The Acoustic Storm Interviews
Janis Ian recently released her retrospective “The Essential Janis Ian,” so The Acoustic Storm figured it would be a good opportunity to explore the highlights of her career.
We spoke with Janis from the offices of her record company in New York.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Before we get into specifics, maybe you can give us a brief overview of your career, since we’re looking back on over 40 years of Janis Ian music.
JANIS IAN: I wrote my first song when I was 12. I was published at 13, made a record at 14, had a hit at 15, and I was a has-been at 16. I came back at 24 with ‘At Seventeen’ and continued right up until today when I have nine Grammy nominations to my name. I’ll probably never get a tenth one because I’m a firm believer that free music is a really good thing for most artists, even though it kills us as songwriters, and I’ve made no bones about it. But, I’m right back where I started: on SONY. If that can happen, anything can happen.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Your childhood was steeped in music, but was there any particular artist or artists that inspired you to pursue a music career?
JANIS IAN: You know I grew up in a family where my father played the guitar and my mom sang and my grandparents, being immigrants, all sang the songs from Russia and the Yiddish folk songs that they knew. So I was pretty much surrounded by music. My father loved classical music, my mother loved jazz, and folk music was something that all the farmers around us loved as well. I was living in Farmingdale, where I was born in New Jersey. I guess the first time I realized there was music I was taken to a rehearsal of “Oklahoma!” when I was about three, and I remember standing on the back of the flatbed truck singing ‘Oklahoma’ to the chickens as my dad worked. And that was the first record that I ever had. My mom bought me the red record of “Oklahoma!” and then I was introduced by my mom to Nina Simone and a lot of jazz singers. I was nine I heard Odetta on the T.V. And she came on the Harry Belafonte Show and I went running into the room yelling, “Who is that?! Who is that?!” and my mom said, “Honey, that’s Odetta.” And I remember it ‘cause she was coming to, to Rutgers near where we lived, and I begged my mother to find the money and we sat up in the next to last row in the nosebleed section but I got to see Odetta in a concert. It was amazing.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Why did you select the last name of Ian as your performing name?
JANIS IAN: When I knew that I was going to be a performer, my family name was Fink, but I didn’t feel any attachment to it because that was the name they’d given my grandfather at Ellis Island. The actual family name was Ziedler or Ziedeler or something completely different. So, I really wanted to distance myself and I took on my brother’s middle name, Ian, and became Janis Ian. I also secretly thought that since Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were both eight letters, an eight letter name probably helped.
ACOUSTIC STORM: How did you come to write “Society’s Child” at such a young age?
JANIS IAN: I wrote ‘Society’s Child’ when I was about 14 years old. And I remember that I was—I already thought of myself as a songwriter. I’d written my first song at 12, and I was published in Broadside Magazine with that song when I was 13, so I was alert to possibility. And I was on a bus and there were a couple of kids, obviously in love—black boy, white girl—just lost in each other. It was so sweet. And everybody on the bus, black and white, was glaring at them. And I remember thinking, ‘Huh, I wonder if she will have the courage when it comes to it,’ and I went home and started writing the song. I really don’t remember much about writing it beyond that, because to me it was just another song [laughs]. I was young enough that I kept track of how many songs I’d written and, and it was the quantity, not the quality, that mattered to me at that point.
Shadow Morton, the producer, was really the one who picked it out and said, “No, no, that’s special.” So we put out the record and nobody would play it, and then Leonard Bernstein invited me to be on his television special “Inside The Pop Revolution.”
ACOUSTIC STORM: Can you recall the experience of being invited to perform that song on the T.V. special in 1967?
JANIS IAN: I didn’t understand how huge that was. I was 15 and in school and I didn’t think what being on an 8 p.m. special on Sunday, at a time when even New York City only had seven channels, what that would mean. Leonard Bernstein was really nice to me. His wife Felicia helped me with my Spanish homework. He treated me wonderfully. Obviously loved young people. And then I went home and forgot all about it. And [laughs] and then it was on. And my grandparents called and everybody in New York that we knew called and everybody had seen it. And, and then all of a sudden I was famous.
ACOUSTIC STORM: In some respects, the reaction to “Society’s Child” was an indication of the racial climate at the time. What about the controversial aspects of “Society’s Child” and the reaction by some radio stations due to the song’s theme of inter-racial romance?
