We open on a coffee shop two days after Christmas in a city clinging to the last vestiges of the season. Christmas music rises in the background as the camera centers on film composer Damoyee Janai, a songwriter with impeccable posture. Dance is one of the mediums she ditched in her earlier days (“I couldn’t do the splits, so I had to quit”) but she has retained the rigid composure instilled in her by unscrupulous instructors.
It strikes me that a still-decorated coffee shop in the waning moments of the holidays is the perfect place to meet composer-singer-songwriter Janai, an eternal optimist who clings to hope and approaches the world with childlike wonder.
“Every song is a chance for me to open my eyes to something new,” she says. “A feeling, an emotion, something. It’s all discovery.”
Discovery has been one of the central themes in Janai’s young yet impressive career. The 19-year-old singer-songwriter has released three albums and composed scores for a few short films, and is presently studying composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
She has won numerous awards for singing and writing, and has already made a name for herself locally. KXT radio host Amy Miller calls her one of her favorites in Dallas, and Janai was tapped to compose an original song to accompany the raising of a shiny, new chandelier at Winspear Opera House. As she will repeat often throughout our conversation, each opportunity is a new chance for her to discover. Nowadays, that often means discovering something new about herself.
“Music is my way of saying what I can’t say verbally,” she says. “Whether it’s me onstage, or me scoring a movie, that’s how I can cope. I think it’s always been like that, even when I didn’t realize it.”
We leave the coffee shop and fade into life with Janai as a young teenager in Arlington. A sister to two younger siblings (both athletes), Janai is the quiet, shy one. When she does talk (and it’s a rare act) she speaks with calm deliberation, mulling the importance of words with a composer’s eye for the subtle details.
“Man, she was a quiet kid,” says Sam Cross, a family friend from the Janais church of choice, Bethlehem Baptist Church in Mansfield. “It takes a while, but eventually she starts to open up.”
Janai’s parents enlisted Cross to help their daughter, who was interested in recording some of her music. The singer’s early work, like her album Thankful, is pure pop. Janai retained her early work’s trademark optimism and wholesomeness but ditched the pop frills.
“That early stuff wasn’t as serious as I wanted to be,” she says. “I started blending in R&B and soul, because R&B songs are a little more vulnerable.”
Janai's search for vulnerability coincided with high school. She attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where she embedded herself with singers, dancers, actors and artists. Teachers remember the same shyness cited by Cross, but beneath the timid veneer lay a potent talent.
“She was the kid with the big headphones, just keeping to herself,” says Paul Williams, who taught production classes at Booker T. during Janai’s career. “She was one of the only ones who listened to me, though.”
Williams wanted his class to create a school song that would tell the story of Booker T. and its eclectic, creative environment. No one seemed to care, but a few weeks passed, and Janai approached him.
“She had demos of the song ready to play me,” Williams recalls. “I had given the class the idea for this hook, and she took that and ran with it.”
That kind of work ethic made Williams want to work with Janai beyond the high school hallways. Williams, a co-founder of the Dallas-based State Fair Records, added Janai to the State Fair roster and helped her produce her third album, The Whole Truth, released in 2019 on her 19th birthday. Janai recorded the album with a backing band composed entirely of Booker T. students. It is her most mature record yet, and Williams had a front seat to her growth.
“I remember hearing her sing the song 'Independent' when we first started recording, then again when we were wrapping up about a year later,” Williams says. “The change in confidence was incredible.”
Janai has become more confident outside of the studio, too, and it doesn't come from awards or attention, but from learning more about herself.
“I’ll go back to old songs and realize I was writing about more than I thought,” she says. For example, there is a song on her second album, From the Bottom of My Heart, that Janai wrote about two friends of hers. The friends were dating one another, and when they broke up, each turned to Janai for advice.
“Their feelings inspired me to write ‘Tears of Blue,’ because I was feeling their sadness, and I didn’t know how else to convey that. But looking back, I realized I was writing about my own sadness, too.”
She has always been empathetic, an infinite feeler who, despite her reserve, finds it easy to connect with others. Especially with musicians. At Berklee, Janai has befriended artists from Australia, France, Germany and Norway, though she is quick to dispel any notions that Berklee is a Fame-esque utopia of endless singing and creation.
“We make music together, but the reason we’re friends is because we bonded over the kinds of snacks we like,” Janai says. “Have you ever thought about the kinds of snacks people across the world eat? Seriously. Think about it.”
That eagerness to connect is what makes Janai a talented, award-winning film composer. She won an International Online Web Fest Award at age 17 for her work on the short film Fauk My Life, and has scored two movies for filmmaker Kelly Bobino Gray.
“The first thing people usually ask me after seeing one of my movies is, ‘Who wrote that music?’” Gray says. “When I tell them about Damoyee, they don’t believe me. I think they think she’s just a kid. She’s not.”
Janai loves scoring movies. It’s what she wants to do full time after Berklee, even as she continues to gig as a singer and songwriter. If you ask her who her favorite musicians are, she’ll say Hans Zimmer and Alan Silvestri. John Williams might crack the top three. Oh, and Adele.
“I think I’ll always like performing, but there’s something special about composing,” she says. “It can make a scene happy; it can make a scene sad. It’s what brings the light and the life.”
Janai is still beaming when she stands to order a coffee. Her oval eyes stay wide and full of wonder as she surveys the menu. She settles on a hot chocolate.
“What’s your name?” the barista asks.
“Damoyee,” Janai says.
The barista, whose face betrays a please-don’t-hate-me fear, asks, “How do you spell that?”
“Give it your best shot,” Janai responds. She’s not being rude; she’s just curious.
“I like to see the different spellings they come up with,” she tells me. “It’s cool.”
She takes the cup with “Manoway” emblazoned on the side in black Sharpie, sips, smiles and walks out of the coffee shop into the sun-splashed Dallas streets. The day has begun to fade out, and I think about something Janai said earlier.
“Music brings the emotion to every scene. Think about it: What would movies be without music? What would life be like? Think about it.”