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Jeff Moehlis: A Funny Evening with Janis Ian, Interspersed with Moments of Deep Depression

The folk music icon will perform April 29 as part of the Tales from the Tavern series at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez

Folk singer Janis Ian will perform at the Maverick Saloon next Wednesday, April 29.
Folk singer Janis Ian will perform at the Maverick Saloon next Wednesday, April 29. (Lloyd Baggs photo)

Folk music icon Janis Ian first made her mark with the hit song "Society's Child" about the challenges facing an interracial couple.

Remarkably, this was written when she was only 14 years old, and became a hit in 1967 after it was featured on a TV special hosted by Leonard Bernstein. An even bigger hit for Ian came in 1975 with "At Seventeen," a song about not fitting in that almost anyone who was a teenager can relate to. Other acclaimed recordings have appeared over the years.

Ian will be performing at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez on Wednesday, April 29 as part of the Tales From the Tavern concert series. Although the show is sold out, there are often "no-shows," meaning that some seats may become available at the door. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and the show starts at 7 p.m.

Ian talked to Noozhawk about the upcoming show. Click here for the full interview.

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Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to hearing at the upcoming Tales From the Tavern concert?

Janis Ian: Tales From the Tavern — God, I love that place. But it's going to be a bittersweet show. Tom Paxton's retiring this year, and we'll have finished our last show together on the 26th at the Freight & Salvage [in Berkeley]. So Tales From the Tavern will be my first solo show this year. I'm only doing four total. So it'll be a little bittersweet, but it'll also be fun because I really, really like that venue. I'm actually going there at my own request [laughs]. It should be good.

I've started incorporating a couple of new songs into the show. I'm starting to think about starting a new record. I'm taking requests, because I'll be solo. I expect a pretty relaxed, funny evening, interspersed with moments of deep depression [laughs].

JM: Well, that's what we're looking forward to!

If you don't mind going back in time, I find it fascinating that you started out having success at such a young age with the song "Society's Child." How did that song come together, especially with you being so young at that point?

JI: Oh, Jeff, if I knew how those things worked I would bottle it. I have no idea. I think that there's a reason that most of the artists I know are pretty humble. I mean, that sounds gratuitous, but I think in general we're a pretty humble bunch. And I would include journalists in that, too. It's not something that we learned. We perfect it, and we worked really hard at it, there's no doubt. But it's not something that we do anything to get. It's been handed to us.

So I always look on it as a very happy accident that I was born into the right time for my talents, with the right talents for the time.

And that I have the energy to use the talent, the good fortune to be born into a family that respected this sort of talent, because God knows that there are families that don't. There's so many variables that could go wrong with something like this that it's a miracle to me that anybody ever gets anywhere. That being said, I was born, apparently, with a lot of drive and desire to make music. I don't remember ever not wanting to make music as my life. So I can't really look at it as anything extraordinary, because it just always was.

JM: "Society's Child" got a lot of exposure from being on the Leonard Bernstein TV special [Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, broadcast in April 1967]. Did you realize at the time how big of a deal that was to be on that show?

JI: No. I think my parents understood that, but I certainly didn't.

To me it was pretty cool to be on TV. I thought that was great, but beyond that it didn't occur to me. That was when we only had seven channels in New York, five in most of the rest of the country. On a Sunday night to be featured for that long, it just didn't compute. I wasn't thinking about it. He was very kind to me.

JM: It's the 40th anniversary of your album Between the Lines, which is arguably your biggest one. What are your reflections on that album, looking back?

JI: It was great. We knew that it was something special when we were making it. In fact, Brooks Arthur — the producer — and I tried to get more funding so that we could cut another six or seven songs, because we felt like something really extraordinary was happening in the studio that we wouldn't be able to repeat. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the funding, so there you go. But it was a joy, because the musicians were so into it. I mean, they were just having a big time, and that's also so unusual for the musicians — the studio guys — it's unusual for them to get excited, but they did, which was great. I feel very lucky that I got to make that record. I think it's a really outstanding record, sonically, too. Brooks was doing things that people still aren't able to do.

JM: Of course, that has your song "At Seventeen" on it. How did that song come together?

JI: I was staying with my mom because I was broke, and I was waiting for an advance so that I could buy some clothes and go out on tour, and get some guitar strings and stuff like that. I was reading The New York Times, and there was an article in there where a woman said she had learned the truth at 18. She had thought that when she came out as a debutante everything was going to be fixed, and her life would be perfect. And of course it wasn't. And I just took it off from there. It took a long time. I was nervous writing it. It's not an easy song to sing, let alone write.

JM: It's a pretty universal theme, but was it also autobiographical?

JI: Yeah, I don't think you could write a song like that without it being autobiographical. I can't imagine that.

JM: You wrote an autobiography that came out in 2008. In the process of writing that, were there any surprises about yourself or otherwise that you learned?

JI: Yeah, I was surprised at how focused I had always been on music.

I mean, from the very first time I wrote in my little journal I wrote about music, and I wrote about wanting to use words and wanting to play with words. I was surprised at how much that theme recurred, how often and how strong it was. Because even though I say I always wanted to do music, I don't think back to when I was 9 years old, or when I was 13 years old writing about how can I become a better writer, and why don't I write better right now. Stuff like that, you don't think about..

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

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