‘I learned the truth at 17 / That love was meant for beauty queens / And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles / Who married young and then retired.” Janis Ian’s At Seventeen is an indelible portrait of life from the perspective of a socially awkward unattractive teen, inspired by a newspaper article that the singer-songwriter read about a young woman who thought her life would be perfect. “I learned the truth at 18,” the girl told the journalist. Ian changed her age and spent three months working on the intimate and confessional lyrics.
“You couldn’t write a song like that without having gone through it,” Ian says, video-calling from her home in New Jersey. Now 70, her hair is short and white, no longer the dark curls she sported on her album covers during the 60s and 70s. “The first time I sang At Seventeen in public I did it with my eyes closed. I felt like I was naked and I was sure the audience was going to be laughing.”
She couldn’t have been more wrong: At Seventeen won a Grammy in 1976, where Ella Fitzgerald led the ovation describing her as “the best young singer in America”. Ian, who sang “to those of us who knew the pain of valentines that never came”, received 461 Valentine’s Day cards the following year.
Ian, who has just released her first album in 15 years – and also her last – has been singing to those outsiders for close to 60 years. Born in New Jersey to leftist parents who were on an FBI watch list, she wrote her first song aged 12, was signed to a recording contract at 13, recorded her first album aged 14 and scored her first hit, Society’s Child, aged 15. The song was about an interracial relationship, inspired by a couple she had seen holding hands on a bus, even as the other occupants moved away from them. Society’s Child was considered so controversial that 22 record labels turned it down. It was released twice but only became a hit when it was publicly championed on television by Leonard Bernstein.
Society’s Child gave Ian her first taste of success. But it came with a price. “The song held up a mirror,” she says. “And when you hold up a mirror, people don’t like what they see.” A radio station in Atlanta was burned down for playing the record and journalists were fired for publishing the lyrics in newspapers. “I was dealing with threats all the time,” says Ian. “I wasn’t able to go in the street without somebody spitting on me. I wasn’t able to have anyone open my mail without worrying there would be a bomb in it.” In the face of such extreme reactions – people bought tickets to see her perform in order to scream racist abuse as she sang – Ian’s response was simply not to respond. “I did what every adolescent does when faced with an untenable situation,” she says. “I ignored it.” It seemed, at first, as though the strategy had worked.
The success of Society’s Child, and her debut album of the same name, propelled Ian into a world where her social circle included Nina Simone, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. “I was 16 and would go club-hopping with Jimi,” she says. “In one night you could go see Nina Simone at the Village Gate and then go to the Gaslight to see someone else.” Nine years older, Hendrix was nevertheless a responsible accomplice. “I really wanted to try cocaine, but Jimi was way against it because he was horribly addicted to it.” One night Ian and Hendrix went to see BB King in the Village and he stopped the performance to announce that Martin Luther King had died. It’s an extraordinary anecdote: did she recognise it was extraordinary at the time? “You don’t know you’re hanging out with people who will be legendary,” she says.
She recalls one night at a party with Janis Joplin when a heroin dealer was handing out free shots. Before Joplin accepted hers she turned to Ian and said, “Kid, time for you to go home.” Ian was invited by Leonard Cohen and James Brown to work as backing singer on their records. During the session with James Brown he stopped her while she was singing. “He said ‘If I wanted you to sound like a [N-word], I would have hired a [N-word]. Now do it again, but this time sound white’,” Ian recalls. She was feted by her heroes – Odetta and Joan Baez became friends and Salvador Dalí offered to paint her portrait for an album cover – but the starry company only told half the story.
Ian’s later teen years were also defined by self-harm – cutting her arms with razor blades and eating so little that her weight plummeted – which she now says was connected with the pressures of fame and the extreme reactions that Society’s Child provoked. “When you don’t know what else to do, you harm yourself,” she says. “Sooner or later the dark side always gets you.”
After releasing five albums in four years, Ian took a three-year break from music in the early 70s. By 1975, her album Between the Lines – which featured At Seventeen – brought her a second burst of success. Soon she was hanging out in the Bottom Line club in New York with Mick Jagger, Charles Mingus and Stevie Wonder, performing on the first ever episode of Saturday Night Live, and going on tour with an up-and-coming comedian named Steve Martin as her opening act. She was also drinking buddies with James Baldwin and Nina Simone – one of the songs on her new album is about her friendship with the singer whose mastery inspired her: “She led the band, wrote the songs, played the instrument, sang, did the arrangements: there was nobody else.”
At Seventeen was the last time Ian would have a hit song in the US. Although she continued to have success around the world – Fly Too High, produced by Giorgio Moroder, reached No 1 in several countries – she ultimately walked away from music for more than a decade. Her life outside music was troubled. Ian had known she was attracted to women since she childhood but throughout her teens and 20s had relationships with men. She had married a Portuguese film-maker in 1978, who was violent and threatened with her a gun, she wrote in her 2008 memoir. They divorced in 1983 but the hard times kept coming: she endured serious illness – fatigue syndrome – and lost her life savings due to an unscrupulous business manager. “I couldn’t perform. They [the IRS] took the money every time I did,” she says. “I couldn’t record because nobody was interested. I was terrified I would not have any food, rent or heat. Those were very hard years. Very hard.”
Ian re-emerged in 1992 with Breaking Silence, which chronicled her recent coming out. The Village Voice had outed her in 1976. Although the wider media didn’t run with the story, Ian still faced consequences. “When I got outed I lost the ability to play any place that served liquor,” she says. (Venues requiring a liquor license had a “morals clause” and could terminate a contract over actions undertaken in an artist’s private life.) “If the news outlets had picked up on it, it would have been a career killer.” She met Pat Snyder, now her wife, after she moved to Nashville to work as a songwriter. She credits the city with rescuing her, producing a run of six albums. “When I moved to Nashville I became a much better writer,” she says. “I wouldn’t wish the IRS on anyone but the one thing I learned is you can’t take away what I do – nobody can take that.”
The Light at the End of the Line is Ian’s first album of new material since 2006’s Folk Is the New Black. “I didn’t want to make an album for the sake of making an album,” she explains of her break from releasing records. “I wanted to make an album because the songs should be heard.” The new album bookends her career – “to me it’s full circle” – but while Ian says she will continue to tour and write songs she is certain she is finished with releasing albums. “I’m done. I don’t want to be in the music industry,” she says. “It was bad enough when it was a business, but now that it’s an industry? I’m really done with that part of it.”
Ian’s final record opens with the song I’m Still Standing, which starts with the line: “See these lines on my face / They’re a map of where I’ve been / And the deeper they are traced the deeper life has settled in.” Now 70, how does she feel about the young woman she was at 17? “The advantage of being that age is you’re coming at everything when it’s brand new,” she says. “It’s easy to lose. I love that part of me. I love that kid.”
The Light at the End of the Line is out now on Rude Girl Records.
This article was amended on 25 January 2022 to correct the lyrics to At Seventeen. It is “clear-skinned smiles”, not “clear-eyed smiles” as previously stated.