International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting • Janis Ian Interview

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Janis Ian


Introduction by Larry Wayne Clark
We were peers, her and I, and yet might as well have sprung from different planets. There I was, a dreamy teenager marveling at the mystical forces that caused songs to spill forth from my transistor radio and hold me helpless in their charmed grip. I wouldn't have known a D chord from, well, a ham sandwich. There she was, likewise a teenager, yet precocious enough - savvy enough - to be writing and singing those same songs! Like anyone of our generation I remember "Society's Child," with its haunting melody and words dipped in the newly discovered lyric vat of Social Relevance (Dylan had begun to happen). I clearly recall Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, the CBS-TV special on which Leonard Bernstein examined the song with obvious admiration.

Janis Ian was her name and she had something special indeed going on.

But, in the beginning, there was Janis Eddy Fink. She grew up on a southern New Jersey farm, surrounded by music. It seems she was always in a hurry. She was playing piano before she was three, playing guitar and writing songs by the time she was 12. In 1966 "Society's Child" made her a radio star and a media sensation. "Janis Ian", released in 1967, was nominated for a Grammy.

The 1970s brought a trio of acclaimed albums: Stars (including "Jesse," which would become a Roberta Flack standard), the Grammy-winning Between The Lines (including "At Seventeen," Ian's signature song) and Aftertones, from which she garnered a phenomenal Japanese hit with "Love Is Blind." Her list of songs synchronized to films, TV and commercials is far too long to include here.

Twenty-two albums later, it seems the passing decades have been kind to Ian. She has made the transition from teen wunderkind to mature artist with grace, vitality and humor. Like her contemporary Joni Mitchell, her art is deep and multifaceted, seeming to inhabit her being like an extra organ lodged in her body. Never merely cosmetic or fashionable, it simply is. Whether she's writing songs, poetry, stories or magazine columns, playing her instruments, dancing, devouring the science fiction books she adores or aligning herself with social causes, Janis Ian's dedication is never less than absolute.

Living in Nashville since 1988, Ian, who was once married to businessman Tino Sargo, certainly ranks as one of this conservative city's most visible lesbians, especially since August 27, 2003 when she and Patricia Snyder, her partner of 14 years, crossed the border and were married at Toronto City Hall (Tennessee law will not permit same-sex marriages).

Appearing regularly in Performing Songwriter and The Advocate, her columns are funny, self-revealing and always highly readable, touching on everything from trading homosexuality jokes with radio "shock-jock" Howard Stern to a heartwarming story of how her stolen 1937 Martin D18 was returned to her after 26 years. Partner Pat is often referred to as "Mr. Lesbian."

Janis Ian's award-winning website www.janisian.com is a thing to behold, a vast fount of information not only for fans but also for songwriters and students of studio craft. There are reprints of her magazine articles, copious photos, lyrics and studio diaries (the new album is exhaustively examined in a section called The Making of a CD which includes charts, rough lyric drafts, worktapes, and fly-on-the-wall studio conversations). Far more amusing is a section entitled Monumental Mistakes. What are some of those what-was-I-thinking blunders? Saying no-thanks to: scoring The Graduate, a performance at Woodstock, and the role in Cheers that later went to Rhea Perlman. Oh yes… Janis Ian is an actress who studied with Stella Adler in the '80s. She also studied ballet with Dora Krannig. It's hard to imagine any spare time in Janis Ian's life but, in addition to everything else, she helms The Pearl Foundation, which raises funds for college scholarships and is dedicated to her mother, Pearl, who earned a BA and a master's as a mature student. Through the auctioning of merchandise, living room concerts and an old-fashioned tip jar at gigs, the Foundation has earned in excess of $100,000. Ironically, Ian herself dropped out of (actually she says she was asked to leave) the New York High School of Music & Art.

Nominated for a total of nine Grammys, Janis Ian was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001. Her latest CD, released on her own Rude Girl label in conjunction with Oh Boy records, is called Billie's Bones and it's excellent. The sound is hypnotic, driven by Ian's own acoustic guitar, Harry Stinson's tasteful drums, Jim Brock's percussion, Richard Davis's seductive upright bass lines, and colored by Dan Dugmore's Dobro, pedal steel, banjo and electric guitars. Not surprisingly the songs are all Ian compositions but there are several co-writes, including - and this is a surprise - one with folk icon Woody Guthrie, "I Hear You Sing Again." More on that later. A duet with Dolly Parton gives Ian a chance to pay homage to one of her personal heroes as well as establish that this is indeed a Nashville album recorded by a Nashville resident - a well-respected one too, even if she does give this conservative "buckle of the Bible Belt" community occasional reason to squirm.

Janis Ian may have given the name Rude Girl to her publishing and record companies but, during an all-too-brief interview, we found her to be politeness itself.

