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music: Independent Thinker

Folk musician Janis Ian isn't afraid to question the status quo.

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She followed with Grammy nominations in the 1970s for songs of painful introspection. More recently, Ian has backed AIDS and gay pride-related causes, written a regular column for the gay news magazine The Advocate and raised tuition money for needy, college-bound adults, while playing about 110 shows a year. Her outspoken support for downloading Internet songs caused a recent stir.

"Oh, the Internet debacle," Ian says from her Nashville home when asked about the article she wrote for the May 2002 issue of Songwriter Magazine that drew opposition from the recording industry. "[Downloading music] is an interesting topic. …I know a lot of people who were thinking about it, or rather not thinking, but going along with the program. People who don't [think] are dangerous to society. …when it becomes a knee jerk reaction."

Ian practices what she preaches when she encourages independent thought. Growing up in a liberal environment, she was encouraged by her parents to question the status quo, and she eventually quit high school to follow an innate love of music. Her folks were not pleased, but Ian was already writing songs and serious about a career from the start.

"Music always seemed an extraordinary way to communicate. For me, it was always, 'Look, I'm going to go for something.'"

Seventeen albums later, Ian remains true to the course despite a run-in with the Internal Revenue Service in the '80s that forced her to sell most of her belongings including her house, her guitars and eight years of publishing rights. But Ian remains philosophical about the setback.

"The flip side of that is: What if I didn't have anything to sell? I'd still be paying them off."

But fortune seems ultimately to shine on Ian. Shortly after the IRS catastrophe, Bette Midler heard one of Ian's songs and recorded it. The record sold 2 million copies.

"She heard it and said that it was one of the greatest songs she ever heard," Ian explains with a laugh. "We said, 'Thank you very much. Now please record it.'"

These days living happily in Nashville — "Life is pretty good. I'm a monumentally dull interviewee at this time" — Ian has plans for a new album in 2004. The songs are not written yet but she expresses little concern about the process. The songs will come.

"I've been writing so long I don't have a lot of angst with my writing," she says. "I do worry I won't live up to my potential."

Ian has a huge song catalog to choose from, even if a new album is not yet written. Saturday at Ashland Coffee & Tea she will perform solo with guitar, and although she promises selections from her entire career, do not come expecting a journey through the past.

"It's not an evening of nostalgia," Ian notes in closing. "The trick is: What you do, have a good time at it." S



Janis Ian plays Ashland Coffee & Tea, 100 N. Railroad Ave., Saturday, Nov. 9. Susan Greenbaum opens. Show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available at the shop, through www.ashlandcoffeeandtea.com or (800) 594-TIXX. Call 798-1702 for more information.



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