Trying The Patience Of: Janis Ian
Well, after ten years of reviewing records, we finally scored an interview. And not just any interview, but an interview with the eminently interviewable Janis Ian. Read on...
DBW: This is David Wilson sitting here with Janis Ian.
Janis Ian: Hi, David. This is Janis Ian sitting here with David Wilson.
DBW: We could do this for...
JI: Hours. We could be the geeks of all time.
DBW: So, the new record. I havenít had a chance to hear the new record.
JI: Excellent! No preconceptions. I can lie to you as much as I like.
DBW: Yeah. You can say anything. So, what can we expect?
JI: Itís very simple. Itís pretty straightforward. Thereís a lot of acoustic guitar and vocal - a lot of acoustic guitar, vocal, bass - some acoustic guitar, vocal, bass, drums. So cut it like the sixties, keeping with the whole ethic of turning back the clock and going back to my roots. And itís just three of us sitting around the studio, live, with baffles ahead of us but our heads above them, sitting pretty closely, and we play each song down - we have three days rehearsal at my place, which translated into a couple hours a day of playing and the rest just shooting the shit, and then we cut the whole album in three days; we did all the vocals live; we did no editing, and mixed it. It was great. Three weeks top to bottom.
JI: Yeah. Hopefully, that shows. The song ďFolk is the New Black,Ē um, Iíd written the song as a sing-along for my shows. So I got 30 or 35 friends who are not professionals, and who canít carry a tune to save their lives, and had them sing on the last chorus, and thatís up on the website now because I told my, uh, I told my message board fans that there would be a test at the end of every show and theyíd better be able to sing that chorus.
Itís a little more political than my last works. Itís the first one in 23 or 24 years where Iíve written everything myself, and, uh, thereís some funny stuff on it. Thereís some sad stuff on it. So it runs the gamut.
DBW: Is this the first time youíve recorded that way since -
JI: Since the sixties, pretty much, yeah. We did Revenge sort of like that, but it was a six-piece band, so we had a much bigger room and much more separation. The drummer Steve Gadd was off in a booth, and it was a whole different thing. This way, like thereís one song ďThe Last TrainĒ about - a womanís on a platform in her, well I think of her in her sixties. She asks the Station Master if anybody had been asking for her, and she says, you know, ďIím late, but I thought heíd wait to say goodbye,Ē and the Station Master tells her that the trainís been gone for decades but that 40 years ago that very night the last train left for Vietnam. And then it says ďin the distance thunder roared, the whistle pierced the cricket song, and you can hear tracks of the wheels the last train back from Vietnam.Ē And she starts running toward the train, and it stops, and a young man meets her at the door, and suddenly sheís young again. And it was great, because I recorded it, just me and a guitar, and then I was listening back to other musicians, and I said, ďYou know, itís missing that thing that you get when a group of people are really truly sitting around in a mountain cabin, and somebody starts to sing, and someone else joins in, and someone else joins in,Ē and I said, ďLetís just go out and see what happens.Ē So it turned into this nice tapestry where I picked up a harmonica, and my drummer picked up a big barong and made the sound of thunder, and the bass player just played one long note, but it sort of makes a back drop. The whole albumís like that. I hate the word ďorganicĒ in this context, but it is a very organic album. One of the few albums Iíve ever done where both musicians wanted copies of the songs a month ahead; wrote out their own charts; both wanted lyrics to everything so they could make notes on the lyrics. And there were a couple of songs where I said, ďWell, Iím gonna do this solo,Ē and they went, ďNo, no, no, no no, we should be playing on that!Ē Yeah, it was very alive. Very open.
DBW: Thatís great. That sounds like it was a good recording experience also, right?
