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Legendary lesbian singer Janis Ian on coming out, new book
NUNN ON ONE: MUSIC
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2013-03-06

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Singer Janis Ian started performing in the '70s and is still continues to this day. She has won two Grammy Awards—one for her song "At Seventeen" and the second most recently for Best Spoken Word Album for her autobiography, Society's Child. The competition was fierce with Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow all in the same category.

The out and proud lesbian lyricist is on tour and will be in Skokie this month.

Windy City Times: Hello, Janis. I see a Tennessee number on my caller ID.

Janis Ian: I live in Nashville. I have lived here 25 years.

Windy City Times: I grew up there. I moved to Chicago in 1993.

Janis Ian: I have been here since 1988.

Windy City Times: Do you love it down there?

Janis Ian: Yeah, I do. I like it a lot.

Windy City Times: You started in the music business very young. Did your hit "At Seventeen" come out of bullying?

Janis Ian: No; it is being used as an anti-bullying song, which is great. People are using it in videos and stuff but, for me, it came out of Valentine's and not having a date.

Windy City Times: How was your Valentine's Day this last time?

Janis Ian: It was great, but I have been with my partner for 24 years.

Windy City Times: Tell me about your Grammy moment recently.

Janis Ian: That was fantastic. It was totally unexpected. Well, some people didn't think it would happen. I certainly didn't think I would win, not with that kind of competition. It was all the sweeter. My acceptance speech is up on YouTube; I said, "This is a rather stunning upset."

Windy City Times: Lots of talented people were in that category.

Janis Ian: It was a great category.

Windy City Times: How does it feel to be acknowledged in that way?

Janis Ian: It was great. It was a nice nomination and I have only had one win for myself. I was standing backstage thinking that I know how to lose with grace and I will hold my head up and thank everyone who helped me and call it a day. I was pretty shocked. It got cooler because Michelle Obama tweeted me congratulations. Rachel Maddow sent me flowers and that was pretty cool, too.

Windy City Times: You have been quoted as describing yourself at not being good at pop music. Can you explain that?

Janis Ian: It was more along the lines that my talent doesn't run in commercial music and that is not what I am good at.

Windy City Times: Was there a moment when you felt you had to come out as a lesbian in the music business?

Janis Ian: I came out formally in 1993, but that was years after everybody knew. The press knew; my family and, certainly, all my business associates all knew. I came out because of the teenage suicides. The head of what became HRC showed them to me and explained that, "If three out of 10 kids are killing themselves because they think they might be gay don't you wish they had a role model?" That made a lot of sense.

Windy City Times: You wrote for The Advocate after that.

Janis Ian: Yes, it has been so many years I don't even remember exactly when.

Windy City Times: I wonder how long it will take to get same-sex marriage in Tennessee.

Janis Ian: I have no idea but I have less problems here than I did in the North.

Windy City Times: Really? I have some LGBT friends that have some problems down there.

Janis Ian: I'm sorry to hear that.

Windy City Times: Speaking of the north, talk about your show in Skokie.

Janis Ian: It will be an all-live show. Livingston Taylor is the other performer. I will be doing a combination of old stuff and new stuff. I'm encouraging people to bring items they want signed because we both stay after the show to meet people. I will be solo and so will Liv as far as I know. I'm pretty loose onstage and audience friendly I guess you would say.

Windy City Times: Have you performed in Skokie before?

Janis Ian: If I have, it has been years and years. I normally just play Chicago in that area.

Windy City Times: What are your future projects?

Janis Ian: I have a book coming out. It's a children's illustrated book called The Tiny Mouse. It is a about a little mouse that runs away.

I am pretty much in the middle of still publicizing the audible book that won the Grammy. Then I am working toward my next record.

Windy City Times: Do you have an estimate when that will be released?

Janis Ian: Not a clue.

Windy City Times: Still in the process, then.

Janis Ian: Absolutely.

Windy City Times: What inspired you to write a children's book?

Janis Ian: I actually wrote a song called "The Tiny Mouse" for the Olympics in England. I was commissioned to write it. A friend of mine works for the publisher, who turns out to be one of the biggest publishers in the world. They loved it and hired two great illustrators. Next thing I knew we had a release date and I'm going to the American Library Association's convention and all of these other things to publicize it.

Windy City Times: You could even go on a book tour.

Janis Ian: Who knows?

Windy City Times: You have had a long history with Chicago.

Janis Ian: Yes, I have. In fact, I was just there for the World Con. My friend Mike was being honored for that. Great city. It was one of the first places I ever played. It was a long time ago.

Windy City Times: What has been the key for having such a long career?

Janis Ian: I think sheer stubbornness. I love doing what I do. I can't do what I do without having a career. So it was either be somewhat successful or get a day job. I would be a miserable failure at a day job.

Windy City Times: The music business has changed so much since you started.

Janis Ian: Well, it's no longer a business, it's an industry. Now it is about getting used to that side of it with Facebook and Twitter.

Look for Janis Ian at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, on Thursday, March 14. For more on Ian, visit www.janisian.com; for tickets to the show, go to www.northshorecenter.org or call 847-673-6300.


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