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An Interview With Janis Ian

By

Janis Ian

Janis Ian live

(photo by Tina Abato)
Janis Ian has been making timeless, beautiful music for decades. From her early songs like “At Seventeen” to her most recent release Folk is the New Black, Ian has always contributed poignant, infectious music to the American soundtrack.

In the wake of the release of her newest record, Janis was nice enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions about her career, her recent work, and the state of American folk music.

Kim Ruehl: Tell us how you came to the title “Folk is the New Black,” and how that encompasses the feeling you were going for on this record.
Janis Ian: When I decided to go back to my roots and make a folk album, I realized that folk’s popularity in this country has always gone in cycles; for a while, it’ll be the hip new thing, then it’ll go underground for a while, then re-surface as the new hip thing. The title’s a take on the Madison Avenue vision of that.

KR: How (do you think) the folk community has changed in the face of everything moving to an online world? Do you think that devalues whatever we consider folk music to be, or does it just make it convenient for music fans to have more access to more artists?
JI: I think the online world has made life a lot easier for struggling folk singers. As part of a niche group, a small genre group if you will, there are less and less outlets for all of us. The Net makes it easier to get your music out there. Even big stores like Amazon.com are willing to put up our independent albums, and you can't buy that kind of exposure.

I don't think anything can devalue folk music; it's in its nature to survive, whether it's popular at the moment or not.

KR: Who are some newer artists that you’ve been enjoying and would recommend for people to check out?
JI: Shoot, to me, U2 are still a ‘newer artist”… I like Coldplay a lot. Lori McKenna. Kaki King’s guitar work.

KR: One thing I think about a lot as a topical songwriter is how folksingers in the 50s, 60s and 70s really informed major change in this country when it became absolutely dire for the people to make the changes for themselves. Particularly with our political, social, environmental, educational, world-wide situation now - more and more it’s apparent that we can’t wait for our leaders to figure it out, and that it’s really going to have to be a social people’s movement toward a safer, cleaner world. What would your advice be for folks like me who are singing to this young generation of folks who are scared and frustrated and don’t really know if they have the initiative to pull off the same level of cultural change that, for example, your generation did 30 and 40 years ago?
JI: Be brave. That’s about it. We felt brave, and when we didn’t, we acted brave. And be charismatic. There’s no point in leading when no one will follow.

KR: And speaking of politics - I remember seeing you perform at the World Trade Center in the summer of 2001 (before 9/11) in that WFUV concert series they do every year. I don’t really have a question about that. I just wanted to mention it and see if you have anything to say about that.
JI: We spent a lot of 9/11 worrying over the crew there; fortunately, they started checking in to my message board that night, and everyone was okay.

It’s kind of weird when a fan sends me a photo of themselves with me at that gig, though.

KR: Back to the new record - what’s your favorite song on this album, and why?
JI: Oh, shoot – it changes every day. Right now it’s The Great Divide.

KR: Talk a little bit about “The Great Divide.” Was this a Hurricane Katrina tune, or did you write it before that?
JI: I wrote it well before Katrina – in May/June of last year. It’s something I’ve often pondered; if you’re one with the zeitgeist of your country and your times, I believe you tap into something. So I wrote “On the Other Side” before 9/11, and I wrote this before Katrina.

Read on to learn about what’s next for Janis

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