When you're a Jett

By Lydia Jenkin

Joan Jett tells Lydia Jenkin why the recording companies must be kicking themselves

Joan Jett. Photo / Supplied
Joan Jett. Photo / Supplied

Having made a name for herself as a feisty founding member of The Runaways at the age of 16 and with hit singles such as Cherry Bomb already under her belt, you might've thought record labels would have been keen to sign Joan Jett when she embarked on her solo career back in 1979. But no one was interested, as the now 54-year-old queen of rock 'n' roll explains, on the phone from Nevada where she's kicking off yet another tour with her long-time band, The Blackhearts.

"There were 23 rejection letters, that we still have, from all the majors, all the minors. We sent them four songs - Bad Reputation, I Love Rock 'n' Roll, Crimson and Clover, and Do You Wanna Touch Me - all of which went on to become hits, and so you've gotta say to yourself, either the record companies don't listen to what people send them or they can't hear hits or, because they knew who I was, they had predetermined they didn't want anything to do with me and so they'd write me a nice blow-off letter."

But it turned out to be a blessing in hindsight, because it forced Jett to start her own record label with producer (and now close friend) Kenny Laguna.

So now, more than 30 years later, she still owns all her hit songs and has had an amazing amount of control over her long and successful career.

"Nearly 40 years," Jett laughs, reflecting on the many decades she's spent on touring the writing. "God, when you put it like that, it's scary. But I love what I do, and if I didn't enjoy it, we wouldn't continue. I've been lucky with the success I've had, and you just kinda put your nose to the grindstone, and don't really look up."

She's set to release her 12th studio album this year, her first since 2006, having been working up songs during recent tours. They've been recording in LA and New York, and Jett is enthusiastic about the songs, some of which they'll perform at their Auckland show.

"This album probably has some of my own perspective of what I can see going on in society. There's a song called Reality Mentality, which is a little self-explanatory, with the explosion of reality TV and how real is it, and people playing up for cameras, people wanting to be a star at any cost, so it's just about taking note of that, not necessarily good or bad, just saying that's who we are. And there's one called TMI, shorthand for 'too much information', about how everybody goes online and shares everything about everyone."

There's also a more serious side to the album. Jett lost both her parents during the past two years, which triggered a couple of different songs - one called Hard To Grow Up ("about realising you have to take responsibility") and another, Fragile ("you know how we can be so strong, yet things can still be right on the point of breaking"). And there's also a more straight-up love song called Any Weather, which she wrote with Dave Grohl.

Having toured with everyone from Queen to The Who, Motorhead and the Foo Fighters, Jett's musical approach seems to have kept her audience fairly wide, but exactly why she's outlasted so many other acts is hard for her to say.

"Yeah, what is that thing that allows you to stay around? I'm not really sure. I think we don't try to do anything outside of our expertise, we're a straight-up rock 'n' roll band and that's what we do. I guess it'd be nice to think that it has to do with the songs too and that we play well. Plus I've never really stopped.

"In my whole career I've never really taken six months or a year off. When you leave it's very easy for people to forget. It's very easy for people to go 'oh, you still do this?' anyway, because I'm not really a tabloid figure. When people don't see your face out there all the time, they think you've disappeared. I have been offered a lot of those various reality TV gigs, but it just doesn't go with what I want to do - it's not a swipe at other people doing them, but whether it's dancing or judging, it's just not really my thing."

She's busy enough as it is anyway, and comes across as a woman with the energy of a 20-year-old. Apart from the constant songwriting and touring, she's been producing various acts associated with her label, and was an executive producer on 2010 film The Runaways, which chronicled the band's short career.

"That brought back a lot of great memories," she says warmly. "Despite some of the harder bits, I'm blessed to do what I do, and was lucky to get that opportunity as a teenager, so I can't complain."

Who: Joan Jett with her band, The Blackhearts
Where and when: Playing at the Logan Campbell Centre on April 9
Listen to: 2010 Greatest Hits collection

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