Legendary singer-songwriter Janis Ian held a three-part writing conference at Rutgers University on June 2, which included an intimate performance on campus. Ian began her extraordinary career in music at the age of 14 when she first recorded her controversial hit, “Society’s Child.” The album, in which the song debuts, addressed a darker subject matter than typically approached by an adolescent, and was often banned by radio stations. However, it resonated deeply with the younger generation. It was from there she became an integral part of the 1960’s folk scene alongside political activist and mentor, Joan Baez.
It was as if the folk scene had never ended as Ian took the stage that evening. She began with an intimate version of her song “Jesse.” It was extraordinary to watch this woman, who couldn’t be any taller than five feet, command a room with just the sound of her voice. With her eyes closed, she let the last notes ring out and we remained entranced together for a moment. That vibe lingered for the rest of the night as we all seemed to be enjoying traveling backwards in time. In between songs she told personal stories, including the time she opened for Joan Baez. Baez is known for her political activism and it drove Ian into sheer panic because of how seldom she paid attention to current events. She studied major news networks for weeks prior to the show because she was positive the conversation would turn to the world’s affairs; that’s how it goes with Joan. Instead, to her surprise, Baez just wanted to know how she was. Ian followed her lead and the two went on to talk only about how strange it was to grow old. She also remembered the gratitude she felt when she had seen Baez later on the side stage mouthing the words to her songs. Her respect and admiration for her hero shined through in both her words and song through the night.
Aside from being friends with the bad ass that is Joan Baez, Ian reflected on what it was like to be in the middle of the political folk scene of the ’60s. She reminisced on how she will always have the image of Odetta comforting her mother, assuring her that she had done alright despite her young age. Ian has done a little more than alright for herself and she proved it to us each time she began another of her torch songs. She finished the second half of the set with the song Baez sang with her from the side stage that night, “Light a Light.”
Ian switched clothes and guitars for the second half of the evening and slid into another fan favorite, “Bright Lights and Promises.” The song highlights Ian’s jazz roots with an improvised solo to close out the song. She played a couple more hits including, “Tea & Sympathy,” and a personal favorite, “Water Colors.” Ian wrote this song when she was only 24 years old, as if she hadn’t impressed the world enough with a record deal before graduating high school. It deals with the struggles to find balance between two lovers and leaves you reeling from the ebb and flow of it all. If you’re a lover of sad songs, she is one of the surviving queens and this song comes highly recommended for a future sad girl Spotify playlist.
Before leaving the stage, Ian left us with a story about being born on the outside. It’s a hard truth that rings true with most artists. “It’s difficult in our youth to understand. We want to belong,” she said while strumming her acoustic. “It’s later on we realize that someone needs to be on the outside to observe, to write things down.” Ian explains that her next song was written on the outside and softly begins, “At Seventeen.” For the encore, she led us all into an impromptu sing-a-along of, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” It was lighthearted at first until at once the audience vibes switched and I felt as though we were all trying to comfort one another despite the state of the world. It was a moment in time where we were all supposed to be exactly where we were and doing exactly what we were doing; listening to each other.
Janis Ian’s influence goes much deeper than her commercial successes. Her songwriting brings to light the feelings we are often too afraid to put into words. She addresses unrequited love, emotional affairs, and the fear of losing a parent. In the same breath, she will make you laugh about the irony of it all. Ian doesn’t often perform, but if the stars align for you like they did that night; please do not hesitate to spend the evening with her. She will inspire you to hold your pen to paper and expose yourself. She is a force for all writers, all outsiders, and all women alike.