Joni Mitchell on Tavis Smiley
original airdate November 9, 2007
One of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century, Joni Mitchell has made music, ranging from folk to pop-rock to jazz, for more than three decades. The Canadian-born icon has 5 Grammys and is in the Rock and Roll and Canadian Songwriters Halls of Fame. Mitchell stopped recording in '02 to focus on her painting and poetry. Realizing that she wasn't ready to retire, she's back, with "Shine" - inspired by the Iraq war. She also has a mixed-media art exhibit in New York and is working on a ballet based on her music.
Tavis: Trying to find the right word here. What a delight, what an honor, what a privilege it is to welcome Joni Mitchell to this program. The legendary singer-songwriter is responsible for some of the most enduring songs in the history of popular music. Her first collection of new material in ten years is now available through the Starbucks music label, Hear Music.
The disc is called "Shine" and includes an updated version of her classic song, "Big Yellow Taxi". She also has an art exhibit and a ballet based on her music, both of which premiered in New York back in September. So what a pleasure to welcome Joni Mitchell to the program. Joni Mitchell:
Thank you so much, Tavis. Tavis:
I'm so honored to meet you. Mitchell:
Yeah, I listen to your radio show late at night, you know, all the time, so I'm honored to be here. Tavis:
I'm sitting here and I don't want to waste good quality television time, but I want to just sit and look at you. Just stare at you. Mitchell:
(Laughter) Well, here I stand on the brink of elderliness. Tavis:
I just want to stare at you. You were supposed to be here on an earlier date and I told my producer, Chris, "If you don't get Joni Mitchell back, you're going to get fired." Just teasing, actually. I love Chris, but I was so afraid that, when your schedule changed, I was never going to get a chance to talk to you. Mitchell:
Oh, no, no. It would happen, you know. No, I looked forward to this myself. Tavis:
Ten years. Long time. Mitchell:
Yeah, it is. I had a dry spell. Tavis:
Why so long? Mitchell:
Well, a few things. Let's see. How do I do this tersely? I handed in my last record - well, I stopped writing, so I did a cover album, a travelogue, with the London Philharmonic. I did actually two albums with them, one of standards.
When I turned it in, they didn't seem to know what to do with it. It was the end of a fulfillment of a contract and the vice president said to me, "Joni, you know, we're just car salesmen now. We got cute cars and we got fast cars. This is a work of genius. We don't know what to do with it." So they dumped me (laughter).
You know, prior to that, the last twenty years of my career, I was a little outside the box and they didn't know what to do with me. But I'd always say, "Well, I'll do better. Next time I'll do better." When it comes to that, you say, "What? Now I'm too good?" So that was one of the elements.
I didn't like what had happened to the music industry. I couldn't really relate to it. It was non-melodic. You know, it had kind of lost the feminine principle and become kind of vulgarized.
I didn't know how to fit and I just didn't see myself, so I paint. I thought, "Fine. That's my first love anyway. I'll go back and I'll just quit. My contract is up." I wrote one high coup in about ten years and then one day I started playing - Tavis:
- that's a long high coup (laughter). Mitchell:
Oxymoronic, I know. Mitchell:
It's sort of lonely in the decade, you know. Anyway, one day I was sitting staring out to sea at my house in Canada and just feeling so grateful to have such a beautiful place. You know, to live like a peasant costs a lot of money. I've got a tiny stone cottage by the sea. It's kind of like a shepherd's shack. You know, I was so happy there.
I ran in and I played this piece on the piano which is the first cut on the album. I called it "Gratitude" for a long time. Then I wrote a few more melodies and there was something my grandson said, "Bad dreams are good in the great plan", which I thought was profound. So I had that one line rattling around in my head and, from those little bits, I went into the studio.
Oh, and then Valentino discovered the Kipling poem which I studied in school and I said, "You know, I'm going to set that to music." Tavis:
That's a powerful poem even today. I love that. Mitchell:
Yeah, even more so today because there's more people losing their heads all around you (laughter). Tavis:
Yeah, it's a big "If". Mitchell:
Yeah, if you can hold on and keep your grounding, you know. So I went in with five pieces, you know, one finished song and the rudiments of one and basically three melodies. I told my engineer, "Just get me a good compositional tool." So he got me a synthesizer that had good orchestral sounds and I just went in and started playing and it was so fun. Then I end up with all these tracks and the words came in the studio.
I'm not used to writing in the studio. As they came, I went, "Oh, not another one." I didn't intend to do so much social commentary, you know. That was part of my blockage. No, no, I'm not going to write love songs. No, no, I'm not going to write social commentary (laughter). So I didn't have much left. But anyway, they all eked out and so here we are. Tavis:
And here we are and I'm glad we are here. I didn't want to interrupt, but you said so much. I was about to jump in because you've given me five different directions I want to move in. Mitchell:
Oh, okay. Tavis:
I don't believe in doing interviews. I believe in conversations and I believe in following the guest. You give me a lot of places to go. I don't know where I want to start. I think what I want to start with is why you toyed around with the title "Gratitude" for that song.
