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Sitting across from a roaring fireplace one winter afternoon in Vail, Janet is curled up on a dark leather couch as she discusses the unlikely topic of Discipline, the title of her new album. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling window, long graceful branches of towering trees are heavy with snow. In the distance, a lift carries skiers up an imposing mountain awash in white. Janet’s wearing a midnight-black sweat suit, her hair pulled back to the nape of her neck. Her body language is relaxed and her eyes are smiling. She’s trim, and also a little hoarse, having just fought off a cold. The whisper-quiet texture of her voice adds to the intimacy of the conversation.
“Discipline has been much on my mind,” she says. “It’s the idea that unifies the songs on this record. As a concept, and even a lifestyle, discipline goes extremely deep. It can be applied to so much about ourselves. In my case, I see it as one of defining aspects of my character. Discipline was there for me from the start. But it was not until this record that I began to understand its full meaning.
“In putting Discipline out front-- as both the title of the album and title of a song about sexual surrender--I wanted to announce that I was venturing into new creative waters. That meant working with producers like Jermaine Dupri, Rodney Jerkins, and Ne-Yo, whose songs spoke to the immediacy of my emotions. Like all my records, this one, whether intentional or not, has autobiographical roots. It’s difficult for me to work any other way. I don’t feel it, if I don’t believe it, I can’t sing it.
“So Discipline, as a storyline, begins in my childhood which someone could see as a classic study in discipline. Discipline was part of a family culture that I absorbed. I was born with it.
“I also believe that discipline has given me the confidence to jump out of the nest. When L.A. Reid, Chairman of Island Def Jam, and I discussed co-executive producing this record, we both agreed that the feeling had to be adventuresome and fresh. I was interested in exploring musical scenarios-some exotic, many erotic, but all deeply emotional. I wanted to push the envelope. And I’m glad that 'Discipline,’ both as a song and an album, does just that.
“'Feedback,’ a Rodney Jerkins production, is a different metaphor that also explores sexual tension. It’s a provocative conversation that invites openness in an area where so many of us are closed off. The same could be said for Rodney’s “Roller Coaster,” a musical ride that reflects that up and downs of romantic/physical agitation and excitement.”
When asked how her concept of discipline has changed over the years, Janet reaches for her mug of hot tea, takes a sip and pauses several seconds before replying.
“Well, I guess if I go back to the beginning I see a little girl, 10-years-old, who’s appearing on 'Good Times’ and sets her own alarm clock to wake up at 5:30 AM in order to be at work by 7. Then I think about a 15-year-old starting to make records. For the next 25 years, she makes an album every two or three years without fail. Going a little deeper, she learns that the music most connected to her heart has a rhythmic and harmonic complexity that requires work. That means hours and hours trying to compose lyrics and melodies that ring true; hours and hours in the studio layering the vocals that contain the different voices she hears inside her head. Then, of course, the months she spends planning and executing world tours, one after another.”
And does that artist see discipline as a burden?
“No, I see it as a blessing,” Janet is quick to say. “As a child, I took it for granted. That’s who I was. As a teenager, I wanted to sing and dance. I realized that required concentration. I wanted to reach people, and I had the good sense to see that couldn’t happen if my skills weren’t crafted with precision. But as I came to adulthood, I was hard on myself. Discipline is one thing; perfectionism is another. Perfectionism is a kind of punishment. It leads to permanent dissatisfaction and heartbreak. It’s wonderful to strive for excellence, but demanding perfection only leads to heartache and frustration. It took me years to learn that difficult lesson. But in finally learning it, I now see discipline in a new light.”
The light of the winter sun breaks through the grey sky and floods the room. Janet gets up and finds a copy of “Can’t Be Good,” a song written and produced for her by Ne-Yo, who also did “Discipline.” She slips it into the CD player. The sensuous groove stops the conversation; it’s all heavenly harmonies and sweet romantic ambivalence.
“The ambivalence and the discipline are in conflict,” says Janet when the song stops. “I can relate to the story. In fact, I can imagine myself in the story. After a long relationship that ends in pain, I turn to my old friend, discipline. I discipline myself not to get involved, not to be vulnerable, not to fall in love. My discipline protects me from any more hurt. My discipline keeps me on track. But here comes someone who’s so real and right that, as the song says, 'This can’t be good.’ So discipline really isn’t discipline. It’s just self-protection and fear of being hurt. It’s resistance. Thankfully, the heat of pure passion melts the resistance. And the result is free-flowing love.”
“Listen to 'Letchu Go,’” Janet continues. “It was written and produced by Jermaine. When I read the lyrics by Jermaine and Johnta Austin, I couldn’t help but cry. The more I thought about the story, the more I saw how it reveals another aspect of positive discipline, especially as it relates to relationships. The song says that we can’t stop trying just because we hit rough times. It’s not too late; we can’t give up on our fate; we can’t let go of that discipline that allows us to work through problems and find a way to the wonders that come with open and honest love.
“The album expresses what I need to express at this moment of my life,” she says. “It says that discipline, rather than being a problem, can bring pleasure. Discipline is a key to freedom. Discipline allows me-allows all of us-to focus. And the focus must be on thoughts and feelings that nourish our physical and spiritual lives.
“Funny, but my first big album also had a one-word title-Control. I was naïve in thinking that I could control every aspect of my life. The only one who really has control is God. But it took discipline-the discipline of thought, the discipline of action, the discipline of creating music-to make me see that. Finally, discipline has to do with faith. I have faith that a gentle but steady discipline will let me continue to grow as an artist and a woman.”