Janis Ian: Echoes of Endurance and Evolution


Janis Ian can fan the fires of controversy, beginning with “Society’s Child,” (recorded when she was 15 and released three times from 1965-67) her song about an interracial teen romance. Decades later, writing about the Internet in Performing Songwriter, she noted, “As to artists being ‘marginalized out of our business,’ the only people being marginalized out are the employees of our Enron-minded record companies, who are being fired in droves because the higher-ups are incompetent.”

With more lives than an indestructible cat, Ian, 61, is celebrating her fifth decade as a songwriter and a recording artist with a Grammy nomination in the Spoken Word category for her self-narrated title, Society’s Child: My Autobiography, competing with Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Ellen Deg-eneres and Rachel Maddow. “It sounds like the beginning of a joke,” laughs Ian, “an ex-president, a first lady and three lesbians walk into a bar…”

Ian has called Nashville home since 1986. “It’s where the songwriters are. The town has been good to me and good for me. They gave me a home when no one else wanted me.”

Ian’s book illustrates fame, catastrophic illnesses, horrific business practices, economic meltdowns and tangled relationships. Particularly telling is how—despite massive hits like  “At 17” and “Stars” and with songs recorded by artists including Cher, Bette Midler and Roberta Flack (“Jesse”)—the music industry dealt with her.

“I remember when it was business and not an industry,” says Ian. “With all the demographics and number crunching we forget that the consumer is what matters. Why is Taylor Swift doing so well? She’s changed the face of music, songwriting and guitar playing for girls worldwide to astonishing effect. There is an authenticity there.”

Ian grew up in New York and New Jersey with parents who were frequently under FBI surveillance for their left wing politics. On her inaugural trip to California, concert audiences in Encino greeted the creator of “Society's Child”—her song about interracial dating—with chants of “Nigger-lover,” while a radio station in Atlanta that dared to play the song was burned to the ground.

Romantic dramas, and Ian’s coming out as a lesbian, are key components in her book’s narrative as is her marriage to an abusive Portuguese film-maker. “It’s a sucking in process, but I had no experience in dealing with that. The flip side was that he could be absolutely marvelous.”

To record the 10 CDs that comprise her autobiography, Ian went into the closet, literally. “I sat in a tiny room with a guitar and a microphone, and the book laid out in front of me so I could do two pages at a time. I was conscious that since I didn’t have music as a prop it had to be the flavor of the moment and the time of the book.” Throughout the narration, she drops in pieces of songs to illustrate her dialogue. The artist, who will be traveling to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards, laments that she doesn’t have a new release. She says it reminds her of the Internet article. “It’s so typical that I would accidently have this huge article that is quoted in USA Today and in The New York Times and I don’t have another album coming out. The Grammy is like that. It’s my fate.”

She remains enthralled by the art of songwriting. “I have a song I’ve almost finished called ‘The Dark Side of the Sun.’ It’s Lucifer talking about how much he misses heaven. I think I’m on page 40. It has been draft after draft to try to get three verses and a bridge to say exactly what I need to say, no more or no less.” Ian continues, “The older you get, the more different directions you can take it in. The more you know, the more choices you have, and you’ve got to try a lot of them to find out what’s right or wrong. It’s very frustrating; at this age and with this experience they should just trip off of my tongue. I should be writing ‘Jesse’ and ‘At 17.’ But that’s not how it works.”

Contact Jo-Ann Geffen, JAG Entertainment, 818-905-5511