Lesbian Singer Janis Ian Talks About Grammy Nomination, Music Business and Gay Marriage

Singer-Songwriter Janis Ian, Grammy 2013 Nominee for Best Spoken Word Album. Photo by Peter Cunningham

Singer-songwriter Janis Ian takes listeners on an emotional journey as she narrates the audio version of her 2008 autobiography Society’s Child.  Her voice — spoken as well as in song — reverberates with the pathos and exuberance of her experience.  It is clear why this work is nominated for Best Spoken Word Album at the 2013 Grammys.

Best known for “At Seventeen,” a 1976 Grammy award-winning song that speaks to teenage insecurities, Ian’s path to musical fame started in 1965 when she wrote the song “Society’s Child” at the age of fourteen.  The audio book recounts how some audiences objected to the interracial relationship in “Society’s Child.”  Despite having to confront racist audience members, Ian found the courage to keep getting onstage, connecting with fans that supported her.

Throughout the book, Ian plays music, shares stories about mentors as diverse as Janis Joplin (who called herself “the other Janis”), Ella Fitzgerald and Stella Adler.  She also discloses an abusive relationship with her husband; but shares the joy of her same-sex marriage in Canada to her partner of twenty-four years, Patricia Snyder.

In an email interview with SFGN, Ian discussed the Grammys, same-sex marriage, and what she loves about touring.

What was your reaction when you first heard the news about the Grammy nomination?

Stunned…Pat and I were watching the pre-Grammy show. Pat found it online first, and said, "Congratulations, honey," but I didn't believe it until we checked two other sites.

Has your response to this kind of recognition changed over the years?

It's a lot more exciting now! I don't have a major label behind me, or even a minor label. Audible.com was new to the process so there wasn't any politicking on their end. It was all very organic.

In the book Society’s Child, you discuss how the music business has and hasn’t changed. Can you talk more about some ways you would like it to change? Are there ways in which the music business has improved?

It’s gone from a business to an industry with billions at stake. There are tens of thousands more artists, producers, studios, writers than there were when I was coming up and much less filtering. That’s good and bad. It’s improved because it’s much more accessible to everyone, worldwide.  You don't have to hunt down a neighbor or friend who has an album of African music. You can just find it online. But in some ways it’s a lot harder for the cream to rise to the top.

Can you discuss your thoughts on how the issue of same-sex marriage is developing in the U.S.?

I would never have dreamed, in my lifetime, that we'd be able to get married anywhere. To live in the South and speak openly about my relationship, to hold hands in the street, is astonishing. And yet, I try to keep in mind that in many other countries, women are still circumcised, girls are sold into marriage or slavery when they're prepubescent, and gay people are stoned to death. Still, the more progress we make, the more hopeful I am.

What do you enjoy the most about touring?

I love the audiences, I love playing and singing, I love meeting people after the shows and saying hi.

The 55th Grammys air Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 8 PM on CBS.

Janis Ian is scheduled to perform in South Florida on Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4 at the River of Grass Café in Davie.  Tickets are $40 at www.riverofgrass.org.

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