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There’s more to Janis Ian than meets the ear in her iconic songs

Janis Ian won her first Grammy when she was 16. Forty-six years later, she picked up the Best Spoken Word Grammy for “Society’s Child: My Autobiography.”

By Mike Greenblatt

Janis Ian won her first Grammy in 1967 when she was 16 years old for her self-titled debut album, which contained the song “Society’s Child.” Forty-six years later, she won the Best Spoken Word Grammy for “Society’s Child: My Autobiography,” a 12-hour, 10-CD experience. In so doing, she beat Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow.

(Click here to test your knowledge of Janis Ian with our trivia quiz.)

The song “Society’s Child,” about an interracial relationship, came out shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights bill into law. It perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s.

The following decade was highlighted by her “At 17,” a song that poignantly portrayed the insecurities of young girls like no song before or since. Ian — whose given name was Janis Eddy Fink before she chose to change her surname at age 13 — could have retired with those two gems and still be thought of as one of the greats, but then there’s “Jesse,” “Stars” and, after a 10-year period away from the music business when she studied theater with Stella Adler, the “Breaking Silence” album in 1993, where she came out as gay. “I was penniless, in debt and hungry to write” she says on her website about her sojourn to Nashville to resurrect her career. Ian’s latest project is the illustrated children’s book “The Tiny Mouse.” But never fear, music fans: She plans to stay home for the winter to write her next album. And then she’ll be back out on the road come March 2014, when she’s set to tour in Europe with fellow folk singer Tom Paxton.

Janis Ian photo by Peter Cunningham.

Janis Ian lists Odetta as one of the biggest influences in her life. Publicity photo by Peter Cunningham.

GOLDMINE: Congratulations on the new Grammy.
JANIS IAN: I can assure you it was much to the astonishment of half the members of NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), as well as myself. I certainly was not expecting, at 62, to get another Grammy award! I remember standing backstage, saying to myself over and over again, “I know how to lose. I’ve lost eight times. I’ll be gracious, and that’ll be fine.” So to then hear my name called was somewhat shocking.

GM: I’ve always been of the opinion that “Society’s Child” was as culturally important and of-the-times as anything Bob Dylan ever wrote.
JI: Why, thank you! I think there’s a common thread for all people who came out of the folk music scene of New York City at that particular time. There’s the desire to reach the universal, if you will — the desire to say something moving and not sappy. And at the same time, maybe even improve the world a little bit.

GM: Is it true your original inspirations were Edith Piaf [1915-1963], Billie Holiday [1915-1959] and Odetta [1930-2008]? If so, that’s a pretty esoteric triumvirate of artists for a white New Jersey teenager.
JI: [Laughs.] It was mostly Odetta. I lived in New Jersey until I was 14, having heard Odetta at 9. She was my first concert. I had asked my mom to take me, and she somehow found the money, bought two tickets and we went to New York City. That was transformative for me. I didn’t hear Dylan or [Joan] Baez until long after that. But, man, I heard Odetta loud and clear. She was everything I wanted to be.

GM: So you’re influenced by a black performer, and you write a song at 14 about having a black boyfriend.
JI: I lived in an all-black, East Orange neighborhood.

GM: Of course, the song is banned. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t yet a year old. It’s hardly even being enforced. That song crystallized the moment, and it’s banned for what? Abject honesty from the pen of a 14-year-old girl? How did you react to that?
JI: I didn’t feel anything, except thinking that it was stupid. I really didn’t think about it that much at all, actually. I was pretty busy. We had moved to New York. I was in high school and trying to keep my grade average up while touring on weekends, making another album and doing the press that the label was asking me to do. I knew there was a lot of hatred directed at me once the song started to have legs. It was released on three separate occasions, y’know. The first two releases, to my memory, were pretty basic. It’s just that nobody would play it on the radio except in New York. FM had just started, and Murray The K was program director of WOR-FM. He played it every hour. Then it got airplay in Philadelphia and Flint, Mich., of all places. And that was about it.

GM: Enter Leonard Bernstein.
JI: I was playing The Gaslight in Greenwich Village. Robert Shelton, the New York Times music critic, was on a vendetta to convince the world that pop music had as much value as classical music. He heard the record and wrote about it. He then invited [TV producer] David Oppenheim down, who invited [composer] Leonard Bernstein, who listened and decided to feature it on TV. That was pretty major. I really didn’t understand at the time exactly how major that was. Think about it! Primetime Sunday night! And there were only seven channels back then. It was pretty amazing. Once that show aired, management jumped on it, the label jumped on it and two days later there were full-page ads in all the trades. The big Los Angeles radio station even apologized [for not originally playing it]. It never hit No. 1, though, because its ascent was in pieces. It would go on in Ohio, but not in Illinois. Then it would be heard in Indiana, but not Wisconsin. It took such a long time for it to become a hit.

