Janis Ian is having a rough weekend when we touch base April 13. The Grammy-winning singer/songwriter is soldiering on at CAMP Rehoboth Women’s Fest despite being dangerously close to having no singing voice.
She plays the Birchmere next weekend (April 28) and responded to these questions via e-mail, citing vocal preservation. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: You’re playing CAMP Rehoboth Women’s Fest this weekend. What are the crowds like at these lesbian events? Have you done many of them?
IAN: It’s a lesbian event? (grin) I made a firm decision decades ago not to do any sort of exclusionary event, so the only “gay” events I’ve done have been Pride marches, or events like CAMP Rehoboth or the old Bloomington Women’s Music Festival (I think it has a new name now), both of which welcome all genders. As to the audiences, I’d say any time you have a festival-style event the crowds are going to be super enthusiastic because they’re there for more than just a few hours. They’re more relaxed and it’s a different excitement.
BLADE: How do you like performing at the Birchmere? Have you played there many times?
IAN: Hah! So many, I can’t even count, at the old and the new Birch. One of the best clubs in the world and I’ve played pretty much all of them. Not a bad seat in the house. I’ve even got Birchmere “war stories,” which I won’t go into here. Tom Paxton and I premiered our world tour there. I’ve premiered albums there. I can’t imagine life without it. Once I made the decision to stop touring very much, the first place to approach me was the Birchmere, via Mike Jaworek. I told him I wasn’t touring. He kept bothering me and bothering me and bothering me. I kept giving him reasons I couldn’t do it. He kept bothering me. He wore me down. Once I agreed, I got really excited. It’s like coming home and at 67, I have a perfectly good home in Tennessee already, thank you very much.
BLADE: What are the acoustics like at Carnegie Hall? Of course they’re legendary, but are they that much better than other great halls?
IAN: Yes. There’s the prestige of playing Carnegie, but there’s also the acoustics. Someone warned me about a “bass trap” in the upper left balcony before my first solo gig, so we faced the bass amp that way, and we were told it was the best sound from a band they’d ever heard. Most of the great halls were designed for non-amplified music — vaudeville halls. All the older, great Broadway halls. European halls and Carnegie. I think they’ve had to tear Philharmonic Hall apart now what — three times? — to fix the acoustics. Instead of relying on experience and ears, architectural firms and “soundscape engineers” (seriously? “soundcape engineer?”) rely on machines. Just stupid.
BLADE: Do you have Joan Baez’s new album? Any thoughts?
IAN: I do not have it yet, but my thoughts are that Joan has always been one of the kindest people on earth to me. I wish I had a song on it, but she’s done two of mine before and they’re among my proudest covers.
BLADE: How do you decide what key a song you’re writing is going to be in?
IAN: It feels right on my voice. Sometimes there’s a conflict — it might sound better in the studio a little higher or lower. Sometimes I have to change the guitar part to suit the key.
BLADE: When other artists have recorded your songs, do they often change the key?
IAN: Honestly, I have no idea. It never occurred to me to check.
BLADE: Back in the ‘60s/‘70s heyday of the big labels, did they let you have input into what your singles would be? Was there ever an instance where you were hoping it would be one song but the label was insisting on another?
IAN: I almost always had a good team around me, producer and A&R person, so I usually had input. I mean, no one wanted to put out a song the artist would refuse to sing on stage or TV, right? So fortunately for me, that’s never been a big issue. They’d have liked it if I’d written more commercial songs, but that’s not my gift.
BLADE: Amy Grant had a No. 1 hit with your song “What About the Love” in 1989. What are your memories of writing that song and do you have any idea how it got floated to a gospel artist?
IAN: I wrote it with Kye Fleming as we were sitting around her living room in Nashville, on the floor, just before Christmas I think. I was playing around with the guitar part, trying to put the first beat on the second note of the guitar pattern and making myself crazy trying to work it into my fingers. Then I began singing, “I went to see my sister. She was living with a friend …” and we were off and running. The minute we finished it, Kye said it had to go to Amy. I think Kye’s publisher must have done it, but she also knew Amy, so she may have pitched it herself. And Amy’s always said she’s a big fan of my work — she owns a hand-written copy of “At Seventeen,” for instance, so that may have helped get it in the door. Regardless, she’s a lovely woman and she did a great job.
BLADE: Have you ever demo’d it or performed it yourself?
IAN: It’s on the album “Breaking Silence.” Morgan Creek gave the rights back to me last year, so we’re in release now. In fact, I’ll be selling it at the Birchmere show because so many people have asked about it. Nice to have your first album after 10 years away become a Grammy nominee (she said musingly). It really is nice. It’s a fantastic audiophile recording; we’ve released it through Acoustic Sounds on vinyl, tape and SACD.
BLADE: Are you still friendly with Kye Fleming? About how many songs would you say you wrote together?
IAN: Yes, of course I’m still friendly with her. We lived together two-and-a-half years! We wrote 64 songs and among them are several of the absolute best songs I’ve ever been involved with. It’s a pity no one’s pushing them, because some are still un-recorded, but we did pretty well — Diane Schuur, Amy, Bette Midler, Charlie Daniels, Maura O’Connell, Cynthia Clawson, Marti Jones. It was an incredibly fertile period and I will always, always be grateful for it, and for Kye. I learned a ton about songwriting from her. She’s brilliant.
BLADE: Did you two have a private chuckle over a lesbian couple having penned a No. 1 song on the gospel music charts?
IAN: Probably not.
