Janis Ian is a singer-songwriter best known for her feminist and folk rock songs. She has written nearly 50 albums in her lifetime, released over 100 singles, and won several awards including two Grammy nominations.
Janis Ian was born in 1944, and died in 2001. She is best known for her hit song “At Seventeen.”
Janis Ian is a singer and songwriter who has had three major periods in her career. Ian rose to prominence as a teenager because to her precocious knack for social and political satire, as seen by her self-titled first album from 1967 and the popular tune “Society’s Child.” She returned to the public spotlight in the mid-’70s with intensely intimate songs about life and relationships; the albums Stars (1974) and Between the Lines (1975) inaugurated this phase, and a tune from the latter, “At Seventeen,” would become her best-known song. Ian resurfaced as an independent artist in 1993, following a ten-year hiatus, with her comeback album, Breaking Silence (1993), fusing a mature perspective on the world around her with an impassioned and confident lyrical voice. Ian’s lyrics were intelligent and emotionally honest at every point of her career, even when she was 14 (when she wrote “Society’s Child”), and her voice had a warmth that portrays both strength and sensitivity with equal fluency.
Janis Ian was born Janis Eddy Fink on April 7, 1951. Her mother gave birth at a hospital in the Bronx borough of New York City, and the family lived on a farm in Southern New Jersey. Ian’s father Victor was a chicken farmer who later became a music teacher, while her mother Pearl was a waitress who would go on to a career in academic fundraising; they also ran a summer camp in the Garden State. The Finks were also political activists who supported a number of progressive causes, which led to the F.B.I. investigating the family and briefly putting their camp under surveillance. Growing up, Ian was fond of the music of Joan Baez and Odetta, often played in the house, and she started playing music at a very early age. She wasn’t yet four years old when she told her parents she wanted to play piano, and at ten she had taught herself to play guitar; in time, she would also become proficient on organ, banjo, harmonica, and French horn. In 1963, Ian wrote her first song, “Hair of Spun Gold,” which was published in the noted folk music journal Broadside. She briefly attended the High School of Music & Art in New York City after her family relocated to the city, and she began performing at school functions that spread the word about her talent. Soon she was making the rounds of New York folk clubs and writing lyrics while riding the bus home from school.
In 1965, Ian penned “Society’s Child,” a song about an interracial relationship between two teens, and news of the song and its young composer reached Atlantic Records, who arranged for Ian to record the song with producer Shadow Morton, who was best known for his work with the Shangri-Las. While Atlantic declined to release “Society’s Child,” Verve/Forecast signed her to a record contract and released the song as a single in 1966, with the reverse “Letter to Jon.” The song was first regarded with skepticism by radio programmers owing to its contentious subject matter, but when Leonard Bernstein included Janis on his television series Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, the record took off and reached number 14 on the pop singles list. Ian shot to fame overnight, and her first album, Janis Ian, was released in early 1967. She dropped out of high school in tenth year to concentrate solely on her music, and she published her second album, For All the Seasons of Your Mind, before the end of 1967. “Insanity Comes Quietly to the Structured Mind,” a song from the album, was released as a single but only reached number 109, while her third full-length, 1968’s The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink, failed to chart. Ian quit working with Shadow Morton, and the sessions for Who Really Cares in 1969 were overseen by producer Charlie Calello (who had previously worked with Laura Nyro, Neil Diamond, and the Four Seasons). While Ian’s new album, Who Really Cares, was a creative leap forward for her as a composer and singer, with a more full-bodied approach, it was poorly marketed and ended up being her last album for Verve/Forecast.
Ian withdrew from the music profession and moved to Philadelphia, but she quickly changed her mind and signed with Capitol, who released Present Company in 1971. The album gained little recognition, but it reignited her passion in music, prompting her to write “Jesse” and “Stars.” The former (a lengthy meditation on the consequences of fame) became the title track for her debut album under a new deal with Columbia, while the latter (about a lady pining for her boyfriend who is fighting in Vietnam) became a smash when sung by Roberta Flack for her 1973 album Killing Me Softly. Stars was released in 1974 to mixed reviews, although it was well received, and the song “The Man You Are in Me” was released as a single and reached number 104 on the pop charts, becoming her first charting 45 since 1967. Between the Lines, Ian’s second Columbia album, was a major commercial and critical success, receiving some of her best reviews of her career, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and spawning “At Seventeen,” a vivid recollection of adolescent angst that unexpectedly made its way onto AM radio and became Ian’s signature song, peaking at number three on the pop singles chart. Between the Lines earned Ian two Grammy Awards, and she and Billy Preston were musical guests on the debut edition of Saturday Night Live, a new late-night comedy and variety show, in October 1975.
