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Joan Jett: ‘I’ve Gotta Grow Up’

Joan Jett

Even during her teenage days in the Runaways, Joan Jett sounded like she’d been around. Now, at 55, she’s come fully into her survivor’s rasp. That voice — and a series of dynamite guitar riffs — are etched into Jett’s first LP in the better part of a decade, Unvarnished, recorded with her longtime backing band the Blackhearts. Across 10 tracks punched up with defiant melodies, power chords, hand claps, and confessionals, the Long Island resident tackles loss, bad luck, and growing up without getting weary; in a recent interview, she shot straight with us about, among other things, working with both new and familiar voices — Unvarnished‘s guests include Dave Grohl and Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace — and, of course, why she still loves rock’n’roll.

Everybody experiences life and death, and losing friends and parents.
I just had a chance to write about it. I just felt it was important to me to get it out as a person who’s grown beyond being a teenager. I’m not a Runaway anymore. I’ve got more to say than just falling in and out of love or having sex and partying. That’s all well and good, and we sing about that, too, but to a lesser degree on this record. It’s more about some life situations. For all of us, it’s hard when you realize, “Oh my God, I’ve gotta grow up. I’m not 18 anymore. I’ve gotta pay attention to what I do. I can’t just screw around.”

You’re the same as the person in the audience.
You have to really be humble about that stuff, because once you start thinking about who you are, that is the death of you and the death of connection and the death of all the things that are important to music. For me, it’s about connection. It’s just I happen to be onstage, and the person in the audience isn’t. Even though everybody’s lives are different, in general we’re all human beings, and we go through the same things: disappointments, the pleasures of life, life and death. That’s always been a really big part of the show to me, making sure the audience feels connected, and that carries through to the album.

Whether working with Dave Grohl or Laura Jane Grace, it’s not about just playing on the song, it’s being part of it.
With Dave, I don’t know how much he does collaborations. I got the sense that he doesn’t really do that. So I had a chance to get in the studio with him, and I had an idea and asked him if he could work on it with me. And we were in a studio, and he played the drums, I played the guitar. The song wasn’t finished, but we had a structure, so we just kind of laid it down, and then he played a bunch of other parts on it, so that’s collaboration on the highest level.

This business can have weird prejudices, and you just never know what they’re gonna be.
You think rock’n’roll, punk rock would be a freer place to live your life. That’s not always the case, but sometimes people surprise you. So I don’t really know how people are treating [Laura Jane Grace] as far as with her transition, but the bottom line is, Against Me! is a great band, and she’s a great artist, regardless of how she identifies. And that’s the thing to focus on. I could sit here and say, “Hey, I’m in a girl’s body.” But do I do girly things? Do I wear dresses and all that stuff? So I’m kind of like a boy too. Where do you really draw the line?

Too much gets in the way, and that goes for a lot of people.
I kind of compare it to driving across town. Sometimes you drive across town, and you get to where you’re going, and you weren’t even thinking about it. You weren’t paying attention to the road, you weren’t paying attention to the driving, and you got there safe, and everything was fine. And that’s the kind of head you want to be in every day, because the other head is the thinking mind, the mind that goes, “Oh my god, am I going too fast? Did I miss that turn? Am I late?” — all that other shit that goes along with thinking. So I just try and stay within a sweet spot in my mind and not overthink things and go with my gut.

It’s only weaklings that are bullies.
I think it starts with a lack of self-worth in their own person that they have to tear someone else down to feel good. We all make judgments on people, but some are much more brutal than others. It’s easy to say, “Ya know, I’m not crazy about what she’s wearing,” but you don’t have to be nasty about it, and you don’t have to be public about it. Why does it have to be a public mocking and trashing of somebody? It’s not people that are strong that are bullies. They need to do that to feel powerful. If you’re secure in yourself, and even if you’re not secure in yourself, you don’t need to bully. Man, I’d like to get some bullies in front of me.

If you’ve got something to say, and if you’ve got the forum in which to say it, then you should do it.
I live in a town that’s on the beach in New York, so I really got [affected] by Superstorm Sandy. I saw first-hand what this disaster stuff is. You see it on the news when it happened with Katrina or the tornadoes that rip through the Midwest all the time, and you go, “Wow, man, that’s terrible.” But until something like that happens to you and your neighbors, you can’t really know what it’s like. So to see that, and to see everyone lose everything and go, “Oh my god, what are we gonna do?” and they say, “Ya know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna build it back, because what else can we do?” it’s kind of a beautiful thing to see that energy turn around. It’s a matter of perseverance, which seems to be a theme in a lot of music, whether people persevere through tough things like a storm, or whether people persevere through not being taken seriously because you’re a girl playing rock’n’roll.