I ask that after you give me the state of Joni Mitchell and her view of the world, her view of the music industry. You basically quit and then you go home and the first song you write is called "Gratitude". Gratitude about what? Mitchell:
Well, in 1970 I escaped the music business, which I've done several times, and - Tavis:
- we'll talk about that, but go ahead. Mitchell:
I rode up Highway 101 looking for a beautiful place. When I was a kid, the kids were rough. You know, I grew up in a kind of rough neighborhood. Girls were conspiratorial. The boys were okay. Actually, I played a lot with the boys. They weren't as rough as the girls (laughter).
When things got too tough, I would grab - I've smoked since I was nine - so I would grab my tobacco which was hidden under the house. I'd get on my bike and I'd ride out into the country which is only about four blocks to the outskirts in this small city. I'd look for a pretty place and I'd sit in the bushes and watch the birds fly in and out and smoke. That was the best part of my childhood and it's still a pleasure.
So this place in Canada, I sit on my little deck at this little stone cottage. At night, the Big Dipper like hangs out in front of my door. I stand on the stoop and in the cradle of the mountains is the Big Dipper and I sing "Follow the drinking gourd" and I feel like a runaway slave.
I've come up here and I've got this place and it's cozy. Sitting on the deck and staring out to sea, I've got seals on a rock and a big Blue Heron that lives in the outlet next to my house. The house is on a rock. You can't call it an island. The ocean comes around it like a millhouse. You couldn't build like that now. Tavis:
Nobody's every going to drive by and say, "I was in the neighborhood." Mitchell:
(Laughter) No, it's pretty remote. Tavis:
You got to get to it, yeah. Mitchell:
Again, you keeping giving me so much to talk about. So you've been smoking since you were nine (laughter) and I assume you've never heard that smoking can be hazardous to your health? Mitchell:
Well, for me, it's a grounding herb. I mean, some people can drink and some people can't. You know, it's been a good companion for me. You know, I've got a delicate nervous system and I'm sensitive. It's a good focusing herb for me.
I went to a Kahuna one time because, twenty years ago, I was told I had pre-cancer of the throat by a doctor, which wasn't true. He said I had five years to live, like Sammy Davis, Jr. So I went to this Kahuna that a limo driver recommended to me. She was a smoker.
As a matter of fact, when they found out she had powers, her aunt gave her a pack of Black Sobranies and said, "Look, this is the purest tobacco you can't get. Don't smoke on the street. It's unladylike. You need this because you got a fine nervous system." So she said to me, "No, the tobacco isn't bothering your throat." I won't go into it, but it's other problems.
So anyway, she said that I was channeling, whatever that means. I don't know. But I do know that, in smoking cures, they've tried to hypnotize me and I can't be hypnotized because the gap to my subconscious is wide open. I kind of trance. I go in and out at will.
She also told me that my aura sticks out further than normal. They gave me an exercise like an auric tuck so, when I enter a room, I can pull in my antenna from pulling in too much information. That makes you want to smoke (laughter). Tavis:
But it also makes you a genius, though. That antenna picks up a whole lot which is why - I've been trying to figure out why you are so bright. I get it now. Your antenna sticks up better than the rest of ours. Mitchell:
Well, apparently one in a hundred people have this kind of an aura. It's almost like autism, which is more than a hundred fifty now. So it's not that rare, but, yeah, I've had like a thief brush by me and go "Thief" as they brush by me and then Pollyanna myself out of it. So I've kind of learned, you know, that the antenna does work and to trust it more. Tavis:
Now you're really complicating this conversation. I was going to ask you even before I knew the challenge that you have with your antenna being up higher than the rest of ours, which makes sense. Mitchell:
Well, you might have one too. It's one in a hundred. Tavis:
Trust me. I don't. My antenna is way down. Mitchell:
Mingus had it, I'm sure. Tavis:
He had to. That wouldn't surprise me. Charlie Mingus had it. Mitchell:
Charlie, I'm sure, did, yeah. Tavis:
I was going to ask you and I will now how it is that you have navigated living a life where your genius expressed through your art, whether it's your painting or through your music, your genius is just - I wouldn't say you're just channeling. You're on a different wavelength.
Your gift is so profound and, when you talked about the music business and how you turned in this project and it was just so good that they didn't know what to do with it, how do you live a life where what you're hearing and what you're expressing really is beyond what some of us have the capacity even to grasp or appreciate? Mitchell:
Well, I feel like Jackie Robinson. You know what I mean? In a certain way. In retrospect, everything worked out fine, anything I might have griped about along the way and the frustrations of it, which many an artist has experienced.
You know, this is not a renaissance culture. It's a culture of specialists. It's Socratic-based. Lawyer hierarchy, you know, and specialists. Maybe because it's easy for me, taking three subjects is nothing. They do interrelate, being a poet, a painter and a musician. They do interrelate. I painted this music on. You know, I layered it on stroke by stroke.