JANIS IAN: It didn’t occur to me when ‘Society’s Child’ was released that anyone would get upset by it. It probably should have because we’d originally recorded it for Atlantic Records, and they then gave us the master and said, “You don’t owe us any money, but we can’t put this out.” But I was 15. I didn’t think about it. And I don’t think Shadow, my producer, thought about it a lot either, ‘cause to him it was just a hit record. So it was a huge shock to all of us when people got…crazy. People got nuts over it. People, man, people…. One girl’s father broke the record over her head and locked her in the basement for a day. People were forbidden to date the other-colored people. Parents were going nuts writing to radio stations, demanding that they stop playing it. A radio station in Atlanta got burned. People got fired for publishing the lyrics in newspapers. It was crazy. And I was sitting there in the middle of this maelstrom thinking, “What is wrong with all these people? It’s just a song.” It’s a real good lesson in the power of a song.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What made you move to California, and looking back, would you say that it affected your songwriting in any way?
JANIS IAN: I moved to California when I was 20…more to get as far away from everything I’d known as I could. I really needed to grow up. I had become this huge star when I was 15, 16 years old. I’d made five records in four years; written all of them, arranged all of them, played on all of them, toured for all of them, eight and nine months a year, and I was just used up. So I moved to California because I didn’t really want to cross the ocean and the country stopped there. I don’t know that it affected my songwriting in any way. except that it removed me from everything familiar, and it left me to my own devices. There’s a lot to be said when you’re a writer of any sort to living a solitary life somewhere where you don’t really have many close connections because you really have to fall back on yourself then. And that’s what I did. I started writing songs like ‘The Man You Are In Me’ and I had written ‘Stars’ already and ‘Jesse’—I finished ‘Jesse’ there—and wrote ‘In The Winter’ and, gosh, ‘Between the Lines’ and most of the Stars album and then the “Between the Lines” album. I don’t think I would have written those songs if I hadn’t been living on my own.
And then when it came time to start recording again, the world had changed, just as the technology changes now every four or five years. And suddenly, we weren’t working on four-track and eight-track. We were working on sixteen-track. And suddenly you didn’t need a million dollars to own a good set of speakers. I remember that when we were cutting “Stars” I bought a set of JBL Century 100s—that I still have—and those were like the first real professional speakers I ever owned. And that was huge. Huge! This was, it’s hard to remember now, this was pre-cassettes. I mean, we didn’t even have cassettes, let alone videotape.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Did you approach “Stars” and “Between the Lines” differently than your previous album projects?
JANIS IAN: I approached “Stars” and “Between the Lines” as an adult. Shadow Morton, who had produced my early albums and “Society’s Child” had always treated me like an adult, but Brooks Arthur, who had been the engineer on “Society’s Child” and was now the producer for “Stars” and “Between the Lines,” took it one step further and started teaching me. He really taught me about how to sing into a microphone, how to get the most out of my vocals, how to really be in the studio. And he didn’t think it at all odd that I would say, “Well, I’d like to add some nylon guitar, some electric guitar to that.” He would just say, “Okay, go for it.”
ACOUSTIC STORM: How did “At Seventeen” come about? I’d imagine you’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback over the years
from others who could relate to that kind of teenage experience?
JANIS IAN: I started ‘At Seventeen’ sitting at my mom’s dining room table. It was after the “Stars” album had come out and I wasn’t really working a lot yet. I had the support of SONY, CBS then, but I didn’t really have any money and I had had to move back in with my mom for a while ‘til I could get on my feet. And I was reading an article in the New York Times, the magazine section, where a girl said that she had learned the truth at 18. It was about being a debutante. And I was playing this ding-di-ga-ting, da-ging-ging, ga-ding-ga-ding samba figure, and ‘at eighteen’ didn’t scan, so it wound up being ‘at seventeen.’ It’s funny ‘cause, I remember just how unattractive and out of place I felt, and I was watching myself on Saturday Night Live a couple of months ago, ‘cause I did all that stuff live so I never heard myself or saw myself on T.V. before, and I watched myself and I said to my partner, “I wasn’t so ugly. I don’t understand why I felt like I was so ugly.” It was a funny way of looking back.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You were a part of another historic television event when you performed on the SNL premiere in 1975. What are your memories of the week of rehearsals leading up to the show and the actual night of the performance?
JANIS IAN: I got asked to be the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live along with Billy Preston and I had a string of California dates, and I couldn’t make the rehearsals because it would mean cancelling four dates. But my manager said “Look, she’s always done live shows. She’s coming from being 14 years old, so you’re not going to have a problem with her freezing up.” So they agreed to let me fly in that morning if I would do a camera rehearsal that afternoon. I had strep throat and I remember that I arrived at the studio running a 102 fever, completely exhausted from taking the Red Eye, bleary-eyed, wandering around looking at things like this guy sitting behind a mound of papier-mâché with a talking pig. And I thought, ‘wow,’ or a talking frog, I thought, ‘wow, that’s really weird.’ And all of these people running around freaking out because it was live T.V. and I remember thinking, ‘well, yeah. So what? That’s what I grew up doing.’
