First published on 9 Sep 2013. Updated on 4 Oct 2013.
Joan Jett is preserved in amber, forever the sleepy-eyed, husky-voiced rocker. She’s branded those righteous riffs from her early solo career – ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’, ‘Crimson and Clover’ and ‘Bad Reputation’ – right onto our hides, and if she’s trying to make us forget she first slid into a leather bodysuit in 1975, she’s going the wrong way about it with her 14th solo album, Unvarnished. While the topics are way more introspective than Jett will usually allow, her dedication to dirty rock’n’roll means it doesn’t veer from classic Jett glam stomp or snarling riffage – just the way legions of fans like it.
This year Jett was honoured at the Sunset Strip Music Festival – the Strip being the old haunt of 16-year-old Joan Larkin from the ’burbs. The band she went on to form, the Runaways, were tough teenage girls who vibed on their own sexual power, yet still fell prey to creeps and perves along the way (many of whom were on the payroll). Even so, their unflinching attitude and kickarse live shows turned the groupie haunts of Sunset Strip into an even playing field for the first time.
As underlined by her role of executive producer on the 2010 movie The Runaways, Jett is very much the custodian of that band’s reputation, but now as then, her interests are purely to play rock’n’roll music and stay out of dramas. In that sense, she remains as uncompromising as ever.
Joan, you were ahead of your time, starting your own label after the Runaways split up [Blackheart Records – also home to some great female-fronted bands]. Lots of established bands have chosen to cut out the middleman in the past couple of years and set up their own label or just go with a distributor.
Yeah, but it wasn’t down to foresight, it was more like desperation. Nobody wanted to sign me – we got turned down from 23 record labels. We still have all the letters to prove it. My manager, Kenny [Laguna], took his baby daughter’s college fund and we printed up 500 records. We started selling them out of the trunk of the car at local club concerts and they sold out right away. It kept going like that over that spring, and eventually we were signed to Boardwalk Records to put out the real album. We always retained Blackheart Records though, it was Blackheart signed to Boardwalk. And so we’re still just Blackheart Records.
There’s been a seven-year hiatus between Unvarnished and Sinner. You’ve had The Runaways film to oversee and you’ve played the Falls Festival in Australia amid larger tours… but why haven’t you hit the studio in that time?
Well, it’s not as easy to churn out quality music as people think, and I want things to be good. We usually take years to work our albums because we have to work the record – we do a lot of concerts. We really work the record in person. So that’ll take a couple of years. I started trying to write the next record in 2008/2009, working through some issues, figuring I had some writer’s block, but really that wasn’t the case at all. It just meant I had to sit down and do the work. You have to sit down everyday – it’s like homework – and if you come up with two lines, that’s great, you leave it alone and come back to it the next day. Somehow I’d gotten into this idea where everything has to come out at once or it’s not good or something.
You collaborated with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters for one song.
Yeah, the very first song, ‘Any Weather’. We toured with them in South America and I figured, I’d like to try to write a song with Dave. He said that he doesn’t really write with people, so I kind of showed up in LA with several ideas that were already pre-formed and thought I’d play some of those things for him to see if he liked any of it. We went to his studio, 606, and he locked on to ‘Any Weather’ and rearranged some parts, then we just tracked it right there. Dave played the drums and I played the rhythm guitar and sung –or mumbled, because there weren’t lyrics yet.
That’s a pretty optimistic song, but in general the album comes off the back of a hard period for you and it’s more confessional than usual.
I definitely agree. A few songs are just taking note of where we are in society – like ‘Reality Mentality’ is not necessarily a judgment, it’s just saying look at what we’re doing. Or ‘TMI’, about how people can spill more than they realise all over the internet. I’ve always been somebody that likes boundaries.
On the subject of boundaries, you’ve had Kenny Laguna as your manager for over three decades and you’re said to be quite a closed-rank team.
Yeah, pretty much. We are closed-ranked, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t work with other people – we’ve just had our vision of who we are all this time. Other people over the years have tried to change it or augment it. What’s the good of that, if it’s not what our vision was? So we’re happy and working hard and satisfied with what we’re doing.
When you write a song, do you write for a certain person in your mind? For their imagined approval?
Very rarely. Because you really do want everybody to be able to relate to it. It might get triggered off of one person but you want to try and explain to everybody what the situation’s about, no matter what it is. These human interactions that we have, good, bad and the ugly, we all go through it. Life, death, love, hate… we all can relate to it in some form or another.
What part of the album cycle do you have the least tolerance for?
I don’t like being nervous – and I get nervous when I do TV and stuff like that. Then afterwards I always wonder, why was I so nervous? You’re thinking about what could happen… but you shouldn't be complacent about going on stage or going to do an interview. You want to have some nerves in the belly. I’m not saying be petrified, but you want to know that you’re alive, you know?
There’s an incredible new Runaways bio on the shelves, Queens of Noise by Evelyn McDonnell…
I don’t know what that is.
Have you ever been tempted to write the absolute be-all-and-end-all memoir yourself?
I just don’t think so. I don’t think that you can capture it all really in a book. There’s what I was in my life, and then you had four other girls doing whatever it was they were doing in their lives, and I just don’t see how you can capture the whole story in a way that makes it accessible to people, that reads like a story. Not to mention, it was pretty crazy times and I’m not so sure who remembers what.
Like I said, I’ve got boundaries and I don’t want to be telling everybody everything I did. I’ve got no desire to say: this is what I did and this is how bad I did it and this is how much worse I am than everybody else. I have no desire to brag and I don’t get why, like, what’s the point? I get that people would like to hear it, but beyond that, for me, what is the point of writing it? It’s like any band. Bands play, bands love, bands have great times, bands have bad times, bands break-up, bands hate each other, bands love each other. We’re really no different to a million things that other bands go through.
Do you still channel that teenage girl when you’re writing songs, though? Do you tap back into that sense of urgency and excitement?
I tapped into it at the time, when I was feeling it, but you can only really tap into what you’re feeling. You can’t tap into something that’s not there. You know: you’ve got that sense of urgency, you’re a teenager, you want it all right now – or yesterday. Now I’m tapping into realistic things that are happening to me, and that’s what this new album’s about.
The title track, ‘Unvarnished’, seems the most personal. Can you tell me anything about that one?
I think it touches on a few things in life that we all go through that I probably haven’t written too much about. I tend to write a lot about partying, not partying, falling in love, not falling in love, whatever, you know – just all those human relationships. I think this touches on some deeper things: loss, life, love and, uh, how do you become responsible in life? You can’t get anything of substance discussed any place. The attitude you see in reality TV has dripped through to regular TV shows and to newscasts and to every facet of American life. So when I’m watching the newscast and they ask of someone a deep question that requires several minutes in answer, you can almost feel the PA off of the screen waving their fingers, going. “Hurry up, hurry up.” It drives me crazy.
Unvarnished is out now, through Liberator Music/Blackheart Records.