WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- The opening line of Wikipedia's bio on Janis Ian reads "singer, songwriter, commentator and writer." To which the multi-talented folk/pop legend Ian says, "that's nice to hear. But I would really just say ‘artist'."
Nine-time Grammy Award-nominee Ian will be bringing her "artistry" -- her songs, her songwriting skills and her stories, both written and verbal -- to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute for two days, featuring a free book reading and signing of her book, "Society's Child: My Autobiography," on Thursday, April 19, at 5:30 p.m., and a ticketed concert on Friday, April 20, at 8 p.m.
Ian's breakthrough hits in the 1960s "Society's Child (Baby, I've Been Thinking)" and "At Seventeen" were considered part of folk's most influential commentaries on the problems of society, and she has continued write songs about the good and bad she sees around her.
But she does not see that as her only purpose in life: Ian, in fact, has written for periodicals and authored books ranging from autobiographic to sci-fi, started a philanthropic organization helping returning college students, and even has a little part in the London Summer Olympics. And she is more than happy to talk about those things.
But she has not changed the way she works to give the audience what it paid for in live concerts.
"Now you are getting into a performer thing, it is a whole different thing. That's my job," Ian
Ian has all the tools to give concertgoers their money's worth.
Her first hit, "Society's Child," ignited such a controversy that it resulted in the burning of a radio station and the firing of disc jockeys who played it. She is the writer of "Jesse," a song recorded by so many others that few remember Ian wrote it; "Stars," considered by many to be the best song ever written about the life of a performer; and the seminal "At Seventeen," a song that brought her five Grammy nominations -- the most any solo female artist had ever garnered up to that point -- and she was elected into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Her concerts also still have a strong dose of social commentary.
Her most recent original music, 2006's "Folk is the New Black" includes a song called "The Great Divide," which sounds a lot like she was talking about the current "Occupy Movement" and the "1 percent / 99 percent" debate.
"I think it is a duty (of a songwriter) to be as honest an artist as possible, but when I was writing that album, I was so annoyed of the country, that big business was taking care of itself but not take care of people," she said, pointing out Hurricane Katrina as an example, but not the only one. "New Orleans was a symptom" of a larger problem, she said.
And she doesn't just talk about problems, she is into direct action for some causes.
Ian is very active with a philanthropic group she started, the Pearl Foundation, which was named after her mother, who gained a college degree in the last years of her life. Ian did not attend college, but both her brother and partner did. "I was raised that education changes lives in a way that nothing else does," she said. "I have seen the way it changes lives, somebody who has never been praised for learning ... you give them the opportunity for growth. ... it is one of the great things you can do with money."
The Pearl Foundation, according to Ian's website, has disbursed $555,000 in scholarship funds to Goddard, Berea, and Warren Wilson colleges -- and that doesn't include the Pearl Foundation scholarship at University of Tennessee Knoxville, funded privately by Ian and her brother, Pat.
The Pearl Foundation is not the only "outside of music" interests keeping Ian busy recently. She is creating an audio version of her autobiography and has a small part in the upcoming London Summer Olympics.
Is it different -- strange -- she was asked, reading her own autobiography aloud? "It is much more immediate ... speaking it, it comes straight from the heart to the air, it is much closer..."
"Sometimes I can't believe the things that happened," she said, with a little laugh following.
She also just finished her part in The Boat Project, which is associated with the Summer Olympics, a project for which she wrote and recorded a new song.
Ian said she just finished a "fun piece," a sort of children's song, called "The Tiny Mouse," for The Boat Project -- one of the boats that will parade on the Thames River as part of the Olympic festivities. Ian said she was asked by Dame Cleo Laine to become involved "when she attended my performance last year."
The Boat Project, she said, is a 30-foot boat crafted by a team of boat builders and volunteers from wood donated by the public -- Ian's donation was a wooden mouse. The wood donations became the inspiration for a CD, specially commissioned for the Olympic festival.
It is on the stage, however, where she still loves to be -- a place where she finds she still connects with people.
She accepts that some people see her music as carrying a message -- and that songs like "At Seventeen" or "Society's Child" -- maybe even "The Great Divide" -- could still move people, young and older, who are listening live.
"That is a big part of it," she said. "Music can cross generations and also to strike straight to the heart. A lot of time when I get families (at concerts), I think parents want their children to experience what they experienced ... to capture a time when they were listening" to songs of protest.
Ian also still appreciates other songs and songwriters who talk about social issues, and pointed out, as who she listens to, Joe Henry, David Byrne, Sara Bettens -- "she's doing some real interesting work" -- as well as the late Lhasa de Sela.
And, despite the fact that Ian has not had a hit for many years, she says she has had a great career and a great life on the stage -- and she is comfortable with her position in pop/folk music history, if not the pop music world's present.
"Nobody is on going to invest millions (of dollars in her music, like a record label) and I am not going to have a hit record again," she said. "Once you realize that, once you give up on that ... all that of being super famous all the time ... it is liberating. I can do my songs. In concerts, I have 30 or 40 songs to pick and choose."
Which songs she sings at the Clark, other than the few early hits she knows many paying customers come to hear, will likely depend on her artistic mood.
Contact K.D. Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow or tweet him on Twitter @banner_arts_KD.
The Clark is located at 225 South St. Tickets to the concert are $40, $35 for students. For tickets and information call 413-458-0524 or visit clarkart.edu.