Janis Ian penned her first hit at age 14 with “Society’s Child,” a song about racial injustice, and has been creating poetic, well-crafted songs for more than five decades since then. In and out of the limelight, her creative spark has endured. And now she has shared her truths at 70 in her latest and, she says, last solo studio album, the bold and nuanced The Light at the End of the Line.
She says the impressive and intimate album, released in January on her own Rude Girl Records label, serves as her “mission statement.” Her voice remains warm, clear and elegant, despite many years of performing.
She spoke with me as she prepared to kick off her final North American tour. It will include several dates in New Jersey and New York: The Newton Theatre, May 1; The Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, May 5; The Ocean City Music Pier, May 6; Adler Hall at The New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan, May 7; and The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead, N.Y., May 8.
Born in New York and primarily raised in New Jersey, Ian has given voice to many of us who have been unable to express our experiences as bravely and honestly as she has. In addition to “Society’s Child,” many of her songs — including “At Seventeen,” “Jesse” and “Stars” — reflect the changes this country has experienced since the late 1960s, and remain remarkably relevant today.
We recognize ourselves in her songs and feel release when she sings of taboo or painful subjects, including incest, the Holocaust, sexual violence, spousal abuse and racial injustice. When I sit alone with her music, I need Kleenex nearby, since her songs frequently hit evocative emotional chords.
Gracious and relaxed, Ian spoke openly with me from her home in Florida about her life, and winding down her recording and touring career, which she describes more as “rewiring” than “retiring.”
I asked if she has thought about the impact her songs have had on her followers.
“I don’t think about it,” she said. “I really don’t.
“I think it’s amazing to be able to live a life where you get to do your work and make a living out of it without hurting anybody. To think that it’s helped some people, that’s icing on the cake.”
Her new The Light at the End of the Line “says everything that I ever wanted to say and hadn’t said, plus some,” she said. “It’s a love letter. I say that knowing that it sounds clichéd and pollyannaish … Throughout the album, if there’s a theme, it’s about acceptance. And tolerance without bullshit.”
She opens the album with the defiant “I’m Still Standing” (listen below), a response to anyone who has questioned her creative output over the years. It also resonates for people who proudly contemplate all the hurdles they have overcome in their lives.
She said the song’s essential message is “stop asking me if I’m still making music just because I’m not on your TV,” but that it “grew to mean more.”
See these lines on my face?
They’re a map of where I’ve been
And the deeper they are traced, the deeper life has settled in
How do we survive living out our lives?
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
“That was really the impetus for it, but it turned into something bigger,” she said. “It turned into, ‘Don’t you see that this is a map? If you don’t see that this is a map, then I can’t really help you.’ ”
I mentioned that several songs on the album have the word “disappearing” in them, or the theme of invisibility.
“It’s true,” she said. “I used to use water and dancing all the time. Interesting.
“I wrote it to be about people my age … and the first time that I sang it for other people, I sang it to a 19- and 20-year-old couple that I was writing with. As songwriters do, we got together for the first time and sang each other new material showing what we had been doing, and the girl started crying. I was genuinely befuddled and looked at her and said, ‘What could you possibly relate to in this song?’ And she said, ‘That is my life. That’s the story of my life.’
“And I thought, ‘Yeah, I discounted how much pressure there is on someone that age.’
“I have a friend who is one of the better and more famous artists in her country who is devastated that she just turned 40 and hadn’t yet broken through into the United States and now (she thinks) she is too old. I didn’t realize the song spoke to those people, too. And transgender people have said to me, ‘That song really hit me hard because you talk about things like bruises and scars being the map of your life.’
“It’s fascinating to me when you strive for the universal and you manage to hit it once in a while.”
We discussed the invisibility of older women in some circles of society, and the negative way some people react to a woman with gray hair. “Graying women often become invisible; the minute I let my hair go white, everything changed,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I picked this album cover. I love that picture.”
