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An Interview with Janis Ian

Another Guitar Noise first – the “tag team” interview! When A-J casually mentioned to me that he was going to be interviewing Janis Ian for our site, I politely asked if I could “tag along.” Alright, I threatened to pull rank and then begged a lot! Janis cordially answered questions from both of us and I think you’ll find her answers both fascinating and informative.

GN: You’ve been in the music business for forty years…

JI: I know. Frightening, isn’t it?

GN: While a lot of people looking to get into the business tend to look at “success” as being like some chart topping diva, you prove on a daily basis that there is indeed a way for the thoughtful songwriter/performer to be a success as well. Does this surprise you?

JI: Frankly, it surprises me that I can still earn a living doing something I love. It astounds me that old fans have hung in this long.

But I think a lot of it has to do with how a person defines “success.” When I was a kid, that meant having a hit record. Now it means earning a living without having to compromise.

GN: Do you feel that many people don’t realize that there are a lot of ways to be involved in the music industry?

JI: I don’t know that that many people care about becoming involved in the music industry in the first place!

GN: What do you feel are the best ways for young hopefuls to find out more about getting involved in aspects such as sound engineering, producing and tour work?

JI: That’s three separate questions. For engineering, there seem to be a lot of schools cropping up – but my experience, and that of most of the lead engineers I work with, is that all most of the schools teach you is software usage. That can’t take the place of knowing where to put a bass mic. If I were an engineer starting out, I’d apprentice at a studio; sweep floors, work the desk, do whatever.

For a producer, there are a lot of different roads; a lot of great producers come out of engineering. Jeff Balding and Marc Moreau, who co-produced my next studio album with me, are both first and foremost engineers – but in addition to great ears and great chops, each has the ability to focus on the whole picture. You can also get into it by having a small home studio and offering to “produce” and record anyone and everyone you can shove in there. Or you can go the songwriter route, again with a home studio, and make demos so good that people start asking you to produce.

For tour work, there’s nothing like coming up through the ranks. Depending on your goal (road manager? sound engineer? performer?), you’d start by hauling equipment, or doing monitors, or whatever you could get.

GN: As a songwriter, you’ve covered a wide range of styles (I think most people are stunned to find you had a number one disco hit!). When you’re writing, how do you determine what sort of song you’re going to write?

JI: I don’t even think about it, frankly, unless I’m on assignment. Obviously, if I’m writing a song for a motion picture about surrealist painters, I’m probably not going to write a country song. But I usually let the song dictate what it becomes. I’m a big believer in the marriage of talent and craft; Stella Adler always said “Trust your talent”, and I do, infinitely.

But I also trust my craft to see me through the rough spots.

GN: Your writing has always been very personal and thought provoking. Do you feel that there is a place in the music industry for writers such as yourself?

JI: There must be, because I make a better living now than I did ten years ago…

GN: What advice would you give to fledgling songwriters as to how to make their own voice and then bring that voice to an audience?

JI: I think that’s a two-fold problem:

1. If you’re going to survive in the arts, you have to have your own voice, be it as a painter, singer, actor.

2. The entertainment industry doesn’t like anything too different from what’s currently successful.

So the issue becomes: do you want a long-term career, or a short burst? For long term, you’ll need your own style. For short term, you won’t.

HOWEVER… I’m not sure you can create your own “voice”. Every singer I know with a distinctive sound, one where you immediately go “Oh, that’s Ella!” or “Oh, that’s Dylan”, didn’t do a damn thing to create it. You’re either born with it, or not.

I do notice that most of us with distinctive “voices” started out imitating people we admired, but we couldn’t do it. Same with guitar playing – I once complained to Chet Atkins that I couldn’t play like everyone else, because my hands weren’t big enough. He chuckled and said “Honey, that’s why you’re a unique guitarist. No one else on earth plays like you – and that’s because you never were able to play like them!”

GN: For most of the eighties, you actually stopped recording and instead worked on becoming a better writer. Can you tell us what led to that decision and how you got yourself back to a place where you were happy with what you wrote?

JI: The decision was easy, though in retrospect it was probably stupid as well. I don’t know if I did the right thing; if I had stayed on tour, doing 200 dates a year, my writing would have continued going down the gurgler. And I’ve always protected my writing, first above all. But I probably could have taken less extended time off, and kept up my monetary value to promoters and record companies. Then again, I’m not sure I would have known how to juggle both lives back then.

I decided to stop because I wasn’t writing well. I spent the next five or six years studying other arts – things that wouldn’t require me to be front and center. Took ballet, which was good because I’m awful at it; it was healthy for me to do something I loved but would never be good at, just because I loved it. People tend to forget that art is not just for professionals; the purpose of art is to delight, to allow us to enjoy ourselves. That’s why I encourage people to play, just for the fun and satisfaction of it.

I took acting with Stella Adler, and script interpretation, which opened up new worlds to me as a songwriter. Did a lot of imagination exercises, a lot of body work, which gave me more confidence when I played. Ditto studying directing with Chao Shao Lin (Peking Opera Company) and Jose Quintero – that allowed me to see the stage from without, for the first time. Not as a performer, but as a director. It vastly improved my own stage show, even solo.