BLADE: Where did the material come from on your Unreleased collections? Are those alternate studio takes or songs you hadn’t previously recorded or both?
IAN: Both. I’ve spent the past 10 years plus having everything I’ve written and recorded transferred, updated, transferred, put on line. There are a lot of alt versions, though very few alt studio takes. A lot of demos and work tapes that haven’t, or have, been released.
BLADE: How long did it take you to write your memoirs?
IAN: I gave myself a year, because I’d never written anything that long before. I also researched and I had several fans who helped with research — dates, places, times and the like. It was good, because for a year I never set foot on a plane. I did four professional things — hosted a tribute to Odetta, sang at a tribute to Pete Seeger, played bass for Marie Knight and something else I can’t remember. They were all fun things to do, and they convinced me that it was more fun to do less, but do the things that brought me pleasure, than to do too much. I had time at home — long periods of time. I hadn’t had that since around 1991, so it was quite marvelous.
BLADE: What was your experience like working with John Mellencamp? What’s he like in the studio?
IAN: John was great. Very honest, very hard working, very respectful. You have to remember that at the time he brought me into the studio, no one in the music business gave a crap about me. I couldn’t get a publisher, a manager, a booking agent, record company — nothing and no one. John was the only professional in my field to put his money where his mouth was. I mean, it’s lovely to hear, “Oh, you’re a great writer, great performer, great singer,” but it’s not so great when they can’t make space for you at the table.
BLADE: What kind of feedback did you get as an Advocate columnist? Did you enjoy the gig?
IAN: I loved working with Judy Wieder, my editor there. I’d been turning her down for a year or so, and she suckered me into lunch with her and my wife when we were in L.A. I made the mistake of going to the rest room and while I was gone, they made the deal. I learned a ton that stood me in good stead when I wrote my autobiography. Having to come up with 1,000 words every month really teaches you a lot. As does having to be funny most of the time. So yes, I enjoyed it very much. I left when Judy was promoted and I had a new editor who didn’t see things the same way. When I began, I was literally hired to be the “resident iconoclast.” When I left, they had a lot of those. So it was time to go.
BLADE: What’s a songwriting trap you see beginning writers succumb to commonly?
IAN: Oh, gosh, there are so many. Settling. Being enthralled with yourself. Not knowing the basics. Is your second verse as strong as the first? Should your second verse be the first? Are you mixing metaphors? Are you saying that because it’s true, believable, what needs to be there, or are you saying it because it feels good on your voice? So, so many. I always tell people to play out and play out for people who don’t want to hear you. Don’t play for your friends and family — they’re obligated to like your work. Play for people who couldn’t care less. That’s part of how you learn. And remember the computer term GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. You listen to crap, you’ll write crap. Mostly, it’s the CD/technology issue. When you’re young, you don’t have much of a filter. You’re enthralled with your last song, because it’s astonishing and amazing and ennobling that you can even write a song. So, if you can make a CD for practically nothing, in practically no time, you end up putting all those songs on CDs. You make way too many CDs, too fast, and you think you’re growing, but you’re not. I had this discussion the other day with someone. When I started writing, none of us could afford songbooks. So we’d buy an album, listen to it, and write out the lyrics. Somehow, that connection from your hand to your brain teaches you. That’s what I’d tell young songwriters. Take a song you love by someone else. Listen to it and write out the lyrics. Once, twice, three times. Play it and sing it for a week. Get it into your body. Then move on to the next. Keep it different. Go from contemporary to Johnny Mercer. Don’t get tied down. And write them out.
BLADE: Did you have a noticeable lesbian fan base before you were outed or did that come later?
IAN: If you’re referring to the Village Voice piece by a writer who’s now dead, I can’t comment on that. I’d lived with a man, I then lived with a woman. I married a man, then married a woman. I identify as gay because that’s my tilt, but I wasn’t “known” as a gay woman until I chose to come out with it myself. I did it around the release of “Breaking Silence” because of a conversation I had with (longtime LGBT activist) Urvashi Vaid.
BLADE: You seem so at peace and pragmatic about life and the music business. Joni Mitchell has had almost a second career giving brutally candid interviews criticizing the music industry and calling it a cesspool. Do you applaud her candor or think she just sounds bitter and overly negative?
IAN: Joni also believes she was never paid enough and she has no musical equals. I don’t listen to it much.
BLADE: You’ve been through some scary times in the country with your father and the red scare. Are you fairly confident our national guardrails and checks and balances can withstand Trump? How closely are you following this?
IAN: We’re still an experiment; remains to be seen. I follow it as closely as everyone else and I wish people would listen to various news sources and go off line for a while.
BLADE: Will there be a new Janis Ian studio album of new material at some point?
IAN: Yes. It’s part of why I’m setting deadlines for my last touring days and my last album release. And a large part of why I’m touring so little.
BLADE: What would you guess is your ratio of released (you or other artists) vs. unreleased material of the songs you’ve written?
IAN: Not a clue.
BLADE: How regularly do you write these days?
IAN: Just depends on where I am and what I’m doing at the time.
BLADE: Was it ever hard to keep writing in leaner career periods?
IAN: Depending on the era, the assumption’s that if you’re not on TV, you’re dead. (Or your career is.) If you’re not on tour, you’re dead. (Or your career is.) If you’re not on Facebook, you’re dead. (Or your career is.) Artists don’t stop being artists. We don’t stop creating. Record companies stop wanting us. Promoters stop wanting us. Even audiences stop wanting us. But we don’t stop. That’s just not how it works.