Born Janis Eddy Fink, April 7, 1951, New York, NY; married and divorced photojournalist Peter Cunningham. Education: attended High School of Music and Art, Manhattan. Addresses: Record company--Windham Hill Records, PO Box 9388, Stanford, CA 94309; Phone: (415) 329-0647 Fax: (415) 329-1512 E-mail: whinfo@windham.com.

A new generation of female musicians developed in the 1990s. Some of them looked tough, some fresh-faced and beautiful. Some were talented songwriters, while still others possessed angelic voices. Janis Ian was a little of each of them, but she cleared the way for them all. Ian has been called an American folk troubadour, and her consistent staying power has earned her nominations for at least one Grammy award from the 1960s-90s. And she started in 1966, when she was just 15.

While waiting to see a high-school guidance counselor, the former Janis Eddy Fink, daughter of a music teacher, wrote a song about interracial romance called "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)." After she recorded and released it, the controversial song was ignored by most radio stations, and outright banned by others. Things changed for the song, and for Ian, when conductor Leonard Bernstein featured her on his TV show Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, calling her a "marvelous creature." She performed the song backed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The song charted at number 14 in 1967.

After quitting Manhattan's High School of Music and Art as a junior, the year after "Society's Child" was released, she released her first album, Janis Ian , on Verve, in 1967. She released three more for Verve, For All the Seasons of your Mind in 1967; The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink in 1968 and 1969's Who Really Cares . In 1974 and 1975, Ian released Stars on One Way, and Between the Lines and Aftertones on Columbia. Roberta Flack later recorded "Jesse" from Stars and topped the charts with it. Between the Lines included "At Seventeen," a single that went to number three on the charts and earned Ian a Grammy award for Best Female Vocal. 1975 was Ian's most successful year--she sold over $5 million in records--which was important to her. After "Society's Child," she felt she needed to dispel the notion that the single was a fluke, that she was washed up by age 18. Her next several albums recorded from 1977-79, Miracle Row , Janis Ian , and Night Rains , didn't garner much attention at all.

As a young star, Ian faced hurdles in an industry that can be difficult even for adults to deal with. "Well I was fourteen so that's already a problem," she recalled in a 1993 interview with Lydia Hutchinson of A&R Insider. Being underage meant that she couldn't sign her own contracts, book her own musicians, or run her own sessions. Being a young female musician in the late sixties only complicated things further. "I remember violent arguments with TV people in [Los Angeles] when I was fifteen about wearing pants or dresses," she told Hutchinson. Her wardrobe wars were only the start of her gender-related battles. She also remembered having a tough time getting credit as the leader of her three-person group. "There's this assumption that if you're male and have a band--it's your band.... But if you're female, they're pickup musicians. I don't know why that is."

Ian acknowledged that the music business is a tough road for everyone, but it was extraordinarily tough for a young, emotionally developing girl. "The hurdles weren't that different from anyone else," she said, "except when you are an adolescent, it's so hard just existing, that the added pressure of expecting yourself to be brilliant and to communicate and to become a whole and honest person is a lot." She remembered rock veteran and notorious substance abuser Janis Joplin sending her home from a party where drugs were being used.

In overcoming her growing pains, Ian only faced more complicated gender issues as an adult. She went under fire by some feminists because she didn't have any other women in her band. "I got really offended because it's a three-piece band," she said, in which she plays guitar, piano, and sings. "Outside of me there's just two other people, so we have a 33 percent ratio. But it was like I wasn't in the band. There was this assumption on some weird level that as a female and as a singer I was not a serious musician." Although she still felt pressure as a female musician in a man's world, Ian knew things had changed for her over the years. "Well, the dress thing's not an issue," she told Hutchinson, laughing. She started receiving credit from musicians she respected. "Chick Corea thinks I'm a wonderful pianist, Chet Atkins thinks I'm a wonderful guitarist. And that beats it to me. How much does the rest matter?"

