Janis Ian returns to her roots

  • by John R. Killacky
  • Tuesday February 28, 2006
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Forty years ago, a preternaturally gifted 14-year-old walked into pop music producer Shadow Morton's office and got a record deal. A week later, Janis Ian was in the studio recording "Society's Child," a folk ballad about interracial dating. A year later, the 15-year-old was touring the country with the controversial hit song. One radio station in Atlanta was burned down, and disc jockeys were fired for playing it. Two albums followed. But by the end of the 1960s, Verve Forecast dropped her from the label, feeling their child prodigy was washed up.

After living in Philadelphia for three years with "lots of therapy," Ian returned at 21 with an album entitled Stars, and suddenly everyone wanted to cover her new material. Barbara Cook sang the title song in her comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Cher used the song as the title track for an album. Roberta Flack had enormous success with another song, "Jesse."

Ian's next album Between the Lines was nominated for five Grammy awards (winning two) and featured the iconic lament of teen insecurity, "At Seventeen." In Japan, her album Aftertones was #1 for six months, and a disco collaboration with Giorgio Moroder went platinum throughout Europe, Africa, and Australia. She received her seventh Grammy nomination for a jazz duet with Mel Torme. Life was good in the 1970s. Billy Joel opened for her on the road.

Janis Ian left the music business for a second time in 1983 because "I thought I had enough money, and I didn't have to worry again. I was married at the time to a man, and I wanted to have children, and then it turned out that I couldn't have children. Then it turned out that all my money was gone," stolen by an unscrupulous accountant. Her marriage ended, two emergency surgeries followed, and "I looked up in 1986 owing the Feds $1.3 million, and no way to make a living for a couple of years because I was ill."

She moved to Nashville in 1988 "penniless, in debt, and hungry to write," and worked on co-writing songs for others to cover. "I had to make a living. I had no recourse, and I signed a publishing contract with MCA." The man who was heading the company "thought if he could put together my depth with another writer's commerciality, he mighty get something very interesting."

Immediately she felt welcomed. "My foot hit the tarmac, and I thought I'm home. The songwriting community didn't look at what I was doing now; they looked at what I had done. They still are like that. They look at the body of your work, not your current status." Amy Grant, Kathy Mattea, John Mellencamp, Bette Midler, and others recorded these new songs. Ian also met her female partner (of now 17 years), who is a lawyer.

In 1992, they took out a second mortgage on their home to finance another comeback record, in the third chapter of this amazing career. Breaking Silence garnered Ian a ninth Grammy nomination, and she has been recording, performing, and touring ever since. In 2004, she did 112 US dates, 40 in Europe, and 14 in Asia and Australia, consistently selling out 500-seat halls night after night.

Lesbian icon

Over the years, Ian also became more political, evolving into a lesbian icon as she wrote a monthly column for The Advocate for five years, married her partner Pat in Toronto in 2002 with a wedding announcement in The New York Times, and headlined Pride festivals around the country, including San Francisco.

She will soon be hitting the road again in support of her latest album, Folk is the New Black. In this, her 24th disc, the veteran songwriter delivers an exquisite collection of diverse songs, ranging from the political to ethereal, humorous to poignant. The queer-friendly opening cut "Danger Danger" wonders why sex is such a flashpoint ("We're gonna ban Walt Whitman, and Jean Cocteau/All the queers will have to go/Mr. Tennessee Williams, Plato, too.")

Her politics are clear in "The Great Divide" ("While politicians lie and cheat to get to higher ground/we follow them like sheep, and salute them as we drown"), and she delivers one of her best love songs in "All Those Promises" ("All those promises that you made me from the start/were filled with emptiness from the desert of your heart.") This one should become a cabaret staple once other singers hear this power ballad.

The most resonant works on the album are sparsely arranged character studies detailing a women killed on an expressway, another still waiting 40 years later for a boy to return from Viet Nam, or a man drowning "for a dream/whose heart is engraved/On the rocks and the reefs/of my watery grave." In these, Janis Ian once again reminds us how gifted she is as a singer and songwriter.

In talking about the new release, she has this to say. "I had a great time doing this album because I was determined that it was going to be kept simple. It was just me and two other musicians. We set up the studio like it was the 60s, put baffles in front of ourselves, and sat facing each other in a room. Cut everything live, did the whole album with the vocals live in three days. So I think there is immediacy to the album that's what I strive for on stage. With Folk is the New Black, I wanted emphasis on the songs, not on me and not on the production, because at the end of the day, I serve the song. I mean, that's my job."

In returning to the essentials of her folk roots, Janis Ian delivers another bravura album, yet another beautifully realized one in an extraordinary career. The sumptuous Folk is the New Black will be enjoyed by her devotees, and deserves to be heard by a third generation of fans.