Janis Ian celebrates her Jewishness, local roots
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Janis Ian celebrates her Jewishness, local roots

Being an outsider forms you as a writer,” says singer/songwriter Janis Ian, who spoke with The Jewish Standard this week in advance of her April 21 performance in Woodbridge.

And, says the nine-time Grammy nominee, that “outsider” status is what Jews and songwriters have in common.

Throughout her long career – she wrote her first song at age 12 – Ian’s songs have reflected that sensibility.

Her most popular single, “At Seventeen,” which reached the number one spot on the adult contemporary chart in 1975, chronicles the pain and isolation of unpopular teenagers. “Tattoo,” which appeared on her “Breaking Silence” album in 1993 and was recorded at the Schouwburg Concordia in Holland, explores the inner landscape of a Holocaust survivor who can never overcome the trauma of imprisonment.

Ian said she grew up hearing a lot about the Holocaust.

“My family knew a lot of concentration camp survivors,” she said.

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Janis Ian

She decided to write the song because, she believed, someone had to tell the story.

“I really felt it should be written,” she said. “It’s part of the reason I went back into recording. I had no idea it would have the kind of impact it did.”

She recalled that not only was “Tattoo” later chosen by the Dutch government to represent that country during ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of World War II, but, as she writes in her autobiography, “Queen Beatrix herself thanked me for it.”

Born in 1951, Ian – who describes herself as a “cultural Jew” – grew up “all over New Jersey,” living in Lakewood “when it was somewhat Jewish” and later in East Orange, where she attended high school. She also went to the High School of Music and Art in New York City and recorded two of her albums in Rockland County.

Her groundbreaking, and controversial, “Society’s Child,” about an interracial romance, was penned at age 13 while living in East Orange. Shunned by radio stations at the time, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001. The singer’s autobiography, published in 2008 by Penguin, bears the same name.

Today, said Ian, “radio is so wide open” that she cannot imagine any song garnering similar outrage.

“I cannot imagine anything causing that kind of problem. Things have changed so much in the last 40 years,” she said, although she noted that gay rights “upsets a lot of people.”

Ian, whose scores of songs have been recorded by artists from Roberta Flack to Bette Midler, said she has been “pretty lucky. I get to write what I write, and usually it hits the right audience.” In addition to writing hundreds of songs and recording dozens of albums, she has also found the time to study acting and, a more recent passion, to write works of science fiction.

While her lyrics have often seemed mission-driven – in “What About the Love,” for example, she casts a negative light on both materialism and fundamentalism – Ian nevertheless describes her singing/songwriting career as a “day job, which doesn’t preclude me from doing it well or with heart.”

The singer, who has relatives in Israel and has performed there on several occasions, says “Israeli audiences are great.” All of those who come to hear her, she said, “have an expectation of a certain intimacy and a certain level of connectedness.”

That connectedness, reflected in her lyrics, is also evident in her longtime policy of making music available online to listeners at no cost, which has put her at odds with the Recording Industry Association of America.

As she writes on her Website, janisian.com, “Go ahead, download, listen! We promise not to sue you.”

Ian said she has “never made any bones about being Jewish.” She was surprised, she said, when fans in places such as Australia and South Africa “thanked me for being out as a Jew.”

In the music industry, where Jews abound, particularly among songwriters, it was never an issue, she said. It was only when she moved to Nashville, she said, that she met people “fascinated” by her Jewishness. Still, she noted, she was so young when she started out that she would probably have not been aware of any other issues, except as “one more piece of outsiderness.”

She has noticed, however, that “one of the funny things about living in the South is that there are so many people eager to convert you.”

Ian’s Website, which dedicates a section to The Pearl Foundation, demonstrates the singer’s very Jewish commitment to education. Named after her late mother – who after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1975 returned to school and ultimately graduated with a master’s degree – the foundation, with monies raised by Ian and her fans, funds scholarships for returning students at several colleges.

“We believe in education,” she writes. “We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to turn their lives around.”

Profits from the sale of merchandise on her site are donated to the foundation, and scholarship monies are used to “provide everything from tuition to day-care for these students.”

For further information about Ian’s April performance as part of the “Music on Main Street” concert series, visit www.WoodbridgeArtsNJ.com or call (732) 602-6015.

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