Janis Ian still going after ‘Seventeen’

Brittany Moffat

Singer/songwriter tapes interview and discusses memoir in KSU’s TV2 studio

Singer/songwriter Janis Ian performs during an interview last week with Jim Blum on 89.7 WKSU-FM Folk Alley. Photo courtesy of Bob Christy

Credit: DKS Editors

At 15, singer/songwriter Janis Ian performed in her first large concert.

As she was singing “Society’s Child,” she noticed a group of about 40 people in the audience who were on their feet, shouting at her and shaking their fists. It took her a few seconds to realize the group was shouting, “N – lover, go home.”

It was 1965, and she honestly thought she might be shot if she stayed on stage, Ian said in an interview with Jim Blum, host of WKSU’s “Folk Alley.”

Ian and Blum taped the interview July 31 in TV2’s Franklin Hall studio. They discussed Ian’s memoir, “Society’s Child: My Autobiography,” and some of the groundbreaking moments of her career.

Ian, best known for her song “At Seventeen,” released her memoir and a companion two-disc CD set that contains 29 of her songs from the last 43 years, including the first recording she ever made – on her father’s home tape recorder.

While Ian’s popularity has been confined in the mainstream to “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen,” she has continued to write, perform and raise eyebrows with taboo subjects and her tongue-in-cheek delivery.

Among Ian’s professional achievements are writing and performing a hit song at 15 and launching a musician Web site, complete with some of the first free song downloads and an online auction. Ian’s use of free music downloads put her at odds with the Recording Industry Association of America, which condemns the practice.

Among the songs available on Ian’s Web site is “Married in London,” a humorous reflection on the difference in laws recognizing gay marriage in the U.S. and in other countries. In one verse, she sings that her marriage is recognized in Catholic Spain but not in the U.S.

Ian is not bothered by the attention her often controversial lyrics raise. She explained how her intellectual family, her years spent hiding her lesbian feelings and her survival of a physically and emotionally abusive marriage to an alcoholic have taught her to not be concerned with the opinions of others.

Ian has said she thought as a young adult that all the world’s problems would be resolved by the 1970s or 1980s and is disappointed the same problems still exist. She said the world didn’t count on the stubbornness of people in power to change.

“We underestimated the entrenched powers. We underestimated the Dick Cheneys of the world,” she said.

While she said she still sees the world as far from perfect, Ian still described herself as an optimist, counting the rights young women now take for granted as one of the accomplishments of hers and older generations.

Ian said her book tour, which brought her to the Cleveland area last week, will continue through November, and the paperback edition will take her on the road for the first part of 2009.

However, she said she’ll be more selective with her performances in the next few years, ending a period she described as being a “road rat” and instead staying at home more.

“I’ll do it if it’s something I enjoy doing – and if it’s something where I can see my pals,” she said.

Ian said she doesn’t mind that most people are only familiar with “At Seventeen.” After more than 40 years, she said she’s happy the song is still as popular as it is.

“How lucky am I that they know me for anything?” she asked.

Ian said she doesn’t mind most people’s familiarity with only a few of her songs because she has always understood her goal is not to write another hit song but just another song. She said the first time she started to understand this was at that very first concert in 1965.

She recalled that she walked slowly off stage and headed for the bathroom to cry. A concert promoter found her there and convinced her to return to the stage to finish her show. The 40 or so people who had disrupted the show started shouting again, but the other concertgoers forcibly sat them down, and ushers later threw the group out of the venue.

She said the experience taught her several things, not the least of which was the power of music over people.

“A three-and-a-half-minute song can change people’s lives,” she said during the “Folk Alley” interview.

Blum and Ian’s interview will be available on the “Folk Alley” Web site after Aug. 15.

Contact general assignment reporter Brittany Moffat at [email protected].