Janis Ian at Swallow Hill May 11, 2002
By Elizabeth Nitz
After a glowing welcome from Swallow Hill staff, Janis Ian took the stage already strumming a wireless guitar. She started with the haunting, “Stolen Fire,” and the audience was silent as her voice effortlessly filled the room. At the end, she lightened the mood, warning the audience of an impending sing-a-long. Obviously a veteran in front of a crowd, she kept the audience laughing between sad, sweet love songs and biting political commentary.
She told the story of how she went on Howard Stern’s show, and what a sweet, polite guy he was until they went live. Fortunately she was just as quick on the draw and could match him jab for jab. Then she played “Society’s Child,” her 1967 controversial interracial relationship song, to appreciative applause.
She proceeded “Boots Like Emmy Lou’s” with a hilarious story about a discussion with Chet Atkins where he laid out exactly what needed to be in a hit song so she could make a lateral move into the country scene. Winking and including the audience in each pun as she played, she turned her powerful guitar into percussion, lap steel, and fiddle. The raucous applause lasted nearly a minute and she beamed at the crowd.
The slow, introspective “Mary’s Eyes” was written in Ireland while touring with Mary Black. The song did not make it onto her latest CD but has been popular in her shows. She sang the Celtic flavored song with a convincing Irish accent.
She described “The Other Side” as a song written before it had meaning, and as the story of a fallen firefighter unfolded, it was obvious it was “given to her,” as she says, before the events of September 11. Her looping technology allowed her to harmonize with herself in a powerful ending.
She opened the second set with “Jesse,” barely a whisper of a song, and kept the pace slow for the next few songs. Again lightening the mood, the outspoken Jew from New Jersey described a song she wrote with a friend that criticized modern Christianity and dared Amy Grant to record it. Ms. Grant took her up on the offer, recorded “What About The Love” on her album Lead Me On which went platinum, and Janis had a new crowd of young Christians who left each show shell-shocked.
She wound a few more good tales then cut into “At Seventeen.” The applause would not stop as she thanked the audience for the privilege of being able to comfort them in hard times, harbor their dreams, and make magic. She then showed off her technical proficiency and creativity with a long guitar jam in the middle of “Take No Prisoners,” mugging for the photographer and interacting with the front row. Strains of Jimi Hendrix and fancy pedal effects prompted laughter, and at the end the crowd rose to its feet. She hid backstage for a couple seconds then reemerged and triumphantly said, “Some nights you wish you did actually finish high school, but tonight was one of them!”
The sing-a-long turned out to be “These Boots are Made for Walking,” continuing the country theme, and the audience responded enthusiastically. The evening went by very quickly although she played for nearly three hours. She vowed to autograph CDs after the performance, again underscoring how important her fans were to her.
Posted in Live Show Reviews Tagged with: Janis Ian
By Alex Teitz
Janis Ian has a long history in the public eye. From her first hit single, “At Seventeen” written when she was a teenager, to her appearance on Saturday Night Live (she was the show’s first musical guest), to her numerous Grammy nominations 70’s, 80’s and 90’s Ian has remained a force in the music world. Listing all her accomplishments would be like listing every person born in every country this decade.
Ian is an innovator. Her latest album, God and The FBI, due out March 21 is no exception. The title comes from Ian actually obtaining her family’s FBI file that showed her family was under surveillance long before Ian ever picked up a guitar. For more information on Ian visithttp://www.JanisIan.com
FEMMUSIC: Tell me about the making of God and the FBI. Specifically the “bunker mentallity.”
JI: My attitude was, I really wasn’t sure if I was going to have a chance to make another album with that kind of budget. I figured, if I’m not ever gonna have another chance, why don’t I do just do all things I’ve wanted to do. One of them was to work with a band, but not a band that my band that I hired and paid. A group of people who had a common goal. In order to that I felt I had to find a community in this little group. Philip, my sound man, suggested we record in a house. And when we met Jim Cregan, one of the co-producers, he said, “Sort of a bunker mentallity.” And I said, “That’s a perfect way to put it. A bunker mentallity. Us and the rest of the world.”
