Janis Ian, five decades of her life on stage

1018
Janis Ian holding a guitar
Janis Ian photo by Gerard Viveiros

In front of audiences around the world, an icon to our community is ready to take her final bow in the spotlight

Janis Ian playing guitar on stage
Janis Ian photo by Peter Cunningham

Now on the road for her farewell tour, Janis Ian has also released the exquisite The Light at the End of the Line. Billed as her final album, it’s as strong and fully realized as any she has released over her storied career and quite possibly her best collection of songs to date. The portrait is one of an artist coming full circle, ready to deliver sage wisdom and take a few parting shots, prepared to embrace the future on her own terms, divorced from the machinations of the industry, out on a limb if she so wishes.

It is not a tearful goodbye but a joyful turn of the page from one chapter to another — a conscious choice to step away from the limelight and reclaim her private life and passions. In 2022, this seems practically a radical act, but anyone familiar with Ian shouldn’t be surprised she remains unbeholden to convention and prizes grit and substance over-sentimentality.

New Jersey-raised Ian has been a musician’s musician since she burst onto the scene like a thunderclap in her teens with the surprise hit single “Society’s Child,” a gutsy, trailblazing anti-racist ode that demanded listeners’ self-examination of their own prejudices and preconceptions as she wove the story of doomed interracial romance.

Considered a has-been by the time she was 18, she did the unthinkable, writing and recording yet another iconic song in her early 20s with “At Seventeen.” Easily the definitive song of female adolescence, it has been covered, referenced, and parodied more times than anyone — including Ian herself — can count. The stunning, often painful accuracy of her observations continues to touch listeners profoundly through the generations.

For a long time, Ian was widely accepted as being part of the LGBTQ community before formally coming out in the early ’90s. Speaking of her sexuality as something that is fluid and not easily simplified or categorized, she preceded the advances of public discourse well before her time, touching many who needed a voice like hers not only to touch their lives with her art but with the power of her candid, compassionate presence and example.

Today, she is happily married to the love of her life, Patricia Synder.

While she did not dominate the culture in the same way as some she came up with — Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, two friends from her early days, come to mind — she has quietly outlasted virtually all of them and lived to tell the tale.

As she observes on the opening track of her new album, “And I would not trade a line
Make it smooth and fine/Or pretend that time stands still/ I want to rest my soul/Here where it can grow without fear/Another line, another year/I’m still standing here.”

Ian took time out from her tour preparations to talk with me about her new music and reflect on her decision to retire as well as her cultural impact and legacy.

This will be your farewell tour, and you say The Light of the End of the Line is your final studio album. This is one of the best records of your career, and you’re still in demand on the road. What prompted you to draw the line in the sand after all these years?

Janis Ian: I think it was a combination of things [including] Covid. I had an exit plan for when I turned 70, and Covid pretty much upended that. I was going to spend the year before last and part of last year doing my last North American tour and do Japan, Europe, Australia, UK, all that, and clearly have done none of that, so this year we’re trying to fit essentially three years’ worth of touring in the United States and Canada into one year.

Yeah, the more I thought about it, the more I thought I’d really like to have some time in my life when I don’t have to be on e-mail, I don’t have to be on the phone, I don’t have to be a manager — which I suck at anyway — [where] I don’t have to do anything. I would like the opportunity to get bored. I cannot remember the last time I was bored!

All those things kind of came to a head, and I [also] decided I wasn’t gonna make an album unless it could match the caliber of my best work. And one day I looked up and went “Wow! I think I have ten or eleven songs that do that… What do I do now?!” [Laughs.]

So [engineer and percussionist) Randy [Leago] and I were already working on “Resist” …

That’s such a great song, by the way.

