One for the records: an interview with Janis Ian

August 1, 2009


The other week, I had to reinforce the plastic shelving that is holding my record collection. The 5-tier shelf was really in danger of falling over, and some of the records were falling off the sides, and the ones in the middle were pushing and bending into the other ones, not helping the cause at all. So I got out my hardhat, safety goggles and carpenter square to cut some boards to use as “bookends” so now the records all stand up straight. In order to connect the shelf to the wall, I had to remove a two by four that was nailed in at an angle in the corner of the garage, for what original purpose I do not know (hopefully – it wasn’t holding the garage together). I was then able to secure the shelf to the wall where it belongs. The only boards we had were ¾ inch, which is probably overkill, but it will do for now, or at least until the next remodel. For the younger folks, music used to be printed on circular pieces of vinyl that came in cardboard containers, called albums. In fact, they seem to be making a comeback now, and more and more bands now advertise that their latest CD is also available on 180-gram heavy duty vinyl. Older music fans like me used to exclusively listen to music on these things, and for some odd sentimental reason, I just can’t seem to give them up. No matter how hard I try. The next task before me was “alphabetizing” the records, so I could have a chance at finding something, or in my case, so I could see if I had anything by a particular artist. It always happens that after you physically move your records from basement to storage unit, to condo, to closet, to milk crates, to garage, to car, back to closet, and finally to garage shelf, they are going to get out of order. And I had country mixed up with miscellaneous, rock mixed with classical, and bluegrass with jazz. Mixed up big time. Two and a half hours later, I slid the last record into place. Success! There is actually a small piece of paper with each letter of the alphabet tucked between the records, separating L from M, C from D and S from T. Don’t worry, I only used this system for the “rock” section. Country, jazz, bluegrass and classical just have their section labeled, and that’s fine. I mean, I can’t get too detailed on this, can I? It’s funny when you do this kind of stuff, because sometimes, things stick out like a sore thumb. Take for instance, the letter I. It turns out, there’s only one record in this whole category. Now who could that be? Well, it turns out this artist has been putting music in this category since she was 14; she still tours and still puts out music when she has something to say. I didn’t know this, but this songwriter-turned-author writes science fiction on the side, and was born in a New Jersey town not too far from where I grew up. Still stumped? OK, she’ll be at Skamania Lodge in Stevenson on Aug. 14, and she was gracious enough to take the time to get back to me. Which, by the way, got me thinking, maybe it’s time for a new record category: “Artists who were nice enough to get back to me for an interview” Read Jim’s interview with Janis Ian here. Interview with Janis Ian You’ll be performing Aug. 14 at Skamania Lodge, in Stevenson Washington, right in the middle of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Have you ever been through here before? Haven’t been to Skamania, or Stevenson, but my partner grew up in Tacoma – does that count? Sprague Street… and we go to Frisco Freeze whenever we can. Does that count?

I recall hearing “At 17” on the radio, (WNEW, New York) and I’m pretty sure I had a copy of that record, too (Between the Lines?). What was it like for you to first hear your songs on the radio? The first time I heard “Society’s Child”, it was blaring out of someone’s transistor radio on Broadway and 85th Street, right outside the supermarket. It blew me away. I wanted to jump up and down, corner people and say Hey, that’s me! That’s meeeeeeeee! I have a hunch that you’re an artist who knows a lot of people. Who do you get to hang out with in today’s music circles? I do know a lot of people, but I don’t hang out with most of them. I lead a pretty quiet life. Honest. Are you touring in support of a new CD? Fortunately for me, those days are pretty much gone. The next projects I’ll be touring behind are the paperback release of my autobiography by Penguin/Tarcher in September, and the Sony Legacy release of The Essential Janis Ian around the same time. But I won’t really be touring to support them; more doing my regular touring gigs, and some press around the two. What’s the songwriting/recording process for you like these days? Do you have a home studio? I had the second or third home studio in LA, and after a year, realized I was spending more time engineering than creating. Haven’t had one since. I’m fortunate in that I can afford to write when I want to write, and record when I actually have something to say. Hope that doesn’t sound snobbish… but I’ve been doing this professionally since I was fourteen, so it’s nice to be able to relax and own my own soul. What’s the main difference between touring today and when you first started out playing music? We get to keep more of the money now. If we’re smart.

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