Taylor Janzen's Tears Propel Pop Transcendence

The singer-songwriter discusses her evangelical upbringing, Winnipeg's exploding music scene and her long-awaited album 'I Live in Patterns'

Photo: Brittany O'Brien

BY Megan LaPierrePublished Mar 1, 2023

They say you have your whole life to write your first album; for Taylor Janzen, it feels like it's been several. The Winnipeg singer-songwriter is only 23, but her music is imbued with the wisdom of past lives.

"Some of these songs are like four years old," she tells me over Zoom, "so it doesn't like define a specific period of my life as much as it's just a long span of time." When you're a young musician, that many trips around the sun feels doubly weighted — especially when Janzen had lined up the pattern so perfectly.

She released her debut EP Interpersonal in 2018, followed by another, Shouting Matches, the following year. Like clockwork, she had finished writing her first full-length in March 2020 — the week prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was like, 'Okay, I'm ready to come out with a record,'" Janzen remembers. "And then like, maybe three months into the pandemic, I was like, 'Wait, I hate this. I'm going to start over.'"

While she says she was mostly just being really hard on her own art, she believes that what became I Live in Patterns — out March 3 on Arts & Crafts — is a better version. "It was nice because I was writing these songs I didn't have to write," she explains. "There was no pressure for me to write songs, so this version of the record is all just songs that kind of spilled out of me, almost by accident."

In addition to leftovers from the original (Taylor's Version), Janzen recorded a couple songs in Nashville with JT Daly of Paper Route, a band she's been a fan of since high school, as well as tracking a couple in Los Angeles. But half of the album was born of a likewise freeing creative experience: working with her friend and Winnipeg scene staple Roman Clarke, which is partly how she found herself abandoning more sparse, raw instrumentation for grander, glossy pop production.

"I would almost never go into a session thinking like, 'I want this to sound pop.' It just happened," the singer-songwriter says. "The way that the record sounds is very natural to me."

You almost couldn't hear it any other way. From the sparkling jaunt of "Push It Down" to the Herculean elasticity of "Designated Driver," Janzen's choruses are able to soar to new heights, her intensely vulnerable writing effortlessly cloud-busting its way into massive pop hooks.

Sometimes the reason for the trauma is also how to best articulate it. "One thing you can say about a Christian song is they love a good build, and they do it well, and they know how to create a feeling," the singer-songwriter says. She attributes learning how to evoke emotions in music to growing up in a nondenominational evangelical prosperity gospel church.

"Like, megachurch vibes," she adds, recalling the struggle of wrestling with feelings of doubt in that environment, especially when relevance to society is emphasized in that particular sect of Christianity. Janzen was a worship leader in her youth, which she felt was what she was meant to do at the time. "The one thing I don't really want to do is to just say that every part of my upbringing was awful," she cautions. "I think it's important to sift through things and kind of pick out the good parts — not throw the whole thing away." The singer-songwriter concludes, "I do feel like I learned a lot as a musician growing up in that."

Her distance from it is what now enables her to dig deeper in writing about the potential for organized religion's paths to salvation to actually harm, her own experiences in the church serving as a thematic through-line on I Live in Patterns — to the extent only a harmonically dense opening piece entitled "Sunday Morning" could. 

As fluidly as it transitions into the echoey breakbeat of "Fingers Crossed," Janzen wants to pass on the healing that hearing other songwriters question belief facilitated for her while she was still in that environment, as well as continuing to work through her own thoughts and emotions with the sole coping mechanism she had at the time. Only now, she's singing the words she once kept close to a cross-adorned chest.

Much like contemporaries Tomberlin and Lucy Dacus, the mental health reverberations of religious upbringing have been significant for Janzen. "Choosing to put faith in your own intuition and your own decisions is really, really hard after growing up in that environment, because you are trained to believe that your own intuition — and your own desires, and what you want for your life — is incorrect," she explains. In other words, it's a tough pattern to break.

So is intergenerational trauma, another weighty topic the singer-songwriter grapples with on the album. "The static in my genetics / Could burn my life down if I let it," she sings on the hopeful, towering "Something Better," lamenting the ache we pass down to each other. It's "an inheritance I'll never see," as she puts it on the stately piano ballad "Patience." 

