With Changeup (released March 25 via Blackheart Records), iconic rockers Joan Jett and the Blackhearts are breaking new ground: for the first time, they’re releasing an acoustic album. On it, they give 25 of their most beloved songs the stripped-down treatment, including hits such as “Bad Reputation,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Fake Friends,” and “Crimson and Clover.”
This was, Jett tells American Songwriter, “just something that organically happened” because of the 2018 documentary about her life, Bad Reputation. “We were doing the premieres for that, and one of the theaters wanted us to do a few songs. We couldn’t really set up electric, so we thought about trying to do acoustic tracks, and it happened to go down really well in front of people. So we knew that we could do this.”
Then, 2020 and 2021 marked the 40th anniversaries of Jett’s first two albums, Bad Reputation and I Love Rock ‘n Roll. To commemorate the occasion, Jett and her band decided to record a few of these acoustic versions to release as bonus tracks, but it soon became clear that this should become a full album release of its own: “Once we got in the studio and started recording, we just kept going because it sounded really good.”
Still, Jett admits, it took some time to adjust to this quieter sound after a lifetime of rocking out full blast. One of the biggest changes, for Jett, was “Definitely, my vocals —I had to pull back a bit. I couldn’t sing as hard as I would to some of these songs normally because it didn’t match, energetically, with the music. So I had to look for other ways to approach it, whether it was changing the melody or changing my vocal style a little bit by not singing as loudly.”
In the end, she and her band are pleased with the conversion. “We thought it didn’t diminish anything —it didn’t take away from the songs at all. In fact, I think maybe it added some nuanced things: the song can show you different parts of itself.” For example, she says, “I found that the lyrics sort of jumped out. I guess they’re a lot more audible or understandable.”
This is especially important to Jett because, she says, “I think a lot of these songs, for whatever reason, the lyrics get overlooked a lot. So I’m very proud that everyone can hear them [on these versions]and that many of them seem as relevant today as the day I wrote them.”
Jett has certainly proven that she knows how to create songs that resonate with people. In the 1970s, as a member of the group The Runaways while she was a teenager, she helped redefine what a female rock musician can do. After first striking out as a solo artist, and then forming Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, she created some of the most memorable songs of the 1980s. Since then, she’s become recognized as one of the most revered figures in popular music, as proven by her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Even so, Jett remains modest.
“I just feel like a regular person,” she says. “I feel like I’m singing about regular things that everybody goes through. That’s one of the important things, [with] playing music: the connection that you make with people. You have that moment where you meet eyes with somebody in the audience and you smile. And that eye lock and that smile, it’s the two of you forever. It’s like, ‘Yes, I see you.’ It’s really important to me.
“I think that also comes through in the lyrics, where people can picture themselves: ‘I’m that person,'” Jett continues. “Like with the song ‘Bad Reputation’ —a lot of people feel like they have been unjustly tagged with that description. I’m not talking about true bad shit where you’re beating people up or stealing or killing people. I’m talking about, ‘Girls don’t play rock and roll’ —I got a bad reputation for pushing that envelope. But it could be any number of countless things that don’t fall into what people’s preconceived notions are.”
Jett laughs when asked about how she finds creative inspiration. “It happens at the most inconvenient moments, of course —like, just getting into a really hot bath and you’re laying back and something pops in your head. Your phone’s not there, so you have to get out and you’re like, ‘It’s such a good melody, I’ll remember it.’ Do you think you do? Nope!”
Even if it doesn’t always come at the most opportune time, though, Jett says she puts significant effort into her songwriting process. “I spend a lot of time putting down a riff, a melody, a chord pattern, a title idea, a subject matter —it could be any one of those,” she says. “I have pages of notes and little ideas. Then, when I feel like something more has to be done with it or I feel like writing, I’ll search through that and see if something resonates, or I’ll lock onto a certain riff and/or melody that I want to make into something, and then look for the title or the lyrics, something that would fit it.”
She takes the same careful approach when she’s writing with her bandmates, or with producer Kenny Laguna, who’s been her songwriting partner since 1979: “We discuss what we would like to write about, or he would show me an idea, and we go from there. It’s more of a give-and-take.”
Jett notes that one especially tough aspect she’s encountered while writing within the rock genre is that “It was always a young person’s game: you wrote about partying and having sex and falling in love or out of love.” After establishing a lengthy career like she has, “What happens, what do you write about now? I mean, you can still write about those same things, but it starts to feel vapid. There’s a hell of a lot more to write about than that, but it entails work.”
A lot of that work, Jett says, involves simply being persistent: “You have to sit and write crappy lyrics that you know are ridiculous, just to get something down. Then you can go through it and start fixing them —but sometimes that part is the hardest part. Once you’ve written that first horrible draft, and now you’re fixing it, you see it start to take shape.”
The songwriting process may not always be easy, but Jett says it’s important: “I find music is healing,” she says. “I think of music as magic —and medicine.”