit is cute. No it’s not. It sucks. It’s like 18-hour days every day for 25 years in real life terms.
“You are trying to identify that work ethic…that look in their eye. In its simplest form, you’re looking for somebody that when you’re tired, is going to keep going…There’s work that Janine is willing to do that no one else is willing to [do]… If she’s working on a video, she comes in on a Friday and I [can] come in on a Monday and she might still be here.”
Longevity for Stewart, who created many hits with The-Dream, whom he also mentored, comes from having “the eye.” “When you look at these plaques, these aren’t the middle of the career plaques,” he explains, pointing to a wall decorated of Billboard magazine’s who’s who. “These are the ‘oh you did Justin Beiber’s first album? Oh you did Pink’s first album? Oh you changed Rihanna [and] the way the wind was blowing’ [plaques].. .You have to have an instinct about yourself that allows you to get to the Janine The Machines. And that’s what the whole purpose of this is. It’s not just about writing hits; it’s about discovering stars. You have to discover stars… Everybody three years from now will all want to produce Janine The Machine. I’m one thousand percent comfortable with that.
“However, today, I’m doing it. I’m the one that’s helping her figure out how do we crack the code and then everybody wants to be a part of that process once it happens. You’re sticking your neck out on this part. This is the part where you get the longevity because trying to make hits in the middle of people’s careers is short-lived. I’m on the corners of Beyoncé: I’m on the beginning, the middle and the end. So I’m not trying to catch up to [Janine] when she’s [the next] Lady Gaga. Now, I’m crazy. So you got to know what they look like when they’re in front of you.”
By Ronda Racha Penrice