After Between the Lines and “At Seventeen” took Ian back to the top, she issued a third album for Columbia, Aftertones, before 1975 was out, which was another set of introspective songs leavened with witty numbers like “Boy I Really Tied One On” and “This Must Be Wrong.” It did well in the United States, topping out at number 12, and was a major success in Japan, going to number one and staying on the charts for six months. 1977’s Miracle Row, recorded with Ian’s road band, found her mixing her incisive lyrics with Latin and R&B accents in her music. 1978’s Janis Ian (sometimes called Janis Ian II to set it apart from her debut album) earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Duet for the song “Silly Habits,” which featured her sharing vocals with Mel Tormé. As Ian continued to enjoy chart success in Japan and Australia, CBS/Sony issued Remember, a live album that was initially released only in those countries. Hoping to update her sound, Ian collaborated with producer Giorgio Moroder for two songs on her 1979 album Night Rains, while Bruce Springsteen’s sax player Clarence Clemons also guested on the sessions. One of the tracks from Night Rains, “Fly Too High,” appeared on the soundtrack to the movie Foxes, which starred Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie of the Runaways; the song became a major international hit, thought it made little impression in the United States. 1981’s Restless Eyes was an exercise in polished soft rock, but her next album, Uncle Wonderful, was a detour into dance-oriented pop that did not please her sponsors at Columbia. Completed in 1983, the label opted not to release it in the United States, and it didn’t appear until 1985 in the U.K., and 1986 in Australia and New Zealand.
By the time Uncle Wonderful belatedly arrived, Ian had parted company with Columbia, divorced an abusive husband, and began studying acting and dance. However, her new life was turned upside down when Ian learned that she had been swindled by her accountant and that the Internal Revenue Service was demanding payment on seven years’ worth of income Ian was falsely told her representatives had paid. After selling off most of her belongings, Ian moved to Nashville and focused on songwriting; her tune “Some People’s Lives” (co-written with Rhonda Vincent) became the title track of one of Bette Midler’s most popular albums, and other songs from this period were cut by Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea, and Amy Grant. In 1992, nearly ten years after Uncle Wonderful put her recording career on pause, Ian made a striking return with 1992’s Breaking Silence, an especially bold set of songs that offered an unflinching look at topics such as AIDS, spousal abuse, incest, and the Holocaust. The album also coincided with Ian coming out as a lesbian, and she soon began writing a regular column for the pioneering gay & lesbian magazine The Advocate. Breaking Silence was met with rave reviews and a Grammy nomination, and it gave her career as a recording artist a new lease on life. It was followed in 1995 by another outspoken LP, 1995’s Revenge. Morgan Creek Records (which released Breaking Silence) and Beacon Records (which issued Revenge) had both gone under, and Ian partnered with a more well-established label, Windham Hill, for 1997’s Hunger and 2000’s God & the FBI, which once again found her exploring both personal and topical themes. Recorded in a mere three days, 2004’s Billie’s Bones added a subdued country flavor to the arrangements, and included a guest vocal from Dolly Parton on the cut “My Tennessee Hills.”
Billie’s Bones was released on Oh Boy Records, the independent label co-founded by John Prine, and Ian followed suit by launching her own label, Rude Girl Records, which released Folk Is the New Black in 2006 and would release new material, archival releases (including her Unreleased series), and reissues from Ian’s back catalog. Society’s Child: My Autobiography was released in 2008, along with an accompanying CD, The Best of Janis Ian: The Autobiography Collection, and a DVD anthology, Through the Years: A Retrospective, the latter a fundraising release for the Pearl Foundation, which established a college scholarship in Ian’s mother’s name. Ian earned a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording for an audiobook of her memoirs he produced in 2012. Ian returned to her previous repertoire for Strictly Solo in 2014, reinterpreting songs from her back catalog that were highly requested by fans for voice and guitar. The album was formerly exclusively available at the merch table at her live events, but she began selling it in stores and on her website in 2019. Ian made her cinematic debut in the last episode of HBO’s Getting On in 2015, in which she also sang an original song. While Ian’s release schedule slowed after Folk Is the New Black, she continued to play live and distribute songs online on a regular basis, frequently in favor of the Pearl Foundation and other charity causes.
Janis Ian is an American singer-songwriter and pianist who has released over 30 albums. Her first major hit was “At Seventeen.” Janis Ian’s songs have been covered by artists such as Madonna, Bette Midler, and Celine Dion. Reference: janis ian at seventeen.
Frequently Asked Questions
Did Janis Ian pass away?
Is Janis Ian named after Janis Ian?
A: No, her name is a reference to Janis Joplin.
How old is Janis Ian now?
A: Janis Ian was born on September 5, 1953. She is now 75 years old and still performing today!
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