Hello again Folks! It's Tina here again (hopefully for the last time), filling in while Janis continues to work on the new studio album When we left off last month, Janis had just finished her guitar overdubs on the new record. So much has happened since then, so let's get to it:
The very first days of July turned into a short break for Janis, which was quite welcome after the initial tracking sessions and subsequent percussion, guitar and keyboard overdubs that had been going on furiously throughout June. Three weeks of 24/7 left her exhausted, and in dire need of some down time.
For the 4th of July holiday, Janis and Pat hosted a barbecue, enjoying the company of a small group of friends. The ribs were fabulous, and the company even better. Too bad the budding tomatoes weren't ripe yet, though Janis did spend serious time pampering her plants (a strategic ladybug release, and various other mysterious pest obliterating activities http://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/ent/biocontrol/ ) with a look of determination befitting the war being waged against the threats to her garden. To watch this great singer/songwriter, who I'd just seen in the studio, apply the same intensity to her battle with aphids was a sight to behold!
Before we knew what happened, it was back to the studio for the vocal sessions, again at Sound Emporium with Marc Moreau engineering and Chad Carlson assisting. These sessions, held in the smaller studio, were a little different, since it was only Janis in the booth laying down the vocal tracks. But what a treat to watch! I found myself really studying during these sessions, listening for the differences in Janis' approach to each song.
It was interesting to hear Janis try out different phrasing, playing with subtle differences in mood and tone in her vocal "bag of tricks". Her level of concentration was extremely intense, which I realized I'd never really thought about when listening to the neatly packaged finished product all these years. (After all, it sounds so simple!) It surprised me that I was surprised, since I've toured with Janis and seen her perform enough times to know the work that goes into giving an "effortless" performance. But somehow during those days, watching with my own intensity the creation in progress, it gave me a whole new appreciation of the heart and soul that is captured onto discs and placed in our hands.
The day would start around 10 am, with Janis and Marc deciding which vocal to begin with that day. It was interesting to watch her figuring that out; she began the first day with Billie's Bones, saying "I know the heart of this one inside out, it's just figuring out the last bits of phrasing. Easy on the voice, too." I never thought that maybe some of her songs were harder for her to sing, vocally, than others, but I saw that on Paris In Your Eyes, because she repeatedly had trouble with the high note at the top of the chorus. At one point she said to Marc "Why in God's name am I writing songs just at my break point?! That's the third one!" Apparently, the "break point" is the note where the singer's voice has to switch from an alto feel to a soprano. Janis' sits right around A above middle C, right where the chorus sits. It drove her crazy until she got it. Mind you, it sounded fine to me on the first take, but she wanted a lightness that was very difficult to achieve in that register.
Billie's song is Janis' homage to her heroine Billie Holiday, and her own attempt to work through the hope of someday measuring up to her idol. Janis' main concern on this vocal was that she not attempt to sound like Holiday, but be able to talk about her own feelings regarding that great singer. Listening to Janis sing I would worship, if I dared/kneeling at her fingertips/I would tell her how I've yearned/to be worthy of the grail/All these years and all I've learned is/just how brilliantly I fail, I realized that this song is indeed a homage, both to Billie and to to every artist yearning to reach perfection.
Anyone walking in from the outside would think there was a lot of wasted time during this process; cigarette breaks, food breaks, I need to get some outside air breaks. But as I watched the process, I realized that for Janis, the level of concentration required to sustain an entire song like Mary's Eyes was so great that she needed a break at the end of each, to rest and reinvigorate herself for the next challenge. After all, this wasn't a show, immediate and then over. This was an album, and as Janis often says, "It's got to be right, because I'll be living with it for the rest of my life." I'd never thought what it must be like for Janis-in-her-50's to listen to Janis-in-her-teens. The difficult part of that seemed to be choosing between perfection and authenticity; in almost every case, they went for authenticity.
She began each day with something familiar and easy, closing it ("Now that I'm warmed up") with the more difficult pieces. Of all the songs, I think Matthew was the most interesting to watch, as Janis slowly uncovered the meaning behind the lyrics. One would think, having written it, that she'd already know the meaning, but there's more to it than that. I'll let her explain:
With a vocal like Matthew, it's immensely difficult because there are so many choices. The track itself is laid-back, almost incidental, as though the musicians had been hanging out in a club and just decided to jam on a slow blues. That's what I loved about the track, what I didn't want to disturb. When we were recording, I'd started playing the opening bar just to set the speed. Richard Davis jumped in and began playing, and before I knew it, the entire band was in, so I started singing. We got it in one take, and as Richard said at the end, "You can't get more honest than that." There's something fresh and clean about it that I didn't want to step on.