JI: Probably the most fun Iíve had in in a couple of decades. And more. Because it felt like we were doing Between the Lines, you know, where it was all live, and weíd do as much of the vocal as we could live, and um, musicians would really contribute. There was none of that ďOh, this is her song and her record.Ē That was always acknowledged, but they both felt real comfortable, and Victor Kraus was on upright, and heís certainly a force to be reckoned with, and Jim Brock, the percussionist drummer, had been with me on just about every album of mine since í92. So they both felt real comfortable putting in their two cents. And then they had Chad Hailey as our engineer, who - man, heís done everybody, and he was - we were all at the point where we were sick of production; we were sick of electronics; and we all just wanted to make a real record with real music.
DBW: I wanted to ask you - a couple records back, I think god & the fbi, you said "this could be the last record I ever make."
JI: That was my last studio album before this, because the live album came out in between. Oh no, Billieís Bones was in there, too. Thatís right. Yeah, I think itís a good attitude at my age, though, to figure that every album may be your last, because you just donít know. I mean, you donít know if youíre ever gonna get another contract, or another lease in my case. You donít know whatís gonna happen to the world. You donít know whatís gonna happen to you. So itís a good attitude to not take that kind of cavalier ďOh Iíve been doing this a long time; Iíll get to do this a long timeĒ - I donít know that Iíll get to do this a long time. If I have to stand on an album, Iíd stand on this one pretty happily. Now anyway.
DBW: Until the next one.
JI: Well, itís gonna be a long time Ďtil the next one, Ďcause Iím taking next year off to write an autobiography, and then the year after that, thatíll come out along with a ďBest of,Ē and so itíll be 2009, 2010 before thereís another studio album. Who knows where everything will be then.
DBW: OK, yeah, I got concerned, you know, Ďcause there have been people who have been around for a while who have just kind of stopped. You know, who -
JI: Well, sometimes thatís a good thing. I mean, I think itís real good when you have nothing to say not to say anything. I know a lot of people I came up with who are doing rehashes, and that disturbs me, too, Ďcause I always think, ďI understand you need to make a living; I need to make a living, too, but why put something really inferior out there?Ē You know itís inferior; you know that. I mean, I know certain songs on this record are not as good as other songs on the record, and I know theyíre there for a reason, but theyíre still not as good. But to make a whole album that you know is not as good - Iíd have a hard time living with that. And Iíve made albums that arenít as good as other albums, but at the time I always thought they had some redeeming quality. Of course, maybe these people do too, in all fairness.
DBW: Well, actually, I wanted to ask you: youíve said that you try to not listen to bad music.
JI: I work very hard not to listen to bad music. Thereís no escaping it, though. I mean, elevators and streets and stores and coffee shops, andÖ You know, I remember being a kid and thinking, when muzak first began, wow, wouldnít it be great if they played OUR kind of music - real music, you know, not just Montovani and Mitch Miller - and itís sort of ďbe careful what you wish for.Ē
JI: And bad music sometimes has its own redeeming qualities. I mean, thereís music so bad that you look through the other end and you go, ďWow, thatís everything that I need NOT to do.Ē Itís like watching a really bad performer, and thinking, ďYou know, I could get sucked into doing that; I shouldnít do that, and now I see why.Ē
DBW: Right, actually, yeah, I was going to ask if youíd ever learned anything from bad music or learned to, or - if it ever - now - you could write a good song about this but it wouldnít be that, or any kind of a, like a critique of something that you had heard.
JI: I think thatís usually when Iím in a club and Iím listening to a young songwriter, and I automatically start re-writing and thinking, ďOh no, why did you go there? Thatís so self-indulgent,Ē or ďWhy did you choose that rhyme?Ē Stella Adler, my acting teacher, used to always say ďYour talent lies in your choices.Ē And thatís kind of a global thing, you know, it lies in your life choices. Like in my forties, did I choose to become bitter, or did I choose to realize that I would never have a hit again and I would never be astounding again or a child prodigy again, so what do I do with the rest of my life? That was a real clear choice to me, and itís the same when you write a song or make an album. You know, I may have chosen wrong on this album, to do it the way I did it, but it was a clear choice, and I was aware of the choice. I think one of the things when youíre young and youíre inexperienced is that you donít have as many choices, because you donít have as much knowledge at your command. You know, now I can look at my own songs and see ten, twenty ways to take a particular song, or a chorus, or not-chorus. I couldnít have done that when I was 15 or 16 or 25.
