by Lydia Hutchinson
The sign that hung on the studio door simply read, "You have
nothing left to lose." For Janis Ian, who was behind those
doors recording her first album in twelve years, that was
no catch phrase. It was a clear and concise statement of her
Breaking Silence, her new album released on the Morgan Creek
label, is dark and moody, filled with the kind of vivid images
that pull the listener in close, and then hit them hard. A
skill which Janis has whittled into a fine art.
Born a second-generation American, Janis considers herself
a true American success story. "My people came here to get
away from persecution," she says. "All the reasons we were
told as we were growing up that America was formed were exactly
why my family landed here." Her grandparents were immigrants
who worked at menial labor. Janis was born in 1951 on a New
Jersey chicken farm where her parents worked, and her father
later became a music teacher while her mother became an administrative
assistant to a university dean. "I'm the first person in my
family to own a house, so it really is the American success
story to me."
Janis achieved her first hit with Society's Child, a song
about racial discrimination, at the tender age of fifteen.
The song was banned by radio because of its controversial
nature and it wasn't until Leonard Bernstein featured her
on his TV special and called her "a marvelous creature" that
it became a top-ten hit. Society's Child established Janis
Ian as a writer of substance, but because of its political
nature she had threats on her life and there were areas of
the country where she couldn't tour--all at an age when simply
trying to grow up is a struggle. She left the music industry
at eighteen and returned in 1973 when Roberta Flack had a
hit song with Jesse. Her 1976 album, Between the Lines, was
nominated for five Grammy awards (the most any female artist
had received at once), and produced what she says is her career
song, At Seventeen.
As a child star in the 60s, Ian's memories include Janis
Joplin sending her home from parties where drugs were being
used, and "hanging out" with Jimi Hendrix ‹trading guitar
and organ licks--on the night Martin Luther King died. Her
life has been such a fascinating journey that three major
offers have been made for her autobiography, but she claims
she doesn't remember enough to write it. "I have some big
blank spots in my early years because they were so rough,"
she says. "I keep saying if any fans out there have any old
ticket stubs I'd like to know where I was!"
In the late 80's, Janis discovered that her accountant had
failed to pay her tax bills for seven years. The government
took her house and her savings, and left her with her clothes
and instruments. So she sold her piano and stage clothing
and moved to Nashville in 1988 to "begin again."
Did you find Nashville a sort of healing place?
Very much so. I arrived here with 4 pieces of furniture and
my records in storage in L.A. I had three guitars, my clothes,
and my song notebooks in the trunk of the car, and I had me.
I rented an apartment over a parking garage. The songwriter's
community of Nashville had basically said "why don't you move
here...we could use people like you here," and they really
made me feel so welcome. My first Christmas in Nashville I
lived with Don and Polly Schlitz. And Thom Schyler was great.
Virginia Team from Team Designs would show up at my door with
coffee and donuts in the morning. People knew I was going
through a rough time and they were really nice. The Bluebird
was always open-armed to me. So it felt good. And it felt
great to be out of L.A.
How did you dig yourself out of the hole you were in?
I really look at it that I lucked in because I had bought
real estate in California when Seventeen was a hit, and it
was worth half of my debts. And then for three years, my business
manager, Al Hagaman, and I just tried to dig me out of the
hole. And it got the point where you can't dig because you
can't go on the road because they attach all of the receipts.
And you can't publish or sign a contract because they attach
all of that. So in '91, Al put together a deal where I sold
my catalog from 1972 to 1979 to Toshiba EMI for a very high
figure and that paid the rest of my debt and provided me with
a serious down payment on a house and really got me the ability
to start over.
What hurdles did you face as a young star?
Well I was fourteen so that's already a problem. I couldn't
sign a contract without it going through the surrogate's court
for the protection of widows and orphans. And everything was
very complicated because of that. I have vivid memories of
stupid stuff like not being able to book the musicians because
I was too young. Or to run a session. The hurdles weren't
that different from anyone else, except when you are an adolescent,
it's so hard just existing, that the added pressure of expecting
yourself to be brilliant and to communicate and to become
a whole and honest person is a lot.
