In high school in Australia, I had a very untypical English teacher. Mrs Pickering was about 4’11” (possibly shorter) and used to have to stand on a box to reach the top of the chalkboard. She was super-strict, and nobody dared say boo in her class. “Old School” had nothing on her. She was ancient school. But she taught well. We learned grammar and we learned why it was important. We learned to spell. We knew what we were getting with Mrs Pickering.
Then one day she came in and announced we were going to be disecting some popular songs. This was the 80s, so we hoped for Duran Duran, or Wham!, or even David Bowie. Instead, we got ‘The Boxer’, by Simon and Garfunkel, and ‘At Seventeen’, by Janis Ian. Much as I enjoyed ‘The Boxer’, it was ‘At Seventeen’ which touched me most deeply. It showed me that regardless of what I looked like, or whether or not I was popular, or whatever was deemed important then as a teenager…ugly ducklings were potential swans. I lived for the day when
‘Small town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due’.
Therefore, when I was offered the opportunity to speak to Janis Ian, I leapt at it. I felt (nervously) sick to the stomach at the prospect, but I knew I had to speak to this woman who had made such an impact on my teen years. I hope you enjoy our chat as much as I did.
JI: Hi this is Janis!
EP: Hello Janis! This is Lisa Hafey from Essentially Pop!
JI: Hey Lisa! How are you!
EP: I’m good! Thank you! I have to come straight out and say thank you so much for talking to us, your song, ‘At Seventeen’, was my go-to song as a teenager, and I’m sure you’ve heard this loads of times before.
JI: It’s a real miracle to me that that song has survived and continues to reach, it’s a cliché to say that, but it really is astonishing.
EP: We studied it in English class, would you believe!
JI: Really! One of my granddaughters texted me one day, she was so excited, she said “Oh my God, I had your song in my class!” and next time I visited I had to meet all her classmates.
EP: That’s insane! Do you feel like you’re living a dream, that this is not real? Because you’ve had such an incredible career…
JI: (laughs) No! Because I work really really hard! It never seems like a dream, some times it seems a little more nightmareish than others…I think I’ve been…I feel like I’m full of clichés right now, but I feel like I’ve been privileged to lead an extraordinary life.
EP: You’re so much more than just one song – you’re singer, songwriter, author, actor…I’ve been researching your career, and it’s been like falling down a rabbit hole, I’ll go down one way and come out another and it’s like HOW do you fit all that into one life!
JI: You probably know more about me than I do at this point! (both laugh)
EP: How did you start writing science fiction?
JI: It was the first thing I fell in love with as a reader. My father was a huge science fiction buff, I say quite often that to me, science fiction is the jazz of prose. It’s where the outcasts go. It’s the genre that welcomes new concepts. Once in a while we’ll have someone like Neil Gaiman, who’s a striking success, but mostly it’s people talking about faxes in the 60s or 70s, envisioning computers worldwide in the 50s. Things that if you read a lot of science fiction come as no surprise.
EP: I sometimes wonder if the people who end up inventing those things have grown up on science fiction anyway.
JI: A lot of them have. I know from the folks I know at ‘The Big Bang Theory’, most of those people grew up on science fiction. A lot of scientists grew up on science fiction.
EP: It’s a gateway into science isn’t it!
JI: It’s exactly a gateway! That’s perfectly fitting!
EP: I should actually speak to you about your music! You’ve got 22 studio albums and 17 compilation albums…
JI: Wait! 17 compilation albums?!!
EP: Apparently! According to Wikipedia you have!
JI: Well! There’s only a couple of them that would have been okayed by me! (both laugh)
EP: What’s the songwriting process like for you? Do you have to be in a particular frame of mind or location, or does it just come to you, you’ll write things down as you go? What inspires you?
JI: It really just depends on the circumstances, and like most writers, who won’t admit it, I write when I’m bored. I write to amuse myself, and I started writing because I thought it was a cool thing to do at the time, and that’s the reason I continued. There’s no rush like it, nothing that even comes close to comparing.
EP: ‘Society’s Child’ – you conceived of it when you were 13, wrote it when you were 14, released it when you were 15, how did a 13 year old come up with that concept, how did a 14 year old write that…
JI: That’s where you get into the concept of most artists, at least the ones I know, that they’re pretty humble about their talent. But who knows? How does it happen that you’re born with the ability to translate something like that into something that people will understand, and I think it’s as big a mystery to us as it is to anyone else.
EP: I’m happily a music lover rather than a music writer…
That song itself, ‘Society’s Child’, was very controversial at the time, but how did you cope, with your song being banned on the radio, with death threats in the mail, all those horrible things? What was going through your mind when all that was happening?
JI: I think the same thing as would any 15 year old – I think it’s the same way anyone that age deals with something terrifying, it’s that you ignore it. You do your best to ignore it, it leaves some lasting scars, you try to deal with it years later in therapy, and hope it all comes out well.
EP: You’re all over it now?
JI: I think that when you’ve been terrorised on stage, it’s not so much something you get over, as something you get through.
EP: It makes you a stronger person as well, if that’s a bit cliché too?
