Someone You Should Know: Janelle “Ja” Gilbert

By Lisa Schulz

After living on a tight budget and enduring the four years of indecision about choosing a journalism or interior architecture degree to please her mother, Janelle “Ja” Gilbert finally found her beat in music and made a pact to give back to the community.

The 2006 alumna released her first EP, “Laura’s Daughter,” on iTunes,, and in physical form on Oct. 16, the latter sponsored by the Illinois Art Council.

Previously, Janelle Ja pursued an internship with WTTW Chicago Tonight and served as a marketing coordinator for Rolling Out magazine, where she worked with Kanye West, Joss Stone, Live Nation and the Chicago Urban League.

The Chronicle: Who would you like to collaborate with in the future?

Janelle Ja: Corinne Bailey Rae. She’s one of my favorite artists. I really look up to her. I love how she just made a name for herself. I like how she’s in the public eye but not exposed too much. She came from a nickel-and-dime budget, and I can relate to that. You come from little beginnings and gradually work your way up as an artist.

The Chronicle: How did you manage your career with a tight budget?

JJ: Thank goodness for financial aid. I was able to get that and to put myself through school. I had to work full-time jobs and took on an internship. But [by] doing that, it really molded me as a person and as an artist. Having that obstacle has made me who I am today. I don’t take [my work] lightly. I take it very seriously. There’s no room for error here. I bust my butt off for so long—this is it, or nothing at all.

The Chronicle: What’s it like recording in the studio?

JJ: I go there every Tuesday for three or four hours. When I sing, I do everything a straight shot through. I don’t like to repeat things over and over. I think when you go into the studio, you should know exactly what you want. So when I’m in the studio, I like to do everything raw and just record it. I know the structure of my songs, and I arrange them. A lot of times, I have to be in that moment. I just set myself in that place, and it comes out so naturally in all my songs. I don’t have a problem with getting that moment.

The Chronicle: Do you ever have bad recording sessions?

JJ: Yeah, if there are problems in my family, like we all have sometimes. Or, if I have to go home and help out my family, there’s times when I don’t want to go [to the studio]. But actually, I think that’s the best time to go—when I’m feeling vulnerable. That’s when the best of me comes out.

The Chronicle: How did you get involved with the IAC?

JJ: I was at a Columbia event. I’ve always been involved in some way, shape or form. I’ve always been connecting with people. I cannot stress that enough—students here at Columbia, if you want to turn your art into a business, connect. I was talking to someone who knew I wanted to get into the music industry, and I told him I didn’t have a lot of money. He said he’d introduce me to someone at the IAC, and they had me draw up a proposal. They’ve sponsored me four times now. Every time that they sponsored me, I put out a good product.

The Chronicle: What’s the story behind “Laura’s Daughter”?

JJ: I was very close to my late great-grandma, Laura Annie Washington. She and I were so close [when I was] a little girl, and I’m grateful for her because she really kept me grounded. She always said I had great talent with my writing and my singing abilities, even as a young girl. I didn’t quite understand it.  [The EP is] a salute to her. She always said I can do anything if I work hard.

The Chronicle: So far, where else have you performed?

JJ: I had an EP release party in a rented, four-story house. I was a Manifest street performer, and I did the House of Sole performance at a boutique and the Lillian Dion upscale hair salon. I try to think outside [of] the box. I like doing performances at nursing homes and giving back. I went back to my grade school, and they were so happy to see me. I’m being very selective with my performances. I’m even thinking about the tunnels for some reason. I’ve done the Gorilla Tango Theatre, Columbia Music Center and Big Mouth. Lollapalooza and Pitchfork are my goal.

The Chronicle: Can you elaborate on that?

JJ: I’m a giver, so I’m working with an orphanage in Africa right now. That’s where I see myself helping out homeless kids on the streets and [helping] with their education. I come from little-[to]-nothing. Coming to Columbia was a challenge to me. I want to help out people who don’t have a whole lot because I know what it’s like to not have a whole lot and to try to work your way up.