Nine-time Grammy Award-nominee Janis Ian comes to the Clark for a remarkable double-header, featuring a free book reading on April 19 and a concert on April 20. Ian’s breakthrough hits “Society’s Child (Baby, I’ve Been Thinking)” and “At Seventeen” introduced this formidable talent to the world in the mid-sixties, and Ian has received critical acclaim for her boundary-breaking music ever since. Ian joins us today for a special interview, in which she talks about her roller coaster ride of a life in show business.
THE CLARK: In a conversation with NPR’s Robert Siegel, you said that the attention you received for your first song, “Society’s Child,” was a tough way to start your musical career—“with a song that everyone hates you for.” You received hate mail and death threats. How did this affect you, at such a young age?
JANIS IAN: Well, of course, it was terribly frightening. For years, I was scared of the audience every time I walked on stage. But it also taught me a huge lesson—that music is the most powerful of all the arts, because you need nothing more than a human being and a voice to change hearts and minds.
TC: About “At Seventeen,” you have said, “I’d never sing it in public. It was just too humiliating.” How so? And how have your feelings about this song changed through the years?
JI: “At Seventeen” is about me. It’s about as personal a song as you can get. To unzip like that, in front of strangers…? Pretty scary. Pretty embarrassing.
My feelings began to change the first time I looked out over the audience and realized all of them felt the same way. That amazed me!
TC: You wrote your first song, “Hair of Spun Gold,” when you were twelve. Do you remember what drew you to songwriting, and what inspired this first song?
JI: I honestly don’t. There was always music in our home, and I’d been playing guitar for a couple of years. I think it was just a natural progression.
TC: What advice would you give your twelve-year-old self, if you could take her out for lunch?
JI: Don’t trust anyone with your money!
TC: You wrote a piece called “Tiny Mouse” for The Boat Project, “a 30ft boat crafted by an adventurous team of boat builders and volunteers from wood donated by the public. Each piece of wood has a moving, memorable or extraordinary story behind it,” which have become the inspiration for songs by selected singer-songwriters and musicians from different genres. What was the story that inspired “Tiny Mouse”?
JI: A young woman was going through her father’s things in the attic after he died. She ran across a jack-in-the-box clown with a little drawer at bottom, and found a tiny wooden mouse there. She remembered playing with it as a child. For me, the mouse inspired a song that could take things to the max, no holds barred. I kept thinking of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as I wrote it.
TC: You have said that Nebula Award-winning science fiction writer Mike Resnick is responsible for your first foray into science fiction writing. Why did he sign you up to write an anthology, and what did you learn from writing it?
JI: Mike kept saying he thought I could be a great short story writer and novelist, and I kept telling him I didn’t write stories or novels. He signed me up to force me into writing. I learned that I love to write, and it doesn’t matter what genre!
TC: You have built a successful writing career in many genres, including songwriting, autobiography, science fiction, essays, and poetry. Is there a genre that you would love to try, in which you have not yet experimented?
JI: I really haven’t begun to scratch the surface of writing fiction. I’ve finished exactly nine stories, and it’s going to take a lot more time than I’ve got to ever be good at it. I’m waiting until someone hands me enough money to stay home all the time, at which point I’m going to totally devote myself to that!
TC: You were the musical guest on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live. What do you remember from this performance?
JI: I had a fever of 104 and strep throat, so not much…I remember seeing Jim Henson with The Muppets and laughing my face off. Everyone was incredibly nervous because the show was live. Billy Preston was terrific. All the cast were really nice. No one knew it would be legendary!
TC: In 1983, you took a break from the music business that lasted nine years. What did you do during that time, and what brought you back to music?
JI: I learned not to be monochromatic—I studied a lot of forms besides my own, forms I could fail in, like classical ballet. Forms that led me to new things in my own work, like script analysis and acting. I never left music, though. I wrote all that time. I just didn’t record.
TC: How long did it take you to write Society’s Child: A Life in Song, and what was your process for writing the book?
JI: It took about five months, though I took a lot of time off during that period. I didn’t really have a process beyond the advice [fantasy writer] Mercedes Lackey gave me, which was “Sit butt in chair. Write.” Good advice!
TC: Of Society’s Child: A Life in Song, the ALA Booklist wrote, “She writes casually and conversationally about her ups and downs and the life lessons she learned. Even recounting decisions that were stupid (quite often) and bad things that happened to her (many), she keeps us on her side, hoping things eventually turn out well. Fans will love the book, of course, but many nonfans, too, should find this painfully candid memoir hard to put down.” Could you tell us how you felt during the release of such a “painfully candid” book?
JI: I tried not to think about it, really. I had a group of seven or eight “dedicated readers,” old and new friends and writers who read chapters as I finished and offered criticisms and comments, particularly if they felt I wasn’t putting enough heart into something. When I finished, before I turned it in, I contacted a number of people who are in the book and sent them copies, asking if they felt anything needed correction. (Several asked that I change their names in fact!) But for myself, I wasn’t nervous—I’ve always been pretty open about my life.