JI: I think life makes you strong. I don’t know that you have to go through that kind of trauma in order to be a strong person.
EP: You obviously had very encouraging parents who supported you through everything.
JI: I did, I was very fortunate.
EP: I’ve been reading about your guitar…
JI: Oh my Dad’s Martin!
EP: Yes! And oh I cried about how you got it back!
JI: Isn’t it incredible? I’m actually talking to the Smithsonian Museum about donating it as part of a future exhibit. It’s a pretty amazing story, and to me stories like that are part of what my wife calls my “fucking Pollyanna attitude”, that things come right in the end if you’ve got the faith, and if it’s right for them to come right.
EP: There’s a lot of truth in that – if you believe that things are going to have a happy ending, you will have a happy ending, because even if it’s not, you’ll find a happy ending in it anyway.
JI: Sometimes! Sometimes it’s harder to find the happiness in it. You know, all you can do is stay on the path and hope for the best! There’s not much choice.
EP: You’ve recently had 5 albums remastered, and they’re going to be re-released on the 25th May. Why those particular albums? Are they special to you? Why now?
JI: Well it’s a combination of circumstances. Sony UK really wanted the opportunity to re-release these, so after a year or so of bickering, I said, alright I’ll take less money for more control. And then they were bound and determined to let us get it right.
And so we picked the five albums together, along with Steve Berkowitz, who was the lead man in charge of it, that was part of what they’d agreed to, Steve was coming off a couple of Grammys for his work with Miles Davis, and then because it was Sony we had access to the original tapes, which I hadn’t had access to before, and then it seemed like a good time, they fact they were willing and had been willing to put in the time and money and effort necessary to do it right.
There’s so many re-releases right now where it’s BANG SLAP here’s a re-release, we’ve re-mastered it, somebody’s just thrown it up in the air and said ok tweak it, put it on automatic, let’s go to lunch. We didn’t do that. We took a full year. We re-created the artwork, and re-created the album, and remastered.
We brought Brooks Arthur in, the original producer, for his ears, there was a tremendous amount of back and forth, and note taking, and discussions, between Steve, and Brooks, and myself, and Mark the engineer. There were decisions like, do we want ‘Between The Lines’ to sound like it sounded when it first come out, in which case why not go out and buy a copy of it on vinyl, or did we want it to sound like it would have sounded, if Brooks and I had had access to this kind of technology we have now.
EP: That’s what I was going to say, it must have been really exciting to be able to do that…
JI: It’s enormous! It’s great!
EP: You’re revisiting these and the technology has changed so much in that time, and what was a clear crisp recording back then…
JI: But people still listen with their ears…people usually listen on fairly cheap systems, those things haven’t changed at all. And you have to keep that in mind when you’re doing a project like this, I know from my point of view that I was listening to things on a really good stereo system, I listened on great headphones, I listened on cheap earbuds, and I listened in my car, just to make sure that they would all sound right. I think you can get over-precious with this stuff, you can make yourself crazy.
EP: Well these are your children aren’t they…
JI: Well no! With all due respect there, these aren’t my children, they’re very far from my children, you get to raise your children, and then you get to watch them grow up…it’s a different process.
EP: So let’s talk about your musical instruments. You’re not just about guitars, you play piano too…
JI: That was my first instrument.
EP: I guess that’s where your parents would have realised your talent…because you picked it up straight away.
JI: it all goes back to respecting your talent. It’s one of those things that young artists are rarely taught, that you have to respect your talent. Very often, talent knows better than you do. You have to let it have its head and let it go ahead and educate you.
EP: What’s your favourite sort of guitar?
JI: I don’t have one. Just one that feels good to me.
EP: So what makes a guitar feel good to you?
JI: It’s a difficult thing to explain. If you don’t play…it’s like explaining colour to someone who can’t see. It’s like when you’re co-writing with somebody, when it’s right, everyone in the room knows it. You can’t explain why.
EP: it’s a sensory thing…
JI: It’s very sensory! That’s a good way to put it.
EP: You’ll be performing at the Cambridge Folk Festival in August. That’s really exciting! An exclusive, one off trip to the UK this year?
JI: Yep! I have two shows in Europe and four shows in America and that’s about it.
EP: Wow. Do you perform often these days, or is it just when you feel like it?
JI: I try and perform enough to keep my hand in, because when you don’t perform for a long time your timing tends to go, and once your timing goes, your control goes, and once that goes, there’s not much fun being on stage. But I think that I’m more interested right now in writing, and doing shows that I want to do. I’m in the fortunate position of not having to earn my living as a performer, and that’s a very rare and fortunate thing for someone of my level, and so I get to pick and choose what I want to do. And so when I was talking to my European agent Paul Fenn last year, he said Cambridge really really want you, and I said, well will they pay me what I think I should get? And he said, well no, they don’t have that kind of budget, but they really really would like you to come, and I thought about it, and I talked to some friends, and it’s been 10 or 15 years since I’ve done a solo gig in the UK, so I thought it would be a fun one to do. Then after that Paul said what about Holland, and I said, well I love Holland. That sold out in 36 hours, so that was a good choice – then after that I come home!
