Don’t call “Unvarnished,” Joan Jett’s first new album in seven years, a comeback: The queen of noise has been here for years. For an artist whose first band was laughed off as a novelty act and whose first solo album was rejected by a couple dozen labels, Jett has shown remarkable staying power.
With her black shag and husky snarl, the woman born 55 years ago as Joan Larkin ranks among the most iconic of rock stars. This summer, the Sunset Strip Music Festival acknowledged her legendary role in L.A. history by making the former Strip denizen its first female honoree. The city of West Hollywood declared Aug. 1 Joan Jett Day.
“It was a nice way to come back to West Hollywood and be welcomed like that, considering the way I felt when I left L.A., which was dragging my butt out of there,” Jett says. “And coming back triumphantly, on that level. Not only that, everything went well. Lot of times over the year we’ve played L.A., and there’s been weird vibes. This time everything went great.”
Jett isn’t resting on her leather laurels though. “Unvarnished” features all-new material and guests, including Foo Fighter Dave Grohl and Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace — along with her stalwart bandmates the Blackhearts.
Indeed, far from aging out, Jett has somehow become even more relevant over time. To a younger generation of sound-barrier-breakers, the famously bold but enigmatic rhythm guitarist has near-messianic status. A line of T-shirts peddled by Bust magazine and a song by the Norwegian band the Launderettes pose the ethical query, “What Would Joan Jett Do?”
“Styles change, style doesn’t,” says Shepard Fairey, the artist who recently released a limited edition print of Jett (based on a photo by Chris Stein) and contributed to the cover of “Unvarnished.” “Joan has these eyes that suggest vulnerability but everything else is grrr. It’s a very cool contrast.”
Like Iggy Pop, or Chrissie Hynde, or Motorhead’s Lemmy, Jett’s a sui generis rocker, someone so defined at an early age by their bodily immersion into the craft of performing music that their pores exude complete and utter coolness even when they’re talking about quantum physics, or twerking. Both of which topics come up in a too-quick 20-minute phone call, leaving pertinent questions like “Runaways reunion?” for another day. (Besides, she’s answered it many times before: “No.”)
Jett was born and raised on the East Coast but moved to the San Fernando Valley as a teenager. She began hanging out in the glam clubs of Hollywood and eventually met the other teenage girls of the Runaways and Kim Fowley, their maverick manager/producer.
The Runaways played and worked hard for four history-making but drama-filled years. At the end, Jett “dragged her butt” back East. It would only take a couple years for her to rebound and claim the chart-topping success that eluded the Runaways.
She made the Arrows song “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” her own and co wrote the ultimate feminist guitar-driven anthem, “Bad Reputation.” She has toured relentlessly since she was 17; catch her next summer at a state fair near you.
But it has been seven years since Jett released an album. In the interval, she executive produced “The Runaways” biopic and had a doll modeled after her. She also watched both her parents die, an experience that shapes “Unvarnished” tracks “Fragile” and “Hard to Grow Up.”
“Life is very strong, but at the same moment, you’ll be sitting there talking to someone and bang, they’re dead,” she says. “Life is strong and fragile. It’s a paradox. ... It’s both things, like quantum physics: It’s a particle and a wave at the same time. It all exists all together.”
Jett, who began writing songs when she was still a minor, feared for a while that she had writer’s block. She eventually turned outrage at contemporary media obsessions into such songs as “Reality Mentality” and “TMI.”
Playing in front of tens of thousands of fans on a 2012 tour of South America with the Foo Fighters helped bolster her confidence. She and Grohl wrote “Any Weather,” the new album’s opening track.
Jett has known Laura Jane Grace since their bands played 2006’s Warped Tour together — long before Grace began her transgender journey. The older pioneer says she is inspired by the younger artist’s courage.
“It’s very brave. It’s hard to be yourself. One of the mistakes I made was believing that the rock ‘n’ roll genre as a genre was much more free than the whole pop or R&B; scene. ... But there are bigots everywhere.”
Joan was somewhat less taken with Miley Cyrus’ infamous Video Music Awards performance. Cyrus is a fan of Jett’s; they performed together on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2010. Jett refuses to judge the erstwhile Hannah Montana but wonders what the point of the twerk-out was.
“My only thing would be is everyone’s keying in on, ‘It was raunchy, it was sexy, it was not sexy, it was not supposed to be sexy, it was supposed to be fun and silly.’ But wouldn’t you rather be talking about her music?” Jett says. “She’s just figuring out how to move forward; sometimes you lurch too far and come back to a place where you feel more comfortable.”
Having founded the Runaways when she was just 16, Jett knows what it’s like to be a young woman in the public eye. On “Fragile,” she writes about how her own early adventures — during the Runaways, her apartment across from the Whisky was party central — took her away from her parents at an early age. “I always have that guilt, whether it’s justified or not,” she says. “I left my family, and I left my brother and sister, and I went and lived my dream. I saw everybody, but is it ever enough?”
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