EASY KEEPER: New Album from the Award-Winning Instrumental Duo, Sister John Angela

By Lisa Lynn Morgan
Cover Photo: Kelly Segre

Easy Keeper, the latest album release from 2023 Joshuas Honorees, Sister John Angela, plays like a cinematic back drop for anyone who has ever stepped onto their stoop and stared at the otherworldly beauty of our desert vistas. The duo: Janie Cowan, on upright bass – bow in hand, pedals underfoot – and “Smitty from St. Lou” on steel guitar – have forged an idiosyncratic musical relationship that is producing symphonic Delta Blues sound beds laced with Dixieland Jazz that magically capture the spirit of desert folk rock. Their individual backgrounds are as different as their approach to the music yet, as is said of many great collaborations, the whole of Sister John Angela is greater than the sum of their parts.

Smitty grew up in the 60s and 70s. “Music was very stimulating then,” Smitty explains. “I hung around with some musicians, and I fumbled with an acoustic guitar, but there were no aspirations. In my mid-20s, I got to listening to blues on New York radio stations and ultimately took blues lessons from various well knowns. I got hooked on Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, and Lightning Hopkins. Although I learned to imitate to a degree, I knew that’s not what I wanted to become. I had an opportunity to compose for HBO and Cinemax for a good run of years later which enabled me to compose some very interesting music. I believe if it weren’t for that opportunity, I would not be composing the music I write today. After getting a handle on blues music, I listened to Tom since his first record. A lot of compositions written for cable and to this day were influenced by Tom.”

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With an incredible resume under his belt, Smitty says that the highlight of his music career is “what Janie and I are doing right now.” Smitty is constantly creating and challenging himself, producing daily.

Janie Cowan has been playing music from the tender age of five when her parents had her take Suzuki piano lessons. “The Suzuki method is a lovely approach that develops your ear first,” Cowen explains. “You listen to a tape every night (maybe the kids do this on Spotify now…) of the songs you are learning, and it helps you understand how to play what you hear.” Things changed for Cowen in 6th grade. “Once I started playing bass in the school orchestra, the piano was dead to me, and I was pursuing any and all educational opportunities I could find.”

Since living in the desert, Cowan has adopted two rescue donkeys. “They are my main source of
joy these days,” Cowan shared. “They also supply the main ingredient in my greenhouse!”
Photo: Pola Esther

Cowan eventually won a scholarship to study at Oberlin Music Conservatory. “I let music and bands dictate my life choices from there on,” she admits. “I’ve always loved how bass fits in the widest diversity of musical settings and has an epic, not yet fully discovered, range of sound possibility.”

Cowan has been able to tour from Mexico to Bulgaria, and much of what’s between, playing with music legends. “For the past 6 or 7 years, I’ve been particularly obsessed with Balkan music. To me, music has been the golden ticket to a cultural understanding and compassion that I don’t think I could have been exposed to otherwise. With global tensions so high, I like to meditate on the miracle of connectedness that music brings. I couldn’t begin to describe it- I’d much rather try to improvise about it!”

The improvisation and experimentation that Cowen brings to the structure that Smitty lays down on guitar is what makes Sister John Angela not only unique, but makes their music a living, breathing thing. Even in the studio, there will never be more than two takes. For Cowan, a song tends to lose something with too many attempts to capture it. She thrives on the spontaneity eloquently explaining, “The best things that have happened to me, I never saw coming.”

Photo: Maura Sullivan

You can find the duo every Friday from 8-10 pm at Giant Rock Meeting Room in Landers. “Our residency has been going on there every Friday for over two years,” Cowan shares. “Having that residency has been the most supportive key factor in our musical development, and we are incredibly grateful to Linus (owner) for not only creating such a wonderful venue and supporting us, but also genuinely believing in us and loving what we do. I think as much as Linus loves pizza and entrepreneurship, he loves music even more. Both of us have been inspired by the long-lasting residencies of some of our heroes and friends; Smitty and I first bonded over our love of Smokey Hormel wh has been doing a Wednesday residency, “Smokey’s Round Up”, at Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook Brooklyn for over 15 years. Our mutual friends started the Sunday Band at Pappy and Harriet’s. We hope our residency will reach that kind of legendary status.”

The duo hopes to do a vinyl release of Easy Keeper at Giant Rock Meeting Room in March.

The name, “Sister John Angela,” came about as Cowan and Smitty sat outside of Pappy and Harriets with friends. For some reason, we were talking about Catholicism, and I mentioned I have an aunt who is a nun. Growing up, she would always come to family gatherings wearing the stiff habit, and she would always bring her best friend, Sister John Angela. I recall watching them both “rolling bones” (dice), gambling with the men in the basement. I mentioned that name and the rest is history.”

Sister John Angela was nominated by their peers and then voted by the public as the Outstanding Instrumental Artist/Group celebrated at the 2023 Joshuas Honors Gala. There are many towns and cities that claim fame as a music scene, and rightly so. But few are as supportive of the experimental and diverse creativity that colors outside the lines and has the potential to generate something new. Even fewer are the venues that provide the necessary supportive platforms. Joshua Tree and her gateway communities have long celebrated the unique creative energy that vibrates from its vortex. With our continued support of these artists and the venues that provide stages for them, more gems like Sister John Angela, will find their way into the world’s hearts and music streams and the “golden ticket to cultural understanding and compassion,” that Cowen has found through music.

Sister John Angela will be celebrating the release of Easy Keeper at Pappy and Harriet’s January 28, 2024 at 7:30 pm on the indoor stage. Tickets are available at https://pappyandharriets.com/live-music/ (or scan the bar code).

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