Your new album is called Billie's Bones, and you're obviously a Billie Holiday fan.
Very much so, yeah.

One of the more interesting quotes I've seen in a while appears on your website: "To my way of thinking as a singer, there's George Jones and Billie Holiday and then there's the rest of us."
Yeah, I really believe that.

Those are twin peaks that I wouldn't have put together!
[laughs] Well, I think, just like musicians listen differently from people who are not musicians, I think singers do the same. And for me genre really isn't that important. I don't see a big dividing line as a singer between country music and jazz and pop and hip-hop and all of that. It comes down to the singer, the individual singer. So Billie Holiday is the greatest female singer I know, George Jones is the greatest male singer I know and that means I always mention them in the same breath.

That's great. I certainly wouldn't disagree that they're both fabulous but I don't know that I've ever heard them mentioned in the same breath before.
Well, there you go - another first!

You've said that country music was part of your background and that you were glad when Nashville artists like Kathy Mattea started cutting your songs. Talk a bit about that musical background.
Well, my folks were both first generation Americans. And I think as was common with Jewish families, particularly Russian-Jewish families, there was always an enormous amount of music in the house. A lot of classical. A lot of jazz because that was my mom's first love. A lot of folk because that was my dad's first love. So I grew up on this really neat blend of my dad singing Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs and songs by people like Hank Williams and Jim Reeves, which he considered folk music, and my mom singing songs by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and Ma Rainey. So it was a pretty cool blend and I think it shows up a lot in my own work.

Did either of them pursue music professionally in any way?
Well, the only thing was that my dad…he started out as a farmer when I was a kid?

A chicken farmer, I believe?
Apparently they figured if you came from a Russian stetl, you certainly knew how to deal with chickens! But he started off as that and then he got his master's in music on the GI Bill, and he became a music teacher. So that, I suppose, allowed him to do something that he loved while not having to be a performer, which he really wasn't very good at.

Did he teach you music?
No. He gave up on me after about three weeks of arguing. I mean, I was pretty precocious and apparently from the moment he started teaching me I was saying, "Yeah, but why do you have to do it that way? Why can't I do it this way?" And I do remember, when I was about three, him saying to his mother that he didn't have to take this crap from his own daughter, and he went out and found me a piano teacher. His melodies were just great, but he had terrible stage fright. So he was not a good performer at all; he would really panic.

You know, you talk about a Russian-Jewish background. To me it has nothing to do with chickens: I immediately think of songwriters.
Really?

I think of Irving Berlin. I think of Gershwin…
Sure. There was a lot of pride in all those people too, you know. They were immigrants and immigrants' kids who'd made good.

You're sharing heritage with the great architects of American song.
Oh, absolutely.

What do you think - stupid question perhaps - what do you think Irving Berlin would be doing if he were around today instead of at the turn of the last century?
Hard to say, isn't it?

Would he be in Nashville?
I don't know if he'd be in Nashville because this would have been such an alien place for him. He is so New York it's hard to imagine him out of that context.

That's true.
I could see him at the Brill Building; I could see him doing that. But I think for guys like him whose goal was really to write songs that entered the American consciousness, folks like him I would see in L.A., I think. Writing for the movies.

He's one of my heroes. I think it's the greatest rags to riches story in all of songwriting.
He's amazing. And it gets discouraging when you look at his catalogue because you think, "Oh my God, he's already written everything. Why am I bothering?"

He wrote an awful lot and much of it was good. Mind you, I get discouraged looking at your catalogue!
That's very nice of you.

Because, you know, you and I are basically about the same age and there I was, I was living in Montreal at the time "Society's Child" came out, and I can remember I was a typical kid with a transistor radio just devouring everything I heard, and to me it was all completely other-worldly. It might as well have been coming from Mars. And there you were?
It was that way to me too until I started being a part of it.

But you were a part of it! That's amazing to me.
Yeah, I've never been good with patience. Never had much. I figure if God put me on this Earth to learn anything this time around, it's patience.

Well, maybe it's what you don't need? You've done well for yourself.
[laughs] No, everybody can use some patience. It's too hard on the blood pressure!

You've spoken of yourself as a "has-been at seventeen." But you kept coming back.
Yeah. That's stubbornness, and I think that's something any artist needs in spades, really. No matter what kind of artist you are - whether you're a songwriter or a visual artist or an actor - whatever you are in the arts, you really have to be stubborn because nobody is going to tell you that you're brilliant in all the fields you want to be brilliant in right out of the box. In fact you're lucky if they ever do tell you that. So I put my longevity down to sheer stubbornness most of the time.

Talk about having - and this is a nice nod to your dad - a Woody Guthrie co-write. Oh, is that so cool? Is that the coolest thing? I was just blown away by that.
Well, Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, called me - we'd met over the years a few times here and there, never really talked about anything - and they were doing a big Woody Guthrie celebration. All last year. The anniversary of…I can't even remember what it was. [Note: The Woody Guthrie 90th Year Celebration] But she called initially to say, "Would you be part of this concert?" And I jumped at it. And she said, "We have some unfinished lyrics. Would you be interested in working on them?"

