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Janis Ian Hoping Third Time's a Charm : Pop music: The singer has re-established herself yet again and has a new album coming out, her first in 12 years. She also 'breaks the silence,' making public that she is gay.

June 03, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 42, Janis Ian figures she already has had two careers as a recording artist. Now she is trying for a third.

The first started when she was an underage folkie, working the club scene in New York City during the mid-1960s. Ian was 16 when she scored a hit with "Society's Child," a folk-pop protest song about a black boy and a white girl whose romance is sundered by the bigotry around them.

Ian's career ebbed after that strong beginning, but she came back even stronger in 1975 as the still-young diva of "At Seventeen." That rueful song about being in high school and feeling like a social reject helped make her album "Between the Lines" No. 1, and earned her a Grammy for best female vocalist.

By 1982, though, Ian had abandoned her recording deal with Columbia Records, opting out of a wearing cycle of touring and recording that she felt was sapping her powers as a songwriter.

The remainder of the '80s brought a divorce, a disastrous run-in with the Internal Revenue Service, and a near-fatal burst intestine. But the late 1980s saw Ian begin to establish herself as a Nashville-based songsmith, crafting ballads recorded by Amy Grant, Nanci Griffith and Kathy Mattea, among others.

The sense of renewal is evident on "Breaking the Silence" (on Morgan Creek Records), Ian's first album in 12 years. She appears on Friday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Saturday at the "Troubadours of Folk" festival at UCLA, and Tuesday at the Troubadour.

Some songs on the new album plainly allude to past setbacks and subsequent recovery. But shadows creep in around those high hopes in songs about loneliness, spousal abuse, incest and the Holocaust.

In dealing with trouble and pain, Ian suggests on the album's concluding title track, "breaking silence" is the first step to recovery.

In keeping with that notion, she has decided to make it public that she is gay.

"Everybody in my family has always known. Everybody in the music industry has known. But it is something I didn't talk about with the press, or evaded when I was pushed," Ian said. "One reason I didn't want to address it for so long was that I don't like that kind of pigeonholing (of) the music" under a gay-artist rubric.

While her new songs don't deal with gay-rights themes, Ian says she wants to use the media attention that her comeback record might generate to try to diminish some of the social stigma against gays.

"In the age of AIDS and people going fag-bashing, it becomes a civil rights issue," she said. "If people like me don't start treating it normally with the press, people in America will think they don't know any (gay people). It's hard to justify having worked for black civil rights in the '60s and not work for my own civil rights in the '90s."

Ian sounds upbeat about the chances for her new album, which has a folk-based, adult-pop sound akin to successful efforts by Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega and Mary-Chapin Carpenter.

"There seems to be a feeling in the air it can do very well," she said. "I think amazing things happen. I know this is a terrible cliche, but if I look at me in '86, and me now, with a good relationship and a record coming out and a healthy body, that's an amazing thing considering where I came from."

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