By Gregg Shapiro
What a year it’s been for Janis Ian. The 2008 publication of the out singer/songwriter’s memoir, “Society’s Child: My Autobiography,” which told her fascinating story in intimate detail, was well-received and has recently been issued in a paperback edition. At the same time that the book was published in hardcover, Ian released a double-disc compilation titled “The Autobiography Collection” on her Rude Girl label. The set included tracks from her 40-plus year recording career. Fast forward one year, and Sony, who owns her former label Columbia Records (with whom she released seven albums during the ’70s and ’80s, including the breakthrough “Between The Lines”), is reissuing “The Autobiography Collection,” repackaged as part of its “Essential” series. Ian spoke about the reissue, who would play her in a biopic, and what she thinks about writing a novel.
We spoke almost a year ago, around the time your self-released best-of compilation, “The Autobiography Collection,” was coming out. Now, the set is being reissued by Sony’s Legacy imprint as part of its “Essential” series. When we spoke in earlier interviews you talked about what could be described as your contentious relationship with Columbia and Sony.
I don’t think (it was) any more contentious than your average artist has with their record company (laughs).
But did something change?
Yeah! Several things changed. First of all, I think that the record companies in general took such a hard hit that they finally woke up and realized that maybe 50,000 or 100,000 sales (per album) times 20 artists was going to be worthwhile for them again.
At the time that I left Columbia then, or CBS, it was 1983. The sense was that if you weren’t selling at least a million, preferably five or eight million, you really weren’t worth anyone’s time. And that held true for a good 20, 25 years. At the same time, the whole internet thing started 15 or so years ago, and they refused to really deal with that. And this wasn’t just CBS, this was all of the majors. I think they had quite a bit of catch up to do.
And then, at the same time, I was introduced to Steve Berkowitz at Sony Legacy. We spoke about this project maybe three years ago and he took it to the higher ups who said no, it wasn’t really going to be worth the investment. Apparently, that’s changed. They’re now realizing that they’re essentially being brought product for free, because that’s what this is. It’s just a very different attitude on their part than I had run into. I’m honestly not sure whether that’s because this is Sony Legacy or if it’s because times have changed. It’s probably a little of both.
How would you describe your involvement in the process with Columbia and Sony?
100 percent. I’ve been amazed. I’m sure they don’t want me going into the details of the deal, but it was a fair deal. There’s no cross-collateralization with my old albums, which is great because that’s how we end up owing millions of dollars even when we don’t need to. And they’re excited, which is great.
Does that mean that your Columbia catalog could potentially finally be reissued by Sony?
I don’t know what it’s going to mean long-run. I would imagine that the back catalog stuff will be treated as a completely separate issue, because I own half of it and they own half of it. It’s like a family where everything’s in trust. We’ve always all tried to get along because we do a lot of business together. Obviously, any time anybody wants to use “At Seventeen” in a movie or TV show or whatever we have to get together and talk because I also control the publishing. I read a great Doonesbury cartoon a few weeks ago where there was a young band and they’re talking with (character) Joanie (Caucus). She asks them what their goal is and they say that it’s to be over as quickly as possible so they can be a legacy band. I sent it up to Steve (Berkowitz) laughing, because I thought, “Doonesbury is right!” Legacy acts are the ones still selling out arenas. Look at Leonard Cohen who was probably one of the hottest tickets of the year. I think it’s nice of them to call us legacy acts instead of old farts. But there’s a lot of money to be made, and I think the record companies finally woke up. Or at least I hope they did.
“The Essential Janis Ian” is essentially “The Autobiography Collection” in a different package. Were there ever plans on expanding the number of tracks included on it?
No, not at this point. It doesn’t make sense to do that right now. I know the English record company that I leased it to is doing an enhanced version of “Between The Lines,” with a bunch of old BBC footage.
Your autobiography “Society’s Child” is now available in a paperback edition. Looking back on it now, was the experience of writing the book a favorable one?
Oh, yeah, I love writing. Writing is writing, whether it’s a book or a record or a symphony or whatever. I love writing.
I caught your concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 2008 at which you played songs from “The Autobiography Collection.” In terms of the book though, did you do any readings in bookstores?
Yes, did a bunch of those. Still doing them, in fact. I just signed on to do the Tucson Book Festival next year and did a bunch of them this year.
When you do the readings, do you combine it with music? Do you bring your guitar and do a few songs?
Not usually. It’s more a spoken word presentation. I don’t know if it would even be called readings so much as performance art, I guess. It works out much better for me to tell stories than to read out of a book.
Do you think you might do more book-length writing in the future – like a novel, perhaps?
I hope so. If I can ever slow down the music end to do that.
If there was a movie version of “Society’s Child,” who would you want to play you?
Oh, Sigourney Weaver (laughs)! I have no idea. You would need somebody at three different ages, at least at two. Movies are weird. You’d have to leave it to the director.
8 p.m. Dec. 12, The Ark
316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor