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Tell me about writing Seventeen.
It took three months. I started it sitting at my mom's dining-room table. I had to move back in with my mom because I was so broke
How could you have been broke?
Bad business management and good spending habits. I bought all my friends guitars and I had a good time with my money. But then one day the IRS came knocking. Nobody in my family had ever had money. Everybody had been a day jobber, so it didn't occur to anyone that I might need to set aside money for taxes.
You were saying how Seventeen came to be.
I was sitting at the dining-room table reading the New York Times magazine section, and there was a story about a girl who had been a debutante and had discovered that that wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The first line was, "I learned the truth at 18." I was playing this little samba thing on the guitar, and I thought, Oh, that's a good opening line. It didn't scan, so I changed it to "17."
Was it difficult to perform such a self-revealing song?
Yes. I used to sing it with my eyes closed because I didn't want to see anybody laughing at me.
Once you did learn to manage your money, what was it like to have it pouring in?
With a hit in my business and I suppose it's true in any business you're working so hard and things are moving so fast that you don't really stop and think, Wow, look at all this money that's coming in. You think more, Wow, I can finally afford a dedicated sound person. I can finally afford a backdrop. I can finally afford to get out of the station wagon and into a van and into a bus and onto a plane. You don't really have time to enjoy it, which is a pity, because that's when you should enjoy it.
You were afraid professionally to come out as a lesbian. Has the industry changed since then?
Absolutely. I think these last 10 years have seen just a huge shift in the psyche of this country as regards gay people. I think AIDS had a lot to do with it. So many families who really believed they'd "never met one" were suddenly confronted with their sons becoming ill, and friends of sons. I think that brought a lot of it into the open. Certainly groups like ACT UP [and] Larry Kramer brought a lot of it into the open. But I think there also has just been a willingness on the parts of people like myself, people like Melissa Etheridge or Elton [John], to stand up and be counted that has hopefully lent some bravery to people who are not in [the public eye].
Do fans tell you about being gay when you talk with them?
They do. [They say], "And then I went to my mom and said, Look, this is the girl who wrote your favorite songs. So I can't be that big a freak." And that's pretty cool. That's a nice effect to have had, to create a bond through your music. The money when you're having a hit is great, but money can be taken from you. What can't be taken from you is the talent and the effect your work has.