Her album cover (see above) features a photo, taken by Niall Fennessy, of Ian with incandescent eyes and gray hair. “He snapped it literally as I was leaving a gig,” she said. “It’s the one photo he got and he sent it to me and I had it framed and it’s followed us around from Nashville to our home here. I always looked at it and thought it’s a great album cover because that’s a true album cover.
“When it came time for this album, the idea was, put me now on the front, put me then on the back, put me in the middle in the middle.”
When I first heard “I’m Still Standing,” I thought of all that Ian has experienced since she was a girl, which is described in detail in her 2008 autobiography, “Society’s Child: My Autobiography.” It’s one of the most riveting and well-written autobiographies by a musician that I’ve ever read, starting with its dramatic opening line, “I was born into the crack that split America.”
Born Janis Eddy Fink to Jewish parents — Victor a music teacher and Pearl an academic fundraiser who ran a progressive summer camp in upstate New York — Ian grew up under FBI surveillance due to their political beliefs (in her bluesy 2000 song “God & the FBI,” she sang, “Mama’s makin’ mimeos/Pete’s on the stereo singin’ ’bout freedom/Bugs in the bedroom/Big investigation, danger to the nation/Search and seizure/Better buy a lawyer”).
She recounts, in the book, sexual abuse by her dentist as a young girl, violent threats to her and her family after releasing “Society’s Child,” marriage to an abusive husband, betrayal by a business associate who failed to file taxes and another who stole money, and medical issues. She also finds remarkable success with two award-winning albums while still in her 20s, her debut 1967 self-titled album and 1975’s Between the Lines.
While “I’m Still Standing” suggests overcoming adversity, her perspective is filled with gratitude.
“There are a lot of people who have it a lot harder … people whose fathers are at them every night, people who don’t have food,” she said. “In a lot of respects what I was going through, the times were going through. In a lot of respects, it was a lot easier than many people had it. But it was my life and so, for me, it was pretty hard.
“It took years of therapy … but from my point of view, I look at it and I say, ‘Who won?’ I’m still standing. I had hit records. In many respects I live a charmed life.”
Her life does seem settled and happy. She mentions with affection her wife Pat Snyder and their grandchildren. On their wedding day, she wrote in her biography, they chose the following passage for their minister to read:
Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter to the other
Now you will feel no cold, for each of you shall be warmth to the other
Following “I’m Still Standing” on the new album is “Resist” (listen below), an anthem that calls for action against political and cultural inequities. Ian sings with horns ablaze and energized electric guitar and then, towards the end of the song, says as spoken word:
I know it’s hard to believe when they’re yelling in your ear
And it’s the only voice you’re able to hear
But you raise up your fist and you learn to resist
And you say, “I will not disappear”
She said spoken word was the only way to say what she had to say at the end of the song and recalled the influence of Ken Nordine, who performed word jazz during the peak of the Beat Era.
Her lyrics artfully describe the injustice of genital mutilation, inequality in the workplace, scrutinizing women’s bodies, appearance and behavior (“She is too short, too fat, too skinny/Too tall, too plain, too pretty/Too hot, too wet, too sticky/Too picky”).
“This (‘Resist’) is what ‘At Seventeen’ should grow into,” she said. “I wasn’t capable of writing it at that age. I didn’t have the craft.
“If you look at it as a songwriter, it’s a very complicated song. It has no center. It’s all center and yet none of it is center. It has no theme that defines it lyrically until the very end. It’s musically very complicated.”
The song’s subject matter made her uncomfortable, she said. “It was difficult to find words that resonated with me that said what I wanted to say and then work through my own discomfort.
“So writing, ‘Carve out between her legs so she can’t come’ … that was days of trying to find something else that would describe that … and in the end what I came to, because my talent kept going back to that, was, ‘No, this is a slap-in-the-face moment and this needs to slap somebody in the face so I don’t want to be pretty with it.’ But then there’s the balance because I don’t have a not-pretty voice. I can’t do Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Broken English,’ I can’t do Pink, I can’t do (Janis) Joplin. I have a pretty, cultured elegant voice.”