Janis Ian wearing glasses looking to her left smiling.
Janis Ian photo by Melissa Falen

JI: Thank you! We’re having trouble getting it played in New York, of all things. And then I called [bassist and pianist] Victor [Krauss] to talk about “Better Times” because he had been part of my Better Times Project, and then my friend Jeff Evans who archives a lot of my musical work, said, “Have you listened to ‘Nina’? How about ‘Summer In New York’? You sort of threw those down and forgot about them.” I listened to them and had sort of an embarrassing moment where I realized my first take is probably better than [deliberate work] on an album would be. [Laughs.] It all happened the way it was supposed to happen, and it’s a good time for me to step back and step down.

You know a lot of people don’t like hearing that.

JI: Well, I think that’s really nice, but I think writing is what I do best, and if I’m touring or making records, I don’t have time to write.

I love Nina Simone’s rendition of your song “Stars.” I can’t even imagine what it must have been like when you were still just a kid having someone that great think so highly of you. What inspired you to write a song about her [“Nina”] for this record?

JI: I played that little opening lick backstage for about a year, and that first line kept jumping out at me. I tried to make it about anybody but Nina because I knew how difficult it would be, but nothing else worked — I just kept coming back to those first two lines. I wanted to write something that would capture not just her glory but her impossibly difficult self [as well as] also acknowledge that she was crazy. That may not be a politically correct word right now, but she was “not right” as we say in the south.

Well, you can’t get all that genius without some darkness, right?

JI: Actually, I wouldn’t agree with that. I think it’s not that. I think Nina was biologically crazy and that in whatever issues she had, she mistook rage for power a lot of the time, and I think that’s a very dangerous slope for an artist — or anyone, for that matter.

With “Society’s Child,” you had a major hit right out the gate when you were 14, and as you say, you were considered a has-been before you were 18. You went from that to not charting at all to then charting even higher. You’ve had so many lives…

JI: [Laughs] Like a cat that won’t go away!

Like a cat! Exactly. It’s pretty clear that the life of a troubadour — or any artist, really — is not for the faint of heart. Many walk away from the business. You say in “Stars” that “Some are lost, and some are never found.” What do you think has sustained you after all this time?

JI: I don’t know. I really don’t. When I laugh about it, I say ‘just sheer stubbornness.’ But I think there are a lot of elements to it, including just a drive that you’re born with. I think there’s knowing there are people in your family who adore you and would stand by you. I think there’s good therapy. There are so many factors that go into what makes one person a phoenix and another succumb to the ashes.

I would like to think that my talent has something to do with it because I think that it’s a way to sustain yourself because you know that no matter what the IRS does, what anyone does, they can’t take that from you.

After all these years, “Society’s Child” remains sadly relevant. It seems like the same problems you detailed in that classic are still with us, just wearing different clothes. Has the song evolved for you as a performer?

JI: In one sense, it’s discouraging that the song is still relevant — I thought we’d do better by now, I truly did. More to the question of performing it, I had to learn how to sing it again when I put it back in my show. I didn’t sing it for decades because I was trying to escape the tag promoters kept putting on posters: “Little Janis Ian, Society’s Child — Here Live !!!” But then a group of Vietnam vets asked me to sing it, and I found out that while many stations here wouldn’t play it, Armed Forces Radio had it in heavy rotation, so I put it back in the show.

You’re an icon for so many in our community and you’ve seen it go through many changes, but you had to go through finding your place in it while growing up in the public eye. How did you survive that?

JI: Well, my [coming of age] came in stages like so many peoples’. I was always out to my family from the time I was 21 and fell in love with a woman for the first time. I was always out to my business associates. And this was also a time when if I had come out publicly, I wouldn’t have been allowed to work — morals clauses were still in effect [so] I wouldn’t have been played on radio or able to play clubs. So, it was an internal coming out. Then I fell in love with a man, which complicated things further! I said to my mother, “You always told me to only sleep with people I loved — you didn’t specify gender.”

When that was over, there was a [period where I wasn’t] in the public eye. When I met Pat, and it became clear that we were going to spend our lives together, it also became clear that to not acknowledge the relationship was to do her and the relationship a grave disservice. And she’s always had a wonderful attitude, which is ‘When everybody else makes a big deal about being heterosexual, I’ll make a big deal about being homosexual.’ But her attitude is also ‘Don’t tell me whose picture I can have on my desk!’ She’s much braver and bolder than I am.

