The Rural We: Janel Munoa
Musician and visual creator Janel Munoa grew up Luiseño Indian / Payómkawichum on her tribe’s reservation in Southern California, just an hour south of Los Angeles. Her debut album, “Howls from Deep in the Woods,” was released last year on Deep Red Records, a label run by Munoa and her husband, Alex Vazquez, out of the couple’s home in New Marlborough, Mass. Led by her “dark timbered voice,” the album, which mixes rock, soul and blues, recently was nominated for a Native American Music Award for Best Rock Recording and New or Debut Artist of the Year. Munoa traveled to Niagara Falls for the Awards Gala, held at the Seneca Casino, where she presented a tribute to the late John Trudell, a Native American activist and poet and one of her heroes. You can hear her in person at The Barn at The Egremont Village Inn on Saturday, Nov. 24.
We finished the record around this time last year, and right now we’re focusing on being songwriters and doing promotion. It takes a tremendous group of skill sets and there’s been some learning curves. We shoot our own videos and create posters for shows; my husband is the photographer. He and I met during our college years and we’ve been married for about 15 years, and together for about 18 years. I’d written with other producers and songwriters, but he and I started writing together only since moving to the Berkshires. We wrote 300 song ideas one summer, and then we set out to learn how to write songs more fully with each other. We kept chugging along with that and we were really inspired by the New England woods. We have oaks in California but the trees tend to be further between; here the woods almost seem much darker.
We moved to the Berkshires from LA about seven years ago. What made me fall in love with this area is the people’s sense of preservation of the land, which feels less important in California. People are just beyond gracious and friendly, and they’re really grounded and down to earth. I like how this place has a sense of individualism and community at the same time.
I’d made a few other records that I didn’t put out because I felt apprehensive about putting myself out there creatively. But I realized I needed to “put up or shut up,” just spit it out. The name “Howls from Deep in the Woods” came from each song feeling like a howl, a coyote calling out to like-minded individuals, to people who might be drawn to the sound we created and the perspective the record has. We recorded some of it at home, and at North Fire in Amherst, Mass. and Ghost Hit Recordings in Holyoke, Mass. We worked with some musicians down there, and we just had my neighbor, Rob Sanzone from The Picky Bastards, play standup bass on the newest album.
We’re in the mixing stage of this new album now; it’s some older material from when I lived in Topanga Canyon and was working with songwriter and producer Frank Gryner. It’s something I didn’t have the guts to put out, but we’re revisiting it now. It’s kind of wild and minimalistic, Tom Waits meets Fiona Apple, a bit of a departure from the last album.
With the “Howls” record, as I was writing it, it was a lot about a sense of personal territory and standing up for it, being proud, rising up and not letting anything or anyone violate your boundaries. After I finished the record, I realized how much that was a theme growing up in a tribe in American culture where there’s a lot of history and having to continuously reinforce boundaries and land rights, and needing to reinforce a sense of identity, to protect and honor and celebrate that. That sense of my own personal journey reflected the larger culture I grew up in. That was a special realization for me of a parallel in that record.
Back when I was writing the songs on this new record, I wrote a lot about animals, and there are a lot of animal symbols in it. It’s about dealing with a consumerism culture where there’s a poachers’ mentality, where you don’t use the whole animal when you hunt it. Another theme is my tribe dealing with the Spanish coming over and creating the missions. They changed how the land was distributed and it changed the way the Native people interacted with the land, got food and thrived. The Spanish came in and fenced off land as opposed to what our tribe did, using a region for food and then leaving that piece. We traveled, we were more like hunter-gatherers, and it changed all that. People had to either be with the tribe or go work at the mission and help build it. It changed the way of life. The songs are about me dealing with these things from my culture, growing up in a tribe, and looking out onto American culture and seeing the differences between that and being indigenous, and they can clash at times.
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