SL: You mentioned the controversy over ‘Society’s Child’, but I presume you found everyone was for you with ‘At Seventeen’.
JANIS IAN: Everybody’s for the underdog. That is the great thing about the song – it is a outlaw, underdog song, and that is why the appeal is so universal. Artists dream about writing a song that will cut through culture and gender and age and race and religion.
SL: And how did you come to write yours?
JANIS IAN: I was reading the New York Times’ magazine section and there was an article by a debutante talking about how being a debutante wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and the opening line was “I learned the truth at 18”. I was playing a little samba figure at the time and I started writing the song. It took three months. It was a hard song to write, but it was straight from my heart.
SL: I presume from the last line about the ugly duckling you are actually saying, ‘This girl is going to win through.’
JANIS IAN: Oh well done, people always say that the song has a sad ending but ugly duckings turn into swans, doh! Absolutely, the whole point is that you have been there and done that, it’s over. We all have our days when we look at our faces and go ‘Aww!’ but you get older and you realise that there are people who will love you for yourself and not for your face, and you begin to like yourself. It is one of the benefits of getting older. As everything else seems to sag and fall, you can accept it and go, ‘This is me.’
SL: And there’s a powerful line about ‘ravaged faces’. It’s a great word to use.
JANIS IAN: I don’t even remember writing that song as it is so long ago, I know it took three months because I was concerned line by line about never telling anything that was untrue. It is very hard to write a song that is extremely personal and extremely truthful and yet universal. It is a hard thing to do. To this day, I don’t know why I wrote the second verse like that but it felt right. ‘Those of us with ravaged faces’ – well, ‘ravaged’ is really the word: what other word could you put in there?
SL: I’m not sure but I hadn’t the word being used in a pop song before.
JANIS IAN: And I bet you hadn’t heard ‘debentures’ being used either with the accent on the wrong syllable!
SL: You’ve worked with someone with a ravaged face and that’s Willie Nelson.
JANIS IAN: Willie’s face is just his face and I wouldn’t call it ravaged. It is sunswept, lined and hollowed – ‘furrowed’ would be the word. He has the most fabulous face and he looks like his guitar. Willie is somebody who is always himself. There are very few people, particularly in the entertainment industry who are capable of being themselves at all times, but Willie is just himself – on and off stage, in the studio and out of the studio. He is what he is, what you see is what you get and I love people like that.
SL: And how did you decide what you were going to do together?
JANIS IAN: That was a no-brainer. I wrote ‘Memphis’ and Chet Atkins played on it. I was listening to it and thought that Willie Nelson would sound amazing on it. I called Deena Carter who cowrote it as she knew Willie and she said that she would get him a tape. He loved the song and he invited us to his studio in Texas so we flew to Texas and we got to see him play and that was fantastic. He’s just great.
SL: And what about the recording itself?
JANIS IAN: It’s like working with Dolly Parton. You are working with someone whose voice is so distinctive. The first time you hear them sing your words you go ‘Wow’ and it’s a huge charge. He came in prepared, like Dolly did. He knew the song and he knew the lyric and where he wanted to sing and where he wanted to step aside. I think it took three takes. A pro’s a pro, there’s nothing like it.
SL: And what about working with Dolly Parton on ‘My Tennessee Hills’?
JANIS IAN: She had had a bad cold and was dog-tired and had wanted to postpone the session, but she was just as nice as could be. She knew the song inside out and had her part worked out. We had changed the arrangement a bit and it took about half an hour to work that out. I asked her if we put some of the rehearsing on my website in Week 5 and let the fans see that we are not perfect and she said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ I said, ‘But we are a little out of tune here and there’, and she said, ‘Shoot, that’s nothing new.’
SL: You wrote ‘Memphis’ with Deena Carter so when do you decide you are going to cowrite and when you are going to do it on your own?
JANIS IAN: It depends on the mood. Someone told me that Deena was a great writer and had serious potential. It was before her record deal and it is always good to help younger writers. That is part of the responsibility you take on when you move to Nashville: you have to be a good mentor. Sometimes if I get stuck and don’t feel that my writing is going anywhere, then I will do some co-writing for a few weeks to shake things loose. Right now I have a list of writers I’ve been running into and I have said, ‘Call me in December 2004’ and I will spend some time doing that in 2005.
SL: When you write with, say, Albert Hammond, you are dealing with someone who has his way of doing things and you will have your way of doing things. How do you meet in the middle?
JANIS IAN: You either become a good co-writer very quickly or you don’t get asked again. The cardinal rule is that if one person disagrees, then it doesn’t work. It is all a compromise, and in the best situations as with Kyle Fleming, Albert Hammond or Skip Ewing, you keep struggling towards something that you both will know is right because you know you will have a better song out of it. A great co-write is seamless and does not sound like two people have written it.
SL: Did you only write one song, ‘The Other Side Of The Sun’, with Albert Hammond?
JANIS IAN: Yes, he was off to Brazil. That was my first co-writing experience and he was terrific to begin with as I was very nervous and he made it very easy for me. He was very gentle. Co-writing for the first time is like losing your virginity: you want somebody to be gentle and yet firm and to know what they’re doing so you don’t walk away feeling bad. I’ve met people who have had bad co-writing experiences for their first experience and it mars them.
SL: And what about ‘Jesse’?
JANIS IAN: I started that when I was 13 or 14 but I didn’t finish it until I was 20 because I didn’t have the life experience to write about that.
SL: And did you know that at the time?
JANIS IAN: It’s a question of having the talent and letting the talent lead. Part of the talent is instinct and when I get a song where nothing is going right but it has a good beginning or a good chorus, I know that I can set it aside and just stop. ‘My Tennessee Hills’ was like that. I had had that chorus for eight or nine years but it wasn’t until last year that it made sense. I’ve got notebooks full of bits of songs, but most of them are pretty bad. I write scraps all the time.