“I was lucky, I had Odetta and I had Baez and I had Joplin." Janis Ian

Legendary Janis Ian at The Rhythm Room 2/18/15

A conversation with Janis Ian
By Mariah Fleming

Janis Ian - Photo by LLoyd Baggs

There is not one "perfect" word to describe multiple Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter and musician Janis Ian. I've tried. "Legendary" is overused, but accurate. She is a rare, multitalented, courageous artist with a fine sense of humor, best known for her songs "Society's Child" and "At Seventeen." And we have a rare opportunity to see Janis Ian perform at the Rhythm Room on Wednesday February 18th.

Her barrier breaking song "Society's Child," about racial discrimination, was written when she was just 15. Many radio stations banned the song. A station in Atlanta that played "Society's Child" was burned down. She received death threats. Despite all this, the song became a hit. In 2002 and 2008 respectively, "Society's Child" and "At Seventeen" were inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Her first Grammy nomination was in 1967.

After ten solid years of touring and making records, in 1983 Ian left Columbia Records (and a lucrative contract) to study acting. In 1992 Ian started "Rude Girl Records" and in 1993 she released her "comeback" album, the critically acclaimed "Breaking Silence" which was nominated for a Grammy Award, her ninth nomination. In 2008 the multiple Grammy Award winner received the "Best Spoken Word" Grammy for the audio book of her autobiography, "Society's Child." In 2010 Berklee College of Music honored her as "An Artist for All Times." Her newest release is 2014's "Strictly Solo."

Janis Ian was the musical guest on the first Saturday Night Live. Ian often tours with Tom Paxton and has worked with such diverse artists as Chick Corea, Mel Torme, Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins and Dolly Parton. She has published nine short stories, she's a science fiction fan and most recently has written a children's book called "The Tiny Mouse." We talked about these things and more in our conversation a few days ago.

Q. You were so young when you broke in to the music business. You had your first song published in Broadside Magazine at the age of 12 and a record at 15. That seems really courageous. Did you approach clubs and record labels on your own? How did you get your foot in the door?
A. I was playing at places like the Village Gate and being published by Broadside Magazine and then producers approached me, and then my parents talked with them first, and then I got to talk with them and we went from there.

Q. Can you tell me a little about your mom and dad? What kind of people were they. Were they musical?
A. Yeah, my dad always wanted to be a pianist but he didn't start lessons until his teens, which was way too late. But he had a wonderful melodic sense, just fabulous, which is, I think, where I get it.

Q. What kind of work did your mom and dad do?
A. My dad went to school on the GI bill and became a music teacher. Before that he was a farmer. My mom was a stenographer and when I was born she was a waitress. She worked her way up to second in command of fundraising at a college. So they were always pretty much concerned with service, and serving people and making a better world. And that's pretty much what I was raised to do. They were good parents.

Q. I've read that your father was being investigated by the FBI - that must have had an impact on you and colored your view of life. Did your family talk about it?
A. Sure.

Q. I would imagine then that you had a lot of conversations about many interesting things in your family…politics, society…whatever.
A. Well, it was a pretty interesting family. But most leftist families were pretty interesting in those days, especially in those years. My dad and my mom were both under watch, and I was I after I started singing, so it sort of ran in the family. (laughs) But those were the years of HUAC and a commie under every bed.

Q. When you left Columbia Records and took your nearly decade long hiatus from the music business, you studied acting with Stella Adler. Do you think you might have been an actor or a dancer if you didn't do music?
A. I would never have been a dancer I don't have the body for it, I don't have the correct anything, really. I don't know about acting. If it would be as fulfilling as being a writer, maybe. Maybe a screenwriter and actor, but that's pretty hard and it would have involved not doing music. And I can't imagine a life without doing music.

Q. "Society's Child" was, at the time, a shockingly blunt song about racism, and it changed many people's lives. Do you think young musicians today, who didn't learn about the 60's, grasp the almost unlimited reach of music and its' power to steer societal changes?
A. Well, sure, I think we saw that in the reaction of people when Kurt Cobain died…all the lives that he had touched, I think absolutely. And there's just so much more music available now, for better and for worse…so many more genres available. The Internet and downloading availability [for music] has changed much. There have been so many changes that it's not all packed in to one little area. People forget how little was available in the 60's. We didn't have that many choices.

