My Make-up Is My Makeup
My Make-up Is My Makeup
A Q&A with Janis Ian
By Geoff Gehman
Many thoughts glow in Janis Ian’s song “I’m Still Standing Here,” a radiant declaration of pride in a body that’s well-lined and well-used. The one thought that glows in the dark concerns bruises and scars so tactile, they can be read in the dark like braille. It’s a vivid statement–so vivid, in fact, that I’m going to make it a gift for my 91-year-old mother, a kick-ass stickler who lives Ian’s belief that: You get what you see. My make-up is my makeup.
Finished and christened last year, “I’m Still Standing Here” is a weather map of the soul from an emotional meteorologist. Over six decades Ian has charted, with uncanny accuracy and canny sensitivity, everything from teenage pain to interracial romance, incest to celebrity autobiography. Her own autobiography, “Society’s Child,” is a riveting tale of adulation, isolation, friendships with fellow star-crossed stars (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin), see-saw relationships with parents and lovers, devils and angels in the music industry, a war with the IRS, the nurturing love of a good woman and the nourishing power of music that matters. Near the end of the book Ian reveals that her songs provided six months of hope for a female prisoner of war.
The latest project from Ian, who will debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House on Oct. 17, is a cosmic ocean liner. She narrates and performs 28 songs for the audio-book version of “The Singer and the Song,” the memoir of Miriam Therese Winter, a prominent feminist theologian, medical missionary and musician who insists her life has been shaped by “grace notes from the Divine Musician.” In the conversation below Ian, 63, discusses the adventures of recording a collection of someone else’s tunes for the first time, selling archival God boxes to raise money to help older people continue their education, and recovering her most divine gift: a guitar.
Q: “I’m Still Standing Here” is so probing, piercing and powerful. Do you have any colorful stories about its genesis? Was it back breaking to write?
A: I wouldn’t call it back breaking. It took almost seven years between when I started the chorus and when I finished it last year. There were a lot of the same issues I had with “At Seventeen.” Would the second verse amplify the first? Would there be a happy ending or an ending at all? I really loved the bridge about scars that stand out so strongly, you could read them like you could read braille. To me that was a wonderful way of looking with sympathy, and empathy, at things that otherwise people get upset about. I remember I was upset about the scars after my first major surgery and my partner at the time said: “Yeah, but I’m the only person who’s seen them.” And I thought that was such a lovely way to put it.
The surprising thing about “At Seventeen” is that I thought I was writing for women and people of my age group and it turned out to be so universal–stunningly so. It turned out to be the same with “I’m Still Standing Here.” While I was writing it, a couple of young songwriters said: “Oh my gosh, that’s so my life!” And I looked at them and said: “You’re way too young for this!” That’s what you strive for, that universality.
Q: Has the song stirred similarly strong reactions in concert?
A: I put it in the middle of a show one day and got a standing ovation. I had never had that reaction. So I put it at the end of shows because the reaction was so extreme.
Q: Yesterday I was re-reading “Society’s Child” when I reached the part where you’re recording an Egg McMuffin commercial and you’re asked to make it “more eggy”—maybe the first time anyone was ever asked for musical egginess. And at that exact moment I thought: Wouldn’t this book, this life, make a terrific musical? What do you think?
A: I think it would be great. My manager up in New York thought it would be great. We just need to find the right people to write it and make it great.
Q: Carole King has a hit musical on Broadway and your life is at least two times more intriguing than hers. So I think a “Society’s Child” musical stands a ghost of a chance to succeed.
A: You’re very kind. But she has more hits than I do.
Q: On your Web site you say that performing Miriam Therese Winter’s words and music “allowed me to sing someone else’s songs in ways I’d never imagined.” What were some of those ways?
A: Well, I normally sing my own material. I can count the number of times I’ve recorded other people’s songs on one hand; I’ve done tributes to Jean Ritchie, to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, to Pete Seeger [and to Miriam Therese Winter]. For “The Singer and the Song” I had to go into someone else’s songbook and make the songs good enough so they would have credibility to my listeners and credibility to MT’s listeners. I wouldn’t call it a challenge because I took so much joy from it. Take a song like “Architect of All Creation,” which is probably my favorite song from the project. I said to myself: Okay, I can’t sing it like MT sang it or her chorus sang it. But if I detune the guitar and treat it like an old blues piece, I can maybe turn it into something of my own. That was the fun of it.
