Emmy Award-winning artist Janis Ian has recently released a compilation of her work so far, entitled The Essential Janis Ian. Janis chatted with Windy City Times about her music, her life and how they intersect.
Windy City Times: How would you describe your music?
Janis Ian: Social music is how I think of it: not political, not folk, not rock but social.
WCT: Who has had the greatest inspiration on your music?
JANIS IAN: Leonard Cohen and the Beatles would be two huge ones, Leonard was just one of the great lyricists of my time. Leonard and Dylan, were if you were a songwriter in my community, those were the two you'd try to beat.
WCT: What inspired you to come out?
JANIS IAN: Well, I was out, for all intents and purposes. Everyone I worked with knew. Then I fell in love with a guy. After that relationship ended … I realized that I coasted towards women. I fell in love with my partner, Pat, 20 years ago.
Urvashi Vaid from [ the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force ] thought it would be good for kids who were living in unsupportive environments to hear that the singer of at 17 was gay, so I came out.
WCT: Do you have any advice for gay and lesbian kids coming of age today?
JANIS IAN: It's a whole other world now; you can't be locked up just for being gay now. Live your life like a normal person. The sooner we start seeing and regarding ourselves as normal the sooner the world will have to view us as normal. I think we've seen that over and over now.
WCT: What is your favorite song?
JANIS IAN: I really don't have a favorite. I'm gratified when "At Seventeen" reaches people where it should reach. You hope that your work will go where it will do the most good.
WCT: Could you tell us a bit about your autobiography?
JANIS IAN: It's a really good beach read, that's what people keep telling me. They all said they picked it up and couldn't put it down. You write a book just like you write a song, and you hope that people will enjoy it. I say that if you read the first few pages and you don't like it, then put it down.
WCT: How has your music changed through the years?
JANIS IAN: As you get older, you develop confidence of a different sort. You don't sweat the small stuff so much. You get more patience with any luck. Now I know that there's going to be another showso if my voice cracks or I can't hit the right noteI know there's another show.
I've gotten a new appreciation for live shows as I've gotten older. When I was younger there were a lot more live shows in smaller venues. Now everything is more of a hassle. There are so many live shows. It's just harder to get bang for your buck, I think.
WCT: Your music tends to be more solemn. Why is this?
JANIS IAN: I think that's just what I do well. Just like some people write funny wellI write funny very rarely. I write about things that make people uncomfortable and give them a safe space to think about such things.
WCT: What is your favorite instrument to play?
JANIS IAN: I'd say bass, but I'm terrible. I do love playing it, though.
WCT: Do you have a close second?
JANIS IAN: I love playing guitar, that's what I do.
WCT: The movie Mean Girls features your song "At Seventeen," and also features a character named Janis Ian, who is dealing with teen angst similar to the song. How does it feel to have such a homage paid to you?
I think it's great. I think it's absolutely great. I think Tina Fey did a wonderful job. When I met her after the movie she was nervous that I'd be pissed off. But I thought it was great. I mean, how often does someone get a character in a movie named after them? It's pretty rare.
WCT: Your music varies so much. Why is this?
JANIS IAN: That's just an accident of talent. I guess I just grew up listening to a lot of different music, and that comes through. It gets boring doing the same thing all the time.
WCT: So, you've even written science fiction. Why?
JANIS IAN: I've just always been a huge science fiction fan. I know a lot of science fiction authors. It's just an area of interest. If I had more time, I'd get more done, but I don't have a lot of time to get to writing these days.
I would start with the best of set- with The Essentials; I think it's a pretty good career overview. They can also go to my Web site, there's a lot of free stuff on there.
WCT: Will you be coming back to Chicago soon?
JANIS IAN: Yes, some time this year. I suggest that people come to my website and check out my tour schedule.
WCT: How do you like Chicago?
JANIS IAN: I think Chicago is great, it's the first place I got to do a stage performance, so I'm very fond of it. Then you have old town school, which is one of the best folk venues I know of.