Her goal was to find a way that would be “authentic” to her voice “as a writer and as a singer and as a player,” she said. And I believe she succeeded with her powerful, direct delivery.
“The cool thing is that when I did it in its final form at the Cambridge Folk Festival, the kids in the audience rushed the stage,” she said.
There were a lot of men at the event and she found that encouraging. “What they need is to teach each other,” she said. “It’s not gonna work if we don’t all do it.”
I asked her about her experience growing up in a male-dominated industry. “I said what I wanted to say in ‘Resist,’ ” she said. “I have been very lucky that I started so young. I bypassed a lot of it. I never put out a lot of sexuality.”
Deeply influenced by her acting teacher Stella Adler, Ian followed her advice.
“She always said there were three things you couldn’t ‘play’: You couldn’t play young, you couldn’t play sexy and you couldn’t play talented,” Ian said. “You were or you weren’t. I’m not sexy, never have been, never cared about it. Cute maybe. But not sexy.
“In a way, that’s a saving grace because I never put out that I was available. And I don’t say it’s a woman’s fault, but I also think that because of my talent, any real professional reacts to the talent, not to the person.”
Her other songs on the album also have an intense delivery, as piercingly honest as when she began her career as a teenager in Greenwich Village.
There is a lot of love on this album expressed to people in her world. “Wherever Good Dreams Go” — a dreamy, melancholy track about grief — “is a love letter to my friends who lost a child and anyone who has lost a child,” she said. She sings: “People think I’m crazy to be holding on so long, but how can I get over you when you’re not really gone?”
She describes the pensive and beautiful “Perfect Little Girl” as “a love letter to my friends whose kids grew up as girls and now they are boys.” She sings, “Pretend that you’re a girl for the rest of your life/Pretend it for the world, though you know it isn’t right”
She expresses optimism in the line, “Like a redbird finds the spring, you will find your season, too, ‘cause there’s a scared place inside and it’s a place you just can’t hide.”
“I wrote it after an acquaintance, who is a songwriter, transitioned from female to male and did a one-man show,” she said. “One of the things he said was that he woke up one morning and suddenly realized that he would never wake up in the right body. He would wake up and be in the wrong body. And I don’t know why that hit me so hard, but there’s a silly parable in my life where I woke up about 10 or 20 years ago and realized that I was too old now for Peter Pan to ever come and get me. And it was weirdly devasting. No Mary Poppins, no Peter Pan, I’m too old. I’ll never get to be a kid again.”
We discussed societal changes and the enduring relevance of her songs, decades after she wrote them, including the resonance of “At Seventeen” for teens susceptible to the misery that accompanies flipping past postings of perfectly curated lives on social media.
She said that it’s great in some ways that her songs are current. “But I think it’s really sad that ‘Society’s Child’ is still so relevant. It’s really discouraging,” she said.
I’ve played “Resist” to several family members in their 20s and it struck a positive chord. “I’m glad that ‘Resist’ is relevant to young people,” she said, adding that “one of the encouraging things is that the album is placing Top 10 in a lot of the college radio stations and I think that’s amazing.”
“Nina” (listen below), a thoughtful, compelling song with evocative piano, is a tribute to singer-songwriter, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who deeply influenced Ian, and later covered Ian’s “Stars.”
“When I was growing up, there was no other woman doing all the things I wanted to do: lead the band, play the main instrument, arrange the song, sing them, perform them, record them. Nina Simone was the only female role model I had for those things,” Ian said on her Instagram account.
Nina, I can see your face,
Caught up in the song’s embrace
Alphabets of lightning falling from your lips
Raining on your fingertips
Any fool could see, you were always meant to be
Miracles in the moonlight, worshipped from afar
Burning like a falling star.
“I first met her when I was 15 or 16,” Ian said. “I knew her through the years. I wish I understood then what I understand now about how ill she was.
“I wish I’d responded when one of her flunkies called me to say she wanted to speak with me and I said, ‘Nina can pick up the phone and call herself.’ But she was so hard and so difficult, and yet she was incandescent. I’ve never seen the likes of it onstage. Ever. If I reach a tenth of that onstage during a show, I’d be very happy. She was a great writer.”