Then I was going to come out, but Urvashi Vaid, who was then head of National Gay and lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), sat me down and asked me not to come out until I had an album to release. I said ‘I need to do this with Pat’ — this was ’91 maybe — and then she said ‘Here are the teenage suicide statistics. Look how many of them did this because they think they might be gay.’ They’re not even gay — they think they might be gay. And she said, “We really need people like you to get the maximum exposure, so wouldn’t it be great if a kid who was gay could say to their parent ‘Look, this person whose song “At Seventeen” you gave me is gay, too — I’m not crazy.'”

When she put it that way, I agreed, and as it turned out [my album] Breaking Silence came out right when Greg Louganis’ book Breaking the Silence came out, and then Melissa [Etheridge] and I and Greg and several other people all came out within months of each other, which I think was a great thing in the end, because it put a lot of focus on how varied we are, how normal we are in our day to day life, how this has not made any difference to what we did for you. Greg didn’t win his medals because he was gay, I didn’t write “At Seventeen” because I’m gay, and it didn’t take away from those [accomplishments] because we were gay. I feel like we all had some part to play in it.

It must have been a great feeling.

Janis Ian leaning on a guitar smiling into the camera
Janis Ian photo by Lloyd Baggs

JI: Well, it did get a little complicated because at the time, I desperately needed publicity, and a lot of the publicity offers were ‘We’ll put you and Pat on the cover of the magazine for being gay.’ And we made a very conscious decision that we did not want to be known as “that gay couple.” We’re normal. We’re regular. So we turned all of those down, and what’s funny is that most of those people who took those offers, who were on those magazines saying, ‘Here’s my lover, here’s my story,’ they’re broken up! [Chuckles]

“At Seventeen” is more than just your biggest hit. It’s a time capsule song about coming of age, and surely the definitive song about growing up female with its trials, tribulations, and ironies. Did you feel when you were writing it that you were on to something special, or did it surprise you that masses of people — including men — see themselves in the song?

JI: No, I knew. It was one of the few times in my life that I went, “Oh my God, this could be a hit record.” Everyone had been after me since “Society’s Child” to write another hit record, and that’s not my strength as a writer. Diane Warren does that amazingly well. Carole and Gerry Goffin, you know — but that’s not what I do. I actually called my manager and said, “I think I’ve just written a hit record for myself.” That it is a career song, as they say in the publishing community, is icing on the cake.

When I was preparing for this interview, I just happened to come across my Celine Dion shirt from her last Vegas show…

JI: Oh, I love that show! We saw her when she came to Nashville, yeah.

I noticed on the back of the shirt that “At Seventeen” is written there because it was part of her set list.

JI: That’s great that it’s on the shirt; I love that. I thought she did a fabulous job with it. She and Jann Arden, I think, are my two favorite versions. I just thought she did a stand-up version, and it was great because in the show, she used it as a bridge between the younger Celine Dion and her new persona.

Several of my gay friends told me to be sure to ask about your international disco hit “Fly Too High” which you wrote and recorded with Giorgio Moroder. You seem like such an unlikely duo, and yet the song was a success and is still fondly remembered. How did that collaboration come about?

JI: I loved working with Giorgio. I had two people I wanted to work with — Giorgio and Nile Rodgers. Nile Rodgers wasn’t available, and Giorgio was. I’m sorry I didn’t get to work with Rodgers because I think he’s brilliant.

Giorgio was great. He sent me two songs, and I went into the studio, and the whole New York movement with my friend Bruce Mailman and The Saint and the St. Marks Baths — that was all happening, and I thought, let me see if I can capture that. I really tried to capture it in the lyric. I sang it once; Giorgio said, “Great!” and I said, “Wait! I’m warming up — that’s not a vocal!”

