I decided to go back to recording and performing around 1991 or 1992, and also that I wanted a guitar “my size.” I’m very small – 4′ 10″ at best – and there were things I wanted to do as a guitarist that I just didn’t have the finger length or hand size to accomplish.
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How did the relationship with Santa Cruz Guitar Company begin?
I decided to go back to recording and performing around 1991 or 1992, and also that I wanted a guitar “my size.” I’m very small – 4′ 10″ at best – and there were things I wanted to do as a guitarist that I just didn’t have the finger length or hand size to accomplish. I started looking around for someone who’d agree to make me a truly custom guitar. I began with Martin, because I’d grown up on Martins, but no one there felt there was any market for a “girl’s guitar.” Chet Atkins himself set me up with the Gibson folks, who basically said the same – there was no market for small guitars. In desperation, I called my old friend Lloyd Baggs – a guitar he’d made for me in 1975 was the closest I’d seen to what I wanted. He, in turn, recommended Richard Hoover and Santa Cruz as an up-and-coming wonderful luthier and company.
Richard couldn’t afford to make the guitar for nothing, and I couldn’t afford his normal pricing. We settled on him paying the labor costs, and me paying for the molds, the wood, etc. When he finished the first prototype, he asked if he could bring it to NAMM with him as a curiosity. I said sure, and astonishingly enough, on his return he called to say they had a bunch of people wanted to order it, could they go into production?!
I agreed, with one proviso – the guitar had to have my name on the headstock. To my knowledge, up until that date there were no signature acoustic guitars for any females; I think the only woman with one at that point (1992, I think) was Bonnie Raitt with Fender. I think…
The guitar has a very interesting body – “parlor-sized” with a cutaway. What guitars/types of guitars have you played over the years that helped define what you wanted in a signature edition guitar?
As I noted above, I grew up playing a Martin – my father’s 1937 D-18. I firmly believe there are two types of acoustic guitarists in this world – Martin necks, and Gibson necks. I’m a Martin neck person, so that was a big piece. The cutaway was obvious; I needed access to the higher frets for solo work. I told Richard I wanted the fingerboard to feel, and play, like my Gibson Les Paul – extra wide jumbo frets and very, very low action.
How were decisions made about the guitar? Was picking the shape, wood, appointments, etc. a collaborative effort? For example, I love the Rude Girl neck inlays…which is surely a Janis Ian touch.
Hah! I honestly don’t remember which of us came up with that – I knew I wanted the fingerboard to look cool, but not overdone. Originally, we spoke about putting my logo on the headstock, but there wasn’t room – and it really would have looked awful. The shape was pretty much Richard’s; we went through a lot of discussions about depth and bracing, and in particular the saddle/bridge. I kept emphasizing that I wanted as low an action as possible – an electric guitar action – so the arch had to be small. The choice of rosewood and spruce was pretty obvious to both of us – and I wanted the guitars black, to differentiate them from all the other acoustics on the market. Richard came up with two dye possibilities, one lacquered and one matte. I’ve owned both over the years, but I personally prefer the matte. The only other things I really remember discussing and tweaking a lot were: the tuners. Finding black ones, at the time, was near impossible, and we went through several makers before we found ones that would hold up. The bridge/saddle – there was a bunch of adjusting done on that over the first few years. The pickup…of course, a Baggs, but what kind? I wound up with the LB6X, even though I’ve prototyped almost all of Lloyd’s others, because it just likes my fingers and those guitars.
You play a very thoughtful finger-style guitar. Who have been some of your influences for guitar playing?
Oh, thanks! Thoughtful… huh. I’d never have put it that way. How nice. I wish I could say they were X and Y and Z, but really I’ve never listened to much solo guitar playing. I came to the Charlie Christian/Django/Chet worlds pretty late. I learned, at first, from the Weaver’s and Leadbelly songbooks, at camp, where a lot of counselors showed me tricks. When I got home, I slowed down Baez and Odetta records and copied them. I think part of the cleanliness of my playing is my piano background, and part of it’s also that I just don’t like sloppiness unless it’s intentional sloppiness.
