Singer songwriter Janis Ian talks to Brendan O'Connor about losing her singing voice, her long career and an event at Tradfest 2024 to honour her life and works. Listen back above.
Janis Ian was about to embark on a world tour followed by a week-long holiday in Ireland, when disaster struck. She contracted a virus that caused permanent vocal scarring and was forced to take the difficult decision never to sing in public again. In a fascinating conversation with Brendan O’Connor, she talks about processing this loss, her love of Irish audiences, her long career and looking forward to coming to Dublin in January 2024 for a special event at Tradfest, honouring her life and works.
Janis Ian: A Life Between the Lines takes place on January 28th next year as part of Tradfest, and Janis says she’s looking forward to it, even though she won’t be singing at the event:
"I can’t sing any more. I had to cancel my entire world tour and my last shows were supposed to be in Dublin: a three night stand. I was going to stay on for a week with my wife and we were going to see friends, and all that went down the gurgle. So I’m thrilled that this happened, and that Tradfest invited me."
The song most people associate with Janis Ian; At Seventeen, is set to be translated into Irish for the festival, and Irish colleagues including Mary Black will be performing other songs from her back catalogue. Ian has been singing and writing songs since the age of 14, and now, at 72, she says she's spent eighty-five per cent of her life performing live and the change is catastrophic:
"I wanna say it’s like losing a limb, except that I don’t want to compare it to something that horrendous, but it’s just really hard. I don’t have a place to put it at this point."
Ian's fans have been incredibly supportive following the announcement of the cancellation of her tour and she's received over 10,000 sympathetic emails. But breaking the habit of a lifetime is very painful, she says:
"It still doesn’t change that every time I look at a guitar, I immediately think of being onstage and then I immediately think, well, that’s done."
Janis Ian is still fired up about songwriting, and she's still able to give speeches and masterclasses. She’s grateful for her long and successful career, which has given her opportunities to travel and become close to some of the biggest names in music, like Joan Baez, Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin. The relationship with audiences has been one of the greatest joys of her career, she says:
"Especially in Ireland, which is the only place where I’ve ever heard At Seventeen sung by the audience back at me in perfect harmony."
Brendan suggests that everyone can relate to the experience of endings, and that an artist's special skill is in vocalising what everyone feels, but can’t always express. Janis says she loves this way of looking at it:
"Jeez Brendan, I didn’t expect to like you this much. Thank you. You verbalised things that I’ve been slowly towards. Well, so many people say 'One door closes, another door opens’. Well that doesn’t do you any good if the door is slammed on your foot. So to call it an ending really leaves room for beginnings."
Ian’s 1975 song about teenage loneliness At Seventeen continues to resonate to this day, something she’s surprised and delighted about:
"I say this in humility, it’s a wonderful song. It is astonishing to me that a song that was so scary to write, and so hard to sing in the beginning, has survived so long."
Janis says both young women and men regular tell her how much the song means to them:
"They pick that song and they pick another song called I’m Still Standing; both of those seem to mean a lot to younger people. It’s a never-ending astonishing joy to me. You dream of writing one song in a lifetime that has that kind of reach and does that much good and to have that dream come true is really astonishing."
Now living happily in Florida with her wife Pat, who has been her life partner for over 35 years, Ian says their relationship has outlasted everyone they know. Pat has been especially supportive in recent times, she says:
"She watched me struggle with, suddenly all the rehearsing that I’d been trying to do, when I would turn to her and I’d say something is not right – I know something is not right. She watched me then put down the guitar and not pick it up. She watches me still. She’s been a rock, she’s been steadfast – she’s amazing."
Janis talks about becoming a star at 14 and how Bill Cosby once tried to kill her career in the full interview. Listen back above.
Janis Ian: A Life Between the Lines is in the National Stadium on January 28th 2024, as part of Tradfest. More information here.
Go here to listen back to Brendan O’Connor, for a stimulating mix of news, interviews, reports and discussions.