PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
March 21, 2006

Looking at the World with Fresh Eyes

by Jim Newsom

“I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired.”
-Janis Ian, “At Seventeen”

When she was seventeen, Janis Ian had already had a hit single and three albums. She decided to take a sabbatical from the star-making machinery of the music biz.

“I was so young when I started out,” she told me recently. “I was just fourteen. Between fourteen and sixteen I made three albums, wrote them all and toured behind them all. By the time I was seventeen I was going, ‘you know what---if I’m ever going to be a good writer, I’m not going to get there by doing this.’ So I literally went away to find out if I could be a good songwriter.”

When we spoke, she was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she had performed the night before to a sold out audience on the opening leg of a tour that brings her to the Virginia Beach Central Library Sunday night. Her just released CD, Folk is the New Black, is being hailed by critics as the best thing she’s done in years, a return to the simply adorned folk-inflected music with which she is most identified.

“I think I’ve reached my dotage,” she laughed when asked how she’d come up with such a superb recording at this point in her career. “I really wanted to make a folk album. I wanted to make an album that was accessible and worked with just a guitar and a voice and didn’t need a whole lot of backdrop. I wrote it all myself, so that helped. Beyond that, it beats me---just the right time and the right place.”

Janis Eddy Fink began playing music at an early age. (She borrowed her brother’s middle name, Ian, for her stage name.)

“My dad was a music teacher,” she said. “He started out as a farmer and went to college on the GI Bill, and became a music teacher. He played piano, he played guitar; he was a wonderful choral director. He started to teach me and then we argued, so I got another piano teacher. Apparently I was pretty opinionated!”

Inspired by early ‘60s folk icons like Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Dave Van Ronk, she began writing songs with lyrics that displayed a worldliness far beyond her years. She was only fourteen when she composed “Society’s Child,” a song about an interracial romance that was doomed by the prejudice of parents, school and society. When it was released as a single in 1966, its lyrics generated a storm of controversy, hate mail and even death threats to the record company. And though there were plenty of radio stations that wouldn’t play it (I don’t remember hearing it much around here), its catchy Beatles-meet-Phil Spector arrangement was hard to deny. It became a Top 10 hit in much of the country.

But it’s the mid-‘70s “comeback” albums, Stars and Between the Lines, that established Janis Ian’s persona as the intelligent, socially conscious yet autobiographical songsmith with the delicate voice. The hits from those albums, “Jesse” and “At Seventeen,” sound like they were written by a woman who had lived them.

“The thing with an autobiographical song,” she explained, “is that if you just tell the truth, it’s pretty boring usually. Everybody has their own little lives, and mine’s no bigger than anybody else’s. But if you tell the truth through archetypes, if you try and strike the universal, then sometimes you get somewhere. ‘At Seventeen’ strikes the universal. Those were things that, even if I hadn’t gone through some of them like the prom thing, I had gone through similar things and I knew what it was like to be left out and to not be called for basketball, and to emerge feeling like you’ll be OK.

“A lot of it is autobiographical. It’s just that you learn as you get older that it doesn’t have to be autobiographical of the moment. There’s a song on the new album called ‘All Those Promises’ that’s about a breakup. I haven’t had a breakup in twenty years, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t remember what it felt like.”

Though she is often thought of as the quintessential New York folkie, she has lived in Nashville for the last eighteen years. And somehow, she has been able to stay connected with her creative muse even while traversing the maze of middle age.

“It’s harder to keep your edge,” she said. “You’ve got a host of other things on your mind. When you’re a kid you’re thinking, ‘When I grow up, I’m gonna do exactly what I want. Nobody’s gonna be able to tell me what to do.’ And then you grow up and you find out that’s so not true! You’ve got this ton of things that you’ve got to do---you’ve got a mortgage, you’ve got kids, you’ve got a family, your body starts going. It’s a whole other thing than what you think it’s going to be when you’re young.

“For me, when I sit down to work on a song or to make an album, I always take the attitude that nobody’s ever heard of me so would I want to buy this, would I want to hear this? And if the answer’s no, I move on to something else.”

“Hopefully by the time you’re our age you know that you know practically nothing. But I try to look at the world with fresh eyes. I try to conserve my energy for my work rather than frittering it away partying or doing whatever it is people do to fritter their energy away these days. I think that the trick is just to keep questioning things, to keep wondering about things, and to keep going, ‘what if?’ And when you get a whole bunch of ‘what ifs,’ then usually you’ve got a song.

“The other thing on this album is that a lot of it is not about me. Half the songs are story songs about other people. And I think that’s a natural thing as you get older too. You do look at your own little life and when you’re young, you’re totally self-obsessed with it; you’re fascinating to yourself, endlessly. When you get older, you’re not so interesting, and other people and other lives become more interesting.”

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.