Interview with Janis Ian by David Gardiner in 2008 (Gold Dust)

Janis Ian in 1969

Janis Ian in 1969

Janis Ian now

Janis today

Your entry to the international music scene came at a very young age and was highly controversial. Looking back on this, do you think it helped or hindered your later career? Also, in your early teens, do you think you were emotionally prepared for the attention that it brought you?

I actually don't think it made much difference, in the long run. The great advantage of starting so young - I had my first song published at 13, made my first record at 14, had my first self-written hit at 15 - is that at that age, you have no concept of mortality. That's very freeing. As to my early teens, that's such a horrible age for anyone! I doubt it made much difference; I would have spent my entire adolescence having angst anyway... Actually, I was kind of appalled when I was working on my autobiography and hit those years, to see what a self-centered little shit I was for most of them...

Your song At Seventeen is already revered as an alltime classic and rediscovered by each new generation as the years go by. Do you find that this one song overshadows much of your subsequent work, at least in the popular mind, or are you happy to have it as the defining song by which most people know you?

I love that song, and I never get tired of singing it. I feel very fortunate in two respects: first, while At 17 is the big classic in the US, and somewhat in Europe, my big hits in Australia and Southeast Asia are completely different. Second, every song I've had a hit record with, be it Jesse or Society's Child or Fly Too High or Love Is Blind or whatever, is a song I like, and more important, a song I think was well-written. In that respect, it never bothers me either.

I have seen a semi-serious review that said that you 'make Leonard Cohen sound like a comedy singer'. Is there a reason why many of your songs explore the melancholy side of life and human relationships, or do you think that this is in fact a misconception?

I would absolutely never have said that, even in fun... mainly because I think he's a wonderful singer, and I don't think I'm half the singer I'd like to be. As to the rest, I think "deep" is probably more accurate than "melancholy". Heck, somebody's got to do it...

There was a break in your output of new work between the early 1980s and the early 1990s, followed by your very successful CD 'Breaking Silence'. What was the reason for this 'silence', or is it something you would rather not discuss?

Let me tell you, after writing 350 pages worth of my own life, there's nothing I care about discussing or not discussing! I took the break because I had fallen into the grind of make album for 2-3 months, release album and tour for 6-8 months, try to come up with eleven brilliant songs in the time between. It was destroying my writing, and the writing has always come first - before me, before relationships, before career, comes the writing. I think part of my job as an artist is to nurture and care for the gifts I was given, and taking long breaks like those are part of it.

Do you consider that the melancholy that many people find in your songs is a major part of your own personality or is it wrong to confuse Janis the artist with Janis the person?

Honestly, I have no idea. I think probably those people have never really listened to an entire album, and certainly not the recent ones, with things like My Autobiography on them. Or Married In London, up on my website for free download. I actually am quite funny, when I'm not living up to my reputation for depression.

It's well known that at a particular point in your life you decided that your sexuality was gay rather than 'straight' and that you now have a very happy relationship with a woman partner. Do you think that your music changed in any way with this change in your personal life, or would you (like me) consider that the subject matter of your songs is completely universal and it would be a mistake to categorise you as a lesbian or gay singer/songwriter?

I don't think one has anything to do with the other. I also don't think I "decided" on my gender preference. I've always thought a person can love either sex, and I have.

Is the community that has grown up around your website ( and its message-board as significant in your life as it obviously is in the lives of the other members?

Wow. That's a hard one. I think those members are very significant to me, as a human and as a performer. We were online very, very early; I had a website up and running in one form or another by early 1992. I envisioned it as a community, so it's really nice that it's become one.

Do you compare yourself to other artists or would you prefer to be thought of as a completely individual voice in the music world? What do you feel when you are bracketed with other singer/songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Dori Previn, Suzanne Vega etc.?

Honestly, I don't really care either way.

What do you think is special about the people who come to your concerts and buy your CDs? Are there any unifying characteristics that all Janis Ian fans share?

They're generally well-read and intelligent. That's my take, anyhow.

Would you like to say a few words about The Pearl Foundation?

Just that all my net merchandising money gets donated back to it every year. We've managed to raise $300,000 plus so far, which is amazing. And you can find more information at the Pearl Foundation website.

You have created your own independent recording company and have in the past been highly critical of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Would you recommend this path to anybody building a career in the music industry (at least in the US)?

That depends entirely on the kind of career you want. If you want a global career, with serious money being put into that career, you can't do it the way I'm doing it right now. Remember - I manage myself, run my publishing company and record company, and perform as well. It's a lot of load, and I wouldn't recommend it to a newbie. On the other hand, I own every aspect of myself, too, which is priceless.

You have recently started writing science fiction. Do you see this as a serious new career move or is it something you regard more as a hobby or sideline?

The nice thing about writing is that writing is writing, no matter what the form. If I had more time, I'd stay home and write prose, whatever the form.

Is there a particular reason why you have chosen this moment in your life to write your autobiography?

It was a good excuse to stay home for a year, frankly. And because I was so young, I think I probably have a very different take on the times than my "contemporaries", who are always 7-15 years older than me.

What do you feel about the power that many of your songs exercise over people, often driving them to tears and reaching down to emotional layers that nothing else touches? To what do you attribute this gift?

It's a gift. That's all I know. I respect it and I'm grateful for it.