(My interview with Janis Ian was the cover story of the Gay & Lesbian Times in Sep 1996.)
Singer, songwriter, Grammy Award winner, and now national columnist Janis Ian brought her “Revenge” Tour to 4th & “B” Thursday, September 29. In this exclusive interview held after her roof-raising performance, Ian talks with staff writer John L. Hulsey about her renewed career, her life in Nashville, and the woman affectionately known as “Mr. Lesbian.”
Janis Ian – So, how are you?
John Hulsey – I’m great. And you. . . that was some show.
ji – Thanks.
jh – Let me start by saying how much I enjoy your articles in The Advocate.
ji – Yeah, I’m really pleased, because my editor, Judy Weider, who really brought me onboard there, and talked me into, because I didn’t want to do it, has just been named Editor-In-Chief, and a lot of it is because the articles have been so successful. And in the articles, there is heavy and then there is light, and there’s room for both.
jh – My favorite, though, has to be the story of the camping trip.
ji – (laughing) Oh, yeah, everybody loves that. It’s really funny, because I faxed that to Pat (Mr. Lesbian) at school, and she said “I sound really stupid in this article!” And, you know, she never says that, she never comments, so I called her and I said “what do you mean, you sound stupid?” She said “but I sound like an idiot,” and I said, “but, so what? I mean, better you than me!” I thought it was quite funny.
jh – Reading the columns, and now tonight listening to the music, the thought that kept running through my head was, “she’s really enjoying this.”
ji – Oh, yeah. Damn straight. I’m forty-five, and I don’t need to be out there doing something I don’t enjoy.
jh – For many people, though, in our community, they seem to have lost that sense of fun. It’s almost as if everything has become so serious, we have lost our ability to simply enjoy.
ji – I think that’s not just the gay movement, though, I think that’s people in general. As a performer, a lot of what I see is people who are my friends, trying to reproduce what they do in videos on stage, and it’s not fun. It’s no fun to just do the same thing night after night after night. It’s very hard to breathe life into it, and audiences are so used to having things flung at them, that going out to a concert is becoming an unenjoyable experience. It should be fun, if you’re going to pay fifteen bucks, or thirty bucks, plus a baby-sitter and parking, go through the hassle of going to see somebody, you should be able to leave moved, and you should be able to leave happy, and you should feel like the person up there is not making this big sacrifice or doing you this big favor. I mean, to me, I make more money staying home and writing songs. My business people would be very happy if I did that, but I really like doing this. I like meeting people and signing stuff. Beyond the ego, Pat says I have a terminal interest in human beings. And I do.
jh – But, back to that ego. That’s not such a bad thing. When I write and I touch someone, my ego soars. And I have learned to stop apologizing for that. When did you learn to stop?
ji – (laughing) Probably about five years ago, when I realized I could never be a Picasso, but I could be a Cezanne. And I thought, well then, it’s okay to be that. And you know, growing up in the folk world, and in the jazz world, it’s very uncool to be interested in anything that satisfies the ego.
jh – In any sort of acclaim?
ji – Yeah, so I carried all that baggage with me for a long time. But, I think the South has taught me a lot, country music has taught me a lot about that, because it’s a gift to be able to do what I do. It’s something I was born with, but I work my butt off doing it, so I deserve what I get from doing it. And I’m real clear on that now.
jh – Now?
ji – Yeah, I was pretty clear on that in my twenties, because I went through “Society’s Child.” I never felt like I didn’t deserve to be well-paid, because I knew how much work went into it. And I never felt I didn’t deserve the accolades, but it was a little strange to me when people use a word like ‘genius,’ because for any artist, you are always measuring yourself against someone who is way beyond you.
jh – Like?
ji – Well, if I write songs, I think of Leonard Cohen or George Gershwin. If I write music, I think of Beethoven. If I write articles, I think of Faulkner.
jh – Very Southern.
ji – Yeah… Pat Conroy, too. I measure myself against the people I admire, and I find myself lacking. But, I’m not sure that that’s not just what it is to be an artist. To find yourself always lacking just enough that you struggle to get to the next step.
jh – It seems that there are a lot of other female vocalists who are writing their own music – Julia Fordham, Maria McKee. These are women whose lyrics, like yours, just hang with you, and I knew to expect that here tonight. What I didn’t expect, and what I was impressed by, is that you are such a musician.
