SL: Your last album, ‘Billie’s Bones, was a return to your roots.
JANIS IAN: Yes, I was pleased about that and I think the next album will be folkier still. There is a lot to be said for folk music. It’s having the ability to get up there with just a guitar and a voice or even no guitar and sing something that moves people. It is an art that is in danger of being lost, so going back to it is proving a point but I also like folk music. I think that anything you can do that is simple and has a common denominator and yet is not condescending is a good thing. It’s a worthwhile thing for a community to have something that brings them together.
SL: Presumably in Greenwich Village, you could write a song one day and perform that night for instant feedback.
JANIS IAN: You can still do that if you are a performer. I do that in Nashville all the time. It is just a little more complicated if you live somewhere where there are is not a lot of clubs.
SL: So you live in Nashville now?
JANIS IAN: Yes, for 16 years now. It was a country music town until the late 70s and early 80s when it started changing. The prime focus is still country because that is where the dollars are and that is where the fame is. We have a good jazz scene, a good hip-hop scene, a good Hispanic scene, so there is a lot going on.
SL: Country music is more like a fashion parade these days. JANIS IAN: It’s what Clear Channelisation is doing to music.
SL: Do you write for many country artists? JANIS IAN: Oh yeah, Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea and Maura O’Connell have done my songs. I have had some good covers.
SL: Are you writing at this moment?
JANIS IAN: No, I am trying to finish this tour. We are out until early December. Then I will go home for a couple of months and hopefully get some writing done and then we tour again late February to April. After that, I will shut down for the rest of the year and stay home and write.
SL: So you don’t write much on the road.
JANIS IAN: No, it’s impossible. If you’re doing five or six shows a week, it is impossible to have the energy.
SL: And you’re going out with just a guitar for a two hour show.
JANIS IAN: It is easier than going out with a band in some ways. It leaves you with more latitude, you can change keys, you can add things, you can drop things, and it doesn’t matter what order you do the songs in. It is harder though in that you have to carry two hours and that is a long time.
SL: Do you respond to requests?
JANIS IAN: When it is one I remember. There are over 350 songs now, so a lot of the songs have just faded in my memory. I can’t play the piano anymore and some songs like ‘Copper Painting’ are strictly piano songs. I injured a tendon in my left hand and I can’t do any stretching movements. I always wrote on both piano and guitar but it has tied me down in a good way. It has made me a better guitarist.
SL: Have you thought of doing a Broadway show?
JANIS IAN: Yes, I almost did one three years ago. I was going to write the music but it started falling apart. It didn’t work out with the librettist and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to devote three to five years of my life to an unhappy situation. I would love to do something though. I would love Broadway to go back to simple melodies and straightforward songs that you can walk out of the theatre singing. Now there are overblown theatrics and songs that no human being in their right minds would try to sing.
SL: So Paul Simon’s experience with ‘The Capeman’ hasn’t put you off?
JANIS IAN: I grew up on Broadway and a lot of my songs like ‘Applause’ and ‘Jesse’ are well suited to that which is very different from Paul Simon’s writing. I would never have thought of him as a natural for Broadway. He had a good bunch of people working with him and it is better to do it the old Rodgers and Hammerstein way where you have other people working around you who are in control of their parts. Julie Taymor was doing the choreography for that show and when she did ‘The Lion King’, she blew me away. I don’t know why it was savaged but it was not the smartest thing in the world to say in interviews that you had come to save Broadway. That didn’t help, but even so, if it had been brilliant and perfect for Broadway, the critics would been kinder as everyone wants to see Broadway live. The costs are so astronomical that Broadway is dying and it would be a shame if that happened. It’s a pity as Paul Simon may have ruined it for the rest of us.
SL: You have come out and married your partner. Is that something you thought a long time about.
JANIS IAN: I came out in 1992 when ‘Breaking Silence’ came out. It didn’t take much thought as my family knew and my business associates knew. I didn’t want to live a life where I was saying, ‘Oh no I’m not married’ or ‘Pat’s a she’. It seemed easier to get it done. We were going to Toronto anyway and one of us e-mailed the other and said, ‘Do you want to get married?’ That was that and it was great.
SL: Has it changed the audiences who come to your shows?
JANIS IAN: I don’t think so. I certainly haven’t noticed any change. I think the same people who wouldn’t come to my shows before still wouldn’t come to my shows.
SL: Do you feel like writing political songs, say, about the Iraq war?
JANIS IAN: I normally don’t write political songs and I take a more sociological view. I am not a good political songwriter as those songs are really hard to write. Dylan was the master of that, and also Phil Ochs from the journalist side. Bob is one for the universal but ‘Oxford Town’ is specific. ‘Masters Of War’ will be around as long as there are munitions makers. Bob is one for the universal. His early work is absolutely brilliant. There is nobody who has done it better than Dylan, nobody. It is like comparing Picasso to everybody else. He never wasted anything: he was elliptical but never illusory.
SL: Janis Ian, thank you very much.
JANIS IAN: A pleasure, thanks, Spencer.