Photo by PetraYou know that movie Josie and the Pussycats? Fuck that movie. Jeannette Kantzalis has been there, done that. She's lived the whole story of struggling songwriter wooed and screwed by sinister, major-label running dogs. Yeah, she wrote songs in her garage, got discovered, got signed, even got a little famous. And if this was some trashy, plastic, jerk-off movie, that's where we'd roll the credits. But with Kantzalis, that's not where the story ends.
"I had no business being in the music business," she said. It took her years to even play guitar standing up, or to work up the nerve to play in front of other people, or to do anything besides sit in her garage with a slapdash four-track recorder and piece together heartbreakingly perfect power-pop songs.
But now she's got somewhere around 30 different records floating around out there. "This year, I lost track of how many," she says. She has bounced from coast to coast with her band the Chubbies for almost a decade, and if you happen to poke around on the Internet, you'll find her filed under the title "Secret Queen of Rock." So why haven't they made a movie about her? Call it creative differences.
"I'd love to have a really big record—a really great-sounding pop record that people will play and play," she says. "But the reason I'm not there is because they don't want me there. I really didn't deal with businesspeople well."
She'd been recording songs since she was seven, sometimes employing friends at slumber parties to help her. She was multitracking at 11. She'd play all the instruments herself. She was a one-woman band, one track at a time.
"I used to do this in secret, this weird little talent," she said. "I always knew this was what I did, but I never told anyone. My mom thought I was nuts for doing it."
And she wasn't used to anyone paying attention to her. But when she somehow snaked her way into the 1992 movie Fathers and Sons, everybody paid attention to her. Maybe a little too much.
"They flew me to New York, and by the time I got back, I had, like, five record deals on the table. I didn't know what the heck was going on," Kantzalis says. "They wanted me for a photo shoot—they sent me to the hairstylist with all this money. I didn't show up to that; I went and got some DAT tapes and guitar strings. When I came back, they asked, 'Did you get your hair done?' I said, 'Yeah.' And they said, 'It looks the same.' So you can see why I was a nightmare to those people."
They probably didn't like it much when she took $500 intended for a nice record-company-executive-dinner-session dress and came home with new monitors and a PA system. They also didn't like it when she resisted their messing about with her songs or got in an argument with the president of her new record label, A&M. If this was a movie, this would be the climactic showdown in which Kantzalis would triumph over adversity and all the small-minded industry drones. Instead, they dumped her after one CD and a handful of singles. So she went back to that Upland garage, guitar slung over her shoulder.
"Everyone I thought was my friend wasn't," she said. "Even my family was like, 'Jeannette, what did you do? You ruined everything!'"
But then she met Matt Phuzz, who had been booking punk shows and playing in punk bands and doing the whole do-it-yourself thing since he was about 11, too. And he didn't even notice that she'd just caught the last lonely bus back from the big city.
"He was the only person in my life who said, 'Eh, who cares? Make your own record!'" she said of Phuzz, who became her longtime boyfriend. "He didn't think twice about the fact that I didn't know how to put out a record. So I did it. And then a month later, he said, 'Go on tour!'"
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So she did that, too. She dropped A&M's "Jeannette Katt" and became Jeannette Chubbie, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the Chubbies. And she put out a record after that and a record after that, and she did a tour after that and dozens more records after that—on labels from as far away as France and Italy and as local as Long Beach's Sympathy for the Record Industry, which recently co-released with Kantzalis and Phuzz's Filthy Records the Chubbies' latest CD, American Swagger.
She writes about whatever she wants, does her hair however she wants, doesn't spend $500 on dresses, and doesn't have anybody sticking their business in her music. She still sits down with that tape deck and records those sweet little songs all by herself. If they do make a movie about her, the credits will say, "All words and music by Jeannette."
"I don't have a choice," she says. "I don't know how to do anything else. Whether you pay me or don't pay me, I'm still gonna be here. It's not just about fun—its feels like nothing else. And I can't think of anything better."
The Chubbies perform with Breech and the Bar Room Heroes at Linda's Doll Hut, 107 S. Adams, Anaheim, (714) 533-1286; www.dollhut.com. Fri., 9 p.m. $7. 21+.