A Chat with Singer Janis Ian

by on April 22, 2016 · 0 comments

in Culture, LGBT rights, San Diego

Appearing May 22nd at the Balboa Theater at a Benefit for the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation Lesbian Health Initiative


Photo by: Lloyd Bags

By Anne M. Haule / San Diego Free Press

I had the most delightful chat with Janis Ian this morning. Her warmth immediately calmed my nerves (in this my first celebrity interview). I felt as if I were chatting with a friend. She is upbeat, articulate, humorous and amazingly candid. She was generous with her time and forthright with her comments. She is a self-proclaimed optimist with a sparkle in her voice.

We began by talking about her 50+ year career – and what a versatile career it has been and continues to be. Janis has received 38 awards and honors for her music, her writing, her audiobooks, and her social activism.

As for her music, she is both a singer and a songwriter. She has also written soundtracks for films. As for her activism, she has been involved in numerous causes including support of AIDs/HIV patients, LGBTQ equality, and diversity in arts education. She has also written a children’s book and co-narrated the acclaimed lesbian historical fiction, “ Patience & Sarah”.

When asked what she is most proud of, Janis thought for a minute and then said that she couldn’t select just one project in that she is proud of most all of her life’s work. That said, she feels very good about the $900k+ raised by her Pearl Foundation (named after her mother) that funds older adult higher education (something her mother had to wait for after she helped put her husband and children through college).

When the name Janis Ian comes up in conversation, almost everyone remembers her song, “At 17 which she wrote and published forty years ago from her own experience as a teenager who was not in the “in-crowd” but rather, was on the fringe. We talked about how this classic has withstood the test of time and is currently used by schools and public media to start a discussion about compassion and the movement against bullying.

This song is still making a difference in lives. For example, Janis told me about a young high school football star who wrote to her about how hearing this song changed his thinking about girls and who he dated – (imagine the big man on campus asking out the shy bookworm instead of the sexy cheerleader!) Another example comes as close to home as you can get – Janis’ granddaughter told Janis about how cool it was to have her grandmother’s song included in her high school textbook to encourage kids to talk about the harmful effects of bullying.

A song of hers that Janis particularly likes is “I’m Still Standing” – a song that was 12 years in the making – allowing time to create just the right chorus. Although on a literal level, this song is about getting older, its appeal is much broader. Janis told me about a conversation she had recently with some young people in their late teens who told her how they related to the song – as a song about overcoming adversity – in this way, this song has universal significance since everyone faces adversity at one time or another.

Another of her songs that made a difference before the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned, was “Married in London” – a song that garnered a fair amount of controversy – so much so that some people actually walked out of her concerts, causing her to hold off on singing it until the second half of her show!

Fast forward 40 years and Janis is now 65, leading us to chat about “retirement” – a word she dislikes –preferring the word “re-wiring”. For Janis this means less time on the road and more time to devote to her various artistic and activist projects – including working on a novel, making her work available to her fans in the way they have requested and choosing performances with care.

ian vivireos

Photo by:Girard Viveiros

We discussed how this phase of life is often initially difficult and how the re-wiring process takes time – not unlike adolescence and all the changes it entails. To underscore adjusting to this new time of life, Janis told me of a recent exchange with her wife, Pat, about driving rather than flying to a particular destination. When Janis expressed concern that the drive would take up to 2 days, Pat replied, “. . . and we are in a hurry for what . . .?” Getting used to having and taking time is something new to Janis in her “re-wired” period but she is enjoying this more mindful phase of life.

Of course, the reason for this interview is her upcoming concert in San Diego on May 22nd at Balboa Theater. The concert is billed, “Uprising, Songs of Change.” It is a fundraiser for the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation Women’s Health Initiative and the San Diego Women’s Chorus.

Janis told me how important this issue is to her and that is why she agreed to perform notwithstanding her limited concert schedule. She has experienced a number of bouts of bad health over the recent past and had it not been for her union health insurance (pre-Medicare), she and her wife could have experienced financial problems. Janis is acutely aware of the importance of access to affordable healthcare and for this reason she will be joining the San Diego Women’s Choir to benefit this cause.

On May 22 the San Diego Women’s Chorus will begin the show, followed by Janis performing some of her songs, ending with Janis singing with the Chorus. We can expect to hear our favorite songs including, “At 17”,” Celebrity’s Child”, “Married in London”, and (of course) “I’m Still Standing.”

Because the concert is all about music that influences change, we talked about what this means. Janis differentiates between political change and social change. She praises Phil Ochs’ and Bob Dylan’s early work as uniquely influential in political change. Janis views political change as influencing a change in law whereas social change influences a change in hearts. As songs of social change, a number of Janis’ songs have been instrumental in changing many a heart over the years.

Having the opportunity to interview Janis, who is a true musical icon, was a real highlight for me. I can’t wait to see and hear her on stage on May 22nd. As a little “teaser” in advance of the concert, have fun listening to and practice singing along to these timeless tunes!

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