GM: I read that you had a problem accepting success and had to drop out of high school as a result.
JI: That’s bullshit. Why would I have a problem with success? That makes no sense at all. I just hated school, that’s all. Even kindergarten. I wound up quitting school the very day I turned 16. You talk about having a problem with success? I had a problem with people shouting obscenities at me, spitting in my food and sending me death threats. Now THAT makes a lot of sense to me. And I had a problem with how much time was being consumed. It takes a lot of time to say things [to press]. Some people make a career out of that, and that’s fine, but it was constricting the amount of time I had for songwriting. Plus, I wanted to protect the songs. My main thrust has always been that I’m a writer. Anything that gets in the way of that, interferes with that or endangers that has to go.

GM: I also read that you gave away most of the money you made.
JI: Uh, yeah, actually, I did. Proceeds from four albums with MGM in three years went to family, friends and charities. My family never had money. My friends had no money. It felt good to spread it around. I had a coffee can in my apartment in New York with $100 bills in it, and everyone knew they could take one if they wanted. I bought a lot of people guitars. I bought a lot of people dinners. I had a good time! Unfortunately, none of us knew the tax consequences. I didn’t have a tax person for years, so I got in big trouble with the IRS. But outside of that, [blowing through the money] was a good thing to do. Then, when I was 17, I decided I was not going to perform or record anymore.

GM: So you were a folk-music version of 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud [1854-1891], who wrote all his poems as a teenager. What were your “missing years” like?
JI:  I learned how to be a songwriter. I spent almost four years at it. I made one album for Capitol [“Present Company,” 1971] that whole time. It was a transition. I found a really good therapist and did a lot of therapy. I lived with [friend] Peter in a great Philadelphia brownstone … and I grew up — learned how to drive, opened a checking account for the first time. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done with my life. I faced the question of if I really wanted to be a writer or not. If I couldn’t be a great songwriter, then I didn’t want to be one at all.

GM: Writing “Jesse” must have answered that question.
JI: Yeah, that and “Stars.” That’s when I knew.

Janis Ian 1974 At Seventeen Peter Cunningham

Janis Ian works in the studio in 1974. Her album "Between the Lines," which featured the hit "At Seventeen," was released the next year. Photo by Peter Cunningham.

GM: “At 17” went to No. 3. It’s from what I consider your greatest album, “Between The Lines.”
JI: Yeah, but this time I was real conscious of the price and what it would take to sustain. I did everything I could to ensure that I would have a career and be able to make a living. Then the Japanese took an interest in me, so after “At 17,” even though I didn’t have any more hits here, I had monster hits in Japan. Then “Fly Too High” with Giorgio Moroder became a huge hit in Europe, Australia and Africa. So I was very fortunate for the next eight years to have been a star in one place or another.

GM: Then in 1993 you come out of the closet upon the release of “Breaking Silence,” no?
JI: I was already out. I mean, everybody knew [I was gay]. [Columbia Records President] Walter [Yetnikoff] knew. All my friends and family knew.

GM: I didn’t know.
JI: But then I fell in love with a man, so that confused things.

GM: Go figure.
JI: We married and separated. The coming-out-of-the-closet thing I did loudly at that point, mainly because I was asked to by the organization that ultimately became The Human Rights Campaign. I wasn’t planning on putting out an album in 1993. I was having a pretty good time being a songwriter and having other people cut my work but [they] made me promise [to come out on my next album] because of all the teenage suicide statistics. They asked me if I ever had a gay role model while growing up. When I said no, they asked me, “Wouldn’t you have liked to have had a role model? Somebody stable?” And I said, “Yeah, that would have been great.” So I thought about it and realized they were right. That’s why I came out. Loudly. It was a little weird, because, to me, at the time, it was not that important a thing to have to deal with. As it turned out, “Breaking Silence” just happened to have been released at the same time as the book by [American Olympic gold-medal diver] Greg Louganis, “Breaking The Surface,” [where he came out as gay]. There were, actually, a flurry of people coming out at that time: Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang — it was a couple of years of a coming-out party [laughs].

GM: You’ve written about topics that songwriters tend to shy away from: homelessness, the Holocaust, interracial relationships, domestic violence, prostitution …
JI: I’ve made over 20 albums, so sooner or later, you’re going to hit on everything. I think writers have a lot less control over their choice of subject matter than people think. And for me, I think the one thing I do a little better than most of my contemporaries is to write about things that make people uncomfortable. GM