DBW: I was thinking about when you were, um, kind of when you were coming up, and I was just listening to very early, first Cris Williamson record that she made when she was about the age when you made your first record. I was thinking about the kind of folk music background that people, that some really great songwriters came up with that kind of background that I think it really, um, you know, must have kind of learned a lot, because they have such a kind of a broad base and range of experiences.
JI: Well, thatís the great thing about folk music, you know, thatís the thing that really I think distinguishes it from pop music or rock and roll. Those are relatively new forms. Folk music - you go back to the Renaissance, you go back to the troubadours as the first real roving folk singers - maybe even before that. So thereís this body of work you draw from when you start with the really early madrigals, you know, or some of the old folk songs about Anne Boleyn and the bloody tower, and if you come up like I did or like Cris did, where those were the songs you learned alongside Pete Seeger songs, you live in this huge world of historical span, such history, and you have all these different influences. Folk music would include Blues; it would include Spirituals; it would include, really, any kind of World Music. So itís a huge well to draw from, as opposed to somebody like my road manager, Philip, who grew up in the punk age, and for whom Elvis was really the oldest he went back to. Thatís very limited, you know, and the subject matterís limited, whereas folk music has dealt with history, has dealt with anarchy, has dealt with riots and revolutions, so itís a much broader well. A deeper well. Iím mixing my metaphors again.
DBW: And do you think that thereís a - I mean obviously the old, the folk music that existed forty years ago still exists if you can find it, but do you think that itís more, more difficult now to find them when it seemed like there was more kind of a tradition of like-minded people who were, who were exploring that?
JI: I think it goes in circles. You know, ďOh brother where art thou?Ē certainly got a lot of people interested in Harry Smith anthologies, got a lot of people interested in bands like Del McCrory, who were completely off the radar for anybody but a small group of bluegrass fans. Just like the Kingston Trio and the Jan Mitchell Trio got people interested in Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. You know, one of the things I like about folk music is that it pays homage to its ancestry. Whether they know it or not, the kids now - the David Grays, whoever - are Woody Guthrieís children. You know, theyíre Pete Seegerís children. They may not ever know the direct influence, but the people theyíve listened to listen to people who listen to those people. Thereís a real lineage there that youíre just now starting to see in rock and roll. You know, as people say, ďOh, not Elvis, but Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Well no, but they were singing like Ferlin Husky, but they were singing like Farin Young.Ē Thereís a lineage happening. Does that answer the question?
DBW: Um, yeah. I mean, in a way yes, everything old is new again, and things continually get rediscovered, um, but in another way I feel like sometimes thereís a particular place and time, and it seems to me like kind of in the early sixties there was kind of a critical mass of people who were kind of paying attention.
DBW: And in a way that, that - I donít know, it seems to me like, like itís not there -
JI: Well, donít you think part of thatís, though, that every generation needs its own heroes? And part of it is that we were coming out of the HUAC years. We were coming out of the HUAC hearings; we were coming out of the blacklists, so there was already attention focused on that, and for my generation, we were hearing about that from our parents and from the older kids, so it led us right back, but it was only nine, ten years removed. I mean, I remember when Hootenanny started, and Pete Seeger was blacklisted, and it made the news. You donít see that as much anymore. Things are much more indirectly subversive now. Plus thereís so much of it. I mean, thereís so much music now that to scout out the old stuff youíd have to be back when people actually sat down with vinyl and called ten friends and said, ďHey, you gotta come listen to this. Come listen to this. This is really cool.Ē And that doesnít happen that often anymore. Not with Nintendo and PlayStation and cable TV and movies, and all the other things that we can go and do that are relatively inexpensive compared to what they used to cost.
