When asked how she was doing on August 31, 2013, Vixen’s founder Jan Kuehnemund replied in her soft-spoken voice, “[I’m doing] pretty good. Still working on songs, and still doing it.” Little did the world know of Kuehnemund’s silent struggle with cancer, which claimed her life on Thursday, October 10, 2013- a mere 6 weeks later. She was never one to complain, even when her body was under siege by this ravenous and often fatal disease. She lived her life with a perseverance so strong, that even in her wake, her guitar playing still resonates in the atmosphere as strong as the powerful force of a magnitude 5 earthquake, and indelibly echoes in the depth of one’s soul.
In the aftermath of her sudden passing, Vixen fans from around the globe have been left mystified and awestruck by the sheer courage and fortitude Kuehnemund possessed, leaving many questions in our minds, while at the same time sending out a powerful lesson she left us with that will continue to transcend for generations live and love with all you have each day as though it were your last. Simple, yet elegant just as Kuehnemund was.
Born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Kuehnemund recalled her earliest introduction to playing music came via keyboard lessons. “It was something I had to do, and even though I didn’t mind it, I would tend to play my own songs while playing on the keyboard.” In her family, every member had experience with playing an instrument, with the exception of her father, who Kuehnemund said “always liked the guitar,” so it was ironic that he was the person who not only introduced her to it, but also that his attraction to the guitar would leave such an impression on her that she would later go on to carve out a place in rock and roll history as one of the most influential women in music.
“Once I started playing and working on the guitar, I got my best friend, and she got a guitar, too. We started playing little shows [like] at my grandmother’s nursing home,” Jan recalled discussing her earliest memories of performing. Her brother’s friends had a band and were playing gigs in their neighborhood, which she said prompted her to think, “Wow, we could have an all-female band.”
Despite the lack of female role models in the music industry in the 1970’s, Kuehnemund also credited Heart and Led Zeppelin as serving as her additional musical influences in her youth. Noting the scarcity of women in rock at the time, she knew her path in life was very clear, regardless of the challenges that she’d inevitably be facing to make her mark. “We were pretty confident. We had big goals. We’re gonna make it,” she replied when asked if she ever had a moment of self-doubt about achieving her dreams of being a musician.
Kuehnemund’s dreams propelled her from her midwest stomping grounds and planted her right onto the L.A. music scene in the early 1980’s. The story of her life was being penned by the undeniable voice in her head that she was going to go big. Going home wasn’t going to be an option. “We went out there and we said, ‘This is it, we’re going to do this.’” She overcame the initial culture shock by obliterating it with the intense feeling of excitement drawn from the notion that, towering over her was the Hollywood sign- a panoramic portrait she was now a part of.
By now, she had set the stage for the official formation of Vixen- scouting clubs and inviting other women to join her band. After a few initial line-up changes, Vixen was born and ready to conquer the world. “We auditioned for many different record companies. We made demos, and nobody would give us the time of day. They were like, ‘What are you kidding me?’ [We had] people telling us, ‘Get a guy back-up band and just stand up there and sing.’ We thought, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’” Kuehnemund shared.
With vocalist Janet Gardner, Share Pedersen on bass, and Roxy Petrucci on drums, Kuehnemund’s vision tied them all together as a force to be reckoned with. It was time for the band to focus on producing their first album. The key was finding the right manager to unlock their melodic secrets and share them with the world. “We’d gone through many managers, and nobody was right. Nobody wanted us. And finally this agent (from Minnesota) said, ‘I have the guy for you.’” The agent she was referring to was Allen Kovac of Left Bank Management, Inc. in L.A., who’d also done work with Richard Marx. “He said, ‘I’m gonna get you signed.’ It wasn’t easy, but he did!,” she laughed.
In September 1988, Vixen’s self-titled debut album was released. Kuehnemund noted the process was an arduous one. “There was a lot of pressure on the first record for sure because of the time constraints, and that was the first really big experience of working with the big time producers. It was a lot of pressure, but it was like, ‘Well, we got the deal. We should go along with this, and so we did the best we could,” she added.
Their album went on to produce several hits, with the production and arrangements by Marx, as well as Rick Neigher, David Cole and Spencer Proffer. When it was completed, their record company felt the album was still lacking that final song that would amalgamate their sound. Edge of a Broken Heart, written by Marx and Fee Waybill of The Tubes, both provided the missing pieces to the puzzle. “Our manager went to him [Marx] and said, ‘Can you write Vixen a song really fast?’” After Vixen recorded the song, the record company said, “Yes, that’s it! That’s what we’re looking for,” Kuehnemund stated. With the inertia of these combined efforts, Vixen proved to be a force to be reckoned with. Cryin’ was released soon after, and it was becoming clear to Kuehnemund that her unshakable goals were quickly materializing.
In terms of song selection, Kuehnemund said her band was very scrupulous. “We think about what the song is saying. People would present us with songs that they’d written and even thought they might be good songs, if they weren’t for us, and if we didn’t believe in them, we wouldn’t have done them very well,“ she explained.
“Definitely the second record was a lot more at ease in the studio,” Kuehnemund confessed regarding their 1990 release of Rev it Up. How Much Love and Love is a Killer ruled the airwaves and also MTV. The entire culmination of both albums swept Vixen up into a whirlwind world-wide tour, taking Kuehnemund far from her the familiar surroundings of her once anonymous life in the midwest. She wasn’t affected much by the fame though, mostly because she didn’t have time to really think about it due their demanding schedule. Kuehnemund did comment that, “It was great because we were getting all of these perks, and we had this beautiful bus. People were carrying our luggage, and all those things were great, but we were just so busy working- either playing, traveling or doing promo. Being so busy probably kept us a little bit grounded.” She recalled that even though they’d achieved success, she was still able to appreciatewhat was happening in the moment, while still getting excited to see their videos on MTV. She giggled as she recalled the experience by saying, “Wow! Is that really us?!”
From 1991-1997, Vixen disbanded, and it would be quite some time before the band was to be heard from again- 2006 actually, with the release of their third album Live & Learn. In 2001, vocalist Jenna Sans-Agero, bassist Lynn Louise Lowrey and drummer Kat Kraft joined Kuehnemund to relaunch the new Vixen. With a new synergy, the band was officially back on the scene and ready to electrify the world with another resounding aftershock. When asked if she had any new material in the works due to the lapse in time since Live & Learn, Kuehnemund coyly said, “Yes, yes we do,” and alluded to new songs already completed, though she wouldn’t disclose any further details.
With the sudden passing of Kuehnemund this past month, only time will tell if the story of Vixen is left untold, or if there’s one final chapter left to be read. Acacia recording artist J.D. Bradshaw, also a long-time fan and friend of Kuehnemund, summarized how the world embraced her (prior to her passing) by stating, “I’ve always loved Jan’s guitar playing. She’s melodic. She can shred with the best of them. She has a vision from the first time of starting Vixen in Minnesota to where she is now. She had a vision. She stood by it. She put in the time to make it happen. Her musicianship just strikes a really good chord in me.”
And wherever she is now, we can take solice in believing she is free of illness, while her guitar playing will go onto echo in the wind- if we slow down and appreciate the moment while being immersed in it- a lesson Kuehnemund left to all of us from the beginning.