Janis Ian’s roller coaster ride
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 2, 2003) – Once upon a time, a young female singer racked up five Grammy Award nominations in one year.
“I was told at the time of my five nominations that I was the first solo female artist to get five,” said Janis Ian, speaking in a phone interview from her home in Nashville the morning after Norah Jones cleaned up at the Grammy Awards, winning in all five of the categories in which she was nominated.
Unlike Jones, Ian only walked away with two awards in 1976. But without a hint of envy in her voice, Ian -- who performs at Club Helsinki at 8 on Sunday -- sounded genuinely thrilled for Jones and for what her success at the Grammys might mean for the music business at large.
“Norah won them all. That says a lot about the change in the industry. This is now a trend,” said Ian, who has been keeping a close eye on trends in the music industry since she had a top-20 hit with her song, “Society’s Child,” in 1967.
“It started with the ‘O Brother’ soundtrack winning with no radio and no hoopla,” said Ian. “That’s really encouraging. Also, she’s not being an idiot about it either. And that her record is on Blue Note, run by Bruce Lundvall, one of the old guard, who was a great help to me while I was at CBS, and has stuck to his guns through the years. It’s very much a David and Goliath thing. I say good on the girl -- she’s young, she’s got the stamina.”
Once upon a time, Ian was in a similar place – even more of an overnight sensation than Jones. The daughter of a music teacher, Ian was something of a child prodigy, playing piano, organ, flute and French horn by the time she was 10.
By age 15, when she had already published original folk songs in the magazine Broadside, Ian had written and recorded “Society’s Child,” a protest song that attacked hypocritical attitudes about interracial relationships that still dominated American culture.
The song was banned by several radio stations and ignored by others, until conductor Leonard Bernstein stepped in and played a key role in focusing the nation’s attention on 16-year-old Janis Ian and her protest song.
“I got lucky,” said Ian. “Bernstein was doing a TV special, and his producer was at the Gaslight Café where he heard me sing ‘Society’s Child.’ Someone gave him a copy of the record, and he took it to Bernstein the next day, and he said great, we’ll focus a show on that.”
Ian then appeared on Bernstein’s CBS-TV special, “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution,” where she performed the song accompanied by the New York Philharmonic. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I owe a great deal of my career to Leonard Bernstein,” said Ian. “Plus for my grandparents and parents, it legitimized what I was doing. But what I remember most about that day was that he helped with my Spanish homework.”
After the success of “Society’s Child,” Ian dropped out of high school in her junior year and continued to record new songs, but it was several years before she had another hit. And this is where Norah Jones should pay close attention.
Within a few years, Ian had given away most of her earnings to friends and charities, and reportedly her manager and the I.R.S. took whatever else was left.
“Get a good business manager” is what Ian said she would tell Jones if she asked her advice. “The one thing you do need in this business is to surround yourself with people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth. There’s a dearth of mentors out there.”
Ian eventually did enjoy a huge second act, beginning in 1973 when Roberta Flack’s version of her song “Jesse” went to the top 40. In 1975, at the ripe age of 24, Ian enjoyed a full-scale comeback when she scored a huge hit with the song, “At Seventeen.” More than just a hit that went all the way to number three and led to her slew of Grammy nominations the next year, the song came to define a whole style of music – the sensitive, confessional, singer-songwriter genre.
But again, it was to be another short-lived moment in the spotlight for Ian. Although she enjoyed success in the early-‘80s with the international disco hit “Fly Too High,” featured on the soundtrack of the Jodie Foster movie “Foxes,” and she scored or contributed title tunes to movies including “Virus” (1980), “Betrayal” (1977), “The Bell Jar” (1979) and “Falling From Grace” (1992), for the most part Ian disappeared from the scene, not recording at all for about a decade beginning in 1982.
When she did come back again, with 1993’s aptly-titled “Breaking Silence,” she once again scored with a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Since that time, Ian has enjoyed a resurgent career on the new-folk singer-songwriter circuit and as a songwriter based in Nashville, whose material has been covered by the likes of Jim Brickman, Amy Grant, Stan Getz, Bette Midler, Glen Campbell, Vanilla Fudge, Cher, Hugh Masakela, Michael Johnson, Kathy Mattea, Maura O’Connell, the Walker Brothers, Cheryl Wheeler, Joan Baez, Charlie Daniels, Sheena Easton, Nanci Griffith and Etta James.
Ian’s latest album, “God and the FBI,” came out in the year 2000. Listening to it today, a listener is struck by how eerily timely, even prophetic, are the themes on the album. The title track seems to anticipate the Ashcroft era, and with lines like, “They say that you were with me/When the building fell/Strange to have you near after all these years/They say I couldn’t possibly have done it by myself/Did you see our photographs/As they crumbled into ash,” the song “On the Other Side” is shockingly prescient of the attack on the Twin Towers.
“It’s almost like if you let your talent lead instead of trying to lead it, you’re constantly turning around six months later and asking how did I know it?” said Ian. “The older I get, the more I try to take the long view of history. S--- happens and we all get swept up in it.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 7, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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