Simone’s anger was palpable. In her song, Ian says Simone is “Crazy as a loon/In your own cartoon/What a world those eyes must see.”
“It’s a dangerous thing to work from anger because you have the delusion that it’s power and yet it’s not power,” Ian said.
“Anger is ephemeral. It doesn’t really give you power. It’s like if you are a dictator and you kill people, it gives you power. But that’s not real power … It’s an illusion. Certainly, those people would say they had power. Real power is Charles Dickens. He changed a country.”
I asked her to explain why Simone captivated her. “There are certain performers, certain people who at moments have a Klieg light shining out from within,” she said. “I’ve seen it very rarely. Baez, Frank Sinatra. I watched Sinatra, when Sarah Vaughan introduced me to him, go from looking like just a guy who was famous to, ‘That was Frank Sinatra.’ It’s like a light gets turned on. Elvis could do it, too.
“Nina could do it in a different way. It wasn’t her face that shone that way. It was her whole presentation. The voice, the hands, the movement, the attitude, everything.
“What I learned from Nina was as much what not to be as what to be.”
I asked what she meant by that. She said she learned “not to be abusive — not to the audience, not to the musicians. Not to let it carry away with me. Not to work from anger. Not to mistake rage for power.”
We talked about the peculiar circumstances surrounding stardom, when celebrities are catered to, and how that distorts social relations. “It’s dangerous, and part of your job is to try not be changed by it,” she said. “And that’s next to impossible sometimes.”
I asked if Jimi Hendrix, whom she met as a youngster, influenced her. “No,” she said, “I’d have to go back to when I was a kid. Pete Seeger was a huge influence … Baez was a huge influence emotionally as well as musically. I mean, I’m a clean guitarist because of Joan’s records. I play very clean guitar. It’s not sloppy.”
I asked her who else influenced her and she replied emphatically: “Stella, Stella, Stella, Stella.
“As a writer, Dylan, the Beatles. Going back, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein, certainly, Rodgers & Hart. Odetta was great. If Odetta did anything for all of us, it was to make us aware that we could all be better.
“Leonard Cohen is the mark. He’s the mark you try to reach. He’s an astonishing writer. He’s brevity, melody, everything. He and Dylan are the two marks that I try to reach, contemporary with me and my life.
“If I had to go back further, I’d say Brecht and Weill and the Gershwins. In my lifetime, Dylan and Leonard are the two. Dylan moved the form forward. He changed the form. And the Beatles. Lennon & McCartney. They and Dylan changed the form. Leonard then took the form and owned it.”
Though she never got to meet the Beatles, she said that Paul McCartney “used to call in and request my albums, so that’s a nice thing. Leonard was always very supportive and very kind to me. Dylan, I only met once. And he said lovely things about ‘Stars.’ ”
Ian ruminates about her days in New York in her jazz-drenched song, “Summer in New York,” on The Light at the End of the Line. With lyrics that create strong images of New York and Randy Leago’s evocative clarinet, she paints a picture of summer in the city, reminding us of jazz in Central Park, the Strand bookstore, and rooftop romance.
I asked Ian if she missed her early days in New York. “Sure, but I’m not sure how much I miss the New York that was,” she said. “So, I don’t know. And New York is still fast. You get a little older and you want it a little slower.”
In the album’s moving title track (listen below), a farewell lullaby to her fans, she recognizes that she is almost done with life on the road.
She wrote the song two weeks before the album went to mastering. “I started out with the album title,” she said. “My tour manager and I always joked that the last tour should be called The End of the Line and then I thought that’s too depressing.
“I liked The Light at the End of the Line. It reminded me of (singer-songwriter) Billy Wheeler’s biography, which I wrote the foreword to,” she said. “He ran away from home at 10 from a coal mining family, from a wicked stepfather, and he walked through the mines looking for a light at the end of the line.
