Spencer Leigh spoke to Janis Ian while she was recording a live concert for Radio 2 in Liverpool in October 2004.
SL: The booklets with nearly all your albums contain a message about your guitar being lost in 1972 and you are trying to find it.
JANIS IAN: Well, all of them but the last couple. The guitar was returned about six years ago after it had been missing 26 years – isn’t that amazing? There is an article on my website about it called ‘Of Guitars And Righteous Men’. Somebody had stolen it in Los Angeles in 1972 and from there it had wound up at a reputable shop in San Francisco, and it was bought by someone called Jeff Gray who wanted a D18. He had been working with Jefferson Airplane and it was used on a bunch of their records. He had been thinking about selling it because he wanted a smaller guitar when he read an interview with me in ‘Vintage Guitar’ magazine and the interviewer had put in a note about this guitar of mine, serial number 67053, 1938 D-18 and this feller Jeff Gray had looked at it and realised it was his guitar. The guitar had been stolen from him at one point and he had found it by memorising the serial number and making the rounds. We talked about it and he told me what it was worth and I said that I did have a Martin and I would trade him for it. He finally said, ‘I don’t want to own somebody else’s guitar, that’s bad karma, let me just send it to you.’ I said, ‘Well, send it, I will make sure it’s mine and I will send you this other guitar, just in gratitude.’ Never let hope die.
SL: Was this an important guitar for you? Was it, say, the first guitar you bought with your royalties?
JANIS IAN: It was a guitar that my dad had bought a year before I was born. He was a farmer and he had bought it from a woman whose husband had died. She had found the guitar in the attic and my dad bought it for $25. It was the guitar I learned on, it’s the guitar I wrote ‘Society’s Child’ on, it’s the first guitar I ever played at shows and it’s obviously an important guitar for me, and, as it turned out, it was worth considerably more than $25, although my dad didn’t know until I came home one day and told him.
SL: Your first album, ‘Janis Ian, in 1967 was quite an angry album.
JANIS IAN: Not so much angry as frustrated. It is the characteristic of a 14 or 15 year old to be frustrated by everything. To me ‘Society’s Child’ is more frustration and sadness although that might lead to anger: it’s a sadness that you can’t wave a magic wand at and have the world the way that you would like it.
SL: Was the inspiration for ‘Society’s Child’ something in the newspapers?
JANIS IAN: I wish I knew where songs came from or where inspiration came from but most of the time I have no idea. I assume that it was something in the wind as people were talking about Civil Rights. My parents were very involved in the Civil Rights movement, but I didn’t know anybody going through that and I hadn’t read about anybody going through that.
SL: And it is a very well crafted song: you seemed to have it all there when you were young.
JANIS IAN: That’s the thing about talent, Spencer: you are either born with it or you’re not. You only have five things to work with on stage and that is Entrance, Focus, Energy, Exit and Talent. You can learn the first four but you can’t teach someone the last one. I don’t know why I thought that chorus should lift, I don’t know why I knew enough to make it a two line refrain instead of a chorus, but that’s the talent and that’s the part I try to keep in harness.
SL: Do you still perform many songs from those early years?
JANIS IAN: I do ‘Society’s Child’ pretty much every show, that was the best of the lot for a while. There are others that are all right but they don’t have that clarity.
SL: You then came out of the business for a couple of years.
JANIS IAN: I started recording when I was 14 and a half and I worked steadily until I was 17 and a half. ‘Society Child’ was a very rough introduction to the music industry: it was so volatile and people either loved it so much or hated it so much. Some people hated me so much that it was very difficult. It was before anybody thought about bodyguards and there were a lot of years of getting spat at on the street or as I walked on stage. When I was 17 and a half, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be in the music business. I thought about becoming a vet or an archaeologist or anything that would not have people spitting on me with such regularity.
SL: And your peers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were that much older.
JANIS IAN: They were a lot older and they were very good to me. Joan, in particular, was always wonderful to me. Odetta was great to me and also Dave Von Ronk, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t have much of a connection with people my own age and I needed some time to grow up. I went away for three and a half years and I was working at whether I could be a songwriter, a really good songwriter. I didn’t want to be average, and then I wrote ‘Stars’ and then I wrote ‘Jesse’. When I finished those two, I figured that I could call myself a songwriter.
SL: And ‘Stars’ is about coming to terms with recognition.
JANIS IAN: Yes, particularly early recognition. ‘Stars’ is my longest song, it is seven and a half minutes long and it is my most covered song. I think it is the quintessential performer’s song as it talks about being a performer both from the inside and from the outside. Because I’d had three and a half years out of it, I had some hindsight. ‘Stars’ can afford a gentle view of the whole process without being bitter or being angry, but it is saying to the audience, ‘Look, this is a rough life, but I have chosen it so don’t pity me. If you just put up with the occasional blunder, then I will be here.’
SL:You have had a pretty colourful and traumatic life since then: does that help your songwriting?
JANIS IAN: I don’t think that trauma and pain have squat to do with being a good writer, I really don’t. If nothing else, it gets in the way of the time that you need to be writing. Everybody has a rough life. It’s rough going to a factory every day. My father’s life was rough: his father died when he six and he was trying to make ends meet with just his mom and three kids on a farm. He wasn’t able to go to college and he was drafted into the army. My mother had multiple sclerosis, so my life has just had ups and downs compared to that.
SL: But it comes out in the songs.
JANIS IAN: I don’t know. In ‘Days Like These’ it comes out directly but the older you get as an artist, the more you search for the universal. Your own life becomes uninteresting except in the scope of making your understanding a bit deeper. I know some artists who have led absolutely charmed lives who write fantastic songs and I know other artists who have led horribly traumatic lives and can’t write anything worth beans. When you are a kid, the concept of great suffering making great art is very attractive but you get a bit older and the suffering is not so much fun.
SL: You wrote a song about your husband beating you up in ‘His Hands’.
JANIS IAN: Yes, but I started it before I knew him, so how much direct experience is it? That song has got some direct experience in it but I read a lot and do a lot of research. That sounds awful but that is how I approach ‘Tattoo’ or ‘His Hands’ or ‘I Hear You Sing Again’ on the new album which is from a scrap of a Woody Guthrie lyric. By the time I had received that scrap, I had read three books about Woody and I had listened to everything he had ever recorded. I tried to know him and how he thought and what was important to him as I didn’t want to write the song without any cognisance of him as a man. So a lot of what I do is just plain research.
SL: How did you get involved with that Woody Guthrie lyric?
JANIS IAN: His daughter called me and asked if I would be interested in finishing something and adding a melody. She sent me 11 and that was at the bottom of the pile. I took one look at the first line, ‘If I could only hear my mother sing again’ and I thought, ‘This one’s mine.’ The melody popped into my head and I wrote it in a day and a half. That is because I was prepared. As they say in Nashville, you keep the motor oiled, so when you are ready to take the car out, it moves.