Out In Sight

Janis Ian will perform and participate in a lecture discussion this weekend.
John Scarpati

In 1950, at the height of McCarthyism, Janis Ian's father, an aspiring teacher and chicken farmer in South Jersey, attended a local meeting about the price of eggs. Not long afterward, Ian says, FBI agents began visiting the family's house. "They always had really shiny shoes," she recalls.

Later this month on Windham Hill, Ian will release god & the fbi, which she hopes will be her "fourth comeback" album. "Nobody gets a fourth career," she says, "and I've gone through three."

The three-time Grammy-winner says she spent ten years trying to obtain her parents' FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act. She almost gave up before she was finally able to get them "through side channels." Reading the files validated Ian's anger at being watched all those years. She says the FBI interviewed officials at the school where Ian's father taught. His inability to gain tenure made for hard times on the family. On the title track, Ian sings: "It was a different atmosphere then / Welcome to the fifties Š / You look a little shifty" and "ain't no place for a face to hide from god & the fbi."

Like the title track, the rest of the album is a multifaceted jewel, alternately jazzy, funky and folkie. The sound quality is crisp and clear. Recorded in Los Angeles inside a house that Ian wanted to make as "bunkerlike" as possible, god & the fbi features nearly everything from sappy love songs to a requiem to a country duet with Willie Nelson.

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On the session, Ian played lead guitar, piano and banjo, and arranged the strings and vocals throughout. Her collaborators, Phillip Clark, Jim Cregan and Marc Moreau, even learned some Latin for "On the Other Side," the requiem. Chet Atkins guested on guitar for "Memphis," which lists Deana Carter as a co-writer. Ian says she called the country star when she hit a snag on the song. It's not the first time Ian has dialed a musical 911. "It's better to bring somebody in to help when you're stuck," she says. "Are you in service to yourself, or are you in service to the song? I do whatever is best for the song."

Ian has always followed her own muse. She is the artist who in 1966, at the ripe age of 15, released the single "Society's Child," which was banned by radio because it dealt with the controversial topic of interracial dating. The record went to No. 1 in 1967, after Ian's appearance on Leonard Bernstein's televised variety show. Ian also garnered her first Grammy nomination for the debut album, Janis Ian, from which "Society's Child" came; she has been nominated for a Grammy at least once per decade since.

Mainstream America probably remembers Ian best for her timeless teenage lament "At Seventeen" and "Jesse," which Roberta Flack turned into a Top 10 hit in 1973. But the gay community remembers Ian for her writing of a different sort: As an out-of-the-closet lesbian, Ian penned a column for The Advocate for five years. And the musical community knows her for the advice column "Risky Business," which she writes for Performing Songwriter.

Yet what most people don't know about Janis Ian is that she puts on an electrifying live show and is venerated by three generations of singer-songwriters.

As a deceptively simple songwriter, she makes things seem easy, which, of course, is the mark of a master. Even her guitar-playing is atypical; her strong, complex instrumental skills often belie the stereotypical image of the female singer-songwriter who strums serenely to her vocals. It's not a stereotype that befits Ian, who once traded licks with Jimi Hendrix. In "Play Like a Girl" she sings: "I remember when boys told me you play like a girl / It's a matter of genetic history / You can't be in our band you don't play like a man."

Ian was one of a kind when she started out in the late 1960s. At the time, there were only a couple of strong female singer-instrumentalists -- Odetta and Nina Simone, she notes -- who could have served as Ian's role models. But she wasn't paying attention. "I started writing so young that it didn't matter," she says. "I was already very male-role-modeled."

These days Ian is something of a role model herself, a position that comes with not a few perils. Take the song "Murdering Stravinsky," on which Ian sings, "We're murdering Stravinsky, shooting at Ravel / Burying Picasso, slaughtering Caetano." She laughs and calls it "the musician's Lord of the Flies." While writing the tune, she and collaborator Clark were listening to a lot of Caetano Veloso and other Brazilian musicians who were pioneers in the Bahia movement of the '60s; their artistic goal, Ian explains, was "to tear down the norm and start over with something beautiful and meaningful."

Which got Ian thinking. "If I was going to tear down people who were revolutionary 20 or 30 years ago, who would I go for?" In the song, she doesn't stop at 20 or 30 years ago; she hits everyone from Bob Dylan to the Bible. When asked if she herself isn't ripe for ousting by the up-and-coming artistic regime, Ian responds, "I would hope I've already been tossed aside."

Or at least matched in intensity by today's maverick chick singer-songwriters with musical chops and "revolution, grrrl-style" on the brain.

In fact, on Ian's 1998 Windham Hill release, Hunger, Ani DiFranco produced a track. The original "Rude Girl" (the name of Ian's publishing company) hooked up with the "Righteous Babe" (DiFranco's record label) when Ian heard DiFranco's "Not a Pretty Girl" and wrote her a fan letter. "I said, 'I think you're having my career,' " Ian says with a laugh. The two began corresponding.

Her kinship with DiFranco and other female artists, young and old, brings things full circle for Ian, who finds that such relationships give her a sense of history. Fearless and passionate in her life as well as in her art, the activist Ian has nothing to hide. "You either lead a life where things are hidden or out in the open," she says. "I guess that's what I decided."

Janis Ian performs Friday, March 3, at Hamman Hall at Rice University, 8 p.m. Buddy Mondlock and Michael Smith open. Tickets are $25. Reservations are recommended. For more information, call (713)660-7500. A 20-minute meet-the-composer lecture/discussion on the music industry will begin at 7:30 p.m.

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