Over the past year or so, Joan Jett has been collecting awards and hosannas at a regular clip. She has been honored with her own day in West Hollywood, been recognized as a “Golden God” by Revolver magazine, and is about to receive the first-ever Icon Award from Alternative Press.
The Runaways founder and solo star has been the subject of, or part of, all manner of high-profile tributes – including a much-publicized turn fronting Nirvana during the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony last month.
For Jett, all the praise and plaudits sometimes leave her feeling uneasy. “It’s humbling and great and lovely, but I’m not a big chest thumper,” says Jett, who plays the Stanislaus County Fair on July 19.
If Jett is willing to trumpet anything, it’s her latest album, “Unvarnished” – her first record in seven years and first with all new material in nearly a decade. “We tend to tour our records pretty hard, and for a long time,” says Jett. “After my last one, “Sinner,” came out in 2006, we went and did the Warped Tour, did another tour with Eagles of Death Metal and probably were on the road into 2008. Then I got involved in working on the Runaways movie. So there was a lot going on.”
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Jett also took time to deal with the deaths of both her parents and with a case of what she assumed was writer’s block.
“I figured out the writer’s block. You know what the secret is? It’s work! I thought things would just flop out like they did sometimes when I was a kid. Because sometimes words and music would just fly out of you, and you forget that that’s not the norm,” says Jett. “The norm is you get an idea, you sit down, put some work in on it, and then you come back to it the next day. And keep coming back and chipping away at it. Once I remembered that, I realized I didn’t have writer’s block, I just needed to work harder at it.”
A tireless touring act, Jett began road-testing a batch of new songs in 2011. “It’s one thing for you to love a song, but you never know what it is until you get out there in front of people,” she says. “It hones the song in ways that you couldn’t really do in a rehearsal room or a studio.”
In 2012, Jett, along with her longtime producer/co-writer Kenny Laguna, began working on the 10-track “Unvarnished,” which is set firmly in the sonic tradition of past classics like “I Love Rock-n-Roll” and “Bad Reputation.”
“I’m not saying what we do is exactly the same every time, but fundamentally we’re a rock ’n’ roll band – two guitars, bass and drums,” says Jett. “Where I feel a difference on this record is in the subject matter.”
The song “Make it Back,” for instance, is about Jett’s experience with Hurricane Sandy. “I live out on the south shore of Long Island, and I really experienced that firsthand,” Jett says.
The album also features a couple of notable collaborations and co-writes with Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl (“Any Weather”) and Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace (“Soulmates to Strangers”).
“I do like writing with outside people; I think it does jump-start something different in your work,” she says. “Usually you begin with a riff or an idea, that’s really how ‘Any Weather’ started. I just played some stuff for Dave and he took it and we both jammed on it and out came the songs. With Laura Jane, that was written over email, which was interesting. We sent music and lyrics back and forth and worked on it like that.”
Though she promises there won’t be another seven-year wait for her next record, Jett isn’t planning on rushing.
“There are still things I’d like to do, but I’m just going to let it come to me,” she says. “You can always think you have plans, then things take a funny turn and you’re someplace you never expected to be. This will sound a little wacky, but I trust the universe; I always just trust the rock ’n’ roll gods to move me in the right direction.”