Even as a young musician, Ian always stayed true to her own material. Except for a few commercial jingles, she only recorded songs she had written. "I did turn down `You Light Up My Life," and I would have done a good job on it," she admitted to A&R Insider , "but it seemed real important at the time, since there were so few women writers, to prove the point." And prove the point she did, releasing 13 albums--consisting mostly of her songs--from 1967-81. The next 12 years, however, would see only two albums from Ian.

Ian's 12-year hiatus before Breaking Silence, in 1993, was due to a series of major personal and financial problems that kept her from recording, but strengthened her resolve and self-worth as a musician, nonetheless. A former accountant had botched her taxes, her health failed, her marriage ended, and she lost her house. She sold her instruments for money to live on, but she kept writing music. "The knowledge kept hitting me in the face that everybody could take everything away from me," she told Richard Johnston in Guitar Player in 1997, "but they couldn't take my talent."

"It's good in a lot of ways because I didn't want a lot of those years on record," she told Hutchinson. "I didn't like what I was writing. It took me a while to find my voice again, I think." The voice she found was stronger, more mature, than the one her fans had last heard. It was with this hard-earned personal resolve that Ian also revealed her homosexuality. With Breaking Silence , she seemed renewed and empowered, taking on the issues that she'd been missing out on for over a decade. The laid back folk sound of Ian's new material belied the strong lyrics on such heady subjects as battered wives, eroticism, the Holocaust, and '60s nostalgia.

When new-age and classical record label Windham Hill approached Ian's manager, they were told she didn't trust major labels. "I certainly didn't want to be with Windham Hill and make `zither' music," Ian told Billboard in 1997. But they "wined and dined" her and treated her "like royalty"--a refreshing change for an older female artist, she said. Grace Newman, of Windham Hill marketing, professed the label's feeling about Ian to Billboard in the same story. "She's a pioneer in the female musician arena, which started out decades ago and went underground--then exploded with everybody from Shawn Colvin to Jewel to Sarah McLachlan."The label released Hunger shortly thereafter. Windham Hill also predicted that the respect she'd garnered as a woman over the years would attract long-time fans, as wells as those of the new generation of female musicians.

Ian approached independent female rocker Ani DiFranco--a sort of Janis Ian for the X Generation--to work on Hunger . Ian had listened to DiFranco's Not a Pretty Girl album and found a kindred spirit in the younger artist. Ian, in fact, was taken aback. "I thought I should find something else to do with my life!"she told Billboard . "She was pushing the envelope in ways I wanted to do." DiFranco was tentative, as she'd only produced her own material. Thinking that she'd feel intrusive in someone else's recording studio, it took Ian a year to convince her. The result was the track "Searching" and "the nicest producer experience of my life," Ian said. Ian's new sound, which she termed "techno folk" was strong, or as Johnston called it--"Stark social commentary, vivid imagery and unflinchingly personal meditations.

by Brenna Sanchez

Janis Ian's Career

Composition "Hair of Spun Gold" appeared in Broadside magazine, 1964; released debut, "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking" in 1966; released Janis Ian and was nominated for a Grammy award; appeared on The Tonight Show and in Time, Life and Newsweek; released Between the Lines in 1975.

Janis Ian's Awards

Grammy awards for "At Seventeen," 1975; "Silly Habits" with Mel Torme as Best Vocal Duet, 1981; and In Harmony 2, in 1982.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

February 24, 2004: Ian's album, Billie's Bones, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/index.jsp, February 26, 2004.

Further Reading

Sources

BooksPeriodicals OnlineOther

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 7 years ago

Janis, come to Cincinnati!!! I have been a huge fan of Janis for many years. If she ever comes to the Cincinnati Ohio area, I know a lot of people who would come see her. Glad to see you back at it.

over 9 years ago

Janis was never married to Peter Cunningham. She married a Portuguese man, Tino, and divorced him some years later. She is now married to Patricia Snyder.