By Lily Rex
On You’re Still Here, the latest release from songwriter Sarah Rose Janko’s folk project Dawn Riding, Janko explores survival through compelling imagery. Janko’s writing on her third album is a master class in the ‘show don’t tell’ mindset.
Janko undoubtedly has many more survival stories left to tell considering her travels, which include hitchhiking and jumping freight trains across the United States. The first single, “9 Lives” is a reflection on a romance told in snippets, as if from an outside observer rather than from a central character. Fitting, as Janko said in a recent interview with Country Queer that people go through many transformations, and what we once thought we could never get over eventually becomes, “…just a thing to sing about.”
For many of us the concept of nine lives implies the danger of feline curiosity, but Janko wants the listener to think about abundance rather than life’s fleeting nature.
“It isn’t meant to be about time running out,” Janko told CQ in September. “People are always saying ‘life is short’ but so many have these huge transformations and distinct eras in their lives. People serve 30 year sentences, or change careers, or get divorced, my best friend’s parent just came out as trans at 65 years old,” . “Time keeps moving, you have more life, more lives.”
Reliable, dark rhythm from an acoustic guitar with harmonica and steel guitar embellishments gives “9 Lives” a melancholy, western feel. Between the lyrics and the sound, it’s both weighty and understated. “All the Time” follows the strings-and-tumbleweed motif that’s a thread throughout the album. “Hold On” is a departure, with a mystical and ominous tone more laden with effects and contrasting pitches.
Lyrically, “Beautiful and Dangerous” shows us a more complex perspective on a doomed relationship. As opposed to “9 Lives”, the tone is reverent. The narrator describes their beautiful but troubled love (“the girl who flew too close to the sun”) and says they cannot count the ways she has changed their life: “Little as a Tinkerbelle, mean as hell/Pretty as the lightning in the Midwest cracks the sky in two/Electric blue, beautiful and dangerous.”
The subtle drone of an organ permeates the track beneath gentle finger-style guitar. A brilliant sonic nod to admiration—especially loving someone who promises to hurt you—considering the musical association between organs and church and worship..
Again, “Beautiful and Dangerous” is less a telling of a story and more a series of snapshots. The stories are not linear, but instead are driven by image and emotion. They root us in a feeling, day of the week, time of day, town it happened in, all rendered irrelevant by her refreshingly impressionistic writing style.
Though we may get many chances at life, Janko doesn’t let us forget our responsibility to the future—that we cannot run from or deny our past iterations. In “The Difference,” a protest song in the folkie tradition, Janko invokes images of the 2020 protests that erupted following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Janko is sure to start this with an acknowledgement of her privilege. The song opens: “Born on a lucky sign, my life was saved by rolling dice/And there is no good reason why I never had to fear, I never had to fight.”
Janko goes on to call out those who “mourn the loudest for the loss of property” in the wake of protests, and those who say the past is the past (“How can you wear your great grandmother’s pearls and you tell me the past is gone?”).
Percussion is more forward on “The Difference,” with crashing cymbals and a thumping bass drum. While not angry, the track is certainly emphatic in both lyric and tone. The big moment comes after a jangly guitar solo where she sings, “They say you’re born then you die alone, well you know, that’s not true/You’re born into a legacy of what went down here before you.” The song wraps up abruptly after this, a reflection of how our work is never done: the past will always haunt and inform us. No matter what happens to us, we remain… with our endless choices that must be made.
You’re Still Here is like a photo album in sound. Janko updates folk tradition while paying homage to it at the same time. She reminds us that we’re still here, taking us out of the moment and into her carefully crafted scenes that urge us to revisit our own memories… examining our past selves in the interest of the future.
Lily Rex (they/she) is a queer, Nashville-based writer obsessed with American history, rivers, and Country/Folk/Americana music. They hail from Northwest Indiana, where they amassed over 600 bylines in three years as a government watchdog reporter for an independent newspaper, and are the author of the poetry chapbook ‘Rivers Have Friends Too’ (2021). Follow them on Instagram @rexpoet.