‘At 60,’ Janis Ian is no longer lonely

One of the top singer/songwriters of the 1970s is finding out she has more fans in Israel than she thought.

Janis Ian 311 (photo credit: Peter Cunningham)
Janis Ian 311
(photo credit: Peter Cunningham)
‘How cool is that?” Janis Ian cackles into the phone from her home in Nashville, Tennessee.
She may have been referring to the fact that at age 60, with a shock of white hair instead of the kinky black curls that graced her gold albums in the 1970s, she’s generally regarded as an indie music innovator for rebuilding her once-flourishing music career from the ground up, and for championing the era of file sharing and downloading back when it was still considered an evil cancer in the music industry.
But she could also have been referring to a lot of other things that make Janis Ian one cool lady – like single-handedly making unpopularity popular with her massive 1975 soft rock hit “At 17,” embracing her inner geek with a flourishing science fiction writing career, coming out of the closet as a lesbian back before it was in fashion, and surviving teen stardom with her humor and intellect intact.
Born Janis Eddy Fink, Ian’s parents were Jewish-born liberal atheists who ran a socialist summer camp in upstate New York. After showing musical talent and learning to play the guitar at the New York High School of Music and Arts, Ian became an unlikely pop star at age 15 in 1967 with the controversial folk anthem “Society’s Child” about an interracial relationship, then an unheard of topic on AM radio.
The song appeared on her first album in 1965, but was released a couple more times before becoming a hit after conductor Leonard Bernstein featured it on a nationwide TV special in the US. Not everybody cozied up to the song, though, with protesters picketing radio stations, DJs who played it losing their jobs and Ian receiving hate mail and death threats.
“My dad had warned me – he listened to the whole album and said ‘you’re going to get in trouble for this song’ and laughed at me. I had no idea,” said Ian.
“I think that when you grow up thinking certain things that are pretty evidently right, then you take for granted that people will see the logic of it. The concept that someone could hate you for a song was pretty astonishing to me.”
Calling herself “a cultural Jew,” Ian explained that even though her upbringing was decidedly unorthodox – in both meanings of the word – she developed a strong connection to her heritage.
“Being Jewish has informed my existence, my morals and my writing – in that sense, Judaism is always there,” she said, adding that she used to regularly argue with her mother Pearl about religion.
“My mother was an atheist, but she left the bookshelves in our house open for me and my brother to make our own decisions about those things. And she was appalled when we both decided that we believed in God. We had an argument about it once, and her last words to me about it were ‘God doesn’t care if I’m an atheist!’ I thought that was pretty funny.”
That kind of domestic discourse helped fuel Ian’s intellectual hunger and elevated her lyrics to a level that had some critics calling her the “female Bob Dylan.” However, after her initial bout with fame, Ian wasn’t able to build on the success of “Society’s Child.” And at the ripe age of 18, she decided to retreat from the spotlight for a few years – with the clear danger of becoming the answer to a pop culture trivia question.
Regrouping to decide if songwriting and performing were her life’s calling, Ian reemerged in 1974 at the height of the James Taylor/Carole King-led singer/songwriter genre surge, with Stars, an album containing the oft-covered ballad “Jesse.”
Her second act proved to be even more wildly successful than her teen teaser had been, as the next year, Ian released Between the Lines, the landmark album containing her signature tune, “At 17.” A bittersweet narrative focusing on the cruelty of adolescence, the illusion of popularity and teenage angst in a manner that filmmaker John Hughes only scratched at, “At 17” struck a chord with audiences around the world who also hadn’t been invited to their school dances, received Valentine’s Day cards or been chosen for their basketball teams – basically everyone.
“Yes, I was surprised that people related to it so much, because I really thought that I was the only one who felt that way growing up,” she said.
“That’s what made it so hard to sing at first because I was exposing part of myself that was horribly embarrassing.
And I didn’t believe that anybody else felt that way until it was proven to me over and over again by the reactions. People still come up to me and tell me how it affected them – it’s what you hope for as a writer, to change some lives.”