For those three or four months all of the influences that we should be dealing with should be the influences we all bring to the table. We don’t want to bring in someone to play a bass part if one of us can play it. We started out with that ethic, and with the attitude that we were a little oasis of sanity in the middle of LA in Beverly Hills where we were stuck. That’s basically what happened.
We stayed in house. Philip and I lived there. Mark pretty much lived there. Jim had children so he went home every night, but we were really all there for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and after dinner every day for five-six-seven days a week for the three months. It made for a very different recording attitude I think. Made for very different, sound than I’ve ever had before. So you can really hear there’s a lot of stuff in there that I would never come up with that came up because the other people felt free enough to contribute.
FEMMUSIC: “Murdering Stravinsky” has a different style than the rest of the CD. What can you tell me about that song?
JI: It’s interesting. There’s always one song on every album where people go, “I don’t get it. What is that?” That’s been the song since the day that we’ve been playing it back for people. I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t said, “Huh?!” , except for a couple of writers. Writers usually have your attitude. They get it. They’re curious about it, but they get the message.
I’d started it. I was listening to a Brazillian album by a woman named Adrianna Calcamyato called Meritni. It’s kind of complicated. She was coming out of this whole Tropicala movement. Tropicala was this movement that they started in Brazil to basically tear down everything and start again. I thought, well god I felt like that when I was like fifteen and fourteen. “Tear it all down. Start all over again. Re-invent the wheel.”
Well I thought, “What happens when an artist really believes that?” and they get together with a bunch of artists who really believe that and then they decide to…and then I was talking to Philip who’s fifteen years younger than I am and I was saying, “When I was kid we were busy tearing down Stravinsky. We were busy tearing down Revel. The generation before us tore down Beethoven. Who would you tear down?” , and he said, “Beatles, Dylan, Stones. You know all of them.” And I thought, “Cool.” So I wrote that first verse and the chorus and brought Philip in for the rest of it. We worked out the melody and stuff together. Then when it came time to record it, I just wanted it to be bizzarre. I didn’t want it to sound like, “Oh here’s an acosutic guitar, here’s a lyric, let’s do it!”
I actually wanted to go a lot further than we ended up going ’cause the guys felt if we took it too much further NOBODY would get it. And I kept saying, “Well I don’t care.” , but cooler heads prevailed.
FEMMUSIC: “The Last Comeback” seems like a contradiction. You’re not an artist who’s ever disappeared. What can you tell me about the song, and your goals for the CD?
JI: That’s more a public perception or a press preception. I know I’ve had the tag since I was seventeen or eighteen so to me the words “comeback” don’t really mean a lot, but they do a lot of other people. It makes good copy. The song’s a response to that. You get tired of banging on doors. I think you can go one of two ways. You can go the Whitney Houston way, or Michael Jackson of “all fame is great” and I’ll do anything to stay famous. I’ll record anything. Do whatever is necessary. I shouldn’t say “do anything.” Do whatever is necessary to maintain that, and keep building it.
Or you can go my way which I decided. If my world is comprised on 300-700 seats a night that’s great ’cause that means I can still earn a living. I guess that’s what “The Last Comeback” is about. To me, it’s very much a song of acceptance.
FEMMUSIC: Acceptance of where you are?
JI: And knowledge that you’re not going much of anywhere, but you’re having a good time anyway.
FEMMUSIC: How has your music changed over time?
JI: Hopefully it’s better. Hopefully it’s cleaner. I always look at it as a songwriter, and I’m a much better songwriter than I when was as a kid. That would be the main change. It’s just cleaner. Can’t really say it’s bolder because I always took chances. I can’t say it’s more or less interesting because I don’t know. I don’t look at it that way. It’s more satisfying as a writer to me, and it’s more satisfying to record. I don’t really think about it much.
