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Happy Birthday, Janis Ian!

| April 7, 2011 | 1 Comment

It’s the sort of life that could serve as fodder for the Great American Novel. FBI surveillance, nightmare tangles with the IRS after her business manager’s failure to pay years worth of taxes, abusive relationships, childhood fame, soaring financial success, abject poverty and, through it all, the boundless resilience of the human spirit. All these plots and subplots have been part of Janis Ian’s story.

Thrust into the spotlight at 15 with her controversial song “Society’s Child,” Ian was an integral force in the mid-’60s Greenwich Village folk scene. An audacious tale about a doomed interracial romance, “Society’s Child” became a hit, but with its success came a downside. Harassed on stage and deluged with hate mail, Ian was sustained by her friendships with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Joan Baez. To her surprise, however, many of her folk peers were resentful.

“That shocked me,” Ian says, looking back. “Who would have believed that attitude would come from the folk community? But in those days, if you were a folksinger, you weren’t supposed to have a hit record. The feeling was that if that happened, you lost your street cred. But what’s the goal? The ultimate goal is to be heard.”

Ian has since forged a career of remarkable dimension. In 1973 she released Stars, a stunning album that featured two classics in the form of the title track and the seminal “Jesse.” Two years later, the hit “At Seventeen” earned her five Grammy nominations (the most of any solo female artist, to that point) and an appearance on the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live. A few years later, her 1979 album, Night Rains, saw her team with Giorgio Moroder for the platinum-selling and Grammy-nominated single “Fly Too High,” a stylistic detour that surprised many.

In 1983, after a decade of nonstop recording and touring, Ian took a lengthy hiatus from the music business. During that nine-year “respite,” she married and divorced, endured two emergency surgeries, studied theater with the legendary Stella Adler and lost nearly all her worldly possessions. Perhaps most importantly, though, she settled in Nashville. Invigorated by the city’s songwriter community, she’s since recorded several acclaimed albums for her own label, Rude Girl Records.

Ian’s latest release, Best of Janis Ian: The Autobiography Collection, constitutes a journey in song through the singer-songwriter’s extraordinary life. From her earliest recorded composition (a work-demo of “Hair of Spun Gold”) to the self-explanatory “My Autobiography,” the 31 tracks attest to Ian’s wide-ranging artistry. Coupled with her book, Society’s Child: My Autobiography, the set constitutes a true-life tale of dizzying highs and devastating lows.

What follows are excerpts from an interview we had with this legendary songwriter at her Nashville home during a break. Happy birthday, Janis—thanks for a lifetime of songs!

The idea to become a singer took hold when you saw Odetta on Harry Belafonte’s TV show. What’s your memory of that, and the impact it had?

I saw that when I was 9. I had always sung, and had always wanted to sing, but that was when I thought, “OK, I need to learn to play guitar and do what she does.” As far as writing songs goes, I bought a Buffy Sainte-Marie album when I was 12. I read the liner notes and saw she had written the song “Codeine,” and I thought, “Well, I could do that.” That was where the idea of performing and writing songs came together.

When that happened—when you were just 15—you wrote in your journal that fame doesn’t change you, but rather it changes the people around you. That’s pretty perceptive for someone of that age.

Well, it was such a global change. And I knew it wasn’t just me who felt that way. It also applied to the people around me. Plus, I was still dealing with my schoolteachers, in music and art. Their jealously—and even cruelty, I would say—obviously stemmed from the fact that I was famous. It certainly wasn’t because I was behaving any differently. That was very confusing. Adults were supposed to be authority figures, people you go to when you’re in trouble. All of a sudden they were causing the trouble.

Did the baptism by fire that came with “Society’s Child” help steel you for problems that came later—professional and personal?

I’m not sure. It certainly taught me how powerful a song could be. It showed me that you could change lives with a song. And that’s a great lesson. Just last week someone was telling me about his experience growing up on Long Island, living in an upper middle-class community, and how the children’s mothers were all talking about that song. It sparked conversations like, “What would you do if your son brings home a black girlfriend in five years?”

Even after you had written “Society’s Child” and other successful songs, you didn’t think of yourself as a great songwriter until you wrote “Jesse” and “Stars.” Why?

Probably because, at the time, I had pumped out four albums in three-and-a-half years. I could see the quality of the writing was deteriorating, even as the quantity was growing. I wanted to be the kind of universal writer who Henry Mancini was, or Johnny Mercer. I didn’t want to be slotted into a tiny niche. I wasn’t able to do that yet, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do anything other than write songs that only I could sing. It was only when I wrote “Jesse” and “Stars” that I realized I could write songs that anybody could sing.

In your autobiography, you chronicle periods of tremendous upheaval in your life. Through it all, did you ever think, “At least this is fodder for songs”?

No. I think people write their best when they’re at their most sane and most rested, and when they feel safe. Any good work that happens when you’re in turmoil happens in spite of that turmoil. You may find yourself writing out of your life experience, and the more life experiences you have, obviously, the better you’re going to be able to connect to that. But I’ve never subscribed to the theory that you need to be crazy, irresponsible or in pain in order to create. That’s a dangerous myth. A lot of us, especially when we’re young, think that’s cool. From the outside it looks noble—or like noble suffering. But when you get in the middle of it, you realize it’s not noble at all. It’s just crushing.

Near the end of the book, you write that the entertainment business is largely about the business of failure. What do you mean exactly?

What I was saying is that the arts are much different from other endeavors. If you’re a bank teller, you shine and are good politically, you’ll probably wind up being a bank manager. There’s a clear ladder in most businesses. But in this business, you can do all the right things, be in all the right places, have enormous talent, and still not get anywhere. Much of it has to do with fluke and happenstance. It’s the luck of being in the right place at the right time, and having the goods to back that up. To some extent you can look at everyone’s life that way, but I think it’s especially true in the entertainment industry.

—By Russell Hall

From Performing Songwriter Issue 112

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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  1. eriberto nunez says:

    janis, i brought ur record societys child,,, iwas only 14, in the 60s, and the song still holds up today,, as you see that black, white doesnt mix to this day. i wont be surprise if it was release today it will chart,ur to hard on ur self, a person who sings and writes like you has a beautiful soul,,, dont sell ur self short,,, live ,,love laugh,,,happy b-day a true fan,,,

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