CityFolk: Janis Ian reflects on a lifetime of outsider art-making

Janis Ian. Photo: Ian Baggs

Janis Ian isn’t 17 any more.

But that’s OK. She’s a wise owl who knows herself both as an artist and a person. These days she lives with her partner Patricia and her Portuguese Water Dog Gracie Mae. She’s still writing … songs, science fiction and haikus. And she has causes she cares about including the Pearl Foundation, named after her mother Pearl Fink. which helps provide educational opportunities.

And every now and then she will also go on tour. This weekend she’s coming to Ottawa for the first time in many years to teach a masterclass on Saturday and perform on Sunday at the CityFolk Festival.

At 67, she’s a going concern.

“I keep joking with (her good friend) Arlo Guthrie that we are going to be last of our generation left standing. It’s a little weird but I have made a lot of adjustments for aging. I take naps now and there is all this research that people who take naps live longer so that’s good with me,” she said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

“I am lucky that I am in a position that I can take the shows I want to take. I don’t have to take the others. And I think I am a lot luckier than many of my contemporaries in that respect.”

The hardest thing to do, she said, when one gets older and energy wanes is just to keep an edge.

“It is really easy to become complacent when your fatigue level is really different than it was in your 20s or even your 50s. I try not to be afraid.”

So she’ll sing a new song for the first time on a festival stage, for example, as she did recently with the tune She is She is. “I just sang it for the first time at The Cambridge Folk Festival in the U.K.

“I thought ‘Bloody hell, I’m closing and I’m doing this song instead of At Seventeen and I have never sung it.”

She thought to herself “I must be out of my mind to premiere it in front of 14,000 people. And yet then you go ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’

“The worst is they’ll all walk away or boo me off the stage and I have had both of those things happen.”

Her motivation to do a masterclass for young singers is in part to say: Don’t be afraid.

“I can be talking to some 16 year old or 19 year old or 25 year old and say ‘Look I have had stuff thrown at me’. I have been booed off the stage, I have had people jump up on stage after me, you live through it. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll be dead and you won’t care.

“I think you have to keep that in mind. I’m serious.”

She said didn’t realize that she would spark controversy when she released the song Society’s Child about interracial marriage for the first time in 1965 when she was 14. The song was banned by some radio stations and, she wrote in her autobiography that she received hate mail and death threats. Still Society’s Child sold 600,000 copies as a single and 350,000 albums were sold. In 1975, her biggest hit At Seventeen made it to No. 3 on Billboard and the album it was released on Between The Lines sold $1.9 million copies in the U.S. alone. And she won the Grammy that year for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She would win another Grammy for the Spoken Word album of her autobiography.   

She did go though it and has come out the other side because “I think a lot is down to sheer stubbornness.”

The big change happened, she said, when she hit her 50s. “I tend to call that decade the ‘F’ you years. You suddenly realize you are halfway at best and what are they going to do to you.

“As a kid you are so worried about what people are going to do, or you think about what they say about you. Some people go so far as to worry about what their legacy is going to be. I don’t give a shit any more. It is very freeing. You realize you have choices.”

In the early years, Ian said, she wasn’t thinking about being an “artist.” She was thinking about singing and performing.

“I was 16 and I remember that moment I was on stage at the Berkley Folk Festival and I had just met Janis Joplin. I looked out into the audience and said to myself ‘Son of a bitch, these people are actually listening to my words. It was a huge weight.

“I thought about being a responsible singer-songwriter. I had always wanted to be that. At 2 1/2. I wanted to play piano. That has always been there.

“I don’t think I had a vocabulary for being an artist until my early 30s when I met Stella Adler.”

Adler ran a famous theatre school in New York and Ian worked with her. Actors and theatre people would talk about the art form.

“In the folk world at that time, we are talking about the 1960s and ’70s we didn’t have that kind of vocabulary that you had in the theatre about the responsibility to the audience and to the work. They are more melded now.”

It changed,she believes when artists such as Bette Midler and herself to classes. and became mindful of performance values.

“Crossover happened once a lot of us had our work being used in theatre productions. That began a dialogue. I spent 10 years working with Stella and exclusively hanging out with theatre people and actors. There is a different vocabulary that I try to pass that on when I teach or even when I get on stage.

“In some sense, we artists have learned that we can really count on each other above anyone else.”

Artists always have been harbingers, she said. “We keep hold of people’s dreams when they are too tired to hold them themselves. That’s our job, or part of it anyway.”

Success came quickly for Janis Ian. She started writing songs at age 12.

But when it hit, it was pretty overwhelming.

“I don’t think you can possibly be prepared for fame on that level. I was talking to George R.R. Martin about it a year after Game of Thrones hit TV. He was saying how it was such a huge adjustment and wondering how do you get through it? How do you deal with people coming up to you in public? How do you have dinner in public?

“You aren’t prepared for any of that.

“I have had really huge fame, street-recognizing, annoying fame, people showing up at your house fame. That happened three times in my life and each time it was not fun. That is what drives me to writing rather than performing.”

But performing remains part of the equation for Ian.

“There is a point where you have to become the instrument and see what the instrument wants and you can’t do that without an audience. Tom Paxton says ‘Performing is one of the few things that you cannot learn in your living room. You have to do it live.’

Performing completes a song, Ian said.

“When I am singing … something live I usually know when something won’t work. It doesn’t have so much to do with the lyrics as the structure of the song.”

She hasn’t released a studio album since 2010. There’s a reason for the gap.

Given that next album could very well be her last, she said, “I really want 11 impeccable songs and I only have six that I am satisfied with.”

She’s not a perfectionist however.

“There is no such thing as perfect; who cares as long as (a song) has heart.”

She is not going for perfect, she is going for “feel. That is one of the crazy-making things in this digital era. I believe it’s part of why music has become so disposable. Your ears and your brain keep trying to humanize digital music but because it’s digital listening to it can be tiring.”

She believes this is why vinyl is making a comeback.

“There is no give in digital music and there has to be give for art to live.”

She’s also kind of bothered by reality shows such as The Voice American’s Got Talent which are pushing the idea that art is a contest conducted in an unreal atmosphere. And this is all happening as there are fewer places for artists to learn how to be artists.

Ian’s view of the artist as outsider explains much including about her love of science fiction.

“It is the jazz of prose. It deals with being outside the system. For somebody like me, computers were not a surprise. I had already thought about that through reading science fiction stories. It is the world of possibility and that’s the world that I try to inhabit anyway.”

Then there is her penchant for haikus that feature the monster Godzilla. They populate her Facebook page.

“It started when I ran across one online through an anonymous person called Samurai Frog. It was so beautiful and such a juxtaposition that I posted it. I found another and another and then I started writing them and then people sent me their haikus. Then I started getting really involved in it.

“I’m concentrating on other forms these days and the haiku for a songwriter is pretty perfect. We deal in short form anyway. It’s a real exercise in saying the most possible with as little as possible.”

Her show in Ottawa will be a mix of old and new.

“What crap it would be to not do At Seventeen. It would be unfair. I do Jesse a lot. And sometimes I pull out Stars. I do do Society’s Child sometimes but it’s a bit of a chops-buster for me now. My 14 year old voice is not my voice today.” Somewhat surprisingly she says she has a more pure soprano today, but age has an impact. She said she has benefited greatly from vocal lessons throughout her life.

Ian said she can’t wait to get to CityFolk, a festival she has never performed at. She likes the company of musicians and the opportunity to work with young performers. And she said she’s keen to check the Marvest event to get a handle on what is happening here.

Janis Ian
Where: CityFolk Festival RavenLaw Stage
When: Sept.16 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.