Who are the great songwriters in America today?
Not the most popular. Not the richest. Simply the greats.
Ask any student of the form, and Janis Ian will be counted among them The writer of Jesse, a song recorded by so many others that few remember Ian wrote it; Stars, possibly the best song ever written about the life of a performer, recorded by artists as diverse as Mel Torme and Cher; and the seminal At Seventeen, a song that brought her five Grammy nominations (the most any solo female artist had ever garnered) in 1975, which is now reaching its third generation of listeners.
Ian is a formidable talent, a force of nature. Ella Fitzgerald called her “The best young singer in America”. Chet Atkins said “Singer? You ought to hear that girl play guitar; she gives me a run for my money!” Reviewers have called her live performances “overwhelming to the spirit and soul”, and “drenched with such passion, the audience feels they’ve been swept up in a hurricane.” Not to mention her short stories, her songs for film and television… and oh, yes. She also runs a foundation, named for her mother, that supplies college scholarships in perpetuity; they’re working on their ninth.
The glowing reviews come as no surprise to Ian’s loyal fan base, who give her website a stunning quarter million hits per year – even though she hasn’t had a top twenty record here in three decades. Nor to the computer community, who adopted her article “The Internet Debacle” as their Bible against the RIAA’s fight to stop downloaded music. Nor her international fan base, who flock to her concerts and allow her to spend ten months every two years doing sold-out tours of Holland, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Germany, and others too numerous to mention – and these are not club tours, these are concert halls. Nor the science fiction community, who embraced her anthology “Stars” with glowing reviews like the one from Publisher’s Weekly that begins “This dazzling, highly original anthology….”
Quite a broad spectrum of interests and communities, for a woman who started her life on a New Jersey chicken farm.
2006 sees the release of Ian’s twentieth major-label album, and to this writer’s mind, her logical follow-up to the critically acclaimed “Between the Lines”. Titled “Folk Is the New Black”, the album takes no prisoners; from the wry self-deprecating humor of its title song (“Folk is the new black/cheaper than crack/and you don’t have to cook”) to the political (“While politicians lie and cheat to get to higher ground/we follow them like sheep, and salute them as we drown”), to what is possibly the best love-‘em-and-leave-‘em song written in decades (“All those promises that you made me from the start/were filled with emptiness from the desert of your heart”), “Folk Is the New Black” is a songwriter’s tour de force. Never mind that it took decades for her to come full circle; Ian is right back where she started, in the bosom of folk music at its best – older, wiser, her talent honed and sharpened until it cuts so fine, we barely feel the blade slicing through us.
This is not an album for the faint of heart, for timid souls who prefer Britney Spears’ auto-tuned vocals to the voice of real experience. Ian and her two sidekicks (Viktor Kraus on upright bass and guitars, Jim Brock on percussion and drums) recorded the fifteen songs in three days, with all vocals done live. As Ian says, “I wanted to make real music. Forget about perfection; folk music isn’t about that. It’s about heart. So we set the room up as though it were the 60’s, three of us facing one another and playing because we love music. I sang everything live, and I surprised myself. I mean, I know I can sing live – I do it 200 nights a year. But to sing live in the studio, while I’m trying to play my own parts, arrange, and be the producer – I was surprised it came off so well. We had the budget to spend more time, but why? We’d already done what we set out to do.”
Ian has had great success as a co-writer, with cuts by Bette Midler, Kathy Mattea, John Mellencamp and a host of others. But “Folk Is the New Black” is the first album since 1981’s “Restless Eyes” that sees Ian writing 100% of everything.
“It was important to me, writing it all by myself. It was a challenge – could I still do it? Would it be as good? Because to my mind, it all comes down to four words – I serve the song. If you don’t start with great songs, you have nothing.”
For the record, Ian was born April 7, 1951, and started playing the piano at two. Far from being a child prodigy on that instrument, she hated scales and studying, and switched to guitar at age ten. (“I figured out that while you couldn’t carry a piano, you could carry a guitar, and that was it.”) Her first song was written at twelve and recorded on her first album for Verve-Folkways in 1965, which also featured her first hit, Society’s Child. The song ignited controversy from coast to coast, resulting in the burning of a radio station, the firing of disc jockeys who played it, and a generation hungering for the truth finally having a female songwriter to stand beside Bob Dylan.
Ian took a break at the age of eighteen, retiring to Philadelphia for three years “to find out if I had it in me to be a good songwriter, or if I should just go to school and become a veterinarian.” She returned with the stunning “Stars” album in 1973, and went on to cover the decade with number one records worldwide. Her follow-up to “Between the Lines”, titled “Aftertones”, was #1 in Japan for an astonishing six months, a record still unbroken by a female artist. “Night Rains”, featuring the Giorgio Moroder collaboration “Fly Too High”, managed to go platinum throughout Europe, Africa, and Australia.
In 1983, after ten unbroken years of making records and touring, Ian took an unprecedented nine year hiatus from the visible music world, studying acting with the legendary Stella Adler and “in general, learning how to be a person”. During that period, she married and divorced, suffered two emergency surgeries, lost all her savings and home to an unscrupulous business manager, and moved to Nashville, TN in 1988 “penniless, in debt, and hungry to write”. She returned to the music business with 1992’s “Breaking Silence”, which immediately garnered her ninth Grammy nomination.
2006 marks many milestones for Ian: it is the 40th anniversary of the release of Society’s Child. It is the 42nd anniversary of her first New York show (at The Village Gate, in 1964, at the age of 13). It is the 43rd anniversary of the publication of her first song, as well as the 43rd anniversary of her career as a songwriter (her first song, Hair of Spun Gold, published in Broadside Magazine in 1963, when Ian was twelve years old.) The 38th anniversary of her first Grammy nomination. Hard to believe she started so young; hard to believe she’s still going strong.
“It was good to start young,” says Ian. “It was good to learn, early on, that what matters is the music. I got most of my big mistakes over with before I was twenty-one. When people say ‘Didn’t you miss having a teenage life?’ I just say ‘I only know the life I lived. I was a teenager, working. A hundred years ago, no one would have thought anything of it. At least I got to do something I loved! I could have been working in a factory, or a day job where every day is the same thing, day in and day out. Instead, I got to deal with everything from doing coke with Jimi Hendrix to death threats. I lived an entire life in my teen years, and I don’t regret a second of it.”
Despite being a recording artist and performer for four decades, Ian shows no signs of slowing down. Her 2006 tour will take her through the United States, Canada, and all over Europe and Japan, with plans to go back to Singapore and Australia at some point. “We’ve got to pack it in, because I’m taking all of 2007 off at home to write my autobiography.” And after that? Ian laughs. “I’m scheduled right up to the brim through spring of 2008 right now; after that is anyone’s guess!”