I sang it again, and he said, “Thank you very much…I don’t need you anymore.” I said, “Giorgio, what about art?” and he looked at me, dead serious, and said, “Janis…once I did art. Now I make money.” [Chuckles] He was great to work with — professional through and through.

You were ahead of the curve when you started giving away free music downloads before digital music started dominating, and you received criticism before being proven right in your thinking because it led to more physical music sales, and these days vinyl has made a resurgence, which is great. These days, though, I wonder what you think about streaming…

JI: Oh, yeah, absolutely, streaming! Don’t get me started on streaming.

What are your thoughts when you think of the future of the music industry? Will it still exist?

JI: I think it’ll be one of two things. It’ll either become Facebook, which is chasing as hard as it can, or it will implode, and at some point, the government will step in and break up these huge conglomerates. I think we started going down the road to hell when the government failed to invoke RICO and whatever other laws that are in place and started allowing gigantic mergers to happen, and I think that that industrialization, if you will, and the placement of corporate executives who think they’re more important than the talent — which, I could make the argument that they are sometimes, but all of them think that now — I think that’s conspired to come close to destroying the business.

A stockholder in a major label has no idea how badly run that label maybe, because an artist like an Adele pulls that label out of the gutter of financial ruin. So long as that happens the stock stays high — the stockholders have no idea that label is in fact a wellspring of missed opportunities where no one responds, with stupid firings — just everything that can go wrong corporately. The music industry was always run on handshakes and knowing who to call, but that doesn’t exist anymore. That’s why you see record companies grabbing for every half a nickel they can get — even half a penny — and acceding to the demands of streaming companies because they see it as the only way to maintain the kind of numbers their stockholders came to expect.

I had this conversation with Walter Yetnikoff — bless his heart — decades ago when Thriller was so huge. I said, “Walter, these numbers are not real. These numbers will not continue with other artists. You have to recognize that and warn your stockholders this is not going to happen.” But instead what they’ve done is sold themselves down the river.

My hope is kind of that it implodes, but it’s hard to say with streaming. I’m not sure what will happen.

It seems like an illusion of choice.

Janis Ian sitting in a chair playing the guitar
Janis Ian photo by Gerard Viveiros

JI: I think that’s a good way to put it, and I think most people have no idea that — even with digital music — they’re not buying it, they’re renting it. Not unless they’re buying the CD or the vinyl. But on the other hand, artists have not traditionally made their livings from songwriting or record performances…we’ve made our livings on the road.

You’ve been able to outlast so many, including some who had much more radio play or media exposure but flared hot and burnt out. When you meet someone who seeks your advice and wants to follow in your footsteps, to try to make a go of writing or playing music for a living, what are some things you advise them?

JI: Well, three things.

First, trust no one. The subtext [of that] is don’t write anyone a blank check. If you meet a manager or agent who says, “I love you more than my own family,” run the other way because that person is either bonkers or a thief.

Second, listen to everyone, but trust your talent. It knows better than you do. Subtext — sometimes, another person does know you better than you do. But when that little alarm bell goes off, trust your talent.

[Third], don’t make it a contest. The only way you can fail is by comparing yourself to someone else. The real competition is you. If your next song is better than your last, if your next show is better than your show six months ago, you’ve won.

I think that’s it. Good question.

I will dispense with the classic question ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ because I think you already answer that with elegance and eloquence on the title track of your new album. I am curious, though, what you see when you look at that light.

JI: [Laughs] So tempting to say, ‘It’s so bright, I gotta wear shades…’

I’m trying very hard not to think past this tour. I’m looking forward to being bored, truthfully. I haven’t had time to be bored in decades, so it’ll be nice to pick up a guitar because I’m bored and want to amuse myself!

Janis Ian will grace the following stages in early May before retiring from the road:

May 1 – Newton (The Newton Theatre)
May 5 – Collingswood (Scottish Rite Auditorium)
May 6 – Ocean City (Music Pier)
May 7 – New York City (Adler Hall at NY Society for Ethical Culture)

For ticketing information, visit JanisIan.com.