And, you know, that was extremely intimidating. The minute she said it I said, "No." And then I thought, "Oh, would it be the coolest thing in the world just to see Words and music by Janis Ian and Woody Guthrie? That would be a pretty cool thing to have in my career." So I said yes, on condition that I could rewrite as needed because I had seen situations where people agreed to do something like that - not necessarily with Woody's music - but they hadn't been allowed to change anything in a lyric. And I was concerned that…you know, Woody's lyrics date from a time that was very different from ours. And she said, "No, have at it. You've got absolutely free rein."

So she sent me 13 songs, I think, and most of them were about riding the rails. There were a couple of really funny ones in there. But then "I Hear You Sing Again" was the last one in the batch and, really, the instant that I saw the lyric it jumped out at me and I thought, "Oh man, this one's mine." And, really, within an hour most of the melody was done and I finished it the next day. It was a great experience. I don't know if you've been to my website lately?

I've been there a lot the last few days.
You can see the original Woody Guthrie lyric up there.

You sang it at the Ryman Auditorium, didn't you, at the Woody Guthrie tribute concert last year? Were you there?
I was there. That was a cool night, wasn't it?

It was, and one memory I took home - and I'm sure you're in total agreement with this - was Marty Stuart saying it's about time we inducted Guthrie into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Yeah. Marty's a good guy, boy.

He's one of my favorite Nashvillians because he has a real sense of the archive we have here as well as being a pretty hip contemporary musician.
A really good musician. I like him doubly now because my partner ran into him and she had heard that he had a Billie Holiday autograph, which is really rare, and might be willing to sell it. And he was so sweet. He said he'd heard that I was looking for one and he sold it to her for what he had in it. That was really sweet of him.

So you got a Billie Holiday autograph!
I did. That's what I got for last year's birthday.

So you got that, and you got your guitar back after 26 years?
I know!

You must really believe in a generous God.
I guess I do. I certainly don't think God is laying up there waiting to punish you.

How was it working with Dolly Parton, talking about interesting collaborations?
Outrageous! She was just great. She was so worried about our scheduling because she'd had to change the schedule at one point. She was everything that you'd think Dolly Parton would be. Exactly what I'd hoped she'd be. She came in knowing every lyric. She knew her part; she'd worked it out weeks before. Just a total professional. A real pleasure.

She's enjoying a bit of a renaissance right now with her bluegrass albums.
Isn't it great? Yeah, we were talking about that. We were both saying, "Boy, this do-it-yourself stuff is really hard but, on the other hand, we're actually making money for a change!"

You've been living in Nashville for many years. This doesn't strike me as a place where an openly gay person would choose to be.
You know I have never had a single problem here. Not one. I've had fewer problems than anywhere else I've lived. I think part of that is…my partner says, "The South is tolerant of its eccentrics." And I think part of it is, in general, [in the South] you don't want to say anything ugly. You don't talk about something that might get ugly. In a way that's nice 'cause it kind of allows verybody to go about their business without always being in each other's faces.

Interesting. That's puts a different spin on it: "The South is tolerant of its eccentrics."
Yeah. And I think my attitude and Pat's attitude has something to do with it too because Pat's whole attitude has always been: "I don't need to get in anybody's face about this. It is what it is, and the day that heterosexuals have to explain themselves I'll start explaining!" You know, it's a non-issue in our lives. We don't allow it to become an issue unless it's directly challenged. And we just have not run into that here. I mean, I'm sure there are people who wouldn't want me to babysit their kids. There are probably people who wouldn't have me to their dinner table. But there are people who wouldn't have me in the North too. And there are people who wouldn't have me because I'm Jewish or because I'm Northern, you know, or because I'm short and dark.

Good point. There's always something people can pick on. But I'm glad to hear you say that. You know, I'm from Canada?
Well, you guys are sensible!

Yeah, I know you went up there to get married. But, you know, I talk to friends up there who haven't been here and they behave as though - Nashville being in the South - everybody you look at pulls a gun on you. Lynchings every five minutes…
And people down here think that if you go to New York you're gonna get mugged and robbed immediately; it's just part of the "New York experience." It's pretty funny, the preconceptions.

I suppose that some of mine have melted gradually as I've been here. I love it here, the whole creative vibe. And the fact that I can be talking to Janis Ian without dialing long distance or run into you at the grocery store, or see John Prine across the aisle at the liquor store - realizing that "These people share this community."
Yeah, it's a pretty cool thing.

And it's wild; it's so diversified. And interesting how the lines get blurred, so that you can do a record with a Woody Guthrie co-write?
And Richard Davis on bass.

