Heels & Picks: Jett goes ‘Unvarnished’
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Ever wonder if rock ‘n’ roll icons have bad days? Sometimes, no matter how many top 10 radio hits you’ve had, you still get stuck on the side of the road.
Just ask Joan Jett.
“I just got out of a meeting and my car is broken,” she said by phone on Feb. 24. “It’s just the battery so it’s not too bad; the Cadillac guys are coming to fix it. But it is freezing here, I wish I was with you where it’s warm.”
So began my conversation with the First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Jett’s tough voice, still kind and genuine, belied a lifetime of snarling her way through the music business (make no mistake — it’s still a boy’s club). She spoke animatedly about things she cared about or interested her, yet she was also level-headed and funny.
Jett may have been in meetings and running errands like any other ordinary businesswoman when I spoke to her last month, but she has led anything but an ordinary life thus far. Starting the all-girl band The Runaways at the age of 15 helped pave the way for other women to play rock ‘n’ roll just like men did.
She’s had top 10 radio hits with her indelible songs, “I Love Rock n’ Roll” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” and opened for Queen at the pinnacle of their success. Make no mistake, the woman has major accomplishments notched in her studded belt.
More recently, she was joined by the Foo Fighters to perform her song, “Bad Reputation,” on “Late Night with David Letterman,” has spent time co-writing with Dave Grohl, and just made history when Revolver Magazine named her the first woman recipient of their Golden God Award.
Take one look at the cover of The Throwdowns’ first album, “Don’t Slow Down”, and the snarling shot of my mug on there, and you’ll know Jett has been an influence. She was one of the first women to rock her way into the music business in her tight black pants and leather jacket — and she was unapologetic from the start.
Those who love rock ‘n’ roll would be wise to grab themselves a copy of Jett’s new album, “Unvarnished.” Recorded with her longtime band, The Blackhearts, the album dropped in late 2013 and is a return to classic Jett form — all palm-muted power chords, sing-along chanting choruses and hand claps.
So how do you take that style of music and apply themes of love, loss and growing up to the party?
I checked in with Jett to talk about her new album, the idea of being an icon, funny stories from “The Runaways” movie and of course, her favorite catsuit designer.
ERIN SMITH: What made you choose “Unvarnished” as the title of your new album and how does it relate to the songs?
JOAN JETT: It really just came from the songs. We had several working titles; the first one was apparently something that I said to Kristen Stewart during “The Runaways” movie, when she was performing as me.
And you know, she had a lot to think about; position, how to stand, and her direction for the movie.
I was sitting there watching, and there would be points where the guitar would get away from her body. And so, I shouted to her, “Kristen! P—y to the wood! F–k your guitar!”
I don’t even remember saying this, right? It might have been a year later when she told me about this.
(On set), I was trying to get her position right, her hips forward and her pubic bone to be pressing into the back of the wood. So I would shout instructions. And this one stuck with her and so when she repeated it back to me, at first I thought it would make a great T-shirt. Then it became the working title for the album. I don’t think we were ever going to use it, but it was just something to call the album while we were working.
We started thinking about what words came to us that reflected the music, and “Unvarnished” is the word that came.
ES: On “Unvarnished”, the songs are classic you, but the subject matter is decidedly more mature and poignant to issues that resonate in your life now. The loss of a parent, the unraveling of a romance who was supposed to be a soulmate. Can you talk about how you fused the songs together for this album?
JJ: It’s a slightly different flavor, but you’re right, it’s what people expect from us. Subject matter, I’ve just always written about my life. And I’m at a point in my life where things are changing. You know, I’ve experienced things over the last ten years.
We tour our records well, so we were on the road with the last record until 2008. And then I got involved in “The Runaways” (movie) project, with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. And I was working on songs for the new album during that time, but my focus was really on a record because this movie was happening. People have been asking why did it take so long, from the last album in 2006, to making this album. To me it didn’t seem that long.
But I was writing this whole time, and obviously, life is happening to you. During that time I lost a few friends, I lost my parents. I was very close with my parents, they were always very supportive of my career, and really it was devastating. I’m not quite over it, and the farther I get from it, it seems the less over it I am.
So I was writing about loss and love, and also, I live in a beach town called Long Beach on Long Island. When Hurricane Sandy hit the New York City area, my town and all the towns around really got pretty smashed up. And luckily, I’m up off the ground on the sixth floor, so my home wasn’t damaged. But the building I live in was damaged, and it was unlivable, so we all had to be out of the building for a couple of months.
I wrote about that, because of the spirit I saw in the people. You know you see these storms, and you feel for people. But when something like that happens to you, it’s an interesting study in humanity. People were so shellshocked when it first happened, everyone was walking around in a haze. And then shortly after, everyone is pitching in, strangers are helping strangers, friends are helping friends. It was really a beautiful thing to see. It gave me goosebumps to see it happening in my town. That was the impetus for the song “Make It Back.”