EP: That’s brilliant. So basically, if anyone from Europe wants to see you they have to either catch you at these two shows or in the States.
JI: Yeah! I don’t have any plans to radically change, I’m trying to concentrate more on writing, and working on songs for an album that I’m happy with.
EP: With over 50 years in music, you’ve seen plenty of changes. What advice do you have for those just starting out in the music industry?
JI: (laughs hard) TRUST NO ONE!!! That’s what I tell my students when I teach. If you think that your manager or your agent or your record company care more about you than their own lives and families than either you’re very stupid, or they are really crazy, because that’s not a healthy situation. You’ve got to trust to a point, but at the end of the day, what you’ve got as an artist is what will be with you when everyone else is gone. That’s your work. So you have to believe in the work, and have faith in it, and then if you think that the people around you are wrong, cut them off.
EP: Basically the only person who has your best interests at heart is you yourself…
JI: Sometimes you don’t know what those are. It’s important to listen, but there’s a point where you can’t listen anymore and you have to go full steam ahead and say this is what I believe is right for my work, and for me, and have done with it. I’m not big on the wishy washy school of artistry.
EP: Tell us about the Pearl Foundation.
JI: Well we formed it after my mother died, as a way to honour her memory. She went back to school in her 40s, she had multiple sclerosis, and I’m convinced that going back to school kept her alive. So we formed the foundation with the idea of providing scholarships for what we call here, “returning students”, older people. All the merchandise money that I raise at shows goes to that, we have people who send a cheque every month, we’ve just had our first person remember us in their will, and as of last year have given away over a million dollars in scholarships.
EP: That’s incredible!
JI: It is incredible! We endow scholarships in five different schools, and it’s hands off, because I never wanted to run the risk that we’d be tempted to give a scholarship to a friend or a family member. My partner and I do everything. It’s a lot of work, it’s tiring, and it’s a good thing to do.
EP: It’s tiring and a lot of work, but it’s rewarding.
JI: It is rewarding, and if you think that we’ve graduated now more than 60 people, that’s 60 people who might not have had the chance to go back to high school or college. That’s pretty incredible to us, our way of helping to improve the world.
EP: Even if it had only been one person, that would have been enough, because that’s one more person who has that chance.
JI: Yes! That’s what it’s about, again, it goes back to a respect for your talent, and understanding that you were born with a talent, so you owe something.
EP: It’s important to use the gifts that you are given, isn’t it. Okay! I have also seen, while I was preparing to speak to you, I kept getting distracted by things you’ve done, and I found on your Facebook page that you have Godzilla Haikus. What’s the story behind those? I really really love a haiku myself, it’s my favourite form of poetry, so I might send some in.
JI: I saw a haiku by a woman named Samurai Frog and it just tickled me, it was a brilliant haiku. And I went and looked it up on Tumblr, and there were a bunch of them, and I thought they would be fun. So I posted two or three of them, and I had a huge response, and I thought, that was great. At the time, someone on Facebook said, you probably can’t get 5000 followers…and I said oh? Right! And I just started having fun with it. And when Trump was elected I wrote an article, and I continued with the Godzilla haiku, and I suddenly had half a million dedicated followers. It’s a fun thing to do. It’s frustrating at times, but I’m talking with a science fiction artist, doing a book of monster haiku, and the California State Library would also like to do something, so it’s turned into something else. I think it’s really vital, for artists to have fun doing what they do, before the business end creeps in and eats us alive.
EP: And that’s the thing about being an artist as well – you’re not just a musician, you’re not just a writer – if you’re an artist, your creativity will explode in lots of different ways.
JI: What you have to be aware of, at the end of the day, if you’re making a living out of it, you’re a commodity. That’s the truth of it. For instance, I’m sure Adele has no clue who I am, but somebody like me watches the arc of her career and worries about it, and thinks, I wish I could talk to you, because I would tell you not to let them eat you alive. You watch other artists, and you think to yourself, everyone’s got their own definition of what success is. Mine turns out to be writing a great song. Some people their definition is to make a lot of money. It doesn’t really matter, but what matters is that you enjoy the ride.
EP: I have one last question, and that is: what question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does?
JI: (laughs) Can’t think of any! You know, I’m lucky that usually the people that I’ve worked with in the press have been very professional, and they’ve done their homework, I’m fortunate in that. Do I have any questions for myself? I sort of really know the answers, except, why was I born, and what am I doing here…I want to talk to God about elevator music and telephone trees! And mosquitos! I’d like an explanation for those too…
EP: I grew up in Australia, I want an explanation for those too!
JI: Haha you need an explanation for a whole lot more than just those over there!
EP: Thank you so so much Janis, it’s been a fulfilment of a teenage dream to actually speak to you!
JI: Aww thank you! What a lovely thing to say!
EP: I’ve liked you on Facebook and I’m going to send a Godzilla Haiku, thank you very much!
JI: It’s been a pleasure! Bye!
Janis’ albums, ‘Between The Lines’, ‘Stars’, ‘Aftertones’, ‘Miracle Row’, and ‘Night Rains’, can be pre-ordered now, and will be out on 25 May.
See here for more about Janis’s appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival on 5 August.