FEMMUSIC: As a woman in the music industry, have you faced discrimination?
JI: Oh sure. Of course. Starting when I was thirteen and wanted to join a band. (In deep voice) “Bands don’t have girls. Girls can’t play guitar.” I’m sure, but you can’t get crazy about it. If you get crazy about it then they win. So my policy has usually been to ignore it and if some guy is stupid enough to continue to call me “baby, sweetie, honey, baby, chick” or telling me that I can’t do something because I’m a girl then I don’t work with them. I mean I’m in a privileged position. I don’t usually have a boss. There’s not usually someone above me who can prevent me from doing things because I’m a female. And you see it less and less. It’s much better than it was twenty years ago. Still not where it should be, but it is better. So yes, but “Fuck ’em!”
FEMMUSIC: What would you like to see changed most in the music industry?
JI: (Laughter) Oh it’s a big question! I’d like to see the stakes lowered. Like to see a lot less money on the top end because I think what’s happened over the last thirty years is that it’s become a real pyramid. It was a much more level playing field thirty years ago. The sharks really hadn’t moved in. It wasn’t a billions and billions and billions of dollars business. We didn’t have people who came out of school with a business degree deciding they’d go into music ’cause it was a growth industry. I’d like to see that changed.
I’d like to see a world where we’re not software anymore. I think that’s been the major change since the late ’70’s. Artists have become…where as before in order to sell product you had to have an artist. Now artists are basically a loss leader for selling a new version like CDs, or DVDs or Video’s or whatever. We’re sort of the last thing that they throw in there because it’s hard to interest the consumer in buying a new format without something to hang on. And in that respect we’ve become another word perfect program. As soon as they can find a way to get rid us, they will. So I’d like to see that changed. It would be nice to see effort to educate the public that art is important to a nation, and it’s people. That art holds our history and therefore our future, but as long as record companies are more interested in putting out a new version of CD-ROMs rather than sponsoring a music teacher for a school that can’t afford one that’s not gonna change. I don’t think they understand that they’re raising up a couple of generations of kids whose only concept of music is that it’s something foreign, alien that you buy at the store. That it’s a very passive form of entertainment.
I don’t think they’ve done what the sports world has done which has turned around and go, “We need raise up a generation of players here. We need to raise up a generation of people who are saved.” Music does that too. Music does that better than anything because you don’t need equipment for it. You need a voice, hands, garbage pail, but record companies aren’t very interested in that. The publishers. I’d like to see that changed.
I’d like to go back to analog and vinyl. (Grin) There’s no chance of that.
FEMMUSIC: What advise would you give to an artist just starting out?
JI: Don’t do this if you have any other choice.
JI: Because it’s brutal. It’s brutal to be an artist. At the very top echelon, or close to the top we’re very overcompensated, and very well treated. But anything under that half of a half of a half gets beat up every day. I spend my life having doors slammed in my face. If I had a nickel for every broken nose I’ve gotten from that I’d be wealthy. It’s brutal business. It’s a brutal way of living because if you really dedicate yourself to it than it comes first. It comes first before your lover. It comes first before your children. It comes first before you, and that’s brutal. That’s really hard. Keeping your edge as you get older is brutal. Staying open is brutal. Those are all things…artists don’t get vacations. Artist don’t get time off. Artists, if they’re really dedicated to being artist, don’t run away. Don’t hide. Don’t sedate themselves. They’re consumed by their goal of getting out whatever is in. That’s something I don’t think you should dedicate yourself to unless there’s no other alternative. It’s just too hard. That would be my first piece of advise.
My second piece would be, “Don’t listen to anybody, and listen to everybody.” Just take it all with a grain of salt, and follow your instincts. ‘Cause that’s all you’ve got. Really.
Posted in Interviews Tagged with: Janis Ian