What kind of problems did you have to deal with as a female
in the recording industry in the 60s?
I remember violent arguments with TV people in L.A. when I
was fifteen about wearing pants or wearing dresses. I remember
those arguments when I was in my early twenties. Women don't
wear pants on stage or on TV, don't do this, don't do that.
Constant fights over who would lead the band on a TV show.
Constant arguments over using my own band. I run into that
a lot. There's this assumption that if you're male and have
a band - it's your band. But if you're female, they're pickup
musicians. I don't know why that is.
So do you think the attitude has changed much over the
Well, the dress thing's not an issue (laughs). I think it's
still an issue with bands. Particularly overseas when you're
working somewhere like Japan. You're just not regarded as
a musician. It's an issue on the feminist side, too. Some
serious feminists, and I say that with all due respect, came
down on me a few months ago because I didn't have any more
women in my band. And I got really offended because it's a
three-piece band and I am the guitarist and pianist. Outside
of me there's just two other people, so we have a 33% ratio.
But it was like I wasn't in the band. There was this assumption
on some weird level that as a female and as a singer I was
not a serious musician. I think it's still harder for women
because the expectations are so weird. No one knows what to
do with us anymore. We do it to ourselves, too.
What has helped you to gain respect as a musician?
I find that the fact that I can notate and I can score means
that I can talk to a band in their language. I have had the
respect as a musician of some seriously notable people. I
mean, Chick Corea thinks I'm a wonderful pianist, Chet Atkins
thinks I'm a wonderful guitarist. And that beats it to me.
How much does the rest matter?
Do you teach classes on songwriting?
I don't really teach...it's more like I frontally attack young
people for being songwriters (laughs). Berklee School of Music
up in Boston called me to do a three-day master's series about
three years ago and it has kind of evolved into what I think
is a wonderful relationship. And I think what has really made
a difference is that I studied theater with Stella Adler who
was one of the great teachers.
What kind of approach do you have to teaching?
When I go in to teach, I have two or three things in mind.
First I want to get rid of the chaff and keep the wheat. So
I want to discourage anybody who shouldn't be there - which
means I get really brutal with them. Second of all I go in
with the attitude that we're all writers together, it's all
first name basis - none of this Ms. Ian stuff - show me that
you're as good as I am or that you can be as good as I am.
And number three, work your butt off, I like you--you don't
work, I hate you. It's all real simple to me - real straightforward.
And I think kids respect that.
What is one of the hardest things about trying to write
One of the hardest things of all is to start. Just sitting
down and getting over your own intimidations. Every professional
songwriter I know - people who do it 100% for their living
- is terrified every time they sit down to write. You're always
convinced that your next song is going to be your last, or
that it's going to be your worst, or that you'll never be
able to write anything as good as your hit. It's a constant
terror. I think all artists live in a constant state of terror.
And part of our job is to know our own chaos well enough to
be able to make sense of it when you can.
How do you get past that block?
When I sit down to write I use any and all means. In my early
20s I used to sit down and force myself to write a song a
day just to write something. And they're horrible - but they're
songs. Somewhere in your unconscious it's going in that you've
finished something. I start with titles, a feel, a guitar
lick, a line. When I'm not writing and I'm real blocked I
force myself to play - to practice and things come out of
that. And then there's a point when I stop pushing it.
You walk away from it?
I think it's real important to allow your creativity to take
its own course. It's very hard to let your talent lead. Stella
used to always say that your talent lies in your choices.
To me your life is a series of choices and when you're trying
to be a creative artists, one of the choices has to be not
to be creative here and there. Go to the grocery, walk around,
do normal things.
Do you find the second verse the hard one to write?