I didn’t realize, you know, how, how scared everybody was, but we did the show and it went without a hitch. Everybody was real nice to me. I enjoyed it a lot. And then, of course, it became enormous. Nobody ever figured that it would just be ridiculously big. It was a great show. I loved that first episode. I got to watch it a couple of months ago and the, the ads that they did because none of the sponsors would take a chance on them. People are just so scared of chances. It’s ridiculous. That’s my word on the subject, thank you.
ACOUSTIC STORM: I got to watch that first SNL a couple of years ago and I was amazed at how much stand-up George Carlin was doing.
JANIS IAN: And it was so seditious. You forget how seditious it was. It’s hard to be that seditious anymore. Nobody cares.
ACOUSTIC STORM: 1993 was another watershed year for you with the release of “Breaking Silence,” which was nominated for a Grammy.
JANIS IAN: With “Breaking Silence,” the defining moment was, well, I had left Columbia in 1981 or ‘82 and I had stopped recording. I was really, really used up. I’d done seven albums in seven years, and done very well, but I was tired and I felt like my writing was suffering. And I’ve always protected the writing before I’ve protected myself even. So I stopped. And I tried to find myself as a writer again. And it wasn’t until I moved to Nashville and I began writing songs like ‘Tattoo,’ which was about the Holocaust, or ‘Some People’s Lives’ that I wrote with Kye Flemming, that I thought maybe I do have something to say again. People started saying, “you ought to make a record,” and I would just laugh at them. The idea of ever getting the chance to make another record was so ludicrous…it was like being hit by lightning.
And then my partner said, you know, “what would it cost?” And I said, “Well, we’d need, I don’t know, 30, 40 thousand dollars at least.” And she said, “Well, let’s mortgage the house. Let’s take out a second mortgage.” And I looked at her and my first reaction was, “Absolutely not. There’s no way we’re jeopardizing our home.” And then she laid it out for me. She said, “If you don’t make another album then you’re not going to be able to get back out there. If you don’t get back out there then you’re really not suited to do anything else as a living. So how are you going to support yourself? And I realized that I really did want to make an album. And I got very fortunate that the original producer turned out to be someone I couldn’t work with and I wound up with Jeff Balding, an engineer-producer who was just great.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Which of your music projects has been the most satisfying to you personally?
JANIS IAN; I would say “Breaking Silence,” “Stars,” and “Between the Lines,” “Night Rains”… those would be the defining albums of my career…and “Society’s Child,” of course, because those albums changed my life. “Society’s Child” gave me a career. “Stars” gave me credibility in the music industry because ‘Jesse’ and ‘Stars’ were on it. “Between the Lines” gave me a hit, again, which nobody ever expected me to have. “Night Rains” made me an international star, and “Breaking Silence” gave me a ninth Grammy nomination, which nobody had ever thought I’d be able to do, me most of all.
You know, when you start looking back and you say to yourself, ‘what really made me happy? What satisfied me?’ I don’t know about for other artists. For audiences, they always think, ‘Oh, it’s getting your Grammys. That must have been the highlight of your career, or it’s having a platinum record. That must have been the highlight.’ You know, for me, the highlights are things like, Ella Fitzgerald led my standing ovation at the Grammys. That’s a highlight. A girl came up to me a few years ago after I made a speech that was received very badly in some quarters, and she looked at me and she said, “Woman, you were always fierce. I love that. You were always fierce.” And I walked away thinking, ‘that’s cool. That’s cool, that some 17 or 18 year-old girl would think I was fierce. That’s cool.’ Those are defining moments. Hearing from a sailor who was on the Ticonderoga in Vietnam and just e-mailed me last week saying, “you know, we loved your record. We played it all the time.” That’s so much more defining. I guess what I’m saying is that the songs are what define my life to me, not, not the records, not….I’m not denigrating getting platinum records. I love platinum records. That’s amazing, to have a platinum record, much less a bunch of ‘em. Mel Tormé doing a duet with me. Those are defining moments. Those are amazing moments. Those are the moments you cherish.
ACOUSTIC STORM: It seems that being a singer-songwriter is a fairly solitary craft when it comes down to it.
