The Sunday Magazine

Joan Jett avoided acoustic music her whole career — until her latest album

Joan Jett is hitting the road again the summer as part of a massive tour. But what might come as a surprise is her latest album, Changeup, which features acoustic versions of hits like Bad Reputation and Cherry Bomb.

'I never owned an acoustic guitar 'til about maybe 10 years ago,' says rocker

A woman with black hair and a black leather jacket wears sunglasses and stands in front of a photo wall.
Joan Jett has released a new album with acoustic versions of 25 hits, including Bad Reputation. She says she kept the acoustic guitar at arm's length her whole career to avoid being pigeonholed. (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Iconic rocker Joan Jett says she wasn't sure she could ever do acoustic versions of hits like Bad Reputation and Cherry Bomb, because she had been keeping "acoustic stuff at arm's length" her entire career.

"When I say I didn't have an acoustic around, I mean, I was adamant. I didn't want to see it. I didn't want to know about it. I didn't want [it in] my 100 feet of wherever I was," she told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay in May.

Instead, Jett jammed with her electric guitar, right into the rock firmament.

That "never say acoustic" approach is why her latest album, Changeup, which was released in March and features acoustic renderings of 25 hits, is such a departure. 

Jett, now 63, first achieved fame as a teen with the punk girl group The Runaways, with hits like Cherry Bomb. Soon after the band broke up in 1979, she formed Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, and went on to found her own record label, Blackheart Records.

She has eight gold and platinum records, and was inducted along with the Blackhearts into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.

A change of heart

The impetus for Changeup began when Jett and the Blackhearts ended up performing an unplugged set to promote her documentary four years ago.

They were surprised at how much they liked the sound, and decided to try an acoustic album for the fans to mark the 40th anniversary of Bad Reputation, released in 1980.

Jett said her avoidance came from being told that girls could only play that type of guitar.

"I never owned an acoustic guitar 'til about maybe 10 years ago," she said.

"I was at war, I suppose, for no reason. No reason. It's about society and what they tell you you can do and what you can't do."

A woman in a black leather jacket holds a white guitar. She stands in front of a microphone.
Jett says that she encourages people to do what they want, and not to listen to naysayers. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)

'Girls don't play rock 'n' roll'

Jett experienced the frustration of being boxed in early on in her life, after she received a Silvertone electric guitar for Christmas at the age of 13.

She recalls going to her first lesson full of excitement and telling her new guitar teacher she wanted to play rock and roll. 

Instead, "he said, 'Girls don't play rock 'n' roll.' No explanation, just, 'Girls don't play rock 'n' roll'.' And he taught me On Top of Old Smokey," she said.

"I left there and never went back, and decided to get one of those 'learn how to play by yourself' books and basically taught myself barre chords, the basic chords, and just sat with my records and tried to teach myself that way."

She kept at it. A few years later, by the time she was 16, Jett was making punk rock history with The Runaways.

"There's so many things girls are told they can't do," she said. 

"Because when I speak to women and girls all through my travels, no matter what they do as their career, it seems they all run into this same dynamic. It's not just me, and it's not just rock 'n' roll."

A legacy that includes mentoring other musicians

One of the songs on Changeup is an acoustic version of Soulmates to Strangers, co-written with Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of punk band Against Me!

"Joan's just always been a sweetheart and a real, like, friend and a real supporter and a mentor in so many ways," Grace said in August.

She's also not surprised by Jett's early rejection of acoustic music.

"I get it," Grace says. "It's really representative of the perception the acoustic guitar had at the time of, like, when Joan was first coming into … the original punk scene."

"Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols plays guitar on I Love Rock N' Roll; you know, Joan was doing it before everyone," she said. "I think at the time … acoustic guitars are more associated with hippies even, you know, and not punk."

Grace and Jett met in 2006 while they were both playing on the Warped Tour, the famous touring rock festival that crisscrossed the U.S. and Canada from 1995 to 2019.

"None of us green newbies expected her to hang out at all or give us the time of day, you know. But she hung hard and she was just real," said Grace. 

"Joan would be there riding around on her BMX in her camouflage shorts and just hanging out with everybody."

Jett's friendliness extended to inviting Grace and Against Me! guitarist James Bowman on a radio interview with her during the tour. It was the start of a productive relationship. 

In 2014, Grace presented the Icon music award to Jett at the Alternative Press Music Awards. The following year, Jett invited Grace to join her in playing with Miley Cyrus for the latter's Happy Hippie Foundation, for which Cyrus released a video series of backyard concerts to raise money for LGBTQ+ youth.

WATCH | Joan Jett, Laura Jance Grace and Miley Cyrus play Androgynous:

Grace recalled she had been a little bit "shell-shocked" while taping the video of the trio playing The Replacements song Androgynous, because she was jetlagged and nervous at the time.

"There's this moment where Joan's like, come on, and I could tell she was, like, prodding me to … pull myself together and put a little more into it," she said.

In 2012, Grace came out publicly as transgender in a profile in Rolling Stone. Jett reached out to offer Grace support, which included advice on speaking to the media, how much to reveal of oneself, and about setting priorities in her career. 

Today, Grace is seen as a pioneer and icon for trans and non-binary folk. But she has also worried about the public being tired of her story.

"I really respect the way Joan's about keeping it about the music," said Grace, pointing to Jett's song TMI, and how Jett acknowledges her own place in rock while refusing to be pigeonholed.

Selling records out of the trunk

But carving that path in the music industry wasn't easy. After the breakup of The Runaways, Jett went in search of a record deal but was rejected by 23 labels.

"They would all say things like, 'She should lose the guitar. You need a song search. There are no songs here.' Just various reasons why they didn't want to sign me," Jett told The Sunday Magazine, adding that she still has all the rejection letters.

A standing woman in black holds a guitar and looks at a man in a black suit and grey t-shirt. He is seated and also playing a guitar.
Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox perform on stage in 2018 at a benefit to support Fox's foundation, which works to find for a cure for Parkinson's disease. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Her producing partner, Kenny Laguna, came up with the idea to record, press and sell the records themselves. Jett said Laguna borrowed from the college fund he and his wife had started for their daughter to make it happen, and get the records ready to sell.

"We'd play clubs and we'd sell them out of the trunk of the car after the show," she recalled. 

That hustle lead to the eventual founding of Blackheart Records in 1980.

"I think the universe works in really strange ways. And I'm glad that it happened that way, you know, and that we had to take the route we did, because I think I learned a lot more than I would have," said Jett.

Not slowing down

Jett could rest on her laurels, but the punk rocker is still as busy as ever. 

She's on a North American tour with Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard and Poison. The tour stops in Toronto on Monday, and will play Vancouver Sept. 2 and Edmonton on Sept. 4.

"Now is not the time for me to change my modus operandi," Jett said. "I'm going to just keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully making people happy and having a good time and we'll see how far we can go."


Interview with Joan Jett produced by Pete Mitton.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea Bellemare is a reporter and producer with CBC Radio. She helped launch the new CBC Kitchener-Waterloo radio station in 2013 and worked as a producer there for half a decade, reported for CBC Montreal, produced radio documentaries for CBC Radio and covered disinformation for CBC News. She has also reported for the wire service Agence France-Presse.

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