Thursday, May 21, 2009

Music feature: Janis Ian, society's child at 58

Janis Ian is at ease with her past and her present.


By Hap Erstein

For so many Baby Boomers who grew up feeling like outsiders -- and isn’t that most of us? -- one voice of the generation was a 14-year-old folk troubadour named Janis Ian, who sang of forbidden interracial romance in Society’s Child, and then again a decade later with a ballad of teenage angst, At 17.

Now 58, Ian is scheduled to give two concerts at the Kravis Center on Saturday, returning once more to those early songs alongside her current compositions. Although she is now white-haired like much of her audience, Ian scoffs at the idea of trying to express what others were, or are, going through.

“I don’t think you ever write or record thinking you’re speaking for anyone but yourself,” she says by telephone from an earlier tour stop. “Not if you have any sense. I really wrote thinking that it pretty much applied to me.”

Unlike other performers who resent the obligation of having to sing their hits from long ago, Ian is at ease with looking back in time. “I don’t know that I can recall those feelings of that girl, but I certainly have plenty of feelings about it,” she says evenly. “And I’ve been fortunate that everything I’ve written, be it Society’s Child, Jesse or whatever, are songs that I still like performing. That makes it a lot easier.

“Performers who don’t do their early work or don’t do their hits, that’s pretty much a rip,” Ian emphasizes. “So I’ll be doing both, a combination of newer stuff and older stuff. Trying to make the audience happy and keep myself happy, too.

“I think for myself today, something like I Hear You Sing Again, about the passing of a parent and the sudden realization that you’re an orphan is much more relevant.”

Asked if she is working on a song called At 58, Ian responds, “I wouldn’t even touch that one. Once you’ve written something like that, it’s done, that’s it. I don’t mean to sound at all precious, but it would be a sad thing if all I could find to write about was to rewrite my old songs.”

Not that the thought has not occurred to others. “In fact, I got an e-mail from somebody who wants to write At 58, and is positive that it will make our fortunes,” Ian laughs ruefully. “And I said, y’know, it’s done, the song is what it is.”

Ian is writing new songs now, but there was a time in the 1980s and early ‘90s where she stepped away from the limelight, ceasing to perform or record. “I really needed to take some time to myself and find out whether I’d ever be a good writer, find out whether it had all been just a fluke,” she explains. “To find my own voice as a writer and a singer. Those are all things that most people who start in their 20s have had a decade or more to do, that I really didn’t have time to do.

“If you have success, everything you do is in a goldfish bowl.”

Her breakthrough, that allowed her to be at ease again with her work came when she wrote Stars and Jesse, “and decided that I was probably actually a writer,” Ian says. “The earlier stuff was fine, I just wanted to write a good song every time I wrote.”

When it is suggested that she is probably as hard on herself as anyone, Ian readily agrees. “I would hope so, because nobody else is going to know my work as well. It would be scary if I wasn’t my harshest critic.”

Janis Ian, in 1969.

Unlike other socially committed writers, Ian managed to avoid angry political songs during the recent Bush years. “I was always political, so that was no different,” she says. “Angry? I would hate to think the anger would creep into my music, because it just doesn’t do much good to be angry in a song. Unless you use it for effect onstage, it’s really going to work against you.”

Besides, she has lived through bad presidents before. “If you look at Bush and then look at Nixon, anybody who went through their formative years during Nixon is already going to be very skeptical of politicians, pretty much not believe what politicians say anyway.”

So, no, Ian does not allow herself to embrace the feeling of hope over the victory of Barack Obama. “I feel a sense of relief that Bush is not in office,” she concedes. “But I would be very leery of ever appearing to endorse a politician. That’s not my place. Other singers take that place. I try to avoid it.”

Ian is enjoying an added resurgence of popularity based on the publication of her autobiography, Society’s Child, due out in paperback in August. She has received an avalanche of e-mails from readers, and she tries to answer all of it. “A lot of it is how they’ve been through something similar to something in the book and they’re glad to hear that doesn’t mean their life is over,” she notes.

The hate mail she received at the start of her career has largely subsided. “It’s pretty rare now,” she says. “Once in a while there’s an idiot, e-mail has made it so easy to write to people and blow off steam. I would probably get more if I was busy being controversial, but really there’s nothing that I’ll ever do that’s as controversial as (the song) Society’s Child.”

At 58, Janis Ian seems at ease, happy to be on the road, singing her songs. “I’m a really good performer,” she says with pride. “There’s not a lot of really good performers out there, but I’m one of them.”

JANIS IAN, Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach., Saturday, May 23, at 5 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $35. Contact: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.

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