Janis Ian: Doing It From The Heart

by Jan Vanderhorst

October 2002


From listening to the radio or by watching TV it's easy to get the impression that today's pop performers are getting younger, and sexier, by the minute. But mainstream music's fascination with seemingly younger and younger performers is not something new. Manufacturing the Britneys and NSYNCs of the world into pop idols based more on marketing and sex appeal and less on substance is as old as pop music itself.

Veteran singer-songwriter Janis Ian knows this only too well. Her first hit song "Society's Child" was written when she was 14 years old and became a Top-20 recording the next year (1967). But Janis was different in that she wrote her own songs, arranged them and lead the musicians in the recording studio. This type of automatic artistic control is unthinkable for today's pop princes and princesses.

"When I was just starting to be a singer," she explains "you had the Fabians and Frankie Avalons, people who were pretty much manufactured artists in the same way they're manufactured today. It's always been easier on a record company and a manager to have an artist who starts out with limited talents and limited world experience. They're more malleable, they're easier to control.

"If there's a big difference (to today's musical environment) it's that it was the 60's and I was coming out of folk music, not out of pop. It never occurred to me there would be any benefit at all in letting someone else dictate what I was going to do. That was pretty epithetical to folk, so it was never a question for me."

Janis' relationship with her record company was also different from what it might have been, had she been signed to a label that cranked out ear candy for the masses.

"To be fair to the record company (Verve Folkways)," she says, "nobody got in my way either! From the very first session I did with "Shadow" Morton when we cut "Society's Child," I was allowed to run the band, I was allowed to dictate what people would play, and do the arranging and to have a voice in the production. I don't think it ever occurred to anyone that I wouldn't (be so involved); and if it did," she laughs, "it didn't work!"

Today, nearly four decades later, Janis Ian is still producing quality work which is every bit as poignant and appealing as ever. How does she account for her success as a singer of hits like "At Seventeen," and as a songwriter of well-loved songs like "Jesse," which rose to the top of the charts for Roberta Flack?

"I have no idea," she replies, "as clichéd as it sounds, I just tried to make sure I did quality work and that I stayed true to what I believed as an artist. Sooner or later that wins out. I have a lot of faith in audiences and I think audiences respond when they know you're trying to be truthful. I think that's one of the reasons my audience hangs in there. They know that whether I'm right or wrong, whether I do work I'll look back on with regret 10 years later or not, I'm still doing it from the heart. I think that means a lot to them and I think, particularly nowadays when there are a lot of manufactured acts, acts like myself or Richie Havens or other folk acts kind of stand out."

It could very well be that the longevity of Janis' career is based on her success as a songwriter more than it is as a singer.

"Well it's a good thing", she chuckles, "because if I had to count on my career as a recording artist, I'd probably be working at a gas station. I think that when you're singing your own songs you have the luxury of singing in your own voice, and there's credibility to that which you don't get when you're singing someone else's songs. Unless, that is, you spend decades putting it out there like a Joan Baez."

Putting it out there on the road is what Janis Ian has done for years, as she spends an enormous amount of time on tour - a fact of life when you're a singer-songwriter.

"At this point it's starting to feel like I'm a glutton for punishment," she laughs, "Part of it is, it's a fact of life, part of it is that when I made "Breaking Silence" in 1993 I realized that a generation or two had gone by since my last record and I was going to have to essentially reeducate my audience and do my best to get a new audience to add to them.

"When you've been doing it since you were 12 you hit a point of no return where you wake up one day and think 'If I don't get a new audience, then my old audience is going to be retiring or dead.' So a lot of it has been (audience building), a lot of it has been earning a living."

For nine years Janis was a contributing editor for Performing Songwriter magazine, writing the "Risky Business" column. In each issue Janis would enlighten readers on the topics most singer-songwriters/independent musicians face at one time or another. Whether it was dealing with record companies, managers or agents, care and maintenance of your guitar, or
simply care and maintenance of your body while on the road, Janis' column was well received by other performers.

"I got a fair amount of feedback from other performers, to the point of getting stopped in the street in Nashville by other people who just wanted to say 'thanks for that article.' That's pretty gratifying. There aren't a lot of ways in this day and age, with everybody so busy, to pass on the knowledge you've learned over the years. So Performing Songwriter has been great for that. The articles make it easier to reach a wider audience."

Janis also posts the articles on her website: janisian.com. One of her last articles for Performing Songwriter, (The Internet Debacle: An Alternative View), in which Janis came out in favor of free internet downloading of music, received great interest throughout the music industry. Janis feels that free downloading is good for record companies, and especially artists, since access from the Internet creates interest in an artist's music. Given the record industry's spotty track record when it comes to accurate payments of royalties, Janis feels that sales through the Internet has a more direct financial benefit to the artist. When she makes a couple of songs available for downloading from her website, her record sales go up. Surprisingly, there was little backlash towards Janis after the article was published.

"I've been surprised at how few people are willing to get annoyed with me over it," she laughs, "there was a little backlash here and there. I was scheduled to appear on a panel somewhere and somebody from a record company said if I was there they would boycott it. But that's been pretty much it. In general the entire reaction has been favorable. I hear from a lot of people in my industry who don't want to be quoted, but say 'yeah, we're aware of this and we'd like to see a change too'."

Janis isn't too worried about any possible negative reaction affecting her relationship with a major record label.

"Well, no great loss there," is how she puts it. "The bottom line is, if 10 years ago somebody was on a major label, we'd say 'God, that's great! Congratulations!' Now we say 'I'm sorry, is there anything we can do for you?' The whole paradigm has shifted completely.

"Up until 10 years ago you couldn't make a competitive record at home. You needed a studio and you needed the backing of a record company for funding so you could go into the studio. That's just not true anymore. Now all you need is $4-5,000 worth of equipment and you can make a pretty competitive record. In my business, I think that's the equivalent of the Xerox machine!"

Looking back at her career, Janis Ian remains focused on the primary objective of her job as a songwriter.

"A writer's job is to write, so get off your butt and write!"

For more information about Janis Ian check out her website at: www.janisian.com

Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at: jan@hyperpeople.com