Janis Ian has lost her voice. At 71, the great singer-songwriter cannot sing any more and has announced her retirement from performance and recording. “It’s like a death,” she says, with brutal frankness. “It’s horrible, I cannot begin to fathom the loss, it’s still so raw.”
It all happened very quickly. While she was touring in the US last year, Ian contracted a virulent virus (not Covid) that left her with vocal fold scarring.
“They think my vocal cords haemorrhaged as the result of trying to hold a note. When I try to intonate now, I’m never quite sure what’s going to come out.”
She reluctantly cancelled the European leg of her tour and has slowly come to accept that her musical life is over.
“I’ve been singing since I can remember. It’s something I always assumed would be there. It’s one thing to get old, and your voice gets quivery, and you feel it fading gradually. But this was in the space of three or four days. It was there. And now it’s gone.”
She had already announced that her 23rd album, The Light at the End of the Line (which came out on her own label, Rude Girl, last year), would be her swansong.
“I really felt it was as good an album as I could make. It took me 13 years to write all those songs, and I’m not sure if I have another 13 years of energy.” She is releasing it on vinyl in the UK on Valentine’s Day. “My last love letter to the world,” she calls it.
It is a beautiful, brave album, as fans have come to expect from her, blending folk and jazz idioms with an air of gentle intimacy. Ian has proved herself a masterful writer of complex songs with measured, philosophical lyrics unfolding across elegant melodies. She was once held up with Joni Mitchell and Carole King as an all-time great in her field.
Ian’s most famous song is At Seventeen, from her 1975 album Between the Lines, a fragile and exposed account of teenage insecurity. Now those numbers are reversed, she’s 71 and laughs lightly at her youthful angst. “What I wouldn’t give to have that body now,” she jokes. “The beauty of youth is lost on the young, but it has to be – I mean, you’d never get anything done otherwise!”
White-haired and bespectacled, Ian peers at me on Zoom from a light-filled room in her home in the Gulf of Florida, in front of colourful paintings and shelves of books.
“The music industry doesn’t use the word ‘old’. It calls us ‘legacy artists’ now, which is very kind,” she laughs.
“When I was younger, I was scared of not being liked. Once you hit your 60s, you hit a real ‘f--- you’ period. What are you gonna do to me? I don’t care! Your 70s are harder, because your body starts to go, really. I used to think about death as some kind of romantic thing. Now it’s very real. Gone is gone.”
Ian has been a songwriter at the highest level for a long time. Born Janis Fink in 1951, she was raised on a farm in New Jersey by progressive liberal Jewish parents. She learnt piano and guitar and became a teenage star in the US in 1966 with Society’s Child, a controversial pop song about interracial romance.
She started to hang out around the folk scene in Greenwich Village, New York, where she was befriended by Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, watched Nina Simone perform and sang backing vocals with James Brown and Leonard Cohen. “A lot of people were good to me. Jimi was lovely. That’s the good side of the business – that age, colour, all of that is irrelevant, because music encompasses the world.”
Simone, in fact, recorded Ian’s long, melancholy 1974 track Stars. However, the only time Ian saw her perform it on stage, Simone got halfway through and then stormed off. “Everything upset Nina at that point. I wish I’d understood better what she was going through, I would have been a better friend to her. I can’t know what it would be like to be black and female in America at that time. Nina, to me, is a tragedy.”
There is a gorgeous ballad, titled Nina, on Ian’s last album, of which she is justifiably proud. “I saw her every chance I had, dozens of times. You learn from great performers. I saw Elton on his first night at the Troubadour in LA, Tina Turner when she was with Ike at the Waldorf, Patti Smith in San Francisco at the height of her album Horses, one of the most astonishingly incandescent things I’ve ever seen. But nobody comes close to Nina. She was raw power. But she was also a miserable human being to deal with.”
Ian’s career has not been straightforward. She was a label mate of Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Billy Joel on Columbia Records in the 1970s, but never reached their heights. “I toured as hard, but radio and promoters had a one-in-10 rule for women and men. The assumption was that no woman would sell the way a man would sell. Whitney Houston blew that apart.”
She also had a secret. Bill Cosby had tried to out her as gay in the late 1960s and get her banned from TV, saying Ian “wasn’t suitable family entertainment”.
“He was a jerk then, he’s a jerk now,” she says. “People used to say, oh, he’s America’s sweetheart, he can’t be a bad guy. But we’ve all seen the dark side of Cosby now.” Ian dated men and women in her youth.
“I’ve always been out to my family and friends, even the business. But if I had come out in public, I would have lost my career. I couldn’t have gotten a cabaret licence, because the morals clause would have been invoked. I couldn’t have worked in any clubs, really, except gay clubs. At Seventeen would never have been played on television.”
She endured a tough 1980s, during which she was briefly in an abusive marriage, experienced serious health issues, was dropped by Columbia and defrauded by her accountant. She didn’t release any music for seven years.
Then in 1993, she came out as gay, and returned as an independent artist with Breaking Silence, slowly rebuilding her career. She had been living with her partner – now wife – Pat Synder since 1989. “I wanted to be open about it, because it seemed like such a disservice to Pat.”
The couple married in 2003. Snyder works as an attorney in criminal civil rights. “She helps people, and I like to think I do too. I feel like music is one of the healing arts. There’s an element of being in service.”
She doesn’t know what the future holds and admits to qualms. “I’m over wanting to slit my throat. I’m just gonna take some time and allow myself the luxury of getting used to this. You have to be brave. And if you can’t be brave, imitate bravery, tell yourself you’ll get through. Things can change on a dime. I don’t know what’s next. But I know there will be something.”
The Light at the End of the Line (Rude Girl) is released on vinyl on Tuesday