But the lyric itself is a nightmare, and meant to be. Any song with lines like "A boy is tied to a barbed wire fence/for the crows to ride and the claws to clench" is going to be difficult to sing. Not because the lyric is ugly – again, it's meant to be. Difficult because the ugliness itself can easily overwhelm the vocal.
Do you sing it hard? soft? pretty? ugly? Do you allow anger to show in your voice? despair? How do you avoid sounding preachy? And line by line, as you sing it over and over again, you discover what each stanza, each word, means in your heart.
In the end, we cut the vocal to Matthew on each of the three days, as I slowly learned it from the inside out. And at the end of the third day, having tried every possible reading, I closed my eyes and just sang from the heart. And I got it.
These were long days for Janis, given the intensity I've mentioned. By the end of each day it was obvious that she'd given everything she had to offer. The cool thing about some of those late-in-the-day vocal tracks was that the "craft" was exhausted and what was pouring out of her was PURE heart. I suppose this could be disasterous in some instances, but there were some gorgeous stripped-to-bare-bones vocals that proved to be magic for songs like When I Lay Down and Matthew. Again, as Janis says:
Some people think Billie's last recordings – the 1957 concerts and sessions, shortly before she died – are her worst. The voice is shot. There's none of that lightness or prettiness left. The years of heroin and police harassment took their toll. But I disagree with those people. I think they're her best recordings, because what we hear is Billie stripped of all need for artifice.
One of the privileges of growing older, as a singer, is the realization that your instrument is finally yours. I couldn't have sung Matthew in my twenties. When I was a kid, the jazz ladies would tell me you didn't really become a singer until you hit your forties. I hated hearing it, but they were right.
And as if watching Janis bring the songs alive wasn't enough excitement, there was the Dolly Parton session too! Oh, what a fun day that was!! I mean, really…what can I say…it was Dolly! It was great fun to hear her tell Janis that when they first received the song, they really didn't think she had time to dedicate to it, but she said since it was a "Janis Ian song" she wanted to listen to it anyway. After hearing it she said "Well we're going to have to make time for this…it's a great song, and I want to sing on it." And she came in ready to work - a real pleasure from start to finish. I know now why she is someone you never hear anything bad about.
She and Janis both seemed to have a small case of nerves to work out early on. (How cool…two mega-talented performers feeling nervous.) Dolly had only heard the work tape of My Tennessee Hills prior to the session, not the band track that had taken shape since then, so the first part of the morning was spent just running through the song with the track until Dolly had learned where the instrumentals and turn-arounds were.
Dolly was paying close attention to Janis' lead vocal while they got warmed up and was getting a feel for where she wanted to go with her own vocal. It didn't take long for things to fall into place and for harmonies to take shape. After a few takes they nailed it and the result is wonderful! At one point, Dolly asked Janis about the lines When I'm down to my last witness/I'll be going there, and Janis said she thought those were the key lines to the entire song. On the next take, Dolly and Janis both put heart and soul into those lines, and they got it!
Finally, the production team began "comping", or compiling, the vocals. This is where Janis and Marc separated the wheat from the chaff in each take, and rated the performances piece by piece, making sure that the final vocal was the cream of the crop from start to finish. They usually had three "keeper" vocals for each song, vocals that both felt were good enough to make the final cut. I thought any one of them stood on its own, but no, it had to be perfect. Marc, that one line there, the tuning is a little wonky. Don't we have a better one? or Marc, if I have to live with that reading I'll shoot myself and everyone around me. So Marc and Janis would listen to the other takes, sometimes substituting an entire line for the one in the "master" take. It is a tedious process, but was really sort of fun. I had a good time doing my own ratings as they ran them down. And after hearing that some vocalists begin comping with thirty and forty tracks of the same vocal to choose from, I realized it wasn't tedious at all!