“At 17” picked up a Grammy for Ian for Best Pop Vocal Performance, beating out Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton-John, and Between the Lines reached the top of the Billboard charts. And in a footnote to her success, Ian was the musical guest on the 1975 debut of a new late-night live comedy show called Saturday Night Live.
A BONA fide star, Ian kept the momentum going for the rest of the decade with efforts like 1977’s Miracle Row and 1979’s Night Rains, featuring an unexpected collaboration with disco maven Giorgio Moroder. However, by 1983, Ian once again decided to drop out from the musical merry-go-round.
“I was becoming monochromatic – I think it’s a real danger for musicians, spending so many hours writing and playing and doing that to the exclusion of most other things,” said Ian.
“I began to realize that I didn’t know what I was talking about anymore, and the only thing I had to go on was my experiences, which I wasn’t having.”
“My acting teacher said something to that really struck like a blow – ‘You have reached the age where talent is no longer enough.’ I realized that I had so little exposure to the world that I was in danger of just being Janis Ian, and not the rest of me. And it was really affecting my writing, and writing was the one thing I always protected. So I stopped touring and decided to learn about the rest of the world.”
She did that for much of the next decade by having some extreme experiences, including losing most of her savings to a business adviser, undergoing two emergency operations for various heath problems, delving into the aforementioned acting classes, getting married, then divorced and ultimately emerging as a proud gay woman – meeting her partner Patricia in 1991 and marrying her in 2003 – and in 1988, moving to Nashville partially to regain her songwriting chops.
“I’ve been in Nashville 23 years now, and I love it,” said Ian.
“I went there because of the songwriters – I had never been someplace where lots of songwriters were collected in one place and it was amazing to discover that suddenly I had this community which I hadn’t had my whole life. I think it helps the creative process – I’m a firm believer that shared knowledge is a good thing.”
It was a good thing, at least for Ian, who resurfaced musically in 1993 as an “indie” artist without the benefit of a major label for the album Breaking the Silence, with its title song about incest. The more lowkey, grassroots approach to music making and marketing suited Ian fine after her two runs on the charts in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and she’s kept on releasing albums, touring and not only keeping a loyal fan base but winning over a new audience who find her honesty and no-frills approach akin to today’s more trendy roots music makers. She said she has no regrets about turning her back on a conventional musical career.
“It became obvious at some point that the music business stopped being a business and became an industry,” Ian said. “But I’m not one of those people who say it’s all bad – I wouldn’t have had an international career without a record label and I don’t think you can really have one today without a big label either. That being said, it was obvious from the way the business was destroying itself that something had to give, and it’s usually the artists that end up bearing the brunt.”
Realizing that the nature of music dissemination was undergoing a major change, Ian was one of the first artists to offer her fans free downloads of her songs, and a pro-downloading article she wrote for a music industry publication appeared on thousands of websites as a rallying point for the campaign against the Recording Industry Association of America’s fight to stop music downloading.
"When I wrote that article, my assignment was to write about how downloading was bad for business, and the more research I did, the more I realized I wasn’t sure if that was true,” she said.
“I was never in favor of indiscriminate downloading, but I think that iTunes has really vindicated me in the way it made music accessible to everyone at a reasonable price.”
That approach has continued to keep Ian a viable artist even though she hasn’t had a song on the charts in a couple decades. Her under-the-radar popularity spreads to Israel as well, where Ian was booked to perform on January 22 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv. The show sold out so quickly that a second night was added on the 21st, and with that selling out as well, a third show – a Friday matinee at noon on January 20 – was announced this week.
“The promoters were no more surprised than I was, it’s fantastic,” said Ian, adding that she’s looking forward to making her first visit to Israel.
“The older I get, the more I realize that I might not get another opportunity, so I take that into consideration when I accept offers to perform.”
Ian is on the road by herself, and move she says gives her more musical freedom, and her song choice is no longer based on commercial decisions but on which songs she feels like performing.
“I end up going back to a lot of the songs on Between The Lines – when I wrote my autobiography [Society’s Child, published in 2008], I went back and rediscovered some of them,” she said.
“That’s one of the advantages of not being on a major label – if I like a song, then I’m going to do it in my show.”
And whether it’s at 17 or at 60, like Ian said, that’s pretty cool.