Janis Ian is a woman on the move. The legendary singer/songwriter is in the middle of a U.S. tour when her convoy pulls over somewhere in the Northwest mountains and she takes the opportunity to sit down for a brief interview. We talk about the recent release of the audio book version of her 2008 autobiography Society’s Child, which spans over half a century of Ian’s artistic career and personal achievements.
The audio book offers nuances that distinguish it from the original. The intense prologue opens with a 15-year-old Ian attempting to maintain composure on stage while an angry mob chants “N*****-lover!” in time to the beat of her iconic hit song "Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)." Despite the harsh memories, it was a pleasant surprise to hear Ian’s singing accompanied by the sounds of her guitar integrated into the reading. It was like sitting in her living room, listening to her tell her story; the tone of her voice attuned to the emotion of the dramatic experience.
Ian is a great storyteller. It’s what she does best. Her words rarely stumble and her voice is like a sturdy oak. To witness her vulnerability slip in through the cracks of what is a mostly assertive demeanor is enchanting. How did she manage to hold her own as an adolescent wading through the messy waters of the corporate recording industry?
During a break from one of her first recording sessions, a producer explained to Ian that if she changed one key word in “Society’s Child” — the word black — a number one record would be guaranteed. “I made the choice not to change it. It became a success despite that, or maybe because of it, who knows. And I’m glad I made the choice I did.” That incident wouldn’t be the last time Ian stuck to her guns when it came to writing her truth.
Years later, Ian wrote for The Advocate, as the resident iconoclast and was still getting herself into trouble. “I wrote one article called ‘Lesbian Chic: A Contradiction in Terms’ and it came out when my partner and I were on vacation in Provincetown and Lea DeLaria had to defend me against a group of enraged lesbians.” Ian often leaves a trail of controversy in her wake. But it doesn’t seem intentional; it’s just in her nature. Ian isn’t pretentious in her disagreement; she just tells it like she sees it and lets what may come, come.
Ian’s personal relationships with both men and women also stirred up controversies for the folk singer, mainly in her earlier years. Her first marriage to a man ended in 1983, and Ian came out as a lesbian a decade later. Or so everyone thought. “I was actually outed in 1977 in The Village Voice, but nobody picked up on it which was fortunate, because I would have no career otherwise.”
Since then, Ian's been happily married to her female partner since 2003 and has contributed to LGBT communities just by being herself — the same way she contributed to the civil rights and women’s liberation movements with her music in the 1960s. “I would hope that just being out and talking about my partner for the past 25 years in public has some kind of effect [on people].”
And the fight continues, according to Ian, who still raises awareness of gender inequality. “There’s still no female head of a record label, there’s still no female head of a major publishing company, and hasn’t been and won’t be in the foreseeable future. So, things have changed, but not enough.”
What can we look forward to seeing next from the Renaissance woman? A children’s book based on one of her latest songs, "The Tiny Mouse." Nothing too controversial there, though she is working on a new album expected for a 2014 release, so maybe we shouldn’t speak too soon.
The digital version of Society’s Child: My Autobiography is available here.