I find second verses really hard. Third verses are sometimes
like pulling teeth, but by then you're in the home stretch,
you just hit the wall and go through. But second verses sometimes
are just mondo painful. There are songs that I've written
where we've re-written the second verse and I've never quite
felt like it was as good as we originally had it, but by then
we had moved so far away that we couldn't go back. Unwinding,
which Maura O'Connell cut, was like that. We originally had
a second verse that was real different, and I think I still
like it better, but Kye's instincts are so right on that sort
of stuff that I would hate to cross it.
When you're writing, do you keep the vocalist in mind?
Yeah. You need to consider things like breathing. Songwriters
who are not singers forget that singers have got to breathe.
And range. If you're writing for pitching, you've got to watch
your range. I don't have a great range so I tend to watch
that anyway. I have the opposite problem. I have to sit there
and try to come up with a broader range than I would normally
reach for. Awkward chord progressions that are in there just
because you want it to sound different. Different for the
sake of different is just so boring. I watch that. It's nice
to give a singer something that they can run with. Jazz singers
in particular want something that they can play with. I have
a tendency to put too many words into a line. So I try to
back myself off and be calmer about that. Leave people room
What is the difference in what you describe as a craft
writer vs. an instinctive writer?
To me a craft writer at its utmost is the worst of Nashville.
It's what people are scared of when they move here. It's someone
who gets up and writes 9 to 5, writes for a specific artist,
sits down and thinks what that artist would want to sing,
treads a very narrow line, never gives the artist anything
to stretch, never takes any chances, and doesn't really have
a good time after three or four years. An instinct writer
at its worst is someone who is responsible for writing the
lead song in the title track, and the movie is running three
months late because they just don't feel it yet. Or they've
got a second verse on a song and you can't understand what
the hell they're talking about. You want to cut this song
but this second verse is weird, and they say "Oh, no, man,
that's how I felt it." At its worst it's incredibly boring.
But at both of their best, I think you get this wonderful
blend of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin. They are craft writers
who really allow their instinct to breathe.
What other writers can you think of that are a blend of
There are not many writers where everything they touch is
wonderful. Growing up, one of my favorite albums was Nina
Simone's "Wild is the Wind." There wasn't a bad song on it.
There wasn't a bad vocal lick, there wasn't a bad piano note,
there wasn't a bad arrangement. It was this wonderful blend
of songs like "Four Women" that were instinct married to tremendous
harnessing of her own talent and craft. That's what I strive
for, and that to me is what great songwriters become. A Cole
Porter where he is absolutely brilliant and witty, but he
kicks off from this instinctive leap that you would never
make yourself, and then takes it to a place that you would
never think of. Moon River--one of the great lyrics and melodies.
You can hear them thinking "Oh, we need a bridge." But then
the bridges are really unexpected in some of their songs.
A lot of the Johnny Mercer songs you go "Wow, what's that
doing there." I would never have thought like that and yet
once you've heard it that way, that's the only way it could
be. Yesterday - I mean to take a song with an adequate bridge,
and yet melodically that bridge is just brilliant. And I was
reading that they just sat there and went "Oh, we're recording
and we need a bridge." Boom. That's why I tell the kids that
I work with to just write. Because once you've gotten your
machinery oiled, when the great idea comes along you can go
ahead and harness it. But if you've got no control over your
own talent, you're gonna end up really boring. One of those
singers who looks at their feet all the time. (Pause) Not
that I'm opinionated on any of this (laughs)!
Do you think that a lot of songwriters "sell-out" to commercialism?
I wish to God I could be more commercial. That would be a
great blessing in my life. I just don't have the knack. I
don't see anything wrong with being commercial. I think it's
a gift. It takes a long time for a writer to know their own
strengths. One of the strengths that I have is that I write
sociologically political songs, or however you want to term
them, and that's what I do well. I write songs that make people
feel and that touch people. I don't write songs that everybody
in the world can sing - that's a different gift I have to
work at that. Work at your weaknesses and keep track of your
strengths. I don't have anything against commercialism and
I think it's real dangerous when writers get on a high horse
about it because it blindsides you. You end up turning down
things that could be very important to you and you end up
being snotty about things just because you can't do them.