And a guest appearance from Dolly Parton.
But that's one of the wonderful things about Nashville. It's always reminded me of the Village in New York back in the '60s, in that sense. You see a great coming together of really divergent people and music and interests. To me it's nowhere near as monochromatic as New York or L.A.

One thing I've been thinking about listening to your new work and concentrating on your career: You came up during the era of Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, Carole King as she entered her solo career, and you were all co-founders of a sort of "confessional" style of singer-songwriter. Do you ever look at that and wonder "What kind of a monster have I created?" when you see how widely imitated it's become?
Every time I hear a really bad, whiny song about "more Me" and "my precious Me," I just think, "Oh my God, I hope this person wasn't listening to my records because I'm so embarrassed if I had anything to do with this!"

The thing is I can listen to Blue and Tapestry and Between The Lines forever. Those are marvelous, seminal pieces of work. But there's been so much imitation of that stuff. I listen to people like, I dunno, Tori Amos and I think, "Go and listen to some Gershwin or some Hank Williams."
I think that's the problem. First of all, I think we forget how terribly young all of us were. I mean, Joni was in her early 20s, I was in my teens, and that is the time for bleeding all over everybody, that age. I'm constantly harping when I lecture kids: "You have to know your origins. If you don't know your origins you really have nothing to build on." We all grew up on the Gershwins, on the Irving Berlins - and on a great deal of really bad music that we hated - but we had a grounding in that stuff that kids now don't have. And are not interested in - I suppose no more than we were interested in baroque music, for that matter.

That's a good point. I just wish people were interested in melody more.
Yeah, it would be nice.

And that's what I do enjoy about Nashville. It's one of the last bastions of melody and I hope it never goes away here,
Let's hope.

Talk about your Pearl Foundation. I think it's a marvelous thing.
I was just looking at our money today! We're up to $114,000. This year we cracked a hundred grand. It's great. It's one of those things where I'm really glad I did it; then sometimes I think, "I'm out of my mind, why did I do that?" because I could have kept a lot of this money. And on the other hand, as trite as it sounds, I do think in many ways I've led a very charmed life. I mean, there's been a lot to offset the charmed life - it's been the top and the bottom of the heap - but in a lot of ways I'm really, really lucky. And if my mom hadn't had me and my partner hadn't had me, neither one of them could have gone through school. So it seems like the right thing for me to do, to help other people do that. And, you know, the fans are great about it. We have people who regularly send a hundred bucks every six months, other people send five bucks, and people put money in the tip jar for the foundation at the gigs. It's just a wonderful thing.

Your mother got her master's degree?
Got her BA and her master's

When she was suffering from MS?
Yes, she was diagnosed shortly after she started getting her BA, and after speaking to the doctor my brother and I both realized that she was not going to be able to, in all likelihood, go back to work as she'd hoped. And we really encouraged her to go ahead and go for her master's after she finished the BA, and I really am convinced that that kept her alive and healthy - or at least coping - a lot longer than she would have been able to without. Because that was a lifelong dream for her that she was being able to fulfill and she wanted to stay alive and coherent long enough to see it reach fruition.

Was your father still in the picture at this time?
No. They got divorced when I was 16. He visited her every time he was in New York; he was always real good about that. But they hadn't been living together for years.

So both your parents had master's degrees.
Yeah. In the end.

And your mother clearly illustrates where you must have gotten your stubbornness from, if in fact that's what it is.
Yeah. I hadn't thought about that.

Well, somebody pushing themself when they were that ill…
I guess so. Yeah, she was pretty stubborn. But my dad was pretty stubborn too. Neither one of them were short in that department! My brother's pretty stubborn; my aunts and uncles are pretty stubborn. Must run in the family.

How busy a performance schedule do you keep?
Pretty busy this year. We're leaving February 24, we'll be gone until mid-June, and then we'll be back for a few days and then we'll be gone again until close to December. So it's a big show year for us. We've got 62 confirmed shows by the end of June.

Of course, you're touring the new album.
Right. But I'm also trying to cover Europe and Japan and the U.S. in this year.

Seems like you have something special going on in Japan. I see it mentioned a lot on your website.
Yeah, I do very well there. I was lucky enough to have some ridiculously big hits there - like one was Number One for six months - back in the '70s, so it's a good territory for me. They've always been really nice to me.

Brenda Lee has always been enormously popular there and she thinks it's because she's so short!
Naah! She's a sweetheart, isn't she?

She figures they identify with her because she's a short American.
Well…I don't think so.They like Richard Davis and he's six feet.

You might be the only person I've talked to - forgive me if this is tacky -who's been married to both a woman and a man.
Really? I know lots of them.

Do you?
Yeah. Most of them are people who didn't figure out they were gay until they were older.

Well, I guess I don't know that many gay people.
It’s just you just don't hear enough gossip!

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