Promising new songs onstage at the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater on Sunday, Janis Ian said on Monday “'I’m Still Standing' is about just getting through, it’s about astonishment at surviving, at any age.”
Famously precocious, dazzlingly durable, Ian has done far more than survive. She specializes in astonishment.
Her recent credits include the children’s book “The Tiny Mouse” and an audiobook “The Singer and the Song,” written by Miriam Therese Winter, read and sung by Ian. Winter is a Roman Catholic Medical Mission Sister (a nun) and college professor; Ian is a nice Jewish lady from New Jersey who lives in Nashville with her wife.
Now in her 60s, Ian published her first song at 12, released her first album at 16 and still wins Grammys these days. So what has changed since her anthemic cries for tolerance “Society’s Child” and “At 17”? (Both are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.)
Decrying the racism focused on President Obama, she affirmed, “As a gay person, I can tell you things have improved enormously.” Speaking by phone from Provincetown, she said she’s not writing political songs at present, but a new album and two books are in the works.
She doesn’t think of politics or causes when she writes. Asked about issue songs, Ian laughed. “You seem to imagine I have more control over my content than I actually do!”
Her process is autonomous, personal in the deepest way. When she started writing songs, “I didn’t think about anybody listening to them,” she said. “I just thought it was pretty cool that people wrote songs and thought maybe I could do it; I never looked past it being fun.”
Is this gift or responsibility? “Both,” she said. “We’re born with the talent, and if you choose to live the life of that talent, it becomes a responsibility; for you to nurture it, look after it and make sure it grows and does not become a runaway horse.”
She explained, “You can perceive your talent as a friend and control it, or see it as something that controls you, and that’s dangerous.” Befriending her talent, she sees it as very specific.
“I can say the kind of things that people find hard to hear, but say it in a way that they can deal with,” she said. “It all depends on the type of talent you have, and that’s the one thing that I do well that others might not do as well.”
She said, “It’s hard to write a song like ‘At 17’ because when you first write it, you’re so vulnerable, so open and it’s so personal that it’s hard to sing.” She feels “At 17” taught her the difference between her and other songwriters.
“I can’t do what Leonard Cohen does or Ellie Greenwich,” she said without regret. “Some of those songs by her and Carole King and Gerry Goffin are some of my favorite songs in the world. But that kind of song would sound imitative if I did it, and fans would smell it.”
Ian’s contemporary colleague Laura Nyro wrote closer to that style, and Ian called Nyro’s “Eli and the 13th Confession” one of the great albums of all time. Artists supported each other generously in the ’60s, she said: “That was one of the pretty nice things about that time.” She said, “[Dave] Van Ronk was always good to me, Odetta was always good to me; [Joan] Baez, Jimi Hendrix was good to me, and Janis Joplin.”
Ian pays it forward; she just finished a stretch of master classes at New York University. “Any artist who is going to make a name and get exposed will do it regardless of what they’re told,” she said.
“I tell people we’re in the business of failure, and if they can’t get used to that, they need to do something else.” Ian said, “We learn from failure, we don’t learn from success.” She noted, “A baby falls on its butt many times before it learns to walk; that doesn’t feel like failure to him, it just means he has to do it again.”
She said, “We have to fail again, fail harder, fail better!”
Janis Ian sings on Sunday at the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater (432 State St., Schenectady). 7:30 p.m. $30; front and center $50. 434-1702, www.eighthstep.org.
THE EGG ROCKS
Drive-By Truckers play on Sunday at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany), rolling out new songs from “English Oceans,” the highest-charting and most lavishly (and deservedly) praised of their 10 albums since 1998.
From Alabama via Georgia, founders (singers and mostly guitarists) Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood are Southern rockers to their bones and songwriters to their souls; a great band for their songs and how they play and sing them, with maximum drawl and twang, bump and run. The other Truckers are drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Matt Patton, and keys and pedal steel player Jay Gonzalez. $29.50 473-1845 www.theegg.org
“In Collaboration: The Milk Carton Kids & Sarah Jarosz featuring Samson Grisman, Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith plays The Egg on Monday. It’s complicated: A rootsy coalition of singers (Jarosz and Milk Carton Kids Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan) and pickers (bassist Grisman, violinist Hargreaves and cellist Smith), they starred together at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Austin City Limits and Lincoln Center.
“Sarah Jarosz is a formidable talent,” Janis Ian told me. “Her new album is stunning.” 7:30 p.m. $27.50, advance; $30 on Monday.
There’s enough hot music onstage this week to fry The Egg.
On Friday, Cuban sax combo Habana Sax will jazz things up with four saxophones and a percussionist. Dance and marvel. 7:30 p.m. $24
On Saturday, the Jersey soul patrol of big-voiced Southside Johnny & the soulful Asbury Jukes will rock the place, 7:30 p.m. $38, $35
Also Saturday, singer-songwriter Brett Dennen will cherry-pick folk songs from his five albums, playing solo acoustic. Odessa opens. 8 p.m. $29.50
We talked about the Drive-By Truckers (Sunday) and Sarah Jarosz, the Milk Carton Kids and collaborators (Monday) above; that leaves Robin Trower on Tuesday. Co-star of late-British Invasion rockers Procol Harum, Trower invented one of the great guitar riffs of all time in his own “Whiskey Train,” plus many others; and he sang lead on a few Procol Harum songs before leaving to tour and record with power trios, some featuring Jack Bruce.
Sly Fox and the Hustlers open. 8 p.m. $49.50, $44.50, $34.50
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]