Most of the writers I know who have a bug about commercialism
can't be commercial. When Elton John has a bug about it then
I'll say something. When somebody with a 20 or 30 year career
of hit records says something, I'll listen.
Tell me about the writing of 'At Seventeen.'
Long and laborious. A three month process - and three months
to me means I work on it every day. I got the verse and the
first bridge to Seventeen in maybe a week, and I personally
think it shows in the second verse that it was so hard because
I couldn't figure out what to do. So in the end I just ran
with it, and to me it's very sloppy. It says a lot, but it
says it in this kind of inverted form. But I think that the
second verse turns it into an intellectual song. And then
the third verse was so hard because I didn't know what to
do with her at the end. I wanted a happy ending, and yet I
didn't know how to have a happy ending and still be truthful
to the song and to myself. And it was real important to me
by then that the song be truthful to me because I really felt
like I had a serious career song, and it was the first one
that I'd ever written where I felt that way. I really didn't
want to screw it up, and half of that three month time was
spent in just not screwing it up.
You never had another singer record that song?
No, it's had a lot of instrumentals, but it's never had another
singer tackle it. Which is interesting because a lot of singers
have it as part of their repertoire until they start making
records, and I think it's until they find their own voice.
I meet a lot of people who sang it in high school or in clubs
when they were younger, but it's really a career song - it's
my song. I'm so closely identified with it.
Tattoo, on your new album, is about a concentration camp
survivor. What was the writing of that song like?
Another three month song. Tattoo was every night. Made me
And you did research for it?
Yeah, I don't know why, I don't know where that came from
because certainly I grew up on holocaust stories being Jewish
and second generation. For some reason in 1989 I had this
hunger to read about it. I had read about it as a kid and
then forgotten about it. I went to the Santa Monica Library
and read everything I could get my hands on for three months
- obsessively. I knew I wanted to write a song like that,
but had no idea of even where to start. Those are the kind
of songs that are really frightening to write, because if
you blow it, you blow it so big. And if you do it well, you've
got to let part of it be where you're on a runaway horse and
it takes its own head. I think it's the best song - as a song
- on the album. It's the best work piece. I'd love to write
a song like that a year. It was great for someone like me,
coming out of the school of At Seventeen, to have written
a story where you're not part of it and you never bring yourself
into it. I'm real proud of tattoo.
What about Jesse, Roberta Flack's 1973 hit?
It was really about a missing Vietnam Vet. If you just look
at the first verse and the first chorus it could be. Another
three month song. I got the idea for Jesse when I was about
fourteen at camp. It was Bobby or some 2-syllable man's name.
I got most of that first verse then when I was real young,
put it on a scrap of paper, and then really didn't sit down
and write it until years later when I was going through some
old stuff. It's a wonderful chorus and I think I was so proud
of my soprano that I had to find some place to put it (laughs).
To me it's a real singer's chorus. It's a weird song to me
because it doesn't really have an ending. I finished it when
I was about twenty and it taught me that you can take your
last chorus and change it up a little bit and your whole song
When you and Kye Fleming wrote What About The Love, were
you wondering about the kind of accessibility the song would
We just assumed no one would cut it. We hit the first chorus
and looked at each other and said, "God it would be great
if Amy Grant would cut this" and then we both laughed at the
same time and said she'd never touch it. So it was really
cool when Amy cut it. It teaches you to be humble. We were
working on some other song in Kye's living room. She was working
on a bridge to something else and I got really bored - it's
really boring watching another lyricist work - and I started
fiddling with the guitar. I came up with the part that started
with the 'and' of 8 and really liked it. And then I got this
little melody started in my head and said "Hey Kye, try that".
