How does a person stay motivated and excited about her work after nearly 40 years of playing music? Just ask Joan Jett — she’s got a lot to say on the topic, and she’s gonna make sure you hear it. When I spoke with her on the phone about her forthcoming album, Unvarnished, which will be released on her label Blackheart on Oct. 1, she was so erudite, focused, and passionate about her art that I barely got a word in edgewise. And I was only too happy to clam up for a while — when you’re speaking with a music legend with 17 albums under her belt (the first of which was recorded with the seminal group The Runaways when she was only a teenager), you’d better be listening up, and listening good.
Though you may know some of her history with The Runaways thanks to the eponymous 2010 movie about the band starring Kristen Stewart, Jett’s career has largely hinged on her iconic work as the frontwoman of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, with whom she has released an extensive and robust catalog of work, beginning with “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Crimson and Clover,” and now, her exhilarating new album. And if you think she intends to slow down even a little as she continues her decades-long reign of shreddage, well, you might want to listen a little more closely — as if she’d give you any other choice.
When was the first time in your life you decided you wanted to be a musician, and what inspired you to do that?
Joan Jett: I’d say 12 or 13. I was inspired by lot of the records I was hearing on the radio. At the time, pop radio was very diverse. A rock song like Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” would play right next to a Stevie Wonder song or a Michael Jackson song. I would latch onto them; I just wanted to make those sounds.
But I also wanted to be a lot of different things. I wanted to be an actor, an astrologer, an astronaut; a lot of different things were going through my mind. But I also wanted to play guitar. I mentioned to my parents that I wanted an electric guitar for Christmas. They got me one! I sat there all Christmas morning making a lot of loud horrible noise.
Being young, I didn’t realize I had to learn the ABC’s of guitar. My first guitar teacher tried to teach me “On Top of Old Smokey,” something basic, so I could learn the guitar, but I didn’t like that. I wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll. I thought that he was looking at me kind of askew because I was a girl with an electric guitar, so I took just that one lesson and quit after that. I bought a “learn how to play guitar by yourself” book. I took that and my 45s, sat with the record player, and learned how to play the songs.
I lived in Maryland at the time, and then my family moved to California. I thought, There must be other girls besides me that want to learn how to play rock ‘n’ roll. I started going to a club that I read about in Creem magazine called Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. It was a teenage disco — no one too old could be there, and they didn’t serve booze or anything. They played ’70s glittery English disco, like David Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, and Gary Glitter. Everybody was dressed very flamboyantly. The boys and girls all had a lot of makeup on. All of that was very intriguing and very influential to me. I guess that was my base, where I took all my guitar playing from, initially. The punk scene started around the same time, at least socially.
Did the two social circles interact? Was there overlap between the punk and glam scenes?
JJ: The glam scene was dying. Virtually everybody started hearing about The Ramones at the same time, the perfect time. There wasn’t any overlap in my personal experience; one died and the other came up. The first time The Runaways went to England, I went over there dressed all glammy and came back with the punk influence, which was apparent in the way I dressed. I went from bell-bottoms and glittery platforms to black platforms and black jumpsuits.
Did people comment on that change in your look?
JJ: Well, we were still in school initially. I was 16 when I started playing music in The Runaways. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. I wasn’t in one place too long, so I was always the new kid. People used to howl “Diamond Dogs” at me and laugh and point. Then I took my GED and got out of there to play with The Runaways. I enjoyed learning and I wanted my education, and I wanted to do it the right way.
When did you know for sure that music was going to be your career?
JJ: The thing is when you’re young…maybe other people think, How long will this last? But I didn’t do a lot of that. I was living in the moment. When we were auditioning other girls, got The Runaways together, and were actually doing concerts, that’s when I knew it was real. The dream was to be in a band; everything else was just icing on the cake. Putting an album out, getting famous — all that was above and beyond my expectations. At first, it was like, “Let’s put out an album, maybe have a few hits.” Once you do that, you look for the next thing. I wasn’t really projecting so much. I didn’t need to be super rich; it was just about making a living. I consider that success for anything, whether it’s being a musician or a writer. As long as you can support yourself, you’re successful. People need to change their idea of what success is.
Other than that, what advice would you give to young people starting bands?
JJ: If you have that dream, and you believe that’s what you really want to do, I say go for it, wholeheartedly. But it’s important not to fall into the trap that television sells you, where you have a sense that it can be achieved overnight. It can be, but then you haven’t done the groundwork. You haven’t prepared yourself for what’s to come. I think you have to spend a couple years, at least, on the road. You’ve got to play the crappy gigs where there are 10 people there. It’s kind of depressing, but those are the shows that build character and make you decide if you really want to do this. Success isn’t one straight line — it’s a ladder, and there’s always another rung above you to reach out for. Like anything else, there are ups and downs.
The better your base is, and the more you know from experience, the better off you’ll be when you try and make the big move. When you make a record now, you have the capacity to put it online, but the only way for people to really hear you is live. I would suggest using all those tools. I think the one-on-one gigs connecting with the fans — is the most important thing. That will help build your fan base. They’ll talk about you, and word spreads. Those things are just as important as knowing how to play an E chord. It feels better when you involve the audience. They know when you’re involved with them and you care about them. And they know when you don’t.
How do you think the spirit of your music has changed since the “Bad Reputation” days? What do you draw inspiration from now?
JJ: It really all comes from life. I know that sounds cliché, but mostly from my own experiences and things I see around me. We’re all human beings, and a lot of the things I write about are pretty universal things. This album is different than my early things. A lot of those were about falling in and out of love, having sex and not having sex, relationship things. These last 10 years or so, I call my “Decade of Death.” I’ve lost a lot of people and companion animals and things that I love. This is my first time in life going through those massive, transformative events. It’s really shown in my writing and reflected in the songs. There are a few relationship songs on the new record, but most of it is about different aspects of life.
Do you still enjoy playing shows?
JJ: That’s the part I enjoy the most. A lot of the touring stuff has become a drag. Traveling itself is a drag. Anyone who’s been to an airport knows that. So if you’re not having fun at the shows, what’s the point? I’ve always enjoyed the live thing. I mostly make records so that I can tour, although this time around, it feels like I had to make this album because I had something to say.
How does it feel when you hear your songs on the radio? So many people have covered them and done all sorts of different things with them. Is that odd for you?
JJ: It’s a little surreal, but it’s a great feeling. It makes it feel like it isn’t you! I don’t say, “Oh, that’s me! That’s me!”
Do you feel like a different person when you’re performing, too?
JJ: I try not to feel like anything. If I think too much, I fuck up. If I think about the lyrics or what I have to play next, I lose it. I have to be an empty vessel, if you believe in that kind of thing. Obviously, the music and lyrics are in me, but if I let myself get in my own way, I do. I empty out and let it come, and then the music spirits take over.
You said earlier that you see success as a series of rungs on a ladder. What’s the next step up after this?
JJ: I would love to see this record do well because I think it’s a great record. That’s definitely a rung — that’s the definition of a rung! And to have a successful worldwide tour would be great. I’m also just looking to be happy. That’s not achievable through awards or money. I see people with tons of awards that are super rich, but they still get sick, and get divorced, and die. Happiness doesn’t necessarily lie in material things. You just have to put yourself in a position to be happy. If you can do what you love for a living, that’s a good start. I got very lucky. I’m very blessed that I asked my parents for that guitar and they got it for me, because who knows where I would be right now? For real.
You’d be in space.
JJ: I’m kind of there now. I’m kind of always there. In my head, I’m an astronaut either way.