Joan Marie Larkin got her first guitar when she 13. The Philly-born, Cali-bred musician, known as Joan Jett, was born to rock, and her first band, The Runways, continues to inspire legions of young girls to jump on stage.
Her solo career — highlighted by I Love Rock n' Roll with The Blackhearts — showed a successful woman in the music business breaking barriers while maintaining a DIY spirit.
With a forthcoming new record and August 1 recognition by the 2013 Sunset Strip Musical Festival (she's its first female honoree), Jett's still a badass.
August 1 is Joan Jett day in West Hollywood. What does all this mean to you?
I grew up on the strip, played there and for a while lived just off of it. It's definitely a big part of my life in a lot of ways. It was tough you know. It was a lot of fun but it was difficult on some levels to be taken seriously. So, to come sort of full circle, it's kind of humbling and definitely a real honor.
Starting off in a band known for being young and sexy, how did you balance those parts of yourself?
I was very aware when I was younger that people would key in on the fact that we were cute young girls. And we used that to our advantage. But it got more attention than if we had been males. I was super aware that if I started talking about other things, like my personal life or whatever, that's where it would stay. And we could never get it back to the music. So I always tried to steer it back to the music. I'm not really sure if the other girls were as hyper aware of it.
They seemed more into wearing sexy things and working that angle. You were always the dark, mysterious one in leather or jeans.
I've never really been so much a visual artist. It's more about the personal connection. That was my style. hat's how I was comfortable. I mean God, I used to turn the lights off when I started performing, I was so nervous. I never felt like an exhibitionist. It was tough for me to get out there or show skin. It wasn't my thing, but I had no problem with the other girls doing it.
The Runaways movie depicts conflict over Cherie's lingerie and Kim Fowley's sort of sexualization of the band. Was that accurate?
The “Cherry Bomb” outfit, she pretty much only put it on for the one song. She did do some photo shoots, and we were pissed off. It didn't go down exactly like in the movie though. Kim, I don't remember his involvement with the photo shoots, but it's hard for me to say what he would or wouldn't do to try to get us press. He'd do things so we would get attention.
You seem like a private person. Was that difficult, especially in terms of people's interest in your personal life and sexual preferences?
I'm not comfortable talking about everything I do. I like boundaries. It kind of extends into music. You want to talk about music, we'll talk music. You want to know about my love life, I don't discuss that. My lyrics speak for themselves.
The songs seem ambiguous in some ways. Like you're singing to both men and women.
You want to sing to everyone, so that people can find enough meaning in what you're doing so that it relates to them. I think I've got a wide audience. As far as my private life, it's not a strategy, it's just who I am. People make assumptions whether you talk or not.
Well you have played lots of gay pride events. Are you happy to see the country opening its mind about marriage equality?
I think it's great. I think it's really awesome things are changing so quickly. It's about time. If you pay taxes you should be able to participate in the American experience, with its up and downs. Not saying marriage is an up or down, but gay people have as much right to find out as straight people.
You have a lawsuit against mall retailer Hot Topic for its Blackheart clothing line. Can you comment?
[Blackheart Records co-founder, Kenny Laguna interrupts our phone conversation:]
I'll just jump in. …It's weird that a company that buys stuff from us, would start a Blackheart line. The slogan is “for girls who like to rock n roll” …C'mon.
You have Blackheart merchandise on your site. Have you thought about expanding that?
Laguna: Yes. We've been talking for a long time. Todd Oldham, the famous fashion designer [and collaborator on a photo tribute book about Jett] and Joan actually designed a bunch of amazing clothes, it's just we do so many things and so it's taken us a long time to go anywhere. We have every intention of doing that.
Tell us about your new record Joan.
It's called Unvarnished. For me, it's some of the better writing I've done in a long time. It's kind of a little bit more about life. I called this 'the decade of death' because I lost a lot of people who were close to me. That changes your perspective on things. Losing my parents was big. They were very supportive, my biggest fans. It was harder than I would have imagined. That seeped into my writing a lot, and I thought about life's fragility. There are songs about relationships, sex and our culture, and you know, the private life stuff we talked about, called “TMI” and “Reality Mentality.”
Runaways reunion with surviving members any time soon?
I don't really get why we should we do it? The downside is much bigger than the upside. It'd be fun for people to see it, but you gotta remember, we're not who were in 1976-77. It's not worth it to me. We had a great band that kicked ass for three and a half years. I'm very protective of it because it was special to me. And to come back and have the press judge us… Plus you can't gauge the dynamics of the band. I'm just not sure it'd be the reunion the fans are looking for.