JANIS IAN: I think, personally, I think any artist who says they’re content to practice in a vacuum is a liar. Or at best delusional. Because, there’s a point where you’re writing into the black hole and you go, “this is no fun. Black holes just [sucking sound].” And it’s gone. I would really prefer people read it or hear it or see it. Whatever. So to have your work listened to, let alone listened to on a grand scale, let alone listened to by other artists you admire…. To find out that Ella Fitzgerald knows my name…that was huge! Huge! I can’t tell you what that feels like to meet somebody that you admire so greatly, and have them treat you like a peer, that’s, that’s just huge. Huge.
I remember I was in Holland and I was doing a T.V. show in Hilversum where they had an underground studio. You were locked up for four days. Five. In rehearsals. And I was coming down the stairwell and I heard a sound and my first thought was, ‘If I were God, I would play like that. And I went further down and it was Stéphane Grappelli and Toots Thielemans, and they were rehearsing in the stairwell because the echo was so great. And I just sat and listened to them, feeling like I was…. Whether you believe in God or not, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven and this was what heaven was. The perfect sound. That was amazing. Those are the moments you live for. That’s the cool of getting famous. Not that you get money. Not that you get recognized. But you get access. You get access. That’s the cool part. I don’t miss any of the other crap, but I miss the access.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What were the challenges of writing your autobiography?
JANIS IAN: One of the strange things about working on my autobiography in 2007, when I took the entire year off to write it, was that as I started looking back on my life, in the third person almost, I realized that a lot of the things that I had thought were important or were defining moments really didn’t mean that much. And then here and there I could pluck something out and go, “That was a defining moment.”
When I sat down to write my autobiography I had set aside all of 2007 for it, and I thought, ‘well this will be easy. I know the plot. I know how it begins, I know how it ends, I know the middle.’ And then I got really paranoid. I thought, ‘wait a minute. I’ve never written anything more than 10,000 words. Now I’m supposed to turn in 120,000?’ And I froze. And then I thought, ‘OK. I know how to research. So I spent two whole months, with the help of some fans, researching Janis Ian. Just to make sure that I didn’t have the wrong dates and wouldn’t say I was hanging out with Joplin when it turned out that she was in Europe. How embarrassing would that be?
As I researched I remembered all this stuff that I had forgotten and it was great. It was really cool. Sent me right back into therapy. But it was great.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Finally, since we’re The Acoustic Storm, with the best variety of acoustic-rock, can you describe what appeals to you about acoustic instruments, especially guitar and piano?
JANIS IAN: What appeals to me about acoustic instruments? [Sighs] When I was about nine or ten years old and we were living in New Brunswick I took a test to get into Rutgers preparatory school—a very expensive private school. And I was going for a full scholarship so it was a big deal to me. And I remember that one of the big questions was ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And I thought about it for a while and I thought of putting ‘a teacher’ ‘cause it seemed like they’d probably like that. And then I thought, ‘No. I’ll be honest.’ And I put, ‘I would like to grow up and be an orchestra.’ Now this is before anybody even thought of synthesizers. But I couldn’t think of anything more glorious than being every instrument in the orchestra. My dream was to own one of everything. And when ‘At Seventeen’ hit and I had extra money I bought instruments that were exotic that I could never afford like a glockenspiel and a harpsichord. I played French horn in school. I bought trumpets. Even now I just, I just bought a psaltery. I mean, who owns a psaltery?
But I love instruments and there’s something that happens with a piano. I mean, I can’t play much anymore because I, I hurt my left arm—my left hand—about 15 years ago and it’s real hard to play piano now but I still fool around on it, and there’s some connection that happens between you and the, what was, used to be the ivory. There’s some kind of thing that flows from the piano up your arms into your heart. And it’s the same with the guitar. You put a guitar against you and it’s wood. It’s wood that’s been cut off from its source but it’s still alive. It still breathes, it still changes with the humidity and with the temperature. It still moves. It ages, it grows, it expands. And you put that up against your chest and feel it against your heart, and once in a while when I’m taking a guitar solo, my heart and the wood of the guitar beat together. And in those moments, there’s nothing better. In those moments it’s like you’ve reached God. It’s like you get to speak with God’s tongue. And those are the moments you live for.
The Acoustic Storm, with the best variety of acoustic rock? That’s sort of a misnomer, isn’t it though? A contradiction in terms? Acoustic-rock? Maybe not. I don’t know. Well, yeah, all the early rock-and-rollers played acoustic guitars now that I think of it. Elvis always posed with an acoustic guitar. Yeah, so, okay, yeah. The best variety of acoustic rock. There you have it.
-Transcribed by Paul Chuffo.