ji – Yeah, and it’s fun, because I get asked, too. I just did a thing yesterday in L.A. for a friend’s record, and I was the guitarist, and it was great.
jh – So you are a writer, a songwriter, you play guitar and other instruments. Is there a particular media with which you are most comfortable?
ji – No, I don’t think I feel safe in any medium, just because I measure myself against others. If I’m playing piano, I’m measuring myself against Chick Corea. As a guitarist, I’m a really good guitarist for what I do. In fact, I was playing a show with Chet Atkins and Michael Hedges a few months ago, and Chet was telling Michael what a great guitarist I was.
jh – What does a compliment like that do to you?
ji – Are you kidding? It scares the shit out of me. But then, Michael sat through my set on the side of the stage to see what he could steal. But then I realized that neither Chet, nor Michael, nor I could play the normal stuff that session musicians play. And that’s why we have become good guitarists, because we play the other stuff, our stuff. I can’t think of three more different guitarists, and we all play that because we can’t play the other stuff. So, it scares me to take a solo, because I have no idea where I am going. But, that’s a good scare, you know?
jh – Like tonight, when you said you had no idea how to get out of the solo?
ji – Oh yeah, I had no idea how to get out of it, so I just fumbled out of it. But, I figure, it is live music, and that’s the point. When I started doing solo stuff late last year, I said to my drummer at one point, because I was starting to step out and take the guitar solos, I said what do you do when you take a solo and you don’t know where you are going, and he said you just go. You just play. And I think that’s changed my whole attitude towards the stage, because I go up there now with a list of 30-35 songs, and I sort of know where my beginning and where my ending is, and the rest of it is just whatever happens. And there is a real cool thing about that, and it takes out the fear factor, because you’re not afraid of your talent, and that is really an important thing. And conversely, I don’t think any artist every feels safe anywhere, ultimately, because the only safety for any artists is in the act of creation, and in the art of creation you’re dying and being born again, so how can you be safe?
jh – Your show is the first show I had been to in a long time where I thought if someone yells out the right song, you would say “yeah, all right,” and do that number.
ji – Oh, yeah. The two things people yelled out tonight were both piano songs, though. I actually did a piano song, “Lover’s Lullaby,” which I hadn’t done since ‘78, and I just said “look, I don’t have any harmonies here and I don’t have a piano, so y’all better sing. And it was great. It was the Seattle Zoo, and there were about 4,00 people, and they all sang the harmonies, and it was great.
jh – It is interactive with you, isn’t it? You made a joke earlier about that, but it really is the truth.
ji – It is, it’s fun for me. You know, I worry about audiences. I worry that their attention span is lower every year. The amount of time I had, when I started, you could go 25-25 minutes without talking. Now, you have to talk every 15 minutes, because that’s their attention span. That’s when the commercials come in, every 14-15 minutes. You have to stop and give them something different, and that worries me. I see it not so much tonight where it was a real live crowd, but at Seattle or Albany where you get 3,000 people or so, they are hungry for reality. They’re hungry for an artist who is an artist, and there is precious little of that in their lives. You know, in the late 1800’s and the early part of this century, when you had the railroad trains going across (the country), and you had people like Lily Ponds, Gertrude Stein, and Marlene Dietrich, the most bizarre groups of people touring the lands, places like Pocoima, and people came out to see art. And then they went to Vaudeville to have a good time, and it was two distinctly different things, and people don’t get either, anymore. They don’t get to have a good time and they don’t get to be moved. So what is the point in going out?
jh – So you do know your audience?
ji – Oh, yeah. I think about it a lot. And I like them, and I think that makes a big difference, too. I think there are a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily like their audience. A lot of people are scared of their audience, a lot of people are worried. I don’t know what they’re worried about. But, I know that Chapin (Mary Chapin-Carpenter), for instance, is not scared of her audience, and it shows. Tina Turner is not scared of her audience. It shows. There is a difference in walking onstage and asking them if it’s okay, and walking onstage because you own it. I’m real clear that that’s my stage. I own that room. If you want to shout out shit, shout it out. But, if you irritate me, I’ll shut you up. Because it’s my show, you know, and people are paying for that. There’s something that happens to you when you get away from L.A. and New York, and you get into the middle, and you suddenly start realizing what $15 or $20 bucks means, and how hard people work for that. For example, tonight when we looked at the contract, and the contract called for me to go on at 10:30, and I just said you know, “I’ll get complaints for months from people.” I mean, if there is a couple – gay or straight – very often they’ll have kids, and they go out, and a lot of times they have to hire a baby-sitter, and even on a $15 ticket, that’s $30 bucks, and it’s another $30 for the baby-sitter, and it’s another $10 for the parking. That’s $70.00. And then you’re going to make them wait two and a half hours, so the baby-sitter goes into overtime.
