by Gregg Shapiro
Janis Ian, who performs in Houston this month, talks about her latest, Billie’s Bones
At the time that I interviewed Janis Ian, in early February, her live CD, Working Without a Net, was number seven on the Outvoice top 40 album chart of LGBT music. Her previous studio album, God & the FBI, was also a longtime presence on the Outvoice chart. All of that bodes well for her new studio disc, Billie’s Bones (Rude Girl/Oh Boy), which was to be released later in the month.
An Ian concert was one of the first live music shows I ever attended as a kid, and as I was beginning my career in journalism in 1993, Ian was the first person I interviewed. So it meant a lot to me to be able to speak with her again, especially about an album as wonderful as Billie’s Bones.
Gregg Shapiro: Working Without a Net, the live disc you released in 2003, is not your first live set. There was The Bottom Line Encore Collection from 1995, for example. Do you have a fondness for live albums, and if so, what is the attraction?
Janis Ian: It’s the first live [album] that I’ve released that I had control over that is actually culled from the best shows and the best takes. In that sense, it’s real different from the Remember album that was done over a period of two shows and is out of print or The Bottom Line Collection, which was recorded at a time when live recording wasn’t anything to brag about. The opportunity to do a live double album that was culled from the best shows we could find was attractive to me. And the opportunity to use that as a bridge—because I hadn’t had an album out in a couple of years—to satisfy the fans who were waiting for Billie’s Bones, was also really attractive to me. Beyond that, I think it’s nice for fans to have a memento of shows that’s as close to the actual shows as possible. That’s the feeling that we were going for.
G.S.: No discussion of your new CD would be complete without first talking about the title track. In it you sing about Billie Holiday, “I would tell her how I’ve yearned to be worthy of the grail/All these years and all I’ve learned is just how brilliantly I fail.” What can you tell me about that line and about your relationship to Billie Holiday?
J.I.: I felt there was a connection from the time that I first heard her. In that mystical way of a 12-year-old, I thought that the fact that we were both born on April 7 meant something deep. She’s just the best. I don’t think there’s another singer out there who can touch her. She and George Jones, I’d say. To try and come up to the standard that Billie hit is a worthy endeavor, although fraught with difficulty.
G.S.: You’ve been living in Nashville for a number of years, and Tennessee really comes through loud and clear on the new disc. It is especially audible on “My Tennessee Hills,” a duet you sing with Dolly Parton.
J.I.: I’d been fooling with the song for about six years, unable to write a verse. Then one day last January I sat down and thought, Well, I should write this like a George Jones song. The minute I thought that, the song just wrote itself over a period of a couple of days. I really wanted to do it as a duet. My partner said, “Dolly would sound great on that.” We called her and [laughs] much to everyone’s shock, she said yes. It was one of the best studio experiences of my life. She’s a pro from the word go—just amazing to work with, a real pleasure.
G.S.: There is another interesting collaboration on the disc, the song “I Hear You Sing Again”…
J.I.: …my co-write with Woody [Guthrie].
G.S.: Right! Can you explain how that occurred?
J.I.: Well, the Guthrie Foundation approached me and asked whether I would write music to lyrics of Woody’s that went unfinished. Nora Guthrie sent me 13 songs to choose from, and none of them did a whole lot for me but two. The minute I saw “I Hear You Sing Again,” I thought, I need to write this one. This one’s mine. It was just a perfect fit. That song, again, wrote itself really quickly.
G.S.: Matthew Shepard continues to be a source of powerful music. Like you, both gay band The Aluminum Group (“Motorcycles”) and straight emo band Thursday (“M. Shepard”) have songs about him on their new CDs. Can you please say something about your contribution to the canon of songs about Matthew?
J.I.: I think I was disturbed that so many of the songs about him made him heroic and made it like, “Well, this was a terrible thing, but on the other hand, good came out of it.” While that’s true, that wasn’t the issue for me. The issue for me was just the horror of it—that this could happen at all. I doubt that if Matthew had the choice, he would have chosen this, no matter how famous it made his name. I wanted to talk about that part of it and just find a way to cope with my own personal reaction, which was, like everyone else’s, absolute horror.
G.S.: What can people expect from the Janis Ian concert tour of 2004?
J.I.: They can expect a lot of good guitar work [laughs]. And they can expect a combination of the old songs and the new songs. We’re taking out some songs that I’m really tired of doing, like “Jesse.” We’re leaving in “At Seventeen,” and I think I’m going to start doing “Stars” every night—[and] a bunch of stuff from the new CD, obviously. I try to keep it a blend of the old and the new nowadays. I’ve got 20 or 23 albums out in general release, in one form or another, so I don’t really feel the need to go out on tour and do every song from the new album. I’m just trying to pick the best songs from the entire catalog.
At the 2003 OutMusic Awards in June, Gregg Shapiro received the annual honor for Outstanding Support, which recognizes involvement by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.
IAN IN HOUSTON
Janis Ian, who wed her partner Patricia Snyder in a Toronto ceremony in August, will perform in Houston on March 17 at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck. “If we could have gotten married in the United States, we would have,” Ian wrote on her website, www.janisian.com. “We also got married because, just like coming out, public figures need to do that to make the rest of the world aware.”RUFUS COMES TO TOWN
Gay troubadour Rufus Wainwright will perform here on March 11 at the Verizon Wireless Theater. In his interview with Wainwright for the November 2003 OutSmart, Gregg Shapiro called the singer’s latest two-part Want release “his most ambitious and thrilling project.”