Metro Weekly

Folk idol Janis Ian on her powerful music, Spotify, and Trump’s America

"You dispel the myths by living your life," says Janis Ian, whose musical legacy was cemented by the classic, "At Seventeen"

Janis Ian — Photo: Lloyd Baggs

Janis Ian does not live, as one might surmise, in New York’s Greenwich Village. Rather, the iconic folk singer, whose 1975 “At Seventeen” still speaks to the hearts of countless coming-of-age teens, lives in — wait for it — Nashville.

“The tolerance for what they regard as eccentricities is pretty high,” Ian says of the country music hub. “I had more problems as a gay person in New York and L.A. — holding hands walking down the street — than I ever had in Nashville, because in Nashville people just went, ‘Okay, we’re ignoring that.’

“I know there are people [in the South] who would never have me visit,” says the 67-year-old, who came out in 1993. “I know there are people who would never have me take care of their kids. And that’s fine. As long as I’m allowed to live the life I want to live, I don’t care. I still meet people [here] who’ve never met a gay person and whose feelings have changed when they see that my wife and I have been together 29 years, and that we have grandchildren. You dispel the myths by living your life.”

In a wide-ranging, 40-minute interview, Ian waxes eloquently on everything from performing at the legendary Birchmere (“I can’t say enough good things. It’s one of the few places that, when I do stop touring officially, I will go back to now and again just to try out new songs”) to how streaming services have made it difficult for songwriters to make a living (“They pay us a micro amount. Any time that you can get a song played over a million times and you make $198, there’s something very wrong”) to, naturally, her Grammy-winning hit.

“You don’t understand the effect a song like ‘At Seventeen’ has on people until decades later,” she says. “It’s astonishing to get an email from a 12-year-old who has no friends and says, ‘I couldn’t believe that somebody understands.’ It’s humbling. It’s a joy to sing that song. People say, ‘Aren’t you tired of it?’ And I go, ‘Fuck, no.’ I mean, what a privilege.”

As happens with so many interviews these days, the conversation eventually digs into the current state of the Trump-helmed America.

“Politically, it’s very difficult right now, because the [bigoted] underbelly has come out in full force — and the internet hasn’t helped, and Russia hasn’t helped, and the partisanship hasn’t helped. I’m waiting for someone to go, ‘You know what? Fuck my party. Fuck everything else. I’m for the country.’ Ultimately, I don’t see anybody doing that. I don’t see anybody who just puts country above party. And that’s un-American to me.”

Janis Ian performs at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, on Saturday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45. Call 703-549-7500 or visit birchmere.com.

Download a digital copy of Janis Ian’s latest song, “Perfect Little Girl,” at janisian.com.

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