You currently reside in Nashville, Tenn., which is a great place to live for a songwriter. Have you taken under your wing any up-and-coming songwriters in town? Is there anyone in particular who has made an impression on you? What advice would you give to aspiring Nashville songwriters?
I love being in Nashville; they took me in when no one else wanted me, and I’ll be forever grateful. That being said, honestly, I haven’t been in town enough lately to know any up and comers. I’m just now catching up with people a generation or two younger than me, like Gretchen Peters and Tony Arata. As far as advice… same as I’d give anyone. If you can do anything else with your life, do it. This is the business of failure, and you’ll fail a hundred times or more for every tiny success. Trust no one. Trust your instincts. If you do something that goes against them, and it stiffs, you’ll be forever unhappy. If you go with them, and it stiffs, at least you’ll have produced something you still like. Last, but far from least, remember to take joy in what you do. It’s too easy, in this world, to only think business. We become writers and players and singers because it brings us joy. Don’t lose that!
You started writing songs very early in your life, which seems to be the mark of a true natural at the craft. What initially inspired you to start to write songs and what has continued to inspire you throughout your career? Has this inspiration changed?
Huh. I’ve never thought about that. I know my acting teacher, Stella Adler, used to say “There are three things you can’t play. You can’t play young, you can’t play sexy, and you can’t play talented. You are, or you’re not.” I think writers are born writers.
As to inspiration. Heck. Beats me. I just like writing.
You’ve just released your autobiography Society’s Child this summer. How was going about writing autobiographical prose different from songwriting?
Mmm, kittens and puppies? Apples and oranges? Both are mammals or fruits, both are alive, both propagate – beyond that, not much in common, really. But as I have said often, writing is writing. My years writing articles on deadline for The Advocate and Performing Songwriter stood me in good stead – I knew how to research, how to parse and punctuate, how to tell a story. That really helps.
Your lyrics stand up as poetry in their own right. When you write, what tends to come first: idea, melody, chords, lyrics, etc.?
Ah, no offense, but poetry is a completely different art/craft. I don’t write poetry at all; I write songs. They depend on musical meter, quite different from poetry. That being said, it all depends. No hard and fast rules about how it comes, except that fortunately for me, the starts of songs usually come to mind with lyric, melody, and chords all at once. Thank God…
One of your most enduring songs “At Seventeen” does a great job capturing the emotion of a teenager. If you were to write a song today called “At Fifty-Seven,” how would it sound?
I wouldn’t write it, and I can’t even begin to envision it. You couldn’t possibly write a song resembling “At 17” about your fifties; it just wouldn’t make sense. Even the format wouldn’t work. I would hope I’ve moved on, as a writer, to discuss things that make sense to people in my age group – the death of a parent, like in “I Hear You Sing Again.” The need to be grateful, like in “Joy.” I would hope that as I’ve matured, the music has matured – not necessarily better or worse, but more mature.
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I wrote a poem in dedication to Janis Ian’s song At Seventeen when I was 18 years old in 1978. I found my poem last year hidden inside the pages of an old book. I would very much like for Ms. Ian to receive this and be free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org My only reason to send this to her is that her song spoke volumes to many teenage girls feeling the same way. I certainly did. Thank you.
Janis Ian’s Song
The Janis Ian song “At Seventeen”,
Resonated with many who understood the pain,
The teenage angst of not fitting in,
Of being excluded time and time again.
The torment thrust upon us,
And later had to overcome,
Influenced how we looked at life,
With either a negative or a positive outcome.
Each of us who survived,
The struggling years as teens,
Fashioned our future days by an outpouring
Of mixed emotions, unforeseen.
At seventeen, life didn’t end but actually begun,
For most of those turbulent or joyous teen years were finally done,
Marriage, career, family, and friends,
A lifetime filled with joy or spent making amends.
The past is over, no longer relived,
The hurt that’s left buried or continues to haunt, leaving us feeling numb,
The years that have flown by since then,
The adolescent insecurities that no longer come.
Our memories at seventeen, full of desperation,
The games we played but only to deceive,
No longer hold us down for much of our existence, there lies hope,
“At Seventeen” a song we understood,
Its message of redemption, we will always still believe.