JANIS Ian has perfect recall of how her most famous song began to germinate.
“I was at my mom’s house,
sitting at the kitchen table with a guitar on my knee and I was reading the New York Times.
“There was this story about a debutante and it was as if this solved everything for her. I was up and running. The song took about three months to write.”
It was called At Seventeen. It was – and is – a beautiful song and it duly soared to the top of the American charts in 1975 and also won a Grammy that year.
Ian was in her early 20s at the time but she was no stranger to the music world.
The first song on her newly released Best of... album is Hair of Spun Gold which she wrote at the age of 12 and later recorded for her first album, released in 1967 and simply called Janis Ian.
At 13 she wrote and sang her first single, Society’s Child, about an inter-racial romance. It became her breakthrough hit although some American radio stations refused it airtime.
At 60, the highly intelligent and principled singer-songwriter stands by the sentiments expressed by her younger self.
She is, she says, “pretty cool” about performing the early songs. “A lot of my songs are pretty personal but I think that’s one of the reasons people like playing them and singing them.”
Ian was brought up mostly in New Jersey by her left-wing parents. Born Janis Eddy Fink, the fact that she legally changed her name – taking her brother’s middle name as her new surname – denotes a certain independence of spirit.
Her song God & The FBI is said to allude to those times when her parents were under surveillance due to the paranoia engendered by the Cold War.
It is one of a handful of the numbers on the Best of... double CD that she had to record specially for the album.
“I couldn’t get the company that originally recorded it to agree to it,” she says simply.
That was a bit mean, I suggest.
“I thought so. A bit silly.”
Ian has been critical of the music industry in the past, claiming it doesn’t serve the best interests of musicians. But she was happy for Edsel Records – a UK outfit dedicated to classic material – to put out the Best of... compilation of 31 tracks which includes rarities such as her first demo of Hair of Spun Gold, recorded when she was just 13.
“I wanted to do something that would go with the autobiography I wrote a couple of years ago (called Society’s Child). Since every chapter begins and ends with a song, it seemed appropriate to put together a Best of... album like this one.”
This is a busy year for Janis Ian, as she explains a little ruefully on the phone from London where she has been on an interview rollercoaster.
These days she usually keeps her touring to just two or three months of the year, she explains. “This is a pretty big year for me because I’ve had new product coming out in Japan and I also have some obligations to the US market. So it’s seven or eight months on the road this year – not the ideal situation.”
She is not given to garrulous answers but you can see why people crave moments of her time. She wrote Jesse, a song covered by countless others, toured with Jimi Hendrix and has appeared on The Simpsons.
Even for an understated person like Janis Ian, that’s fame. And it means the writing is taking a back seat during 2011 (as well as the autobiography, Janis Ian writes science fiction, which is intriguing but not something there’s really time to discuss).
Throughout a busy and colourful life, music has been the principal strand. She could perhaps have become a concert pianist, and was certainly proficient on a number of instruments as a teenager, but the lady has done her own thing and very successfully.
Her first visits to the UK were as a teenager and she remembers being less than delighted by the food. “Pub meals,” she says with distaste.
Her relationship with the country has settled into something like fondness. “I usually fill up most of the concert halls, which is always nice, and there’s a surprising number of good ethnic restaurants.”
After a tour of the Benelux countries, she will begin her UK tour in Scotland before playing The Sage Gateshead on October 30. It will be her second time at the venue and, she says, “I like it very much”. She last performed there five years ago, not long after it opened.
The following night she will also play Arc in Stockton.
Both gigs will attract the diehard fans but I’d be very surprised if the new double CD, laden with lovely, bittersweet songs, doesn’t drive a few first-timers along.
:: Best of Janis Ian (Edsel Records) is out today. For tickets to her Sage concert on October 30, call 0191 443 4661. For Arc, Stockton, on November 1, call 01642 525199.