Janis Ian's 'LAST TOUR' comes to Tucson on Thursday
The retirement of a folk singer may not be much cause for a hullabaloo. But Janis Ian has always been one of a kind. She's been speaking truth to power publicly since she was a teenager, across 23 albums. Now at 70, the Grammy-winner is throwing herself a long goodbye party and it hits Tucson on Thursday, March 3.
I had interviewed Janis Ian some 20 years ago (Janis Ian at 17, Plus 33 1/3"). I interviewed her by phone again as she prepared for her final tour, delayed by COVID-19.
"I'm tired of being in waiting mode," she said. "I just want to get on with my life."
"I've always divided my life — compartmentalized is probably a better word — as a songwriter being number one," she explained on the call. "Being a musician came number two. Being a recording artist was number three and being a performer was four. To me they're distinctly different."
"Being a performer, you're dependent on the audience, obviously. Can't be a performer without an audience! Tom Paxton always said it's the only thing in the arts you can't learn while sitting in your living room," she said.
"Something different happens when you perform," she said. "A song like "Resist" on the new album – I couldn't finish it until I had done it live. I did it live seven times because there was something that I had to do with the audience at the end and I couldn't figure it out. There are some things that happen at a live show that can't be replicated. There's a feeling of energy in a live show. It's different from listening to a record or CD."
Ian's planned retirement created a media blitz about her life and career. Some examples:
- Janis Ian Lets Her Music Speak Her Mind (One Last Time) - New York Times (paywall)
- 'I wanted to try cocaine, but Jimi was against it': Janis Ian on her tough, starlit life in music - The Guardian
- Janis Ian on songwriting magic, from the Beatles to "Baby Shark" - Salon
Her pending retirement was even noticed internationally.
- Janis Ian: 'I make people uncomfortable - Inews – UK
- Janis Ian: 'It was astonishing to realise that At Seventeen applied to boys too' - Irish Times
Janis Ian first came to the public's attention in controversy. In 1966, at 15 years of age, her song "Society's Child," about an interracial relationship, was being banned across the country. On April 25, 1967, Leonard Bernstein featured the song and the waif-like Ian on his CBS television special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, giving her instant credibility and visibility.
(Ian's segment begins at 14:40. The show also features Brian Wilson singing the then-unreleased "Surf's Up," Frank Zappa, discussions of key and tempo changes, drugs and unusual instrumentation such as harpsichords and baroque trumpets.)
Ian's up-and-down career since "Society's Child" shows the signs of both societal shifts and the music industry's fortunes. Her biggest hit, 1975's emotional tsunami, "At Seventeen," led her to be the musical guest, along with Billy Preston, on the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live.
We talked briefly about something she had told to me about Nashville in our prior conversation 20 years ago: banks there understood the economics of show business. Now living "on an island off Tampa Bay" with her longtime partner, Barbara, she lamented that she had to transfer her banking back to Nashville: "I really miss the luxury of being able to walk into a car dealer and say, 'I'm a songwriter,' and not have them look at you."
The role of an artist
Asked about the role of an artist in these times, she responded, "I think it's the same as an artist in any time. For me, my role as an artist is in part to reflect the times, in part to chronicle the times, and in part to try and improve the times."
In addition to being a musician, Ian has explored other art forms, including writing and acting. We also chatted about her friend J.A. Jance and the upcoming Tucson Festival of Books. Ian reportedly plans to kick back and write haiku in her retirement, among other things.
On improving the times, Ian references her "Better Times" project, centered around a song she wrote after good friend John Prine died of COVID-19 last year. The multi-media, multi-artist project hopes to create a sharable, positive song from the devastation of the last two years.
Her latest and potentially final album is receiving positive reviews and has given her chart success again for the first time in decades. No Depression said, "Janis Ian Affirms Her Legacy with 'The Light at the End of the Line'"
Ian also maintains a strong Internet presence, particularly on Facebook, editing her own page, which many of her peers job out, adding, "But I don't think it's healthy for an artist. I know it's not healthy for me. If you run your own pages as I do, if you are intent on keeping that page civil, as I am, it probably takes me six or eight hours a week, a full day of my week. I'm still self-managed, self-published, self-recorded self, self, self! So, I already have three full-time jobs. I don't need another one managing social media!"
COVID restrictions remain in place for the Rialto Theatre. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative test are required for admission. Masks are required in the building throughout the performance.
In a necessary concession to the pandemic, Janis Ian regrets she will not be meeting fans or signing autographs after the show.
"It's a shame," she conceded. "For 30 years, I've signed after every show. I've missed two shows, I think – might be three. And yet there's COVID. The last thing I want, or the venues want, is a cluster of 500 people all crowding around worried they're going to miss you."
Ian will also be carrying limited merchandise, so in the absence of signing, better to pick up her music and other items directly from her JanisIan.com website.
Janis Ian's LAST TOUR has already sold out in several locations, including both shows in Phoenix. Tickets for her Tucson show at the Rialto Theatre, however, are still available. Janis Ian's big retirement party concert should be quite a memorable shindig.