Interview: Janis Ian
Between the songs: the iconic NYC-born songwriter reflects on a five-album run which is up there with the very best
From her self-titled 1967 debut through to 2014’s Strictly Solo, Janis Ian’s music has soundtracked our lives for over five decades now. That first album was released when Ian was still a teenager, yet songs such as Society’s Child revealed an ability to channel themes of social awareness into her music that belied her young age. That artistic integrity has been a thread which has continued throughout her career and made her an icon in the eyes of her legions of fans.
Out of all her material though, it’s her run of albums in the mid-to-late 70s which remains the pinnacle of her songwriting. Over five LPs (Stars, Between The Lines, Aftertones, Miracle Row and Night Rains) she established herself as a bona fide star. Tracks like At Seventeen, Jesse and Love Is Blind remain essential listening to this day.
These albums have now been remastered and reissued, giving audiences new and old a chance to hear Ian’s masterpieces once again. They also provide us with a perfect opportunity to revisit that period of her career…
Do you come from a musical family?
“My family are Jewish. Jews of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation tend to use music as a way to gather together, so we were always singing. In addition, my dad went to college after he served in the army; they paid for him to go and he eventually became a music teacher, so there’s a great passion in the family.”
And you wanted to be a songwriter from a very young age?
“I must have only been two-and-a-half when I put together that the sound coming from the piano was being made by my dad, and that was it. It was, ‘That’s what I’m going to do with my life. Forget everything else.’”
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
“Oh yeah, Hair Of Spun Gold, which wound up on my first album. I was 12 and I remember it distinctly. I wrote the song and then I sang it for my parents while we were in the car going to visit my grandparents in New York. My mum asked where I’d learnt that song from and I said, ‘I wrote it.’ They both just stopped and looked at me. It had never occurred to me to tell anyone that I had started writing.”
You’re probably not thinking about songwriting as a career when you’re 12…
“I was thinking about getting good grades so my parents would let me go away at weekends and play with my friends, write songs and sing in the Village.”
How much did that Greenwich Village scene inform your early work?
“It was huge. Those were my heroes. To suddenly be on speaking terms with Joan Baez or Tom Paxton, that was amazing. I was 13 the first time I played out at a real gig, I submitted the song to Broadside magazine and they invited me to perform at what was then called ‘The Hootenanny’ in Greenwich Village at the Village Gate, which was normally a jazz club. The owner Art D’Lugoff would donate it once a month to a bunch of folk singers and so there I was on stage with all of these people that I had been listening to for years.
“It was just an amazing group and I did well and then we moved to New York and I fell in with a group of kids who were hanging around with the Reverend Gary Davis. He was blind and he would have his hand on your shoulder and we would lead him around New York. His wife liked me because I loved her chicken. She made the best potted chicken ever. Gary asked if I could open for him at the Gaslight Café when I was 14, when they said no his wife said that he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t think that he’d be able to do the show, and so they said yes. They were pretty amazing.”
Was it the confidence of youth that enabled you to take it all in your stride, or did it feel momentous even back then?
“I don’t know that anything feels momentous at that age, because you’re so busy thinking of the next moment. I mean it was great and amazing but take the Leonard Bernstein special where he featured Society’s Child. I was 15 and didn’t understand the impact of something like that for a long time because I was too busy thinking, ‘Okay, that was really cool but now my maths test is due and I’ve got a gig, what am I going to do?’”
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