We moved back to the home studio when vocals were done, and drummer Harry Stinson dropped by to lay down a harmony on Forever Young. Again, it was amazing to watch a pro at work. He knew the song, but not the phrasing as Janis had created it during vocal overdubs. He'd listen to a line a few times, say "I've got it now", and match her word for word. He has a beautiful voice, and was quite thrilled to be the only other singer besides Dolly on the project.
The last item on the agenda was rough mixes, meaning assembling the final project in its roughest form so everyone could begin studying for the mixes. Things like taking the two guitars in Marching On Glasgow and splitting them left and right, or adding a type of echo to the guitar, were all experimented with. The CD's of these are labelled "Rough mix 3, sequence 1", because the other reason for them is so Janis can decide what order the songs will be in for the final product. Apparently, she has to figure that out as quickly as possible so the artwork people can get started laying out the booklet. Who knew?! The rough mixes went to Marc, Jeff, Janis – and myself, lucky me! – along with a few trusted business associates Janis wanted opinions from.
So that's where the project currently stands. The next phase is mixing, which Janis and Jeff will tackle going forward. It's already sounding great, so it'll be really exciting to hear it when the mixing is completed! Think good mixing thoughts for them!
While decompressing a bit from weeks of hard work, Janis recently visited with writer Eluki Bes Shahar and science fiction doyenne Andre Norton, http://www.andre-norton.org/anorton/anlf.shtml who is still going incredibly strong at 91. She'd just finished a short story for an anthology honoring Janis' good pal Anne McCaffrey and has also built one of the best small research libraries in the country, located in Murfreesboro, TN, which includes great sections on costumes, medieval, military history etc.
Also in the exciting news category is the pending release on August 5 of the new science fiction anthology "Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian". http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0756401771/qid=1059635984/sr=8-6/ref=sr_8_6/104-0873072-3957531?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 It is getting wonderful reviews already, most prominently from none other than the folks at Publishers Weekly. Here's what their starred review had to say:
This dazzling, highly original anthology, ignited by the meeting of songwriter Ian and a host of SF writers affected by her music at the 2001 Worldcon, showcases 30 mostly superior stories, each based on one of her songs. Some contributors take Ian at her word that science fiction is "the jazz of prose," responding to many of society's sharpest wounds with bittersweet improvisatory descants, like Terry Bisson in "Come Dance with Me," David Gerrold in "Riding Janis" and Orson Scott Card in "Inventing Lovers on the Phone," tales that probe the angst of adolescence. Spider Robinson, in "You Don't Know My Heart," like Gerrold in "Riding Janis," deals with the societal rejection gays and lesbians often face; "Immortality," by Robert J. Sawyer, and "Society's Stepchild," by Susan R. Matthews, respond to Ian's poignant "Society's Child," a plea for genuine racial tolerance; Stephen Baxter's "All in a Blaze" and Nancy Kress's brilliant "EJ-ES" confront the pain of aging; and several alternative-world tales, especially Harry Turtledove's powerful "Joe Steele" and Howard Waldrop's "Calling Your Name," explore the entrapment of the individual by sociopolitical forces engendered by materialism. The entire anthology seems to vibrate with the death throes of one world passing away, while far stranger ones struggle to be born. Their commonality, Ian tells us in her introduction, is that "They have heart. They have life. They have truth." No artist-nor any reader-could ask for more.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Congratulations Janis, on rave reviews right out of the gate! To celebrate the release, and give folks a chance to talk to Janis about her upcoming projects and things in general, we are planning to hold a Live Online Chat With Janis on (or about) August 5. Stay tuned for announcements on the home page and message board!
Wrapping up this month's news, I want to give you a preview of upcoming events leading up to the release of the new CD Janis Ian Live: Working Without A Net.
We're eagerly looking ahead to a flurry of fun activity, including loads of cool stuff going up for auction on eBay http://www.ebay.com to benefit the Pearl Foundation, http://www.janisian.com/pearlfoundation/pearl-home.html and a rotation of free MP3 downloads http://www.janisian.com/mp3_downloads.html here on the website. Janis' main concern, given the amount of items we're auctioning off, was that people would bid on something, then a week later something else would be posted that they'd prefer to bid on. So here's an advance listing of what to expect:
Items being Auctioned August 15 for the live album release:
1. Disk of early song choices from various concerts, including Fly Too High (version not used in the final), Will You Dance, Stolen Fire (not used), At 17, god & the fbi (not used), Heart of the City (not used), Memphis (not used), Take No Prisoners (not used), signed by Janis. The only way you're ever going to hear these unused versions!