Q. During the 60's in terms of music, in New York, was there a group of women singer songwriters who were a sort of support system for each other?
A. There weren't many women singer songwriters there in the 60's. There was me and Buffy Sainte Marie, and then there were women in the Brill Bldg - Carole King, Ellie Greenwich. There were some amazing women. Women like Nina Simone, women like Victoria Spivey. They were all out there.

Janis Ian and Tom Paxton

Q. The sixties ushered in the modern era of consciousness raising for women. Do you think young women were taken seriously in music then? Or was it harder for them to get their foot in the door?
A. I don't know...I never had any particular trouble, but then I was so young too. And I think if you look at the success of people like Goffin and King or Ellie Greenwich and her husband, basically, at the end of the day, a record company wants sales, and a publisher wants sales. If you can give them sales then they need you and it doesn't matter really at that point if you're male, female or what.

Q. It's interesting to hear you say that because there are other women musicians of that era I've interviewed and they had a different point of view.
A. Well I think partly also that age has something to do with it, and the area you're in. Certainly Nina's perception, or Odetta's, as black women, would have been extremely different from mine. I was lucky, I had Odetta and I had Baez and I had Joplin. I had strong women that I'd grown up with and strong women who I knew in the business, so it never occurred to me that I was going to be treated any differently, and when I was, I just sort of ran over it.

Q. Did you know Laura Nyro?
A. Yes, I did.

Q. Women songwriters like yourself and Laura Nyro have written material that touched many young women's lives, and empowered many of us. It seems to me a lot of young women singers allow themselves to be objectified today.
A. What do you mean?

Q. Well, I'll turn on Fallon and see women singing songs like "I'm a Bitch" and presenting themselves in a highly objectified and sexualized way. Sometimes I feel like the women's movement has taken a great leap backwards. What are your thoughts on that?
A. To be honest I don't think about those women and I don't think about those songs because they are just bad songs. It doesn't matter if the song is sexual or not, it's a bad song. And it doesn't matter if it's a woman or a man singing it. Country music is certainly full of men talking about beering and brawling and they're kinda stuck in that. I'm not saying there's no difference and I’m not saying that there is no problem for women in music; there certainly are problems. There's still not been a head of a major label or head of a major publishing company who is female.

Q. Wow, I didn't know that. I've never thought about it.
A. There are so many fewer female singer songwriters, but when you look at who's topping the charts it's Taylor and Adele, and it's writers like Diane Warren. That’s a consistency. So I find it hard to make the argument that women can't get ahead the way that it was in the 40's and 50's. Even then, Bessie Smith had the first million selling record! You know, like I said, there's bad music everywhere (laughs) it's not just music that objectifies women…there's just a lot of bad music.

Q. Do you think the young women coming up today understand the impact of the women's movement in the 60''s and 70's?
A. I don't know that they understand it anymore than I really understand the movements of the 20's or the 30's, except that I’m grateful for the suffragettes. I don't know that we need them to understand it. I think that one of the things that people like me fought so hard for as a gay person, as a Jew, as a women, was so that they didn't have to dwell on it a lot. They could just accept as normal that they are entitled to jobs, that it's OK for them to go to work while their kids are in school; that they can be a single mom and there's no stigma attached to it. We fought for those things for them so that they don't have to dwell on why and how they got there.

Q. In your autobiography "Society's Child" you talk about when you were a kid on the road performing in Encino California and people in the audience were yelling '"nigger lover" at you as you were trying to perform. Last year was, of course, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the Supreme Court struck down much of the Civil Rights act. There's continuing intolerance towards gay people and just a general societal intolerance today. How do you feel about how far we've come since the days of the Kennedy's, King, Malcolm X, Kent State, the women's lib movement and so on and so forth.
A. Well, when I was fifteen, if I'd been caught in bed with a woman I could have been sent off and given a lobotomy and could have been institutionalized for life. So I would say we've come quite a long way. I think we've come a very long way and it's easy to forget where we were and how far we've come.

Q. It's heartening to hear optimism.
A. Well, as the older generations die off, as people like the Koch Bros die off, as people who valued coal over mountains die off, and there's more education and people are less ignorant overall, I think we continue moving forward. America is a very forward moving mentality. It's one of the nice things about the country.

Q. Do you get feedback from young women about their struggles and do they relate to your music?
A. They come to my concerts. I get a fair amount of young female guitarists and female songwriters at my shows. Certainly at my classes, when I do master classes, if they're on that level. I get a fair amount of emails from boys and girls probably 12 to 16.