The other fun part was following the evolution of MT’s songs from folky, cute, “dum-de-dum-de-dum” to wonderfully deep. The really fun, profound part was following the evolution of her beliefs, from the belief that God is this white, blond guy with this gold thing over his head to the belief that we can’t even call it “God” because the concept is too big to embrace in a word.
I can’t imagine doing another project this time consuming. I spent six weeks on it, which is usually the time it takes to make an album, although these days I usually make an album in one week. There were 187 to 197 words I had never pronounced; some were for villages in Laos and Cambodia that had been gone for 30 years. MT and I spent a full day in Nashville just working on pronunciations; I had her on call just in case I needed her advice. A Navajo speaker sent me an MP3 of one word in Navajo. I didn’t want to be memorialized for all the Navajo nation as “Janis Ian, who mispronounced one Navajo word.” It was my job to get it right.
Q: Will you perform any of the MT songs—“I Am the One,” “Joy Is Like the Rain,” “Architect of All Creation”—in the Jim Thorpe gig?
A: I don’t know. I walk onstage knowing the first song and the last. The ones in between come from a list of 35 songs. Quite often the audience will leave requests on the stage, so I try to play some of those songs. It’s really anybody’s guess what I’ll perform–including mine.
Q: Would you consider touring with MT? I think you two could be quite popular on the seminar circuit. You could call yourself seminarians.
A: [laughs] Well, there’s a discussion that we had that was moderated by the late, great John Seigenthaler Sr. [journalist and First Amendment defender]. You can find it on YouTube. It’s called “When Worlds Collide: Two New Jersey Broads on Life, Love, and the Holy Spirit.”
Q: Can you think of someone else’s version of one of your songs that radically changed your interpretation of your song. I’m thinking of the way that Bob Dylan started making “All Along the Watchtower” more adventurous, more dangerous, after Jimi Hendrix basically blew it up.
A: No. There was a great Spooky Tooth version of “Society’s Child,” but it was so different from my version that there was no way I could emulate it. Bob seems to like changing his songs and changing the audience’s expectations of them. I don’t get really precious about changing my interpretations; I’m more interested in writing another song, frankly. Although can you imagine being Bob Dylan and hearing the Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”? That must have been mind boggling.
Q: How would you like to improve as a musician? Anything you’re on the verge of changing for the better?
A: I would like to be a better guitarist. I would love to play saxophone and flute but I can’t get a sound out of them—at least a sound I can stand. I’d like to be more patient; patience is something I also struggle with in my personal life.
Q: You wrote a lovely essay in a 1999 issue of Performing Songwriter magazine about finally finding your precious 1937 Martin D-18—the guitar your father gave you as a 16th-birthday gift, the guitar on which you wrote your first meaningful tunes–after it was missing for 26 years. Where is it now and where will it end up after you leave us for good?
A: It’s sitting right behind me, next to my upright piano. Where it will end up, I don’t know. It was my dad’s guitar, so I don’t think it will be buried with me. It probably will go to charity. I don’t worry about what will happen after I’m gone—unless it will affect my partner [Pat Snyder, a criminal defense attorney].
Q: You offer some pretty fun, funky incentives to raise money for your Pearl Foundation, which is named after your late mother and which supports older people advancing their education. How many archival God boxes have you sold?
A: Nine out of 10, which I think is terrific. I like to offer things to fans that I would like to have if I were a fan—things like laminates and tiny simulations of my guitars. People give us stuff, too; [Irish novelist-lawyer] Conor Bowman sent 12 of his books. By the end of this year we’ll have raised nearly $800,000, all on the back of merchandise and contributions. I find that astonishing; I just find that people are amazingly generous.
Janis Ian: The Scoop
Her first unforgettable song was “Oklahoma!”
Don McLean’s “Vincent” made her want to be a better songwriter.
A writer of science fiction, she co-edited “Stars,” a 2003 anthology of sci-fi stories inspired by her songs.
She lobbied for the return of her missing Martin D-18 by posting its serial number on her albums. The instrument returned to her in 1998 after its owner, Geoff Grace, a former guitar technician for Jefferson Airplane, read about it in an Ian interview in Vintage Guitar magazine.
She’s selling some of her instruments, including a Martin 0-28, to fund an audio-book version of “Patience & Sarah,” a fictionalized account of painter Mary Ann Willson and her companion, a farmer named Miss Brundage, who co-habited in the 19th century.
Other Pearl Foundation incentives range from a living-room concert ($9,500) to roadie-with-friend-for-a-day ($779).
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Janis Ian’s belief that Don McLean’s “Vincent” leaves bruises and scars that can be read in the dark like braille. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.