Out Singer-Songwriter Janis Ian Speaks About Grammy Nomination

Singer-songwriter Janis Ian has been making music since she was just a child, and began recording albums professionally as a teenager.  Since then, she’s had a storied and celebrated career that has seen her tackle a wide range of timely subjects not only in her music, but also in her writing as an author and columnist.  She also came out as a lesbian in 1993.

Ian is probably best known classic songs like “At Seventeen” and “Society’s Child,” the latter of which was inducted into the Grammy hall of fame in 2001.  Now Ian is being recognized by the awards once again, having just been nominated for the spoken word version of her 2008 autobiography, Society’s Child.  Ian took a moment to answer a few of our questions about coming out, her career, and what she’s planning next.

GLAAD: What has been your experience as a working (and highly celebrated) musician since coming out almost 20 years ago? 

JANIS IAN: Hard to say exactly when I came out... I was always out to family and friends and colleagues - everyone at what was then CBS Records knew, for instance. Then I was outed by the Village Voice when I was 26, but the other papers were kind enough to not pick it up - that was when we still had morals clauses in contracts, and it would have destroyed my career. I came out formally in 1993 at the Triangle Ball, along with k.d. and Melissa. So I've actually "come out" three times.

….. I wouldn't notice much of a difference, frankly. The bulk of my audience in the US is there because of "Society's Child" or "At 17" intiially, and is straight. Although it seems like just in the past year, I've been getting thanked more by gay couples - probably because I wrote a song called "Married in London" and have been singing it at every show for the past five years, even when it caused walk-outs. It's also up for free on my website, which might explain it too.

GLAAD: Did coming out influence your musical perspective or song writing in any way? 

JI: I think any time you make your daily life more congruent, it influences your entire life. It's hard to be in two places at once, which is what happens when you're in the closet.

GLAAD: You’ve been writing and recording music since you were a teenager back in the 60s, and have continued to steadily release new material since then.  What stands out in how you’ve seen the musical landscape change over the past several decades, and how would you like to see it evolve from this point forward? 

JI: Well, the obvious change is the technology. As Tom Paxton says, "I started out on vinyl and now I'm an app." The availability of all kinds of musical genres is astounding - when I was a kid, if you wanted African music you had to hunt for it, or hope someone else owned a recording you could borrow. On the other hand, there's so much available - in shops, cars, buses, trains, elevators, even places like Sea World - and it's so much louder than George Squier (the inventor of Muzak) intended - that I don't know why anyone would want to purchase it in the first place. 

The other area of change that's enormous is in songwriting - the lyric language changes hugely with the times. When I was working on adapting an unfinished Woody Guthrie song ("Mother Sing Again", which became "I Hear You Sing Again") I was very conscious of that. Slang and phrasing change with the times.

And of course, the consumer is a lot more educated now.

GLAAD: Your latest Grammy nomination is for your recording of your 2008 autobiography, Society’s Child.  What led you to write your autobiography in the first place, and how was the writing process? 

JI: The first time I was asked to write my autobiography, I was 16 years old! Absolutely ridiculous. But as I hit my 50's, I realized I'd lived through some pretty interesting times. I thought if I could write it as much about the times as about myself, it might be worthwhile.

I love writing - articles, stories, books, songs, speeches, I love them all. So the writing was a joy. And scary. And wonderful. I also took the entire year at home, no touring, which is my goal in life, so that helped. 

GLAAD: In addition to what looks like quite a few tour dates in the first half of next year, will you be going back to the recording studio at any point or work on another book?

JI: Yes, I'm planning to spend a lot of next year working on songs for an album that will hopefully be recorded in early 2014, for release that fall - and a couple of books. I have a children's picture book coming out fall 2013 called "The Tiny Mouse", based on my song of that name and illustrated by the Schuberts, published by Lemniscaat. That's leading me to think about a children's record as well.