Q. You've been living in Nashville for over 20 years with Pat right?
A. Yeah, 25. No, 27 now.

Janis Ian - Photo by Peter Cunningham

Q. You and Pat got married in 2003?
A. Yeah, we've been together since '89 so really it's our 26th year this year.

Q. When you moved from New York to Nashville was it kind of culture shock?
A. I moved here from L.A and I had already lived in New York. It was a culture shock in the sense that it was the south - is the south. It's a different country, it's a different way of being…I used to find it extremely slow.

Q. Slow in terms of the pace of life?
A. Yes, and now that the pace is picked up and there are so many people here from L A and NY, I find myself increasingly irritated by it. (laughs)

Q. Nashville's kind of become the hub for great music. What's that like?
A. Well, Nashville has become the hub for a lot of things now. But I really didn't want to live in a hub city, so…

Q. As a gay woman, do you experience a lot more problems there than you do in bigger cities?
A. No, in fact, less. The south has a great tolerance for eccentrics. And remember we're dealing with a new generation that is growing up. It's not to say there aren't still problems, but there are still problems if you're Mexican or Vietnamese or Jewish, and if you're black you might have a problem with somebody who's whatever, I don't know. I just know that for me, a good song's a good song. And in the south I've found that people don't talk about what they don't want to deal with and that way everybody gets along.

Q. You play a lot of instruments, guitar of course, and piano, and you play violin too, don't you?
A. Not really, not violin, no. I would say I play piano and guitar.

Q. I saw your collaboration on "Silly Habits" with the great Mel Torme on You Tube and it just blew me away. How did that collaboration come about?
A. Mel had recorded my song "Stars" and then he wanted to do "Silly Habits" and he recorded that. And he wanted to do a duo album, way before anybody was doing duets albums. The man was a genius songwriter and performer, a great drummer too; just a phenomenal all around musician. And he invited me to record "Silly Habits" with him, you know? What an honor!

Q. He was really something, wasn't he?
A. Yeah, he was amazing.

Q. Were you friends?
A. I don't know that I'd say we were friends. We certainly knew each other. When I wrote a song called "Some People's Lives" with Kye Fleming, he was the first person we played if for because I knew he would get it. He was a great, great writer.

Q. Well, your work with Mel Torme was breathtaking. Have you ever thought about doing an album of jazz?
A. Yeah it comes up every so often. I've thought about it since I was sixteen (laughs) I just don't get around to it.

Q. You write a lot of short stories, and I know you've had a lot of short stories published and you like science fiction. And you've recently written a children's book.
A. Yeah, "The Tiny Mouse." It's a song that was turned in to a book by a couple called the Shuberts. Wonderful illustrations. You can go to the tinymouse.com and see a bunch of them.

Q. Looking back over your body of work do you ever think about what you would most like to be remembered for?
A. No, I could give a shit, really. I think people who worry about how they'll be remembered need to get a life.

Q. You created the non-profit Pearl Foundation, named after your mother, to fund college scholarships for returning students. You've given away more than $800,000 in scholarships to returning students. Do you want to talk about that?
A. Sure! We're having our annual sale starting Saturday.

Q. Tell me about it.
A. Well, 100% of everything goes to the Pearl Foundation for that entire week. I eat the postage, packing costs and all of that. And we're doing a bunch of unusual things this time. We're doing microphones, I've got capos, we've got one 'bling-y" capo from G7th Performance Capo that's $600. We've got donations from companies like Audible and Brilliance and D' Addario. And then I've got six instruments up for sale and 50% of that will go to the foundation as well.

Q. And this is all through your website www.janisian.com, right?
A. Yep, it'll be face booked on Friday. It starts Saturday morning at 6:00AM.

Q. Your mom wanted you to graduate from high school but you didn't. Were you in school when you had your hit record or had you already left?
A. Yeah, I was in school. They asked me to leave shortly thereafter. It's funny now the school claims me as one of their heroes.

Q. One of their success stories, huh? Have they asked you to come back and talk to a graduating class?
A. Ah, yes. And no, I didn't do it. I don't know why I should be nice to people when they haven't been nice to me.

January 31, 2015

Contact the author of this article at Editor@MusicAndMoreAZ.com.