Janis Ian. Behind the Muse


Janis Ian has been writing songs and performing to audiences worldwide for over 50 years. This year Janis' self-funded audiobook "Patience and Sarah", co-narrated by Jean Smart ("Designing Women") has been nominated for a Grammy Award, making this Janis' tenth nomination! By the end of 2015 Janis' foundation will have given away over $900,000 in scholarships for returning students!!

The thing that became obvious to us as we researched Janis Ian's life is what a nice person she honestly is. After all her incredible and much deserved success, she's a very down to earth and grounded lady. Janis has the inexorable ability to make everyone feel at ease. And it's obvious she means it.

I've just spent the last five days swimming in the lakes and streams of Janis Ian's impressive lyrical mind. I like to do that when I'm getting to know someone's work. I like to separate the melody from the lyric and understand the prose of the person I'm writing about. Janis is a prolific songwriter, having written over 300 first rate poems/songs in her career. For 5 days, I danced with her romance, jogged with her humor, and waltzed with her rhymes, as she shredded my intellect, questioned my meter, discussed my foibles, and intrigued my passion for prose.

2016-02-06-1454786158-946303-Janis9.jpgAfter reading her lyrics, I then spent time listening to the actual songs, and truly there's not a song I didn't like. Of particular note, her love song "Through the Years", (written for her wife Pat,) is my favorite.

It's important for me to mention that Janis Ian's website is rather similar to my favorite London store, Harrods, that welcomes visitors with a plethora of products, never making the mistake however of overselling, knowing that the sheer elegance of "her store" will attract customers organically. Janis Ian likes to offer free downloads with absolutely no strings attached, doesn't sell or rent her email list (even to record company affiliates), and has a remarkable discography of her recorded works, including sheet music and lyrics (with chords). The website has an impressive 45 departments inside, with not only information about her music and the back stories, but information on her valuable Master Classes, free copies of articles about the music industry from her 50 years of experience (read "The ABC's of Being A Boss", even if you're not in that business!) and more for young aspiring artists to learn from. A must "travel to" for all musicians. The site, up in various forms since 1997, is www.janisian.com


Janis Ian wrote the 11 songs on her album Between the Lines and recorded them at 914 Studios in 2016-02-06-1454765975-933836-jANIS21.jpgBlauvelt NY in the summer of 1974. The album was released by Columbia Records in February 1975 and sold 1.9 million copies, catapulting it to #1 on the Billboard Charts and also earning it 5 Grammy nominations, ultimately winning two ("Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female-At Seventeen," and Best Engineered Album). That year Janis Ian also performed: At Seventeen" on the first episode of Saturday Night Live on October 11th.

2016-02-06-1454766675-1338738-featureddecember.jpgIan had been nominated once previously (in 1967 for "Janis Ian - Best Folk Record" for her first album), and went on to garner more nominations over the years - Best Jazz Vocal Duet (with Mel Torme, singing her song "Silly Habits"), Best Children's Album (Sesame Street, which included her "Ginny the Flying Girl") - but no wins. In 2013 she was pit against former president Bill Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama, Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres for "Best Spoken Word", and her reading of her own autobiography won the Grammy. This year, she's received her 10th nomination (in eight separate categories) again for "Best Spoken Word Album" for her captivating performance (along with actress and Emmy Winner Jean Smart) of the audiobook Patience and Sarah.

Set in the nineteenth century, Isabel Miller's classic lesbian novel traces the relationship between Patience White, an educated painter, and Sarah Dowling, a cross-dressing farmer, whose romantic bond does not sit well with the puritanical New England farming community in which they live. They choose to live together and love each other freely, even though they know of no precedents for their relationship; they must trust their own instincts and see beyond the disdain of their neighbors. Ultimately, they are forced to make life-changing decisions that depend on their courage and their commitment to one another.

Patience & Sarah is a historical romance whose drama was a touchstone for the burgeoning gay and women's activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It celebrates the joys of an uninhibited love between two strong women with a confident defiance that remains relevant today. Independently funded by Ian and her wife, the audio book has received strong "must-have" reviews from publications as disparate as The Advocate and Audiofile Magazine (which already gave it their Earphones Award.)

Janis Ian was born to father Victor, a farmer who later went to college on the GI bill to become a music teacher, and Pearl, a waitress who became a fundraiser for Bank Street College, on April 7th 1951. As a child, she admired the work of folk pioneers Joan Baez and Odetta, and started to play piano at 2 ½ , becoming fluent in several more instruments by the time she was 12, when she wrote her first song "Hair of Spun Gold." In 1964 it was published in Broadside Magazine and Ian performed her first concert at The Village Gate on Bleecker in Greenwich Village

"We artists are the last alchemists, pulling your dreams, your hopes, your deepest 2016-02-06-1454772222-5208731-Janis8.jpgdesires out of thin air, and turning them into something you can hear, and play, and sing. My first Grammy nomination came when I was 15 years old. For better and for worse, I have watched my business become an industry - but one thing will never change. We don't sell music. We sell dreams."

In 1965, at the age of fourteen, she wrote her first hit song, "Society's Child," about an interracial 2016-02-06-1454765168-9997802-jANIS24.jpgromance frowned upon by the singers' peers and teachers. That same year Janis performed at the infamous Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, opening for Reverend Gary Davis and singing "Society's Child".

