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Q&A: Joan Jett on Writing and Thriving During Her 'Decade of Death'

Rocker's next album, 'Unvarnished,' set for October release

August 3, 2013 2:40 PM ET
Joan Jett
Joan Jett
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

August 1st on the Sunset Strip, Joan Jett returned as hero and honored guest to the birthplace of her career as a rocker. It was declared "Joan Jett Day" in the city of West Hollywood, which kicked off this weekend's annual Sunset Strip Music Festival with a raspy 90-minute set from the iconic singer-guitarist and her band, the Blackhearts.

"This whole thing is pretty overwhelming," Jett declared onstage at the House of Blues after she was handed the festival's Elmer Valentine Award, named for the cofounder of three essential nightclubs on the Strip: the Whisky, the Roxy and the Rainbow Bar and Grill. She described being drawn to the Strip by stories in Creem magazine about the glitter-rock scene at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco and hunting for rock-star autographs at the Hyatt House (a/k/a "the Riot House") hotel although she was too shy to ever ask for any of them.

100 Greatest Guitarists: Joan Jett

With the Runaways, she said, "We played the Whisky a shitload!" But after their breakup in 1979, she added, "I left with a really bad taste in my mouth. People were laughing at me, so this is very refreshing to come back."

Jett and her band ripped through a 90-minute set of hits and new songs from her first new album in nearly a decade, Unvarnished, to be released October 1st. She thanked Runaways impresario Kim Fowley and the late Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records for being the only label to take her seriously enough to sign her as a solo artist, and greeted various family members and friends in the sold-out crowd, including John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X and Alison Mosshart of the Kills.

Jett stood center-stage in a black leather jacket over a sparkly red catsuit, her guitar slung low, as recognizable a rock & roll icon as Keith Richards. She led the band through the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" and the T-Rex-inspired "You Drive Me Wild," the first song she ever wrote, eventually recorded by the Blackhearts. On "Bad Reputation," she was joined by Pat Smear, current Foo Fighter and guitarist for the Germs when Jett produced their only studio album, 1979's GI.

Among the new songs were "Soulmates to Strangers" and "Make It Back," inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, which tore through her current home in Long Beach, Long Island. For the crashing, melodic rock of 1983's "French Song," she introduced it playfully by saying, "Love between three people can be a beautiful thing – especially if one of them is me."

Backstage after her set, Jett spoke with Rolling Stone about her history on the Strip and the long journey toward making the new album.

How was the show for you tonight?
It felt really fulfilling in a lot of ways. When I left L.A., it was with a hangdog vibe. I had the impression – I don't know if it was real – of people laughing at me, saying "We told you it wouldn't work. We told you girls couldn't play rock & roll." That's how I felt. It's very humbling. It's not the sort of thing you get cocky about. People are very sincere in their praise and you can't take it lightly.

At what point in your career did you first start getting that kind of feedback?
Pretty early on – even with the Runaways in L.A. But once the band broke up, it was easy for people to say, "We told you it wouldn't work." Still, we inspired a lot of girls then – and boys, I'm sure. And it's not just about playing rock & roll. It's about doing whatever you want to do in life. You've got to fight for what you believe in. If you don't try, you'll always wonder and that's a horrible way to live.

Do you think people have an accurate view of what the Sunset Strip is all about?
It's not glamorous. That's the thing that gets misrepresented, especially with some of the talent shows and the instant stardom that people achieve. Performance-wise, you really need to be down in the trenches, you need to do the hard work, for a lot of reasons: To build yourself as a performer, to get a sense of the audience, to work hard and to wonder, "Do I really want to do this?" If you can't lump your gear and ride in a van, eating crappy food and making no money, maybe you should try something else.

It's not the instant stardom thing. I think people now get into it thinking they're going to achieve that. You need to do those club gigs, playing to 10 people. You need to build it. But people are impatient. They want it now. I understand, but if you want to grow an audience and build something long-term, you've got to go the hard way.

How are the songs you're writing now different from the early days?
It's very different. I wrote a lot about what teenagers write about: love, sex and partying and having a good time. As you grow up, things change. Like I was saying onstage, you have responsibilities and realize you've got to do stuff. I suppose you could run from that, but you've got to be there for your family and your friends.

I lost both my parents. I call this the decade of death. I lost a lot companion animals, friends, both my parents. I was very close to them. They made it possible for me to do this. They encouraged me. They got me the guitar. My father, who hated rock & roll, put up with it. He didn't come down on me to stop it. So losing my parents was big, and I think it translated to the music in songs like "Fragile," which is about life being fragile, love being fragile, how easy it is to break hearts.

"Hard to Grow Up" is about responsibility and realizing that I've got to do this. "The song "Make It Back" is about Hurricane Sandy and people's attitudes. You don't see a lot of press about it as I go around the country. It was very devastating. My town is still beat up. People were really crushed. It gave me a sense of what it's like to be in a war zone. The songs have a serious tone, but they're relatable. They're songs about stuff everybody goes through.

Was there something that inspired you to make a new album now? It's been a while since the last one.
Well, I started writing it maybe seven years ago. I convinced myself I had writer's block. It was "Reality Mentality" that was the song that took me a long time to write. I used to think that songs just came to me. They didn't – you had to sit down and work at it. Just be patient, write a couple of lines, leave it, come back to it and stuff will pop out. And all of a sudden, stuff started coming, and I realized: You don't have writer's block. Your expectations were wrong.

You have a lot of friends here tonight that show your history in this town – including Pat Smear.
Yeah. Pat I've known since we were both teenagers. I'm not surprised that he had the success that he did with the bands that he's been in, but it's amazing how we were treated when we were kids. It just shows you: People tell you "get out of here, you're nothing, you can't play, you suck." If you really believe in yourself, you cannot listen to other people. People like to tear you down. People are always going to take shots. You've just got to go for it.

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