As she eloquently confessed in the lyrics of one of her songs, Janis Ian “learned the truth at seventeen.” As a performer entering her fifth decade on stage, she has never stopped sharing those truths.
Ian is one of the great treasures of contemporary American popular music. She started playing piano at the age of two, and published her first song at the age of twelve. That song, Hair Spun of Gold, appeared on her first album, recorded on the Verve-Folkways label, when she was fourteen. Her first album yielded her first hit single, Society’s Child, which dealt with the issue of interracial dating in 1965.
The song was controversial, and resulted in the torching of a radio station and the firing of several disc jockeys who played it.
“Yes, in many ways. But I was making records, and out on tour. I was getting a lot of feedback, but I would only think about it in my most private moments. That isn’t something I think an artist should gloat about; you wouldn’t think about putting it on a resume. But it is what makes it worth getting your nose ground into the dirt in this business.”
Ian is emphatic about that last point. Given her unique vantage point of over forty years as a professional musician, she has seen the music business change.
“The main thing is it that is was a business, and now it is an industry. When I started out, when you added in even the lawyers, the whole business had about 2,000 people in it. You could fit them all in the ballroom at the Waldorf. Now, it’s like U.S. Steel; the mega-corporations getting everything they can out of it. That’s why the Internet has changed so much of the way things are done. Anyone with five hundred bucks can make a compact disc, and distribute it.
That is so different than the way it was when I started.”
“I embrace the new technology because I looked around and hated the industry, and what it had become. I thought a lot about just chucking it all. Then I went onto the Internet, and realized it was a different world. Even with all the science fiction that’s been written, we couldn’t imagine access to all the information now at our fingertips.”
“We’re all trying to reinvent ourselves, because we have to. To the industry, you could say in one sense, ‘we’ are the software, and what we sell is the hardware. No one needs a singer songwriter, so from their point of view, it won’t make them money unless we can move product. But the technology has the potential to remove the middle man.”
“Even back when I started, when it was a business, and not an industry, the racketeering notwithstanding, you always knew where you stood with people, with the company.”
Ian, who has nine Grammy nominations and two Grammy awards to her credit, understands that while the acknowledgment of her peers is important, she needs to keep things in perspective.
“For a while, it means greater sale-ability. Back when I was first being nominated there were something like 70 categories. I’ve lost track of how many there are now.”
More important to Ian were the accolades she has received from artists like Ella Fitzgerald, who called her “the best young singer in America,” and Chet Atkins, who claimed that Ian’s skill on the guitar gave him “a run for my money.” Her music has been recorded by Cher, Mel Torme, and many other artists.
“Stella Adler was my first real female role model, after my mom and grandparents. She taught me articulate what I felt about things.”
She also feels a great debt to conductor Leonard Bernstein, who showcased Ian and her controversial song during one of his telecasts.
“Bernstein was a force of nature. I owe my career to him.”
Through the frenzy of living life on the stage, and making a living as a performing artist, Ian has learned some important lessons. While she took off the nine years to study acting, she was married, divorced, survived two emergency surgeries, and ended up losing all of her earnings and her home to an unscrupulous business manager. Needing a change in scenery, she moved to Nashville, arriving “penniless, in debt, and hungry to write.”
Nowadays, Ian has found the balance that has often eluded her, personally and professionally.
“I try to lead a congruent life. If you can manage to stay on the path, things have a way of falling into place as they are meant to. Even with my music. I can hear other artists producing albums that sound like they were meant to make just a living, the same stuff put together in the same way.”
Ian puts it simply.
“I can’t put out something inferior.”
“Well, it keeps life interesting. If I’d stayed in New York, I’d just be preaching to the choir, which isn’t any good. It isn’t interesting. I find that I really like the south. It’s slower, kinder and gentler, more tolerant of eccentricity. I find that conducive as a writer. You know, you hit an age where you don’t want to have to fight all day. You want to save you passion for the art, and not squander it on the day to day.”
“As a writer in a city with so many other good writers, I find that Nashville keeps your motor oiled; writers need to write.”
As for how she arrives at a song, Ian herself remains unsure.
“I’m damned if I know where the inspiration comes from. All good songs have an urgency; they have to otherwise it is way too much work. And there are multiple ways to approach it. Some people need to push it. I tend to be looser than that. I mean, I say everyday I’m going to write, but in general I wait for it to happen. Too many people are afraid of their talent.”
Ian has also collaborated with some pretty formidable songwriters, including Kathy Mattea, John Mellencamp, and Bette Midler.
"Collaborating always takes you out of your place of comfort. You can always find a songwriter in Nashville. There is always that element of surprise, because you never know how another person writes. It is a way for me to stay fresh at something I’ve been doing since I was 12."
Ian has been touring in support of her latest CD, her twentieth, “Folk is the New Black.”
“It’s as close to folk as I’ve ever gotten. The CD features some great playing, and I’m really pleased with the songwriting. The older I get, the more I find that I’m really in service to the song. Luckily, I am able to work with musicians who are attracted to the music. I finally understand that the singer doesn’t need to get in the way.”
Janis Ian, still learning after all these years.
“Folk is the New Black”
Cooking Vinyl USA/Rude Girl Records
Ian has always been a fearless writer, truthful and clear, gifted and economical. “Folk is the New Black” displays all of these qualities. Working with a very sympathetic pair of musicians, Victor Krauss on bass and guitars and Jim Brock on percussion, Ian paints a mural of love, xenophobia, the loss of love, the tragedy of an urban death; sixteen songs that display Ian at the peak of her considerable songwriting powers.
And while she sings with her tongue planted firmly in cheek, it’s hard to disagree with the opening lines of her song “My Autobiography:”
I know you and I’ll agree
What this world needs is a lot more me…
A terrific return by Ian, whose songwriting improves with age, she posses a wit that spares no-one. and retains a fearless simplicity.