Fan Fest: Joan Jett

Blackheart rocker grows up

Losing both her parents within three years of each other changed rock & roll hero Joan Jett. Working with the Blackhearts and high profile guests Dave Grohl and Laura Jane Grace from Against Me!, the guitarist tapped into an introspective mood on September’s Unvarnished.

Austin Chronicle: You’ve said Unvarnished is the most autobiographical work you’ve done. Was that the goal from the start or just a natural progression?

Joan Jett: Partly, yeah. It’s life happening, and for lack of a better way to put it, growing up. Going through life experiences that up until that point in my life I hadn’t gone through. Being in a rock & roll band, certain showbiz-y things allow you to live in sort of an arrested adolescence, and you don’t have to grow up unless something comes across the horizon and you recognize you’ve got to deal with it.

For me, I started having deaths occurring within my extended family, and it culminated with losing both my parents; my father in 2007 and my mother in 2010. You gotta understand, I was so close to my parents, and got along with them so well. They really supported me in wanting to follow my dreams. Asking them for an electric guitar at 13, at that time it was just unheard of. It was from outer space. The fact that they didn’t flinch and bought it for me ....

They always supported me, so having that huge hole in my life is very new. Very disconcerting. You feel unsure of your footing sometimes. It’s crazy. You don’t know what that can do to you. I think it forced me to be a bit more responsible, and sometimes it’s a little scary, but that’s what I meant overall. I was dealing with heavier subjects, real life subjects.

Not that the other things aren’t – whether you’re talking about falling in love or falling out of love, or partying and having a good time. Those are all rock & roll themes, but I think we all grow up within rock & roll as we get older. How do you speak to that? It’s just territory I’ve not navigated before, and I’m not so sure a lot of people have. Because you have this illusion of rock & roll being a young thing, that you can’t grow up or discuss serious subjects, but I don’t think that’s valid.

Music is a communication tool, no matter what type of music it is. And I’ve found I’ve been able to communicate very well from my emotions to the lyrics.

AC: The song “Hard to Grow Up” is sort of the nexus of that feeling, of really being on your own.

JJ: Even if you’re out on your own, you still have a support system behind you. And it’s not like I don’t have a support system, but losing my parents was devastating to me. That might sound weird to some people – to sound to so into my parents – but you have to understand it all came from that.

There are other songs, like “Fragile,” that speak to that same emotion. That we’re all fragile, and various things kick that off. You can be very strong in your life, but it’s a paradox. You can be both things at once, and I think we are.

AC: Speaking of collaboration, you worked with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, who you’ve known for years. What was your experience working with her and what was your reaction to the way she came out?

JJ: First of all, I think Against Me! is an awesome band. We played with them during the Warped Tour in 2006 and that’s really where I got to know their music, and realized what a great songwriter Laura Jane is. Over the years we stayed in touch, and I believe I read about her going into transition. I was very proud of her. That’s a very brave move, and something she had to do for herself. I’m a million percent behind her with that.

But really, the way this came about was we’d probably done a gig early last year together, and it might’ve been the first time I’d seen Laura since transition. Well, it was great to see her again, and I mentioned what a great songwriter I thought she was, and if she would be interested in trying to write a song with me. She said she’d maybe have some ideas. She went down to Florida, so this is a song we did over emails and the Internet.

She got me some ideas, and I’d add something to it and send it back. Before you know it we were in the rehearsal studio rehearsing it. I think it came out very beautiful, and I love what it says. It’s such a true sentiment. I know there are a lot of people who can relate to feeling like they had the love of their life, and then something weird happens and you’re going, “Who is this person?” You can’t believe you ever felt that way about them.

AC: Do you think the balls-to-the-wall way she came out will change punk, or even rock & roll at large in how people deal with sexuality issues?

JJ: I think it has to, because once it’s in front of you, you’ve got to deal with it. I think she dealt with it in a beautiful – like you said, balls-to-the-wall – way. And I think it gives a lot of hope to people who are not really sure where they fit in. It’s so important for people to feel that they’ve got an advocate out there. Unknowingly, Laura Jane is an advocate for maybe millions of people. It gives me chills just talking about it. Very proud.

AC: You were honored by Little Kids Rock last night. How do you see your role in inspiring the next generation of women rockers?

JJ: It’s just something that happens. You don’t really make plans. You just go out and live and hope you inspire by example. My experience with Little Kids Rock last night was completely surreal. Being with all these other artists playing my music – all people that I really look up to and have been in my life throughout my career. It was outstanding. It was absolutely chill-making. It was very heartwarming for me. And I felt very loved. I think what Little Kids Rock does is incredible and very important. I took music classes in school and it wasn’t ....

I took clarinet. They didn’t have contemporary instruments and things. It was just music to teach you scales and stuff like that. I took a semester or two of that and then I stopped, but the fact was I had that option. So many kids don’t have any options in school now. They don’t have any music, any art, any drama classes. Anything to occupy their minds outside of what they might find as tedious schoolwork.

I think it’s important to give kids an outlet so they stay focused on something. What Little Kids Rock does is get teachers and instruments into the hands of schools and children who are more underprivileged and don’t have the advantages that some schools do. They get out there and give them instruments, or teach them to run a board or whatever it is they want to do.

AC: The Blackhearts are up for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year. What do you think about that?

JJ: That’s not for me to say. I think it’s great we were nominated, and if we get in I’ll be thrilled and it’ll be a lot of fun. But if we don’t, that’s not why I got in a band, to win awards. I think it’s an awesome thing if you get recognized by your peers and the industry. If it happens, it’s going to be awesome. If it doesn’t, there’s always next year.

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Joan Jett, Dave Grohl, Laura Jane Grace, Against Me!, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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