jh – So you are very aware of that?
ji – Oh, sure. I think there is a lot to be said for living within other people’s means. It’s funny, but I think that going broke and not having that cushion. . . in a way there are a lot of my contemporaries that I would wish that on, because it really did wonderful things for me just in terms of smacking me in the face and saying “you want reality, here’s reality. You like going out to eat? Try Wendy’s.”
jh – And as a big deal, right? As an outing?
ji – Oh, yeah, as a major deal. Because Pat’s in law school right now, so it’s a thin stretch for us. And I work, but you know a second year law student, one salary, and I help my mom out as well, and I’ve got three nephews, and it’s a lot when there’s very little cushion. We’ve got a little bit of a cushion now, but we can’t afford a new car this year. We’re a one car family, and I just bought a bike. We all struggle, but I’m a lot better off than a lot of people I know, because I can go out to eat. We have a house rule now that Friday nights, because Pat drives up from Knoxville, where she’s in school, and it’s three hours, and she drives up and on Friday nights we go out to dinner. And that’s our thing, we go out to dinner. And maybe we go to the movies. That’s our big treat, you know? Yet, I think that most performers who are in better – well, different – positions than I am in have no clue.
jh – You hear a lot standing in the lines to the movies that you don’t hear if you just have a copy of the movie shipped to you for viewing in your home theater.
ji – Especially in Nashville. People have no hesitation to come right up to me and go “I saw you at the Ryman, and you know you’re not very country, are you?” And it’s great, and I just say “no ma’am, I’m not.” And it’s great. But you know, Nashville is a songwriter’s mecca.
jh – And I heard you saying “ma’am” earlier when you were signing autographs.
ji – Oh, it’s so automatic now. And I find it nice, you know? I was raised to call my aunts “Aunt So-and-so,” and I was never allowed to address an adult by their first name. I was taught that what an adult said, I did. . . which is good and bad. But, I think there is a lot to be said for it, and I like it, and when I come north I always shocked at how abrupt they are. You know, fifty thousand people moved to Nashville last year from the L.A. area, and the businesses have gone to shit.
jh – Because?
ji – Well, why bother giving service? Last week, Pat said “Honey, you have to get a grip.” I mean, we went to our favorite restaurant, Sperry’s, which is an upscale restaurant, for an anniversary dinner, and we had a bad steak. And the hostess, not the maitre ‘d, tried to take Pat’s food away, and I said “we’re waiting on my steak, we had a bad steak,” and she said, “ oh yeah. . . I heard,” and just kept going. (Laughing out loud now.) And I went home and I wrote this letter saying that apparently Nashville had changed in the three months that I had been away, so as to become completely unrecognizable.
jh – I am finding here in San Diego that it shocks people when you use “ma’am” and “sir.” I say it at the drive-through, and you get up to the window, and the people have a confused look like a deer in the headlights.
ji – Yeah, they don’t know what to do with you. Or they think you’re making fun of them. They’ll say something like “what, am I too old to address normally?” It’s real funny.
jh – Moving on, there was one thing I wanted to pass on to you. When I’ve mentioned to friends that I was going to see you in concert, invariably the response is a half-beat of silence, followed by a softly whispered “Oh.”
ji – Well, people can get strangely reverential, and I find that odd. It took me a while to get used to that, but it’s very nice.
jh – I think, though, that on hearing your name, there is a flash to a time and a connection to you and your music.
ji – It’s a weird thing, because I had stopped for so long, and it took me three or four years to figure out that I had been living with them for a long time, and they know me, and I don’t know anything about them, but to them I know everything about them.
jh – Because you’ve written it all down, and they feel that they have lived your words.
ji – And what a great thing, to be able to give voice to what other people can’t say. I mean, what a great gift. But then, that’s what makes you a writer, isn’t it?
jh – I write because I have to, because it’s who I am.
ji – And that’s what makes an artist.