“I wanted to write a song of gratitude, really. I wanted to thank my fans. It says on the inside of the album, ‘This is a love song.’ To me, every one of those songs is a love song of one sort or another.”
Ian considers this song to be a great bookend to “Stars.”
“It’s a summation,” she said, “and it also acknowledges to everyone who says, ‘You’ve saved my life,’ that there will be somebody else, because that’s the nature of art.”
Then she quotes her lyrics from the song: ‘In due time, there will be someone that will see all the good in your heart even though we are apart.”
Her songwriting process is part instinct. “I don’t sit down to write a ‘Resist’ or ‘At Seventeen’ and think, ‘Oh, now I’m going to sit down and write this song for the community,’ ” she said. “It doesn’t work like that. It evolves. Stella Adler used to say, ‘Trust your talent, it knows better than you do.’ And there’s a lot to be said for what musicians refer to as letting the back of your brain work. It’s why everybody gets stuck on the second verse. And the joke is, go to the bathroom, get away from it … people like Daniel Levitin have written all that serious stuff about that, but for us musicians it’s just, ‘Go to the bathroom. Get away from it and let your talent speak.’ ”
Raised in a family of activists, Ian carries the torch of righteousness. And despite the pain she’s experienced and her concerns for the growing divide in this country, she remains hopeful, closing out her album on a positive note with her song, “Better Times Will Come.” She sings with her honeyed voice:
Better times will come
When this world learns to live as one,
Oh, better times will come
When we greet each dawn without fear
Knowing loved ones will soon be near
And when the winds of war cannot blow any more
Oh, better times will come.
Impacted by the death of John Prine during the pandemic, she wrote the song two days later while doing laundry at home. Later, she released a video for it, made by Christine Lavin (watch below). The song lifts us by offering hope that we will get past current troubles.
The song prompted her to launch her Better Times Project, designed to help artists during the pandemic. She encouraged artists to submit their version of the song and asked that listeners support the artists. It was a resounding success as many professional and non-professional artists from around the world joined in.
When she recorded her version for this album, she wanted it to be different. With bassist Viktor Krauss co-producing, she hoped to capture the desolation of the original version, and rise from it, but wanted a lot of musicians to join in, playing solos. “Then we thought that’s the way to go and we put together our rolodexes” she said. “I knew Diane Shuur and we both knew Andrea Zonn.” They added John Cowan, Jim Hoke, Vince Gill and others.
“The hardest part was getting the musicians to understand they were not supposed to play together, they were supposed to step out,” she said. “I finally said, ‘Imagine you were in the Basie band back in the day or the Dorsey band and the bandleader said, “Solo!,” and you stand up and solo.’ This is our 30 seconds to show off. I want your show-off.”
Ian has been teaching master classes focusing on songwriting and other topics. The classes are given in conjunction with concerts, or at events like Swannanoa Gathering in Bethlehem, Pa. “My five-day masterclass covers everything,” she said, “starting with the cave people, going on through the Romans and the Greeks, and Western music — it is Western-oriented because I am Western-oriented — on through the creation of the guild through syphilis and the New World, and Beethoven’s nose, Nietzsche, the myth of the artist as crazy, on to sheet music and how it controlled Nashville. Oh, there’s just a host of things and in between there’s a discussion about writing.”
She leaves time for questions because she wants to share what she has learned from people she has met on her journey.
“I’ve been exposed to people and talent that most people are only going to be exposed to second- and third-hand and a lot of it I’ve been exposed to first-hand,” she said. “Knowing Stella (Adler) for 10 years … long after her name fades, actors will be employing her work. And my first song was translated by Charles Aznavour, and he’s the one who taught me about translating. That’s pretty cool.”
Ian’s insightful comments throughout our interview, punctuated by frequent laughter, ended with an epiphany:
“I felt with this album — as soon as I listened back to it when it was done being mastered, and I could relax — like I had lived up to my talent for the whole album for the first time in my life. And I was very grateful that I got to live this long, because of that.”
For more information, visit janisian.com.
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