Q & A with groundbreaking folk artist Janis Ian

Janis Ian

“Janis Ian 1” by Eddie – originally posted to Flickr as Janis Ian. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.

Editor’s note: This Q & A with Janis Ian is by John R. Killacky, executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

In 1969, Alma Routsong, under the pen name Isabel Miller, self-published a historical romance novel based on a true story of two lesbians in early 19th century New England. A folk painter and a young woman from a poor farming family fall unabashedly in love and forge a life together in Patience and Sarah. The book was awarded the first American Library Association’s Stonewall Award in 1971, recognizing “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian, bisexual/transgender experience.”

Last fall, singer/songwriter Janis Ian produced an audiobook version of this queer literary classic. Ian invited actress Jean Smart (Designing Women) to join her in bringing to life the exquisitely wrought language of the novel; they alternate reading chapters to echo the dual point-of-view narrative. The artists beautifully interpret the story’s uninhibited giddiness, tenderness, and delight, as well as the character’s arduous struggles.

This audiobook of Patience and Sarah was nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award in the “Best Spoken Word” category. This represents Janis Ian’s 10th Grammy nomination (in eight categories) over the course of her remarkable 50-year career.

When I spoke with her recently, she reflected upon this and other projects, the music industry, being out as a lesbian, and philanthropy.

John Killacky: Congratulation on your 10th Grammy Award nomination for “Patience and Sarah.” What drew you to this material?

Janis Ian: I discovered it when I was about 20 or 21… I had just fallen in love with a woman for the first time… I had only seen books about gay people, men and women, which were very negative. I picked up this book called Patience and Sarah. First it was historical fiction that I love, but second it was lovely, so I bought it and it became a perennial favorite. I would buy used copies when I saw them because it kept going in and out of print. When Audible asked what I wanted to do next, I really wanted to do Patience and Sarah.

JK: Having Emmy Award-winning Jean Smart read the part of the painter in the novel was brilliant. How did she come to be involved?

JI: I thought it really important the co-narrator not be gay… I wanted people to see it not only as a gay novel. I wanted it to be seen as a classic historical novel as well. We went through a whole bunch of people. She wanted to see a copy first, so I sent her a copy, and she came on board right after she read it. She said she loved it because it was erotic without being pornographic. I thought she gave Patience so much character.

JK: You’ve done a number of audiobooks, including your autobiography, Society’s Child, which won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word in 2013. Why this interest in audiobooks?

JI: I wrote my autobiography and it was well received. An old friend of mine happened to hear me read at a local bookstore and said this needs to really be an audiobook… It turned out I was good at it. It was like acting without all the other pressures… I thought Patience and Sarah was a really worthy project and I wanted it to be heard. My hope is that will wind up in young adult fiction in libraries. I think it is so important for gay kids to read about something that is a “normal” fictional setting… This is a dose of serious history and what it was like to be a woman then.

JK: I loved your guest appearance on the HBO series Getting On. How fun was it to work on this?

JI: It was so much fun it was stupid. I don’t think I’ve had that good a time in years, everyone was so kind… None of them knew I had any theater background, so they were thrilled that I spent all that time with Stella Adler and took it seriously.

JK: Lincoln Center invited you to be part of its “Great American Songwriters” series in February. Will you be going back on the road this year?

JI: No. The kind of touring I have always done which is go out and stay out is just starting to get to be too hard…It just doesn’t make sense to go out that way right now. And I am going to be 65 this year. It’s a different kind of energy.

At Lincoln Center I am planning to do … my best songs and talk about the songs and talk about the process, hopefully in not too boring a way.

JK: Fifty years ago, at the age of 15, you recorded your first album and received your first Grammy nomination in the Best Folk Performance category. How has the music industry changed over the course of your career?

JI: It’s an industry now, not a business… So huge, that it’s become small, if that makes sense. When I was a kid with “Society’s Child,” there were 22 major record labels in the country. Now there are three, maybe four – not all of them are U.S.

JK: Could you have made it today, if you were once again 15?

JI: I think so because I had the drive and the talent, and those are things you’re born with… Would it have been as spectacular? Probably not. I remember as a kid thinking, “If they’d just have a show with our music on it.” There were only two or three TV shows that would even have a pop artist on, let along folk or jazz. It is so omnipresent now, it’s become so easy, easy to make the music, easy to distribute music, good and bad… It’s something like 200,000 releases a year; it’s ridiculous.

JK: So many artists have covered your songs. Any favorites or any clunkers you want to talk about?

JI: Not unless I want to get my head handed to me. I will say that I think Celine Dion did an astonishingly good job on, “At Seventeen.”

JK: When you married your wife Pat in Canada in 2003, you two were the first same sex couple wedding announcement in The New York Times. How difficult has it been to navigate you personal and public life as an artist?

JI: Not terribly. We made a decision at the outset when I came out in 1993 at The Triangle Ball…we were not going to make it a press issue… We made the same decision with our marriage. We didn’t do a press release until after it was all done, so it wouldn’t turn into a zoo. My work is my work, and being a public person is part of my work, but it is not part of being at home with Pat as my partner.

JK: You are extremely generous in your philanthropy, awarding over $900,000 in scholarships for students returning to college. Your foundation is named after you mom, Pearl. Why this focus in your giving?

JI: I think for a Jewish kid growing up second generation, it was always understood that education was the key. It was the way up, the way out. My father was a chicken farmer, went to school on the GI bill to become a teacher. My mother…had always wanted to go to college, but there wasn’t enough money.

When she was stricken with MS, and it became clear she couldn’t work anymore, my brother and I became desperate to find something to keep her will to stay alive. We found Goddard College, which at the time, was the only school allowing nonresidential older students… It gave her a sense of future for herself that the multiple sclerosis was robbing from her.

When she died, I wanted to honor her and Pat suggested we endow a scholarship at Goddard… From there it mushroomed…with Berea, and with Warren Wilson College…Knoxville College.

When Pat and I look at the number, $909,000 is a staggering amount of money… We’re really aware of that, but we are also aware of part of being financially successful is giving back.
We figure we have about 30 graduates now…that’s a lot of lives changed.

JK: You hinted on your website that there is a major label you are talking to about reissuing your catalogue.

JI: We are hoping to do a complete re-release of everything, or at least everything that I own and control. Hoping to do a special vinyl edition for audiophiles of Between the Lines… Hoping to get it back in circulation… It’s only been me dealing with distribution and all of that. I would like to get out from under that.

JK: Can fans expect a new record?

JI: There are new songs, but not enough of them that I want to make a record. I figure my next record will be my last, in all seriousness, and I want it to be the best thing I’ve ever done… that means the songs have to be unimpeachable and that is a pretty high goal.

My real goal this year is to clear out the business stuff that takes me away from the creative stuff. The older you get, the more luggage you’ve got.

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