The heart of tech-savvy singer-actress Janina Gavankar’s work is in reimagining. She takes songs like Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown,” Frank Ocean’s “Swim Good” and Martin Garrix’s “Don’t Look Down” and reworks them into art pieces that push technological boundaries and avoid targeting the mainstream.
“My performance isn’t edited down to fit between ads,” says Gavankar. “There is no Svengali; there is no label calling the shots. But, I’d be lying if I said there is no added pressure to being your own executive producer. In the end, you either get to be the muse or the maker. I’d rather be the latter.”
If you passed Janina Gavankar, a full-time actor, on the street, you’d likely recognize her from shows like “True Blood,” “The L Word” and “Arrow.” These three series, she says, “Are great examples of artists making exactly what they want.” “The L Word” was created by “a group of independent filmmakers,” she adds. While Allen Ball, the creator of “True Blood” and “Six Feet Under,” “is a genius who only follows his own rules.” “Arrow" was created “by a group of comic book nerds,” she enthuses. “These are people who made no excuses and created what they themselves want to watch. Being in their midst, inspires you to do the same.”
But acting alone doesn’t satisfy Gavankar’s creatively. “Basically, time goes by, my musical frustrations build to an explosive level, and I have to make something or I'll lose my mind,” she details. “Also, because I'm an actor, people perceive me as the person they've seen in that one show from which they know me.” Because of this she finds it easier to communicate her “specific musical proclivities” by reimagining songs that most people are already familiar.
Familiarity aside, Gavankar adds that when it comes to her work, she is “completely uninterested in repeating myself.” Each piece she releases, “I sort of think of them as one-off art installations,” she adds. She not only reworks well-known tracks, but she also creates stunning and original award-winning work as well.
In 2012, she released the multi-genre track “Waiting for Godot,” inspired by the 1953 Samuel Beckett tragicomedy about two men who sit together and wait for a man who never shows. She’s labeled the song “organica,” since it includes both electronic and organic instrumentation. For the song’s music video, which Gavankar produced, she teamed with director Caitlin Pashalek. The project focused on the concept of something unrequited and received the Best Music Video and Best Editing honors at the Los Angeles Cinema Film Festival (LACFF) in 2013.
Also a tech savant - Gavankar was the first celebrity to sign up for Twitter - the artist picked up the Gravity Summit Excellence in Social Media/Entertainment Award in 2011.
For her latest video for “Don’t Look Down,” released today, April 7, Gavankar worked with a non-weaponized drone. “A friend of mine, Christian Sanz, the CEO and founder of Skycatch, is doing some of the most advanced and interesting work with non-weaponized drones,” she says. “When I had the idea to include the drone, he was the first person I called. The drone, [which] we named Skyler, was created solely for this music video. I now consider him my son. Visually, I had it in my head that I wanted to create a 'live event’ feel. A stage show, expect in theater-in-the-round, in a black box theater. I wanted this drone to feel like it entered heaven, except heaven had a marching band.”
Gavankar’s love for technological advancement “is genuine,” she says. Her father was an electronic engineer and an inventor, who also loved music and film. “I saw him be inspired by an idea in his own brain and bring it to life countless times,” she recalls. “The overlap of interests in technology and artistry is just in my DNA.”
Always interested in “combining something that is innately human with something that is innately inhuman,” Gavankar also prefers to “blur the lines between what is human and what is effective technologically.” Musically she likes to “blur the lines between what is based in human effort and what is only doable with technology.” Her video for “Don’t Look Down,” she says, “Represents that kind of perfectly” as it’s “a massive amount of human effort captured with a new technology.”
The song itself incorporates drum corps, performed by musicians from the Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps. After initially hearing Martin Garrix’s EDM track “Don’t Look Down” while working out on a treadmill one rainy night, Gavankar knew she wanted to reimagine it with heavy percussion.
“Drum Corps is like the Olympics of marching band,” she says. “Top level musicianship and precision, on a competitive level. Because of this, I think I’ve subconsciously always been looking for a way to inject it into one of my musical pieces. This one seemed like the perfect opportunity. I could hear the translation of instruments immediately.” Arranger and musician Colin Bell helped her craft her new arrangement of the song.
Gavankar’s love for percussion runs deep. At 15 she was a center snare. She was “tasked with minding the tone and tempo for the rest of the drum line, which in turn set the tone and tempo for the rest of the hundred-plus band members, strewn across an entire football field. Having that kind of responsibility gave me an innate understanding that good leadership can equal synergy, and the experience can be life changing when done within an artistic medium.”
She compares her the drum work required for her rework of “Don’t Look Down” to that of her acting career. “The kind of precision we're talking about here is the result of painstaking hours of teamwork and practice,” she says. “Nothing's really changed for me, in my acting life. TV shows take 14 hours a day to shoot. Casts and crews have to be on the same page every moment of every day.”
Not preoccupied with her work evoking a certain feeling, Gavankar says, “Because each piece of music comes from an explosion of a personal catharsis, I’m not creating them to manipulate the audience into feeling something specific.” But she adds, “If you ask me now that it’s finished what I hope it makes people feel? …reckless abandon.”
Words by Jessica Herndon