I said "I went to see my sister, she was living with friend,
who'd turned into a preacher" and Kye said "To save the world
from sin" and the whole song evolved like that - it was Kye
said, then I said. It was a rough song to write, but it was
like a two-day song and it pretty much flowed.
You have said that Some People's Lives is the best song
you've ever been involved with.
It's a faultless song. It is now hopefully on its way to becoming
somewhat of a standard. We wrote it in '86 and pitched it
to everyone in the music biz and nobody would touch it. We
had some really nice reactions and as a songwriter it's so
rare that you get reactions like that. I remember Anita Baker
actually called MCA to thank us and to say that it was one
of the best songs she'd ever heard but it didn't work for
her album. And I thought "what a class act." People never
do that. Nobody cut it until Michael Johnson in 1988. I did
an NAS show in L.A. and Bette Midler was there. I found out
later that she requested a video of it, and learned it, and
we didn't find out she was intending to cut it until the middle
of 90. So it was over four years until Bette cut it.
Have you ever had a bad co-writing experience?
Just one. I had written with a songwriter from England, and
I don't even know if he was directly involved in this, but
I got a panic call from the producer and record company asking
me to totally re-write three sets of lyrics in five days for
them to go into the studio on the sixth day and cut them.
The problem was that they had already cut the tracks and the
background vocals, so it was real limited. I did a really
good job on it. Then we got a fax saying that since they already
had the tracks and the titles, they considered it a 20-80
split, and I just went retro. I don't work that way, I've
never worked that way. I don't know anybody that does. And
I said that was totally unfair and then they came back and
said 30-70, still unfair, and by that time they had cut them
and the record company wanted them for singles and they said
we'll do 35-65 or something really stupid, and it ended up
where they couldn't use them - we wouldn't license them. Counting
lines makes people crazy. And it's a very bad business move
because you're assuming you're never going to need that person
You haven't recorded anything you didn't write?
Except for a Nescafé commercial in Japan, and a McDonald's
& Budweiser commercial here. There used to be a tremendous
amount of pressure for me to record other people's material.
Particularly as a kid, and I may have been wrong, I don't
know. I did turn down You Light Up My Life. And I would have
done a really good job on it and I would probably record it
now, but it seemed real important at the time since there
were so few women writers, to prove the point. And now it's
just that I haven't ever done it. Every time I hear somebody's
song that I'd like to record, I end up writing one better
Did you have a more difficult time getting signed to a
label on your latest album, as compared to your previous ones?
Yeah, we got told over and over while we were pitching this
album that everybody loved it - no one turned it down because
they didn't like it or that they didn't think it would make
money. The continuing comment was "if she were only unknown."
The label copy on your new album says you used "No synthesizers,
vocal limiters or samples of any sort" were used.
That was written on the album cover as a challenge. We were
all real proud. I like synthesizers, I use them a lot, but
they tire my ears now. I'm tired of samples. On the vocal
limiter, that's a gauntlet to me. There are few singers left
who you can plug into a 24-track machine and let them sing
without using a limiter and I find that appalling. I find
it awful that people don't know how to work with their own
technology. And it was real important to me on this record
not to have a limiter on there. We cut Some People's Lives
live to two-track. Me, a piano and two microphones. We wanted
to illustrate that can still be done. And the percussion sounds
and slide basses were not synthesizers - they were real people
playing in a room that sometimes had vaulted ceilings. There
are people that work very hard with their instruments. There
was this part in Breaking Silence where the guitar does a
strut. That's an acoustic guitar that I'm playing with harmonics.
Everybody says that's a synthesizer, but that's really what
human beings can play. I got tired of running into people
who could program but not play.
Twelve years is a long stretch between albums.
Yeah. But it's good in a lot of ways because I didn't want
a lot of those years on record. I didn't like what I was writing.
It took me a while to find my voice again, I think.
Excerpted with permission
from Performing Songwriter magazine:
The Performing Songwriter
P.O. Box 158159
Nashville, TN 37215