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‘I wanted to try cocaine, but Jimi was against it’: Janis Ian on her tough, starlit life in music

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' I learned the truth at 17 / That love was meant for beauty queens / And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles / Who married young and then retired.” Janis Ian’s At Seventeen is an indelible portrait of life from the perspective of a socially awkward unattractive teen, inspired by a newspaper article that the singer-songwriter read about a young woman who thought her life would be perfect. “I learned the truth at 18,” the girl told the journalist. Ian changed her age and spent three months working on the intimate and confessional lyrics.

“You couldn’t write a song like that without having gone through it,” Ian says, video-calling from her home in New Jersey. Now 70, her hair is short and white, no longer the dark curls she sported on her album covers during the 60s and 70s. “The first time I sang At Seventeen in public I did it with my eyes closed. I felt like I was naked and I was sure the audience was going to be laughing.”

She couldn’t have been more wrong: At Seventeen won a Grammy in 1976, where Ella Fitzgerald led the ovation describing her as “the best young singer in America”. Ian, who sang “to those of us who knew the pain of valentines that never came”, received 461 Valentine’s Day cards the following year.

Ian, who has just released her first album in 15 years – and also her last – has been singing to those outsiders for close to 60 years. Born in New Jersey to leftist parents who were on an FBI watch list, she wrote her first song aged 12, was signed to a recording contract at 13, recorded her first album aged 14 and scored her first hit, Society’s Child, aged 15. The song was about an interracial relationship, inspired by a couple she had seen holding hands on a bus, even as the other occupants moved away from them. Society’s Child was considered so controversial that 22 record labels turned it down. It was released twice but only became a hit when it was publicly championed on television by Leonard Bernstein.

With kind thanks to @fonnetje for the twattip 🙂


 

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