Janis Ian, at 52, is now a little more than three times the age she sang about so memorably in “At Seventeen,” a melancholy ode to “those of us with ravaged faces [and] lacking in the social graces” that brought the singer seemingly overnight success—for the second time in her career—in 1975. Ian’s profile hasn’t been quite as high since then, but the multiple Grammy winner has stayed creatively active since emerging from a period of musical semi-retirement lasting from 1982 to 1986. Among her many pursuits, she frequently writes about the recording industry—about which she claims it was “ignoble” for an artist to know too much when she scored a hit with “Society’s Child” in 1967—with the lynx-eyed acuity of someone who, as she says, has been “through the mill.”
And, of course, she’s still writing new music: God and the FBI, released in 2000 on the Windham Hill label, is her 17th album. We caught up with Janis Ian last week at her home in Nashville.
I really enjoyed your article about Napster in Performing Songwriter. As, by the way, I’ve enjoyed reading your column for The Advocate. Is there some sort of artistic itch that writing scratches for you that songwriting doesn’t?
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that all art is exactly the same. It’s all coming from the same place, all part of the same moment...oh, God, you get into such wispy, gauzy stuff when you talk about this. I don’t know how to explain it any better than to say it’s all part of the same moment in time. I make a little snapshot of a specific time, a specific event, and it’s the same whether I’m giving a speech or writing an article or making an album or writing a song. The inherent place it comes from and the inherent rules that you have to obey—and the rules that you shouldn’t obey—stay pretty much the same.
In the early ’80s, it seems like you were undergoing a crisis of confidence in your own capacity to produce the kind of art that you wanted to produce...
Well, I also wanted to do something that wasn’t what I’d been doing since I was 14. I thought it was important for me to learn some different forms, and you really can’t do that when you’re on the road nine months of the year. I studied acting, I studied dance, I studied directing, I just studied a ton of different things. It left me able to come back to music with some fresh eyes, and I think that’s really important. The hardest thing in this business is to keep your edge, to make sure you’re not just turning into a caricature of yourself.
But an artist can feel like he or she is keeping that edge...
...when they’re actually producing crap?
Yes, but even if they’re producing stuff that’s reasonably good—and this seems especially true of artists who are known for just one or two big hits—just the fact that they’ve stuck around might make it seem to some people like they’re outstaying their welcome or outliving their usefulness.
[Laughter] I know what you mean. I think it’s also the times. Careers are a lot shorter than they used to be. We expect a lot more. We pay a much higher price for concerts and CDs, and consequently we demand more, and if you don’t keep up with the demand, well...
But also, no matter what you do, you’re going to get older, and there are aspects of pop music particularly that don’t really work when you’re older. It smells fake. It doesn’t mean it’s not still good or that the artist isn’t doing the best work of his or her life, but it’s valid for a different audience. For instance, any artist my age who expects to have an audience of mostly 20-year-olds most of the time has either got to do what Madonna does and keep cranking out hits or they’re sadly deluded.
Have you ever felt that you were doomed to live out the rest of your musical life in the shadow of “At Seventeen”?
It’s not a bad shadow!
Absolutely not. By the same token, you’re always working on new songs, and do you really want people screaming for the same two over and over for the rest of your life?
That’s just the nature of the beast. You can’t blame an audience for wanting to hear what they paid for. Money’s tight, you know? It sounds pretty Pollyannaish, but to me, if they’re going to put that money in my pocket that took them a while to earn, I have an obligation to them to make sure they don’t go away disappointed. That, for me, is a very valid reason to sing “At Seventeen” every night.
Do you ever have a hard time relating emotionally to a song you wrote thirty years ago and have played thirty billion times?
No, but I think I’m lucky, in that the songs that I wrote that were hits were reasonably good songs. There’s nothing in them to be embarrassed about. I can think of other songs I’ve written that I’m very grateful weren’t hits because I wouldn’t want to still be singing them.
Do you ever have people yelling for “Fly Too High” [early ’80s disco hit featured in the Jodie Foster movie Foxes]?
Oh yeah. Here and there, mostly in Europe.
Disco has a life of its own in Europe.
Yeah. Pretty scary.