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Singer-songwriter Janis Ian takes pride in honesty of work

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Lloyd Baggs
Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Janis Ian

Janis Ian has a professional philosophy built around the honesty of her music.

“I spend more time trying to be a better writer than a richer writer,” the nine-time Grammy award winner says.

That desire to be a “better writer” will be the driving force in her show Nov. 22 at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland. She says the solo performance — “just me and a guitar” — will be a cross-section of songs she’s written for herself, such as “At Seventeen,” and for other people, from Cher to Charlie Daniels, to record.

Ian, 63, has been straightforward in her work and her life since she wrote “Society’s Child” when she was 14. She was not afraid of the bigots then who were embittered at the song’s story of an interracial relationship. Nor was she afraid to be openly gay when she married her partner in 2003.

She says honesty has been a guide to her work and thinks it’s probably the same for most successful songwriters.

“I don’t think people say, ‘Now, I am going to write a meaningful song, and next, I will write a popular song,’” she says. “Most times, you just try to write a good song.”

Her career has taken many directions. She has won Grammys in folk performance, as well as one in jazz with Mel Torme. She also has done commercials for McDonald’s and Budweiser.

Ian has recorded audiobooks where she serves as a narrator and singer. One, “The Singer & the Song,” is about a Catholic nun and theologian who worked in medical missions in Africa and Asia.

“It gives me hope that, in these divisive times, the life of a Catholic Medical Mission sister narrated and sung by a gay Jewish woman could be such a success,” she said while accepting an award for the work.

She also won a Grammy in 2013 for “Society’s Child,” an audiobook on her life.

Her writing and performing has kept her in the business for 50 years and has given her what she calls “great faith in the intelligence of the audience.”

Live performances bring her in contact with listeners who are actively pursuing what they want to hear rather than simply taking what they are given on radio or from a digital service.

Sometimes, listeners come from unexpected sources. Her song “At Seventeen” was the Grammy record of the year and song of the year in 1975. In 2004, it was used in Tina Fey’s film “Mean Girls.”

“All of a sudden, I had 12- to 20-year-olds listening,” she says. “Sometimes, luck has a lot to do with success.”

Bob Karlovits is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7852 or [email protected].

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