Janis Ian reflects on her career, final album and tour with love and gratitude
Janis Ian headlines this edition of Music Journeys, and we revisit our interview with Tom Rush since the two music legends have a concert coming up in Columbus May 18th at the Southern Theatre. Ian will reflect on her career and explain why she expects her latest album and the current tour to be her last. Rush spoke with Music Journeys back in 2018, and you'll hear all about his love of music too. A special programming note regarding Rush. He will perform Live From Studio A at WCBE Wednesday May 18th during the Global Village. We'll wrap up this edition of Music Journeys with the fastest Fast Five in this program's history from Janis Ian. Thanks for listening.
I'm Still Standing plays...
Janis Ian has been writing and recording music since her early teenage years. As the title track of her latest and likely final release suggests, she's still standing but with a heightened sense of love and gratitude.
"I think it says on the inside cover, it's a love song," Ian said of her new album The Light at the End of the Line. "Once it was put together, I realized it was a love song. Something like I'm Still Standing is a love song to everyone who has felt the world has beaten them down, whether through age or circumstance and has stood back up. Everything on the album expresses gratitude, and I think that's something very difficult to reach when you're young, but now that I've hit 71 is a lot easier to understand and to express."
Perfect Little Girl plays...
As a toddler, Ian's love of music came from hearing her father play the piano. Her family became part of the Civil Rights movement and had a different residence every couple years.
"But it was good in a way because I learned to deal with all sorts of different people and circumstances," Ian reflected "We wound up in New York when I was about 14. I was already writing songs and singing. I got a couple opportunities, and it went from there."
So when did she decide to make a career out of writing, singing, recording and performing?
"I think the day I realized you could actually do that," Ian responded "I was about 10 and picked up a guitar. I got a Joan Baez record, and I was already listening to Odetta. I suddenly realized you could do that rather than my original plan, which was to be Veterinarian and do music on the side and be a lifeguard in the summers. From there, it just never changed. I'm very lucky I get to do something that I love doing and actually earn a living at it. Most of us would do this even if people didn't pay us for it. That's the great trade secret we don't want anybody to find out."
Ian's self-titled debut album in 1967 begins with this song...
Society's Child plays...
"If I knew that I would patent it, sell it, and make my fortune," Ian said of how she wrote a song like Society's Child at such a young age. "I don't know. I think it's one of the reasons artists are humble. I've never met a great artist who wasn't humble about their work because you know you were born with it. As hard as we work, we also are aware that we were born with talent. It's the talent that lets a 14-year-old write a Society's Child."
"It's encouraging because we have made a lot of changes," Ian said of the relevance of the song and how things are today. "As much as I don't like it, social media and the internet and cell phones have helped document cases of abuse. Social media is a force in stopping that. On the other hand, it's also as just a powerful force for encouraging it, which is really unfortunate. But we've made strides. I can be married to my wife now. Nobody can take our children away if we have young children and say we're unfit parents because we're gay. Those are all steps forward."
At Seventeen plays...
When Ian reflects on 1975's At Seventeen, it's the honest, universal tone that makes it resonate today.
"It hits all the marks you hope to hit when you are writing a song," Ian said. "It cuts through race and gender and sexuality and culture and nationality and language. It cuts through everything. It's a great song, and I say that as a writer who wrote that 45 years ago. It's a wonderful song. It makes people feel safe. It gives people a voice when they can't say those things. It does its job."
Wherever Good Dreams Go plays...
"Isn't it great we have albums and videos," said about this being her final album and tour. "Goodbye is different now. Goodbye is more of a light to me. I have no plans on going anywhere. I'm not ill. But I want time to live my life, and I can't do that when I'm on the road. I can't do that when I'm making a record. It all starts with a song as you know, Mike. It starts with the writing. And for me, once the writing is done everything else becomes ancillary. I would like the opportunity to be a writer and not worry about anything else. I'm selling my catalog, I'm cleaning out my house and basically turning into a writer."
What kind of writing?
"I have no idea," Ian resonded with a laugh. "My first goal is to relax long enought to get a little bored."
The Light at the End of the Line plays...
Ian refers to this final release and tour as more of rewiring rather than retiring. The title track honors the relationship she's built with listeners.
"There are people who've stuck by me since the 1960's and watched me grow up as a writer, singer, and performer" Ian said. "I have a real sense of kinship and gratitude with those people. For someone like me at my age after all these years to have half a million dedicated followers, that's unbelievable. So there's a debt of gratitude owed to them, not to continue performing, but it should be acknowledged. This album is a way of acknowledge it."
Over the years, she's learned several lessons.
"If I could talk to my younger self now, I would tell her to trust her talent and not listen to the record company and managers or anybody, but that's next to impossible at that age," Ian reflected. "If I were to talk to myself in my thirties, I would tell myself that it would be okay - that I would meet Pat one day and 34 years later I would still want to be with you rather than anybody on Earth. In some ways, we've lost perspective in this country on what it takes to make a community work. So I'd improve the educational system, teach civility, and tell people (as my friend Frank Turner says) be more kind."
The Columbus show features Ian performing with an old friend.
"I have worked with Tom Rush since the early 1970's," Ian recalled. "I found the other day a Carnegie Hall program where I opened for Tom Rush, and I remember it was a huge deal because he's an incredible writer, singer, and performer. I had a mad crush on him. So that's going to be a special show."
Music Journeys spoke with Tom Rush back in 2018.
Life Is Fine plays...
Life is more than fine these days for long-time musician Tom Rush. But if not for an older relative, he may have taken another path.
"I was forced to take piano lessons for years and years, and it was a terrible experience for everyone involved - me, the teacher, innocent bystanders," he laughed. "But I had an older cousin who played the ukulele. This guy could take a lit cigarette, flip it back into his mouth, dive into the swimming pool and blow smoke bubbles from underwater. When you're 10 years old, that's huge. He taught me how to play a bunch of silly songs that were great. That's when I decided that music can be fun."
Rush has been credited with helping to shape the nation's folk music revival in the 1960's. Voices marks his first recorded material in nearly a decade. It also represents the first time he wrote most of the songs, 10 of the 12 to be exact. But even he has a hard time explaining where they came from.
"The other two are traditional songs because I didn't want to compromise my folk singer credentials," he said. "So this one, I don't know where the songs came from. They just started popping in out of nowhere, and I thought I have enough songs for an album - and we did."
"The song that I named the aIbum after is one that people seem to respond to very positively," Rush said. "It's basically saying there's a lot going on that we miss because we're not paying attention. There's one I wrote for my bride, another quiet song called Far Away."
Far Away plays...
"But I don't like to tell people what songs mean," he added. "Each person that listens to a song brings their own experience to it. So it's kind of a team effort between the writer and the listener. I don't think it's appropriate for the writer or the musician to tell you what the song is supposed to me. It means whatever resonates with you and your particular circumstance."
How Can She Dance Like That plays...
Variety is probably the best descriptor of Rush's latest collection of songs. After more than five decades in music, Rush still enjoys performing.
“It’s fun with a capital F,” Rush said. “Getting up on stage and sharing songs that you really love is a terrific experience. I still love doing shows. The traveling gets a little harder all the time, partly because of Homeland Security and partly because I'm not 23 anymore. I look at the shows as being a vacation and an oasis for people. I hope they go away fresh, and energized, and happy.”
Rush says he's never tried to control the direction the music takes, so he'll continue to write and record as the songs come to him. He's in the process of writing a couple books and even delving into art by creating sculptures. He sure crafted some good songs on Voices.
My Best Girl plays...
We close out this episode with Janis Ian's Fast Five.
More from Janis Ian here.
More from Tom Rush here.