2. Disks (two) of both solo and band choices, two disk set, unmastered, unedited, signed by Janis. Total 31 songs all told, some not used in final. The only way you're ever going to hear these unused versions!
3. Disks (three) of all the songs chosen for the final live CD, plus complete stage raps with those songs, unedited, unmastered, signed by Janis. Total 27 songs.
4. Disks (two) of unmastered, unedited rough sequence of the live album, with B&W prototype 2 of booklet art, signed by Janis. Total 24 songs. This is the final product in its roughest form.
5. Disks (two) first reference mastering disks, with color prototype 1 of booklet art, all signed by Janis. Total 24 songs, with intros.
6. EPK disk, signed by Janis (Electronic Press Kit), usually available only to legitimate press and record company personnel.
7. Touring microphone (Shure Beta 87), used through 2000-2003 at all shows, signed & dated by Janis
8. 2 free tix to any show with private meet and greet with Janis beforehand. (* We realize the tour schedule is pretty sketchy at this point. However, according to the current offers we've accepted, Janis will definitely be performing next year in: Amsterdam and other areas of Holland, London and other areas of the UK, Dublin and other areas of Eire, New York city, upstate New York, New Jersey, the San Francisco area, Los Angeles, other parts of California, Seattle, Ann Arbor, The Birchmere in Alexandria etc. There is a 3 year time limit on use of these tickets. If you can't use them within 3 years, we will refund your money!)
Items being Auctioned Sept. 1:
9. Advance copy of final CD, exactly as it will be in the stores on October 5th.
10. Pants worn on back tray card cover, signed by Janis.
11. Santa Cruz stage guitar with hard fiber case, L R Baggs pickup, Sabine tuner; lists in the Santa Cruz catalogue for $4,200 without the case or pickup. This is the same stage guitar Janis has used for the past 10 years, complete with tape strip to prevent nicks and bumps when she bangs on it, and the nicks and bumps that happened anyway!
12. Touring posters from Breaking Silence tour, ca. 1993, signed by Janis
13. Touring posters from Revenge tour, ca. 1995/1996, signed by Janis
14. Handwritten lyric to At Seventeen, signed and dated by Janis
15. Handwritten lyric to Stars, signed and dated by Janis
16. Handwritten lyric to Society's Child, signed and dated by Janis
17. Handwritten lyric to This Train Still Runs, signed and dated by Janis
18. Handwritten lyric to Jesse, signed and dated by Janis
19. 4 free tix any show with private meet and greet with Janis beforehand. (* We realize the tour schedule is pretty sketchy at this point. However, according to the current offers we've accepted, Janis will definitely be performing next year in: Amsterdam and other areas of Holland, London and other areas of the UK, Dublin and other areas of Eire, New York city, upstate New York, New Jersey, the San Francisco area, Los Angeles, other parts of California, Seattle, Ann Arbor, The Birchmere in Alexandria VA, and many other areas. There is a 3 year time limit on use of these tickets. If you can't use them by then, we will refund your money.)
20. "Society's Child" 1967 publicity photograph, signed by Janis.
MP3's from the Live CDs will be listed weekly, beginning September 1. There will be new offerings each week until October 7. (note: Contractually we are only permitted to post three songs from this album at a time. Song choices will be changing, so stay tuned!)
That's all the news for now. It's been another great month, with expectations of even more fun ahead!
Let it rip, shall we?
What an Anniversary!
50 years since her first album, 40 years since her first Grammy.
$80,500 from Pearl this year!
$80,500. That's how much we just sent to our four current scholarship funds. $909,000. That's how much money the Pearl Foundation has now given to fund our five ongoing scholarships for returning students.
Patience & Sarah wins prestigious Earphones Award!
Patience & Sarah has won a prestigious Earphones Award from AudioFile. Here's some of what they had to say: "Janis Ian and Jean Smart bring exquisite joy, vulnerability, and honesty to their narration of Isabel Miller's 1969 historical fiction novel about the love between a poor farmer's daughter, Sarah, and a folk painter, Patience, in nineteenth-century New England."