‘Social change’ songstress Janis Ian to make BIG ARTS debut on Friday
The young singer many of us think of as perpetually suffering the pain of the lessons she learned “At Seventeen” is about to turn 59.
Janis Ian has been playing the piano for 57 years, the guitar for 49, and published her first song 47 years ago at the age of 12.
“It was good to start young,” Ian said. “It was good to learn, early on, that what matters is the music. I got most of my big mistakes over with before I was 21. I lived an entire life in my teen years, and I don’t regret a second of it.”
Ian comes to BIG ARTS’ Schein Hall this Friday, March 19 at 8 p.m. and with her comes the voice of a generation of social change, the heartfelt lyrics born of a life lived through pain, and most of all a message of hope.
Ian quotes Billie Holliday when people ask her why her songs are so sad: “They all have hope honey,” Holliday answered. Said Ian, “If you’re not going to come from a position of hope, you’re just going to go down.”
Ian hit the big time in 1965 with the controversial hit “Society’s Child,” a song about a mixed race couple. It brought her fame, but it also brought lots of hate mail. Disc jockeys who played it were fired, a radio station was burned down, and angry people spit in Ian’s food and sent her mail with razor blades taped inside the evelopes.
But Ian persevered, touring and recording non-stop for four years before taking a break from the music industry and living in Philadelphia for a time.
She said she wanted to find herself, to discover whether she had real talent. She should have asked Ella Fitzgerald, who called her “the best young singer in America.” Or Chet Atkins, who said, “Singer? You ought to hear that girl play guitar. She gives me a run for my money!”
When she returned to music, her talent blossomed on the stunning Stars album in 1973 and she only got better as the decade progressed. Her next album, Between The Lines, included the mega-hit for which she became best known: “At Seventeen.” She garnered five Grammy nominations, the most any solo female artist had ever received at that time.
In 1975, she was the first musical guest on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live. The single “Love Is Blind” from her next album, Aftertones, remained in the top five for a full year a record that has yet to be broken.
When asked how it feels to have written songs that will live on forever and evoke deep emotions in the people who hear them, Ian said, “It feels great… just like it should. That’s what you strive for as an artist. My job is to write something that will make the listener be moved. It doesn’t really matter how it makes me feel. I write songs, and it’s fantastic if people hear them.”
By 1983, Ian had spent 10 unbroken years like a hamster on a treadmill of non-stop work: three months making a record, eight months touring, then one month somehow writing another record “that had to have brilliant hits on it.”
She got off the treadmill. Instead she took an unprecedented hiatus from the music world and spent the next nine years studying with the legendary theater coach Stella Adler “learning how to be a person,” as Ian puts it.
“Songwriting and theater is all part and parcel of the same thing,” Ian explained. “Studying any kind of art is good. It was really healthy instead of only studying my own form of artistry.”
During that period, Ian married – and divorced – an emotionally and physically abusive man, underwent two emergency surgeries, lost all her savings and home to an unscrupulous business manager, and discovered her ex-husband had been ignoring IRS notices and keeping her in the dark. In 1988, she moved to Nashville, Tenn. penniless, in debt and hungry to write.
Ian said losing everything to the IRS “changed everything.”
“I’ll never take anything for granted again,” she explained. “I’ll never feel completely safe again, which is probably not a bad thing. You have to lose your naivet at some point. But I’ve always been able to make a living making music.”
Writing about her personal pain surely has brought comfort to others, as countless people undoubtedly felt less alone listening to Ian’s heartfelt lyrics. When asked how she found the courage to sing about some of the hardest things a person can go through, Ian said, “I think if I have any strength that some of my contemporaries don’t have, it’s the ability to occasionally talk about a subject that people find difficult to discuss and make it listenable. ‘At Seventeen’ is just that kind of song. It’s very personal but strives to hit the universal. As a writer, that’s what I’m interested in.”
She has also said that song offers hope. “It offers hope that there is a world out there of people who understand,” she added.
Ian went through a lot of pain when she started losing friends that were by her side during the tumultuous years of the mid- to late-1960s, including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Asked about that time, she said, “It was great, it was good. It’s always great to be friends with and known by your peers. It’s a different kind of recognition.”
When she returned to the music business once more in 1993 with “Breaking Silence,” she immediately earned her ninth Grammy nomination.
Ian has a huge international following, particularly in Japan and Australia. She has written songs and scores for movies and television and her tunes have been recorded by Bette Midler, Cher, Amy Grant, Mel Torm, Roberta Flack and many others.
“I’ve always been really busy. I don’t remember a year where we haven’t been busy, sometimes it’s just not visibly busy,” Ian said. “A lot of work artists do is not visible to the public at large. Just because you didn’t see me doesn’t mean I didn’t exist.”
These days, both “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen” have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Ian also released an autobiography, “Society’s Child: My Autobiography,” to rave reviews, as well as a two-CD set titled Best of Janis Ian: The Autobiography Songs.
Last year, Ian and Sony jointly released The Essential Janis Ian, timed to coincide with the release of the paperback of her autobiography. She also writes science fiction and is a columnist for The Advocate.
In 2006, Ian released her latest album, Folk Is The New Black, the first album in more than 20 years where she did all the songwriting herself rather than with a partner.
Now back on the road, Ian is playing to sold-out concert halls in North America and all over the world. At an age when other people want to slow down, why take on such a grueling schedule?
“For starters, it’s how I earn my living,” Ian said, “but it’s also part of what I am. I’m a performer. And it’s a very circular process: the performing drives the writing and on and on around. There are worse lives.”
Having an audience, she added, helps her write music.