She learnt the truth at seventeen


Folk legend Janis Ian speaks to Lorraine Haigney about her struggles with the music industry and life as an out musician

Janis Ian first became famous for her depiction of an interracial couple in the song she wrote at the age of thirteen, ‘Society’s Child’. Released in 1966 after over a year of talks with twenty-three record labels, it became an anthem for many of the disenfranchised who were involved in the civil rights movement. Her ability to use folk music as a vehicle for social change has not waned throughout her forty-year career.

That said, she states that she doesn’t write under the impression that her music has influence on the big issues. “If I started thinking like that I would start thinking about how fabulous I am, rather than thinking about writing new songs” she remarks in conversation with Otwo. “I would love to think that ‘Society’s Child’ was a tiny cog in the change affected. I would love to think that ‘Married in London’ is a tiny cog in the change in gay marriage but it’s really impossible to speculate.”

Ian has always remained consistent in her style, never deviating from her folk roots. In her 2008 album, Folk is the New Black, she commented on how folk comes in and out of fashion. “Everybody was suddenly saying ‘Oh my gosh, folk music is so fabulous! It’s wonderful, how amazing!’ They were just discovering something that’s been around since dog’s years.” As a noted and much acclaimed figure on the folk scene, she doesn’t think that its fluctuation in popularity will be an issue or something that could threaten it. “Folk music goes in and out of favour so fast and so often, it really doesn’t affect it much” she says. “People who aren’t going to remain in folk music get out pretty quickly.”

Ian has always been vocal about the problems that she sees in the music industry, going so far as to start her own label, on which she launched her two most recent albums; Folk is the New Black and The Best of Janis Ian. Commenting on the current state of the industry, she says “It’s gotten really big, really unyielding. It would be nice if we could go back to being people in the record business and people who really loved music and were fans, as opposed to people who go into it because it’s a gross industry.” She does note that there have been improvements in how record labels treat artists in recent years. “I think one of the things that’s happened is that record companies realised that it’s much better to have a happy artist who’s willingly touring and doing press, who wants to continue working with you than to have the adversarial relationship that they had adopted for so long. It’s stupid really; we’ve all got to work together.”

Openly gay artists like Ian are lauded for contributing to the welfare of the LGBT community in that they provide a figure for young people to look up to. Ian recalled the lack of gay role models in the media when she had been growing up. She says that “the out gay people I saw as a kid really scared me” and cites this as a factor in her decision to come out in the early nineties. “Me coming out so loudly was because the head of the Human Rights Campaign Fund sat me down and asked me come out publicly because of the teenage suicide rate and how tied in that was to kids thinking they were gay.” 

While the impact of positive role models on LGBT youths is well documented, Ian believes it spills over into the heterosexual fan’s way of thinking. She explains “Each time you see one of your heroes or somebody you respect come out and [they’re] normal, it’s another chink in the divide”. Though pleased with the increase in stars who are not staying in the closet, she sees a need for more diversity. “I’m waiting for more black people, in this country anyway, and people in gospel or country to come out. That’s just not happening. When Wanda Sykes came out here it was huge, I thought that was a wonderful thing.”

On a professional level, Ian admits that identifying herself as gay has, in some cases, affected her adversely. She disagrees with any speculation that her sexuality could be used as a selling point, something to further her career. “If that were true, I would have gotten the Grammy awards I was nominated for! When you blow open the door of that closet, there’s such a strong wind. I can’t imagine anyone doing it with an ulterior motive, other than just living a life.”

Ian gives less weight to the drawbacks than to the positives, explaining that staying in the closet would have been impossible, especially as she was in a long term relationship with Pat Synder, the woman she married in 2003. “I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Pat, I couldn’t imagine evading the question of whether or not I was in a relationship.” She says that life is difficult for friends of hers who haven’t chosen to go public about their sexuality, and that she is glad that she did. “I really think that, if you’re a gay person, you can’t be in two places at once. It makes you crazy.”

Ian concedes that being entirely open and outspoken might not have been the easiest path to take, commenting, “There’s always going to be people who find anything different to be threatening, threatening enough that they’ll try to stand in your way.” However, it is her ability to face down adversity to get her message across that has cemented Ian as one of the living legends of folk music.

Janis Ian plays Vicar Street on January 29th. Tickets priced at €36.50.