The recording of "Society's Child" was initially commissioned by Atlantic Records, who after hearing the single refused to release it, instead returning the master to its producer, Shadow Morton. After being shopped around to all 22 major record labels, the single Society's Child was finally picked up by Verve Records, and Ian and Morton went on to record her first album, aptly titled "Janis Ian". Regardless of Verve's enthusiasm, the song was only played in a few areas - Flint Michigan, New York City, and Philadelphia among them - because programmers worried its controversial nature would lose them listeners and advertisers. However, in 1967 the song became a national hit after the conductor Leonard Bernstein played it on a CBS TV special entitled Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution and chastised radio stations for their cowardice. This exposure garnered more attention for both "Society's Child" and the rising young star, and her first album was released shortly thereafter, revealing the extraordinary talents both musically and lyrically of Janis Ian. That same year she toured as the opening act for Donovan.

AT SEVENTEEN. Performed for The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976 in London at the Shepherd's Bush BBC Television Theatre

"I learned the truth at 17, that love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles, who married young and then retired.
The valentines I never knew, the Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful. At seventeen I learned the truth.

"Try to be a Rainbow in Someone's Cloud." Maya Angelou

" At Seventeen" is not just a song for "Ugly Ducklings". It's a universal comment on the piercing pain that young people feel when they are marginalized by their peers. It will always be relevant, and it will always be an example of the impact of great writing. The icing on the cake, is the personal success of Janis Ian. For those who have had the privilege of seeing her perform recently, you can't miss the irony that the" queen of teen angst" is one of the most poised, confident, comfortable female performers you could ever hope to meet. She's witty, charming, musically interesting, approachable and extremely funny. For all the fun poked at the "self-actualization" era of the 60's, Janis Ian is the real deal. Surely, the great Joe Cocker would join us in a rousing version of "You are so Beautiful" to us, Janis.

Out to family and friends all her life, Ian was in the forefront of the AIDs movement, headlining the first AIDs benefits in New York and Nashville, working and performing with Elton John for his Pediatric AIDs Foundation, and then, as part of the 1993 Clinton inauguration, attending the Triangle Ball with Melissa Etheridge and kd lang at the first official presidential event to honor gays and lesbians - in many ways a landmark for civil, and gay rights. The times they were a changing.

In 2003 Janis Ian married her partner, Pat Snyder, in Toronto - as of 2016 they've been together 27 years. She wrote a beautiful love song for Pat that is featured on her Strictly Solo album called "Through the Years".


Through the years we've been happy,
Through the years we've been sad,
And sometimes feeling lucky was the only luck we had.
But I would not trade the laughter or the tears,through the years

BY CONTRAST,her tongue in cheek song,"Married in London"

My passport in Sweden says I've got a wife
Amsterdam tells me, I'm partnered for life
But back in America, land of the free,
I'm a threat to the national security


Over 200 of Janis Ian's songs have been recorded, many by artists as diverse as Nina Simone, Glen Campbell, Cher, and Dolly Parton, over her 50+ year career. Every song is articulate, passionate and at times political. In 2002 "Society's Child," was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and 6 years later "At Seventeen" was also inducted.


Ian also writes science fiction. Her short stories have been published in nine magazines and anthologies, and she co-edited, with Mike Resnick, the anthology Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian, published in 2003.
She was a regular columnist for LGBT news magazine The Advocate for five years, and for Performing Songwriter magazine from 1995-2003; she has a selection of those columns available for free her website.
On July 24, 2008, Ian released her autobiography Society's Child (published by Penguin Tarcher) to much critical acclaim. An accompanying double CD, The Autobiography Collection, has also been released with many of Ian's most loved songs.


Janis Ian's mother, Pearl, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1975. Ian and her brother convinced Pearl to pursue her lifelong dream of going to college, Janis offering to pay for tuition and board. Pearl eventually enrolled in Goddard College's adult education program, ultimately graduating fourteen years later with a master's degree. After Pearl's death, Ian decided to auction off memorabilia and raise money to endow a scholarship at Goddard specifically for older continuing education students. This began what became the Pearl Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity. At the end of each year, Ian donates the true net (less cost of merchandise and merchandise sellers) of merchandise monies raised on the road and from on line sales, as well as 100% of Paypal payments for on line, donations from fans, items marked "Pearl donation item" on her website, and contributions from Ian herself. These monies are disbursed to various educational institutions to fund "Pearl Foundation scholarships". To date, it has contributed over $909,000 to five ongoing scholarship funds, including Warren Wilson College, and helped more than 35 adults achieve their diplomas.

So, in conclusion we wish Janis Ian the best of luck and hope she brings home the GRAMMY. But, another Grammy or not, she'll always be exceptional. Her own words sum it up best......

"I've sung "At Seventeen" in Ireland and watched 30000 people sing it back to me, and I've sung it in Japan to people who don't speak a word of English, who sing it back to me: and I've watched people all over the world sing it to back to me. You can only dream you're going to write one universal song, just one time in your life...where everybody who hears it, is touched, and everybody who hears it feels it belongs to them. And I say, if as an artist you get one time in your life that you write something that crosses race, gender and culture (and all the other things we put up between ourselves that make sure we don't get too close to one another) if you can do that for just one moment then someone like me thinks......this life was very much worth living. How could you get tired of that?" JANIS IAN

Janis Ian and Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley from ABFAB

___ Tim and Laura Battersby