Earlier this year, Sony UK reissued five Janis Ian titles on vinyl; the first time these albums have re-emerged on that particular format for quite a long time. To mark the occasion, I chatted to Janis for RnR Magazine.
Few album series have been as beautifully recorded and thoughtfully written as the seven CBS collections issued by singer/songwriter, Janis Ian, during the 1970s, five of which have just made a return to vinyl via Sony Legacy UK. She repeatedly proved herself an albums artist with a capital A. From after-midnight cris de coeur (‘I’ll Cry Tonight’) and jazz-infused piano masterclasses (‘Jenny’), to bravura folk ballads (‘Hymn’) and cocktail-hour jazz (‘Bright Lights And Promises’), these remarkably diverse albums remain near-perfect examples of upper-echelon pop music. What made the achievement even more impressive was that Janis had already made an exceptional quartet of albums for Verve during the 1960s, prior to reaching adulthood. But in 1974, when she was readying Stars for release, her stock was at an all-time low, with transitional album, 1971’s Present Company (Capitol), having failed to make much of an impression. Little did she realise that she was just about to enjoy another huge spike in her fortunes.
Stars couldn’t have been a more apt album title. The title track, running for over seven minutes, with Janis alone, accompanying herself on guitar, was a lament for all who, like the author, had tasted stardom and found it to their detriment. “I just wanted to earn a living,” she says. “I had a lot to prove, in this country in particular, where it was felt I had been a one-hit wonder. ‘Society’s Child’ had been a hit when I was fifteen and there were even rumours that I hadn’t written it – that my parents had. I had nothing to lose because I couldn’t get work. I couldn’t get a publishing deal, I couldn’t get a record deal – that record was funded by Festival Records out of Australia. Having nothing to lose leaves you in a really great position because you take chances. You put a song like ‘Stars’, the work-tape, no backing, as the title track of the album and you go, ‘well, you like it or you don’t’. That’s a really great attitude and really difficult to maintain. As the years go on and people are breathing down your neck, the record company needs to make its second-quarter payments, you need to make sure your manager makes a living, it’s harder and harder to hold on to.”
Stars and its single, the sprightly ‘The Man You Are In Me’, performed respectably in the lower reaches of the American charts, with Janis’s profile given a boost when Roberta Flack took the elegiac ballad, ‘Jesse’, to US Number Thirty. She was back in the game. The victory must have been all the more sweet because of the fact that only a year or two earlier, she’d auditioned unsuccessfully for CBS when Clive Davis was still at the helm (he would leave under a cloud in 1973), and endured the indignity of Davis neither making eye contact nor in any way acknowledging her during the audition, eventually walking out without saying anything. Now, he was out of CBS, while she was in. The following year, reconvening at 914 Studios, Blauvelt, New York, with the same team, including producer Brooks Arthur, Janis crafted Between The Lines and its immortal hit ‘At Seventeen’, a song which tapped into the collective consciousness of America. A Grammy or two later, she was on a roll. The album also included ‘In The Winter’ (covered by Dusty Springfield), ‘Light A Light’ (covered by Joan Baez) and Lover’s Lullaby (covered by The Walker Brothers).
Then, unfortunately, Janis let the bean-counters pressure her to release a followup she felt needed more work – Aftertones (1976). While it had the feel of a Between The Lines Mk 2, something about it was just slightly less satisfying. “We blew that one. I say that, there are a lot of people who disagree with me and that’s there favourite album. It certainly gave me a career in Japan that’s still going strong to this day. But for me, as a songwriter, we needed six more months. I will say that it has ‘Love Is Blind’ [a Japanese Number One], which I think is a wonderful song, but it doesn’t have the cohesion of Between The Lines or Stars and I think that’s because I was trying to record, be on the road and write all at the same time and you can’t be in three places at once.”
At this juncture, Village Voice attempted to out her, something that could have had devastating consequences had the national press picked up on it. “There was a fellow who’d made it his business that year to out Elton and Bowie and myself. That was his big deal and to me, outing someone unless they’re actively working against the gay community, I don’t think you have the right to determine someone else’s destiny. The press in America were very kind to me and ignored it. For a female in particular, the repercussions would have been disastrous. I wouldn’t have been played on radio again, I wouldn’t have been working at any club that needed a cabaret license, it would have really destroyed what career I have here.” Despite this brush with near-disaster, Janis would, not without trepidation, include on her next album, ‘Maria’, a fictionalised love-song to a woman.
The brawny, dynamic Miracle Row (1977), found Janis dabbling in different approaches to rhythm and was made with her touring band of the time. It opens with a memorably ghoulish depiction of druggy nightlife (‘Party Lights’). “It’s a very New York album. After Aftertones, and touring behind that album, I had insisted I have a break and I spent a lot of time in Spanish Harlem. Walking around New York in the summer, Central Park with the bongos and drummers, there was nothing like it. I wanted to originally cut a jazz album and everybody laughed in my face and said jazz was dead (so much for that). And then I wrote ‘Miracle Row’ and I thought that’s a really good indicator of what this album could be. It’s a very piano-orientated album, a very band-orientated album. I’m very fond of that album, and I think it was closer to being on the right track.” The album produced another Japanese hit in ‘Will You Dance’.
1978’s Janis Ian is not included in the current reissue programme, but – of course – the hugely popular Night Rains, featuring the Georgio Moroder collaboration, ‘Fly Too High’, and which revealed Janis to be at the very top of her game as a pianist, is. The reissues have been created with great care and attention to detail, Janis working closely with remastering engineers Steve Berkowitz and Mark Wilder. “I knew Steve would move heaven and earth to find the original tapes,” says Janis. “I knew that he was very familiar with Sony and the way they worked, and I knew that he had great ears. And then Sony UK really got on board and said, ‘let’s do the cover art exactly the same, let’s replicate it’. From there, Steve assembled the tapes. We brought Brooks Arthur in, who had produced Stars, Between The Lines and Aftertones and who is still a close friend, and I said,‘I need your ears in on this, not just mine, not just Steve’s, but the original engineer as well and would you consider chiming in on the two albums you didn’t produce as well?’ and Brooks was great. He was very happy to be a part of it.”
After the rootsy, guitar-based Restless Eyes (1981), Janis stepped away. “It becomes cannibalistic,” she says. “It gets to the point where you’re eating yourself alive, trying to be Michael Jackson, staying on top and worrying about your position, which to me is a little, for want of a more polite word, crazy, because there’ll always be somebody who makes more record sales, there’s always somebody who’s gonna write a song, either good or better, and there’s always going to be someone who’s more successful, however you measure success.” The rest of the decade would take her from one extreme to another. Janis has just managed to escape the clutches of a violent husband when it was discovered that a money manager had been negligent and dishonest. Her existence was upended as the IRS swooped in, taking almost everything and leaving her in penury. Nevertheless, she built things back up again with another comeback (Breaking Silence, 1993), success as a songwriter for others, an official coming out, marriage to long-term partner, Pat, and another run of albums. She won a Grammy for the audiobook version of her 2008 autobiography and has since had another break, her last studio album being 2006’s Folk Is The New Black. Now, however, she’s finessed five songs, some of which will make an appearance when she headlines at the Cambridge Folk Festival in August. “I’ll make an album when I have eleven unimpeachable songs,” she promises. Stay tuned, because the fourth (or is it fifth?) Janis Ian comeback is imminent.