The Writer’s Block: Janis Ian on Nearly 60 Years of Song

A storyteller before she was even a teenager, Janis Ian was writing poetry by the age of 12, then wrote one of her most iconic songs “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” at 13, documenting the then-taboo subject of an interracial romance. The song was later released on her self-titled debut in 1967 when she was just 16. Coming into more age within the next decade, Ian released her 1973 ballad “Jesse” and one of her biggest hits—and what would be considered her signature song—“At Seventeen” in 1975, earning her a Grammy award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. That same year, Ian, along with Billy Preston, was the first-ever musical performer on Saturday Night Live on Oct. 11, 1975. 

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Intimately twined around social and political issues in song, Ian’s personal life was also filled with extremes, highs, and lows. After taking a break from music in the mid-’80s after releasing her 13th album Uncle Wonderful and parting ways with Columbia, Ian later reemerged in 1992 with the more vulnerable Breaking Silence, also breaking her long silence on her sexuality.

In all the constant flux of Ian’s life, one constant was songwriting. Now 71, Ian talked about how songs still come to her, why it’s an editing process, and though her 2022 release The Light at the End of the Line is her final album as a solo artist, she’ll never really stop writing. 

American Songwriter: You’ve been writing for nearly 60 years of your life. Do you feel like songs come out the same way they did 10, 20, or more years back?

Janis Ian: Yes, except that I’m fussier now. The older I get, the harder it is and the more interested I am in getting rid of anything that’s not necessary. Leave Conrad, who was the great publisher, once told me the two things he looked for in a songwriter when he was signing: could they write alone, and were their second verses as good as the first. I had never thought about that because I’ve never grown up around the craft of songwriting. For me, that was really a revelation. I went back, I looked at a lot of my material, and I realized that the best songs had a second verse that was as good as the first or better. 

AS: How did the songs on The Light at the End of the Line piece together? Were the lyrics there before the music, or vice versa?

JI: It just depends on the song really. I love the idea of starting a song with the way a lot of new parents begin preparing for the birth of a child, by painting a room and buying mobiles. On this album [The Light at the End of the Line] “Better Times,” that first line and the melody came all at once; “Summer in New York” grew out of those initial chords; and “Wherever Good Dreams Go” came out of a friend’s experience. “Swannanoa” was another song that just sprung out of nowhere while I was at the Swannanoa gathering. I wrote it down because I thought it was a really wonderful melody and I started the lyric and then I put it in my jeans and forgot about it until I was getting ready to do a wash a week later. 

AS: Listening back into your catalog, older songs like “Jesse” or “At Seventeen” were obviously set in a different time and place, but do they still resonate with you?

JI: Sure. The problem with writing The Light at the End of the Line was, “how do you write Stars [Ian’s sixth album, 1974] for now?” How do I write an artist’s farewell? I was reading my own bio last night, and I was quoted in an article, and I thought “did I really say that?” The writer said that I had “perfected the art of farewell.” The art of farewell? That’s really not something that songwriters do, but then again we’ve had recorded music for such a short time. It’s not something that novelists do because once a writer always a writer, but recording artists can do it.

As a writer, when you feel like you finally caught the scent of greatness in yourself it’s such an elusive, rare moment.

I really wanted to get back to compassion. I wanted to pay some sort of homage to the people who have stuck with me through thicker and thinner—and thinner and thinner—and who have been good to me all these years when I very often didn’t know what I was doing and just went full speed ahead, or when I was under other pressures, the people who stayed with me through my learning curves.

AS: You’ve said that songwriting is also editing to an extent. How does that work for you? Do you think editing-as-you-write can be detrimental to a song?

JI: You reach a certain point, not an age, but in terms of experience, where you don’t have to go down all those blind alleys. You can just get on with it because you know what won’t work. I was writing with a pretty famous person who had never written a song before. They spent two hours spitting out ideas, and at the end of the two hours, I was completely exhausted. I realized part of the exhaustion was that almost every single one of those ideas I had thought of in the back of my head and accepted or rejected without even thinking about it out loud. 

Photo: Keith Stokes

But you can’t be scared to edit out. When we were recording “Better Times Will Come,”  and I was working with Viktor Krauss, it started out as 12 and a half minute song. We say in science fiction, “don’t be afraid to murder your babies.” You have to be willing to get rid of what’s not necessary for the good of the whole, so a lot of this album to me is about space. It’s about utilizing space and working within a smaller amount of space than I might have had when I was 20.

AS: What should younger writers know about songwriting?

JI: When you’re young, you’ve got to write a lot because you learn by writing, just like you learn by performing. Then, when you have more experience… I think the moment I realized what a good songwriter I’d become was more the result of experience and not talent.

AS: Why do you still write?
As a writer, when you feel like you finally caught the scent of greatness in yourself it’s such an elusive, rare moment. Anyone who’s not in the arts, not living in the arts as an artist, can’t understand that because they can’t understand how all-consuming it’s got to be. If it’s not, you aren’t being true to the gift you were given.

Photo: Lloyd-Baggs

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