Janzen sees patterns as a metric of both pain and growth, holding the impulses to break them and lean into them at once. "I've always felt like my mental health is very episodic and it happens in these waves and these patterns, and I'm trying to learn to live with it and embrace it rather than always fighting against it, and that's what the record is about," she explains, poignantly letting the final line of "Patience" — "Repeat it until it makes sense" — ring out.

This practice is brought to life on the album's title track, "I Live in Patterns," which appears twice on the tracklist, the second version a duet with Southern Californian singer-songwriter Alix Page. This is self-proclaimed "selfish writer" Janzen's first-ever feature, and she sought out Page because of how much she loves her voice. "And the way she writes is so gorgeous," Janzen gushes. 

Page is a sterling mirror to the Canadian, playing off of her words and allowing the song to toggle outward from the latter rendition's micro lens. "She's using some of the lyrics that I already wrote, but she's kind of writing it in a way that applies to her," Janzen explains of Page's take. "While I'm extending the narrative, I'm also just thinking about how we're all just experiencing very similar things even if we feel like we're not." The hole Janzen burned in her sadness becomes the home Page makes within hers.

It's instantly evocative of the specific scene the Manitoban was looking to set with the track, with a finger-picked arpeggio bolstered by an increasingly impatient thrumming heartbeat, conjuring a red-tinged night sky and the inhospitable glow of streetlights on an otherwise empty street. It's walking through a suburban maze in Winnipeg, "and it's freezing outside and I don't know what I'm doing with my life and everything sucks," the artist says of the song, where her stinging delivery inches dizzyingly closer to the listener as the murky background vocals threaten to swallow it whole. And again, as she repeats, "I'm gonna save me," it starts to become prophecy. 

While this relatable post-apocalyptic suburbia could be anywhere, it feels firmly grounded in Janzen's city — the one she says she's grown to love through music. "I firmly believe that Winnipeg is the most underrated music scene," she says, which she, semi-seriously at least, chalks up to the weather. "I cannot walk outside without my face hurting," she deadpans. "I have to just sit in my room and write things. That's all I have."

"I think that in the upcoming years it's going to have its moment — I think it already is. And there's a lot of really cool shit coming out of here that I'm really, really proud to be a part of," the artist says, citing Begonia, JayWood and Yes We Mystic as some of her favourites in the Winnipeg tradition of producing incredible live acts. 

And Janzen can hold her own with the best of them. Last year, I witnessed her (and a cardboard cutout of Zac Efron, which she says now lives in her bathroom) win over a sold-out crowd at Lee's Palace opening for Del Water Gap. That tour saw her go an unheard-of six weeks without crying and get to watch Samuel Holden Jaffe's project do nightly performances of "It's Not Fair !" — a song she had co-written with the bandleader. She effuses, "I was like, 'Dude, we wrote this over Zoom! And now the girlies are singing it so enthusiastically!'"

A drought of tears is so much an unnaturalized state for the singer-songwriter that she knew this wasn't the side of the story to showcase on the cover of her debut album. For Janzen and her music, it's the rawest form that's the most powerful, so she had Toronto-based photographer Becca Hamel capture her while she was crying. "I really wanted to focus on sensitivity and vulnerability being a really beautiful thing — and these big emotions being a really important and integral part of myself instead of this weakness," Janzen says. "I think I definitely grew up thinking that my sensitivity and my emotions were negative parts of my personality and things that I had to quiet, but I think they are really important parts of of me and I wanted to celebrate it."

Likewise, in the music video for the album's first single, "Push It Down," the artist goes on a joyride in a bathtub, her face streaked with tears of glitter. It's an image that becomes impossible to separate from the way I Live in Patterns sounds, giving the big feelings she once found stifling the proper pop vehicle for sing-along catharsis that feels uniquely unassuming. This isn't Janzen capitalizing on a trendy "sad girl" aesthetic, but an exorcism of trauma and mental illness-forged thought patterns that have shaped her life experiences — for worse and for better.

"Sensitivity and these larger emotions literally fuel my art at this point my career, so it's obviously a very important and good thing for me," she decides. "Even if it's hard to experience sometimes."

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