The songs “Fragile” and “Hard to Grow Up” focus on the loss of friends and family and death. But I also wrote about lighter things, there’s a song on there called “TMI”, about people throwing their lives out there on social media. Not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing, just commenting on it.
ES: I spoke with Grace Potter last month and she brought your name up as an example of always being in control of your image and doing what you want to do. It like an unwritten thing amongst females in rock that you are THE icon. Do you feel that in your day-to-day?
JJ: Oh, no, not really. I know that I’m in a certain place, but I don’t presume to think that girls look up to me or girls in music look up to me. Because I know things are very subjective, and it’s a big world out there, full of different people to like, and I just would never assume that I would be in that place for women and for girls.
It’s just that when you assume it, it becomes pretentious. When women and girls say that to me, that they look up to me, I realize what an honor that is, to be put in that position. I just would never assume that all girls look up to me, they may look to another woman, and that’s fine.
ES: Against Me singer Laura Jane Grace appears on “Unvarnished.” How do you feel about the current LGBT climate in music? Is it any different than in the 1970s?
JJ: Oh God, it seems like it’s changed dramatically. I think with music, you think of it as an open situation. I mean, I always believed that to be. And I thought that it would be easier for girls to play rock ‘n’ roll, because rock ‘n’ roll would be a little bit freer of an art form. But I was dead wrong.
So I would assume that it would be the same way for anybody who identified at LGBT at that time, which was not a lot. In fact, early on when I first got turned on to rock ‘n’ roll, I was very much into this club called Rodney’s English Disco. They used to play a lot of glitter music from England, a lot of Bowie, a lot of Suede, a lot of T Rex. A lot of people would dress up, boys dressing as girls, androgynous, it was sort of, not really done yet, you know?
So that was kind of my introduction to music, and then I really started getting into rock ‘n’ roll, and that was my influence, actually, to form The Runaways, that club.
I think the climate has changed dramatically in the last, certainly, the last decade; it’s really changed fast. And I’m sure there are still pockets and people who will have problems with things, as always. But generally I think it’s getting easier for people.
ES: Part of this blog is about fashion. Can you tell me about any favorite designers or clothing lines you like?
JJ: I have jumpsuits made for me. That’s really what I do onstage. The designer’s name is Cesar Galindo. (http://www.cesargalindonyc.com/). He has a regular clothing line as well, he makes my stage clothes and I believe he makes things for other people.
ES: You feature an appearance by Dave Grohl on “Any Weather.” What brought that collaboration together?
JJ: We did a tour with the Foos in the spring of 2012 in South America. We went to Chile, Argentina and Brazil. We did about a two-week tour with the Foos and it was awesome; it was really good. And I’d been doing a couple of gigs with them, here and there. They had me come on to do an encore at Madison Square Garden; we did “Bad Reputation.” And then they had me come on and do the Letterman show, and we did that song again, and I think Letterman was expecting them to do something from their album. So he didn’t really know what was going on, and we were just having fun.
And I was thinking, Dave is such a great songwriter, I wonder if I can get him to sit down with me for a minute. I don’t usually write with a lot of outside people, I’m pretty insular, but I had some ideas for some songs and I thought maybe we could write a song. And I know he’s really busy but he was nice enough to give me a day after the tour, in LA, 606 in the Valley. And it was just the two of us and some engineers; we started knocking around some ideas and got the basic music and melody for “Any Weather.”
Dave played drums and I played guitar and hummed the melody, on essentially what was supposed to be a demo. Then he went back in and recorded bass, piano and lead guitar. Then any of our crew that was there, we went in and did some “heys” and I think there were some “woah woahs” in the bridge. And that was as far as we got that day.
So I was left with a little gem of a song that was not quite finished yet, but was on its way. I took that back to New York, and the band learned the song and I finished the lyrics. So there are two versions of that song. I finished the demo and turned it into a real record and that is the 606 version. That’s the one that starts the album. And then there’s another version later in the album that is The Blackhearts.
ES: You toured with Queen. What was your relationship like with Freddy Mercury?
JJ: You know, at that time, I didn’t know him as a personal friend. It was a little bit more distant than that. He was just, he was so big. It was pretty amazing to be opening for Queen, in England, as well. It was pretty intimidating. It was early in The Blackhearts, so it was very scary but thrilling.
ES: Have you ever spent time in Hawaii?
JJ: Not enough time, but a little time, yes.
ES: You’ve got to come back out and play this album, we would love it!
JJ: I would love it too, and I’d love to hang out for a month or two.
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.