Janis Ian is coming to The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead, and it’s a big deal for fans and anyone who cares about exquisite, intimate songwriting and performance from a master at her craft.
Not only is the legendary artist-singer-songwriter on a “Last North American Tour” after five decades of writing, producing and performing, her gig on May 8 at The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead is the only Long Island date on that tour, and will be the last chance for fans to see the two-time Grammy winner live in a Long Island venue.
Ian’s best-known hit, “At Seventeen” — a classic ode to teenage angst and the perils of pining for popularity amidst the mean girl madness — is as relevant today in our super-selfie, “like”-obsessed and bullying culture as it was in 1975 when it debuted, topping the charts and moving her album Between the Lines at the time to number one on the Billboard charts. (In 1975, Ian was one of two musical guests — the other Billy Preston — to perform on the very first episode of Saturday Nite Live where she played “At Seventeen.”)
Her catalogue of more than 20 albums is filled with songs ranging from the personal to the political. Her newest release, The Light at the End of the Line, which came out in January of this year, is her first album of new material in 15 years. Released on her Rude Girl Records label, it’s another “finale” of sorts for Ian, who has said it is her last solo studio album. Give it a listen, and you’ll see she is going out on a high note.
So yes, Janis Ian, the iconic folk legend, is retiring from the road. And she means it, even when asked if this final farewell tour is akin to Cher’s final farewell tour, in that she says it, but then somewhere along the way she changes her mind and is back on stage doing yet another “final tour.”
“You know, I love Cher but she’s really ruined it for all of us,” responds Ian, with her wry, dry delivery. “No, I’m done, I’m done. I’m doing Europe and the U.K. next year and Ireland and maybe Scandinavia, but I’m done. I’ve got a few things I want to do in terms of teaching, and I may combine them with concerts, but it’s not going to be a tour … I’m finished. I’m 71, you know.”
Ian has certainly earned the right to retire from the grind of touring. By most accounts a child prodigy, she became proficient on numerous instruments at a young age and has been writing, recording and performing since she was a teen. Ian grew up Jewish in New Jersey and broke through with a controversial hit, “Society’s Child,” in the 1960s about a forbidden interracial romance by the girl’s mother, frowned upon by peers and society. It wasn’t an easy release at the time, but the song resonated and put her on the map.
She has lived through the challenges of fame at an early age, was married once to a man and is now living with her wife Patricia Snyder (they’ve been married for 33 years) in the Tampa Bay area of Florida after decades of living in Tennessee. (Ian writes a funny blog called “Conversations with My Wife” inspired by real-life conversations with Synder that she says she writes “whenever something that strikes me as funny and I have the time to follow up on it.”)
Ian’s talent for translating her insights and observations into words and crafted songs, as well as her ability to mesmerize an audience with her intimate performances and musical ability, is clearly a gift. She seems determined now to move on to the next stage of her life — off the stage — and is doing so on her terms.
“Everyone gets an exit plan except us entertainers, and we are now having to write the map for our own exit plan,” Ian says. “(Joan) Baez is writing the map, and Elton (John) is writing the map, and I’m writing the map. We’re writing the map for whoever comes after us.”
We caught up with Janis Ian who graciously gave Dan’s Papers some time via telephone during her busy touring schedule to talk about her upcoming gig at Suffolk Theater, her new album and what she plans to do after her final farewell tour.
“Final tour” sounds so … final. I’m sure fans resist that for selfish reasons, as in “We need you, Janis” — but that’s a good thing, right?
Yes, it is a good thing and that’s part of the reason why I wrote “The Light at the End of the Line” — and the key line in that is, “in due time there will be someone else who will see all the good in your heart, even when we’re apart …”
Your new album, 15 years in the making …
I knew I was going to make an album at some point, and I also knew that I wasn’t going to make another album until I had what I considered to be 15 impeccable songs. And that took a while, and one day I looked up and thought, “Oh, there they are.” And I think every one of these songs is as good as I’m ever going to do, so (I said) it’s time to make an album.
What can we expect from your show at Suffolk Theater?
Variety. It wouldn’t be fair to do a tour and not do “At Seventeen” or “Society’s Child.” I’ve got friends there — Jim D’Addario lives out there who’s supplied me with strings and gear for decades now — one of the few companies that actually supported female musicians like me, so he’s coming to the show. Judy Collins will be at the show. Just a bunch of friends who are coming to shows now (laughs) — this is called “the famous friends tour” because the other night was Arlo Guthrie and there was Jean Smart, there was Joan Baez … We are all trying to write the map and make it work so that we don’t have to constantly be on the road or be away to be creative.
How do you feel about playing Long Island?
I’m excited to play on the island — that’s my only Island gig and I’ve been playing on the island since I was 14 and taking the LIE out there. I’m looking forward to it, I’ve heard a lot about the theater. It’ll be fun.
You were a teen when your career began — what were your goals and wishes at the time?
Well, they changed. My goal when I was much younger was to be a Beatle — to be really world famous and to have everybody stop me on the street and want autographs and all of that stuff, and I think you reach a certain point where you have all of that and you realize that it’s not nearly as much fun as you thought it would be (laughs), and it’s no fun being locked in a hotel room for days on end.
If you’re fortunate, you also get exposed to people like Dave Van Ronk or Odetta who take their work very seriously — those writers and those artist and singers and performers, and later on Stella Adler and people who make you aware that with talent comes responsibility, and that you are also part of a lineage that goes back to the cave people — the first person who told a story. … That’s a lineage that’s thousands and thousands of years old — those bones you stand on. And it’s important to acknowledge and live up to that lineage.
So I have a very elevated idea of what it is to be an artist … are you going to be a help to the world or are you going to be a bum or a complete hindrance and make everybody nuts? I think we’ve seen too much of that lately.
Do you ever look back and realize your own impact and what you’ve created?
I don’t think about it. It’s not that important. I mean, it’s important for other people and it’s fantastic that it’s done the good — and it continues to do good. “At Seventeen” continues to make people feel better — and that’s really amazing, that that song would have that kind of life. But beyond that I don’t give it that much thought because I’m not interested in what I’ve done. I’m interested in what I’m doing.
Describe a perfect “Janis Ian” day.
I would read. Play with my dog. Maybe do some cooking, maybe eat out at a good restaurant. Maybe go kayaking. I don’t know — it’s been so many years since I’ve had the luxury of being bored that it’s hard for me to imagine what it will be like, but I consider it a very worthy goal in my life.
Aside from music, what do you love to do?
I’m not a big fan of radishes, but outside of that, pretty much everything.