In 1981, Joan Jett and her band the Blackhearts released “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” a song that came to be synonymous with the rebel songstress’s name. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even her own. Legend has it that Jett saw the British group Arrows perform the song on TV two years prior. She was so inspired, she immediately proceeded to record it with Sex Pistols members Steve Jones and Paul Cook.
Her version found success that the original couldn’t touch, landing at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
Jett had struck a nerve, and for the next 32 years she made a career out of plucking it. Her new album, Unvarnished, dropped September 30th. It’s a personal effort from the icon and musically substantiates what the rocker is and has been capable of since the day her leather boots first touched the stage.
Stereotude recently chatted with Jett about her day-to-day, her new album and what lies ahead. Here’s what she had to say:
You’ve just put out your 10th album. You’ve done so many things… movies, Broadway… Do you learn something new about yourself with each project?
I hope so. I’m not sure you can always define it. … When I started the Broadway stuff I was very nervous. I was scared that I would not be able to keep up with these Broadway people. For me, it felt like a different and more intense thing, and I really felt pressure to be great.
Do you feel like you’re someone who’s always challenging herself?
I think to some degree. I don’t think I look for new avenues to go to in music. In other words, I don’t change my genres, thinking, “Let me try this style. Let me try that.” That’s just not me. I love rock and roll, obviously. And I don’t really want to change that.
Lyrically, this is definitely a very personal album. What was it like getting into that mindset when you were writing these songs?
That wasn’t really that hard. I just wanted to make sure what I was saying was clear and represented what I was feeling … I’m writing about loss. I had some loss in the last several years. I lost my parents; I lost several friends; I lost companion animals. And, you know, it’s a fairly new experience for me. I never really suffered losses early in my life and so I didn’t have to think about it. It wasn’t part of my reality. Yet it is a part of everyone’s reality at some point. So, I knew it would be a subject that, at some point, would touch people.
Speaking of loss, Hurricane Sandy played a significant role in some of the themes, especially on “Any Weather.” Were you working on it before the storm?
Actually, the song was started. We had the chorus. And then after the hurricane happened, the chorus and the subject matter, to me anyway, felt like what I was witnessing in my town, in Long Beach—really more about the spirit of the people. … Initially people were very scared and devastated … and then you saw the spirit turn from this scared sh*tless vibe to, “We know what we’re going to do. Together, we can build this back.” So that’s kind of where the song went.
Were you there when the storm hit?
I was in California and I saw the storm approaching. … I flew home to try to secure my apartment and get everything off the terrace, so things weren’t flying around. I taped up my windows. I just wanted to be here so that if windows blew in, I could get my animals out. But none of us knew—because we’ve had near misses before—how bad it was going to be. Once it started getting bad it was getting dark … the electricity went out. So, from that point on your cell phones are running down, your iPads… anything you were watching the storm with, you were screwed. … It was a really scary night. And then you wake up at six in the morning and everything was gone and wrecked. Huge sand dunes that had been there since I had moved to Long Beach 30 years ago were gone. Completely gone and in the streets. … It was just like a war zone. It was really insane.
Switching gears a little, in terms of your process, is there anything you did differently on this album?
No, not particularly. I write in several different ways. A lot of times, when music comes to me first, I have riffs and ideas for verses, and I record it all. I have a list of song titles, or things that sound like song titles to me. And then I’ll have a separate list of various started [lyric] ideas. … You just have to sit down with it everyday and go over it like homework. Some days you’ll just play the same thing over and over again and won’t get anything. And other days you’ll get an idea and something will spark and you’ll sit there for an hour writing. You can never be sure, but the process is to sit down and make sure you do it and not sit back and wait for a bolt of inspiration. For a while, it was like, “All my songs came for me at once. I don’t remember having to work this hard.” And, no. No. You had to sit down and write. I just had to sit down and write. It just didn’t feel like that when I was 18.
You recently did a reddit AMA.
Did you like that?
I did, I thought that it was fun.
Have you done one before?
No, but I don’t think this is going to be my last.
I know you’ve always been close with your fans like that. You used to call them when they wrote you letters. Do you still do that?
Well, I didn’t call them all the time. I probably called a couple people over a long span of time and that snowballs into a rumor that I call everybody. But that’s not the case. But, you know, I definitely like to be in touch with the fans because that’s who loves your music and that’s who can relate. I just think it’s important to eyeball people and get close. As close as feasibly possible.
I’m a big Against Me! fan. I know you worked with Laura Jane Grace on this album. How was that?
Awesome. We met those guys in 2006 when we did the Warped Tour, and they were one of our favorite bands on that tour. We’d watch them every night. I thought they were all great songwriters. And, you know, I thought it would be fun to write a song together. … Last year, we did a gig together and Laura was already transitioning at this time, which I was aware of. … We did a version of The Replacements’ “Androgynous.” The Blackhearts have covered it and I think Against Me! covered it, so we did it together. And that was a lot of fun.
I thought, she’s such a great songwriter, maybe she’d be interested in writing. I was already in the process of writing this album, so I threw it out there and she said she’d love to. She sent me an idea pretty quickly over the Internet and that was the beginning of “Soulmates to Strangers.”
You’ve always been very political. Are you as frustrated as the rest of us with the current government shutdown?
I don’t even know what to say about it. … It’s absurd. They’re all a bunch of five-year-olds running around there. It’s really annoying. … I don’t want to just be angry and say something stupid.
Where do you even start to fix the situation, right?
I know. And it’s not like there are teams. There’s only one thing [at stake] and that’s our country. … Sorry, but I think that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land and these guys are trying to stop it and not open the government until that’s different. There are procedures to do that, but this isn’t that.
They shouldn’t be allowed to hold the country hostage, in other words?
Absolutely not. It should be illegal. They should be breaking the law. They’re not doing their jobs. You can’t just abdicate your responsibility. These guys don’t want to grow up. They’re a bunch of babies.
Do you have a bucket list?
Hmmm. Nah. I’ve never been a list person. I can’t make lists: My favorite ten things, my worst ten things… Everything fluctuates all the time, so no. I don’t have a bucket list. I’ve done so many great things in my life. I’ve been able to travel the world and meet so many great people. I wouldn’t even know what kind of bucket list it would be… It might be a quiet bucket list and not, “I want to go jump out of a plane.” Because I’ve done that.
Speaking of quietness, do you ever just kick back, put on some sweat pants and, like, watch “Breaking Bad”?
Oh yeah, all the time. I prefer to be dressed down. I’m just a jeans and t-shirt kind of person most of the time. And, you know, a hoodie.
What do you watch?
I watch a lot of “Law and Order,” “Criminal Minds,” a lot of cop shows. But yeah, I’ve done “Breaking Bad” this year. I’ve obviously been hearing about it for years, so I’ll have to go back and watch the whole thing now.
You have a couple dates coming up, but are you over the huge, yearlong international tours?
I don’t know. More often, for us, they come in pieces. Like, we’ll go to one or two other countries, but we might not come right back and go into a tour of the States. It really just depends on how it breaks down every year. I’m not adverse to it. But I prefer not to be away for long, long periods of time.