I “got myself back” by stepping outside my box; turned a right angle to everything I’d ever done, and went to Nashville to co-write. I probably learned more about songwriting in 6 months of co-writing here than I had in the previous 20+ years. And I began writing songs I loved, like “Some Peoples’ Lives”.

GN: While a lot of people are familiar with songs like “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen,” few people are aware of the incredibly humorous side of your writing, such as songs like “Boots Like Emmy Lou’s” and “Cosmopolitan Girl.” Does it delight you to perform songs like these? How do you react to your audience finding a whole new unexpected side of you that you always knew was there?

JI: I obviously enjoy performing humorous songs, in part because audiences don’t expect them. Flipping into something like “These Boots Were Made for Walking” as an encore puts a nice capper on the evening. And funny songs are very, very hard to write; you can’t settle for just one funny bit, it has to continue and build on itself, over and over again, until you reach the final funny bit.

GN: In the liner notes of your latest album, Janis Ian Live: Working Without A Net, you make some very poignant comments concerning “performing.” How did you develop this perspective?

JI: I guess it just came with the years. I really don’t know. I try to stay balanced; that’s about it!

GN: Speaking of performing, I also suspect that very few people are aware of what an incredibly talented guitarist you are!

JI: I think people (guitarists and guitar magazines included) tend to discount women, first, and acoustic players, second. I solo so outside the box, for an acoustic guitarist, that there’s really nowhere for me to fit.

GN: Was this always the case or have you been constantly working at getting better at the guitar?

JI: I took a quantum leap about 10 years ago, for two reasons: I injured my left hand and can no longer play piano, which forced me to spend more time with the guitar, and I began performing without a band, which forced me to take more solos.

GN: Do you feel it’s important for a songwriter to be fairly adept at her (or his) instrument of choice?

JI: I think it’s important to be able to play what you write, what you hear in your head. Beyond that, I think for young songwriters it’s actually dangerous to become too adept; you begin writing for the guitar part, not for the song. The song has to lead.

GN: From your very insightful articles on Internet downloads (which can be found at it seems that, although your position is justified, it is also at odds with the rest of the industry. Do you think more artists feel the way you do but might be afraid to offend the powers that be?

JI: I KNOW they do, because they tell me so. I’m also very encouraged by the emergence of iTunes and E-music, which I think is a huge step in the right direction.

GN: Do you think there is a way to get artists to pool their resources and force the labels to change their policies?

JI: Unfortunately, I don’t think so. There are always a dozen artists standing behind you, waiting for your slot, and we’re all aware of that. It would take someone of great, great dedication to organize a songwriter’s union, for instance, or a recording artist’s union that would solely deal with the problems of recording artists. I haven’t seen anyone like that emerge.

GN: What projects are you currently working on?

JI: Well, this year we created the live double CD, we just finished mastering and finalizing the artwork for the new studio album, and I co-edited a book of stories by famous science fiction writers based on my lyrics… so it was an intense year!

Right now we’re working on the annual holiday website sale, where we knock all the CD’s we can down to $5.00, and the proceeds go to charity.

In early January, we’ll be posting a massive effort we’re calling “The Making Of An Album”, which will walk fans through the creation of the new studio album. We’ll be putting online everything from draft versions of the songs – both written and in MP3 format – to rough mixes, studio chatter, and worktapes.

Then in February we leave on the road, and that’s pretty much where we’ll be for the rest of the year. We’re covering the US, Europe, and hopefully Japan next year.

GN: Finally (at least for now), how do you feel about bringing your new (or relatively new) songs to people? Everyone comes, I’m sure to hear “Jesse” and “Stars” and such, but you’ve got such great new songs on your albums like “Hunger” and “god & the fbi.” Are you pleased when people request the new songs as they do the older ones?

JI: I’m pleased by both. Honestly, I really am amazed that anyone at all would come to my shows. That they’d know some of the songs is just icing on the cake! And I’m old enough now to understand that over the past decades, I’ve created a nice body of work – so it doesn’t much matter to me any more whether the songs are new ones or old ones. They’re all my songs, after all.

1 Comment

  1. jean nesbitt
    April 17th, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    I first saw Janis when she & I were both 15. Funny, I can’t remember exactly what venue it was – I think it was in Boston – and having been writing songs myself, I was absolutely blown away with her songs and vocals and guitar performance. I remember thinking how much better her songs were than mine and aspiring right then and there to someday write as well as Janis!
    I still have my original Janis Ian album and Between the Lines. After that I kind of lost track of her and became interested again recently when I saw and played her Janis Ian Signature Santa Cruz parlor guitar. I would love to get one some day. Meanwhile over the years I’ve been writing songs and playing music myself. Now I’m concentrating on kids’ songs and kids’ music. I live north of Boston so Ogunquit would be the closest venue for me to see a performance. So Janis, I’ll look forward to seeing your show there in November. Can’t wait!! I love your “new” songs (all the ones I’ve missed since I got out of touch with your material way back when ) I have so much admiration for your songwriting & for all the things you’ve done in your life. You have contributed much to the music world.

    Jean Nesbitt