DBW: Sure, sure, there are a lot more things competing for -
JI: A lot.
DBW: - for leisure time. Sure.
JI: And kids now, I mean, kids have access to so much more passive entertainment than we had. Records were one of the few things that were passive, and we made them active, because we would sing along, or we would act them out, or we would write out the lyrics by hand to learn them, whereas now all that - itís dumped in your lap. Thereís a video. You donít need to act it out. You donít need to imagine the story. You donít need to write out the lyrics or learn them. Itís a whole different way of relating to art now.
DBW: What kinds of things do you find yourself listening to now?
JI: I listen to a lot of classical music. Iíve been on a Satie and Ravel kick lately. I always go back to Billie Holiday before an album. The last year I mostly listened to what I grew up on, just Ďcause I knew that I wanted to make that kind of record so I think itís all still in my computer. The first Joan Baez, and the first Dylan, and the first Pete Seeger, early Weavers, Tom Paxton, that whole crowd - Buffy Sainte-Marie. Um, thatís what I was listening to all last year. And then this year Iíve just kind of been auditorally overwhelmed and not listening very much at all. But I skip around. Fans are always sending me music: "I love this record. Listen to this record. Youíll like it." Itís kind of a lucky thing.
DBW: Are you the kind of recording artist that when you finish something, itís done and you put it away, or do you continually think, ďOh, if I only had -"
JI: Oh no, therein lies perdition. No, you make yourself crazy. No, itís done, itís done. I mean, itís gotta be something really glaring. Itís like, thereís a couple spots in ďFolk is the New BlackĒ where, uh, thereís one spot where Victor thinks Iím going to an F, and I actually go to a G, and he said, ďIíll fix that,Ē and I said, ďNo, man, itís life. Thatís why they call it life. Itís fine; itís not jarring; itís not horrible. Letís keep it; itís life.Ē Beyond that, no, not really, you know. Thereís so much clean-up work when you finish an album if youíre independent. Finish the album, you go into the artwork. Finish the artwork, you go into the mastering. Finish the mastering, you start sending it out. You get back your test copies, you know, and you make your corrections to that. By the time itís done, I wish Iíd never made it in the first place. I just want to get it out the door and move on. You know, and I found that pretty early, Ďcause I made so many records so fast that if I started looking back and making myself crazy, I couldnít go forward. Do you know people who tie themselves up in knots over that? I always feel sorry for them.
DBW: This is terrific. It didnít ever occur to me that I was ever gonna get this opportunity in the first place, really.
JI: How cool is that?
DBW: Yeah. So yeah, this is, this is great. So....
JI: So if you hate the album after all of this, thatís okay, too.
I thought about not including the last part of the interview because it could come across as self-serving, but I left it in because I think she makes a really interesting point:
JI: I really like you guysí reviews. Theyíre always - even the bad ones Iíve gotten, Iíve always felt that there was merit to what you said. Theyíre honest reviews.
DBW: Yeah, thatís I think the one thing I always try to live up to, is if I gave you my real reaction, then even if itís -
JI: Itís real.
DBW: Yeah, exactly, though I know I miss a lot of stuff, and that you never know what the artist was thinking on the inside, exactly what they were trying to do, you know.
JI: But you canít. Itís our job to make sure you donít need to.
DBW: I never thought about it that way.
JI: Well, otherwise, go create it in your living room, and stay there. I mean, to me, you know, the point of putting a record out is that people hear it, which doesnít mean you put it out to be commercial, but you want people to hear it. You donít want, you donít want to make it in your living room. If your goal is to be understood, then you need to write songs that are understandable and make records that are accessible. Or do the exact opposite, assuming thereís an audience out there for that. But to get pissed off because a reviewer doesnít get it, you know, unless the reviewerís a complete asshole, youíre doing something wrong. You, the artist. Thatís how I look at it.
Janis Ian reviews.