Sometimes my music is a little too complicated for people like that, but painters have a tendency to be able to follow it. They'll be painting to it and they'll follow one of the lines one day and another one another day. They go through the layers and then they can assemble it. But for many people, it's like, "Well, there are too many notes. Take some out." (laughter). Tavis:
I'm just wondering whether or not listening to this CD means I will become a good painter. I've always wanted to do it, but I have no talent in that regard. Mitchell:
Are you sure? Tavis:
Positive. You ought to see my stuff (laughter). Maybe this will help me. When you say this is not a renaissance culture, you about backed me out of this chair because that hit me. I hear you and I feel you on that, more importantly. What's the danger in that? What's the danger of our becoming the kind of society that does not value persons who are in that renaissance tradition? Mitchell:
You know, this is a money-driven culture. You can make more money off of - you know, anything too original doesn't sell, for one thing, so you don't get the mass sales. The better you are, the smaller your audience. Not to say that there aren't good middle brow things, you know, that have a general across the board appeal.
I mean, I can appreciate things on different levels, but as an artist, you know, I want to strive for excellence, which there isn't much encouraging that in this culture. The Black culture has always done that because they come from behind - well, women have that in common too. We have to be a hundred times better to be considered half as good. At least, it used to be. Not so much now. Tavis:
How do you adjust, though? How do you navigate your own way juxtaposed against that kind of mediocrity when you know what you're bringing to the table and not being egotistical about it? Mitchell:
Well, sometimes you do get arrogant because there's no one defending you but yourself. I mean, that's where my arrogance lives in, you know, defending my work. When the record company says of "Dog Eat Dog", for instance, that album, "You didn't give us anything", to take that project and dismiss it as nothing, it had no popular appeal, but America was a land of ostriches at that time.
Rah, rah, rah, Ronny Reagan. I mean, they've canonized this guy. I'm a Reagan revenue victim, you know. He's no hero to me, you know (laughter), but he's a saint in this country and how it's just ridiculous. You'll know, they'll probably saint Bush and then we'll know how insane this country is (laughter). Tavis:
I'm so fascinated. I could do this for hours. I wish they gave me that kind of time today. How have you, again, navigated, dealt with being inside the box that so many people want to put you in, that box of being a 1960s, 1970s artist, and they kind of just want to leave you there? Mitchell:
Well, I keep fighting it. You know, I entered the scene as a folksinger because I picked up the guitar in my teens and I started singing in art school for fifteen dollars a night. That gave me money to go to movies, have a pizza and smoke and bowl. Tavis:
And bowl (laughter)? Mitchell:
Yeah, at twenty-five cents a line, you know, so that was basically it. So, yeah, as a seven year old, I wanted to compose like Rachmaninoff. I got my wrist slapped which they did anyway. That's the way they taught piano back then.
I remember her saying, "Why would you want to play by ear - whack - when you can have the Masters under your fingertips?" So the idea of a seven year old wanting to compose was not understood and was actually punished. Tavis:
I see why you started smoking at nine now. Mitchell:
So I quit playing the piano. My mother thought of me as a quitter and, when I wanted to buy a guitar in my teens, she wouldn't put up the money. So I managed to save up thirty-six bucks and bought myself a ukulele. I bought it on the day that they pulled my wisdom teeth. I went in with bloody sutures in my mouth and plunked down thirty-six dollars. That's pretty symbolic too (laughter).
So I entered into this guitar world, but I entered into it with my friends who were kind of wonderful, high-spirited, rowdy, beer-drinking Canadians to accompany bawdy drinking songs at wiener roasts which were basically beer fests (laughter). I learned a few folk songs, but I did enter the arena as a folksinger.
The moment I began to write my own music, I would say my roots began to come out which was more in classical music from what my mother had in the house, Debussy and so on. You know, I listened to a lot of Miles as a teenager because they used to pay me to do murals and they'd pay me in jazz records, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross - Tavis:
- not a bad way to be paid. Jazz records, wow. Mitchell:
Yeah. But that music was so incredible. I never thought when I was nineteen listening to Miles that I'd be playing with Wayne and Herbie. It never entered my mind. I didn't know that - I was going to art school. I was going to be a painter. So my roots really - Tavis:
- is it Herbie that just did a project of all your stuff? Mitchell:
I heard some of that. A whole record of Herbie covering Joni Mitchell. Mitchell:
That's amazing, which leads me to this. How do you process that? When you said you can't imagine you'd ever play with Herbie, here Herbie is now covering your stuff, but he's just one of so many people that have covered your stuff over the years. Mitchell:
Well, Herbie and Wayne and I are old friends. I mean, we've spent New Years. There was a restaurant or a bar called the Nucleus Nuance. Our families, we had New Years together with Herbie's sister and my parents, so we go back. There's a comfort ability there and a friendliness. Wayne, of course, I adore and he's been on every record except this one since I don't know what year, somewhere in the 1970s. Tavis:
But for everybody else, your stuff has been covered, as I said at the top of the show, so many times and that makes you feel how? Anything? Mitchell:
I do like the idea. It's been said of my music that it's too personal for other people to do. Like I read recently - oh, I know what it was. It was in a review of Herbie's album, "River", the "overexposed River". I went, "Overexposed?"
See, that's the new mentality. That used to be a standard. The more it was played, it earned its standard stripes, but now it's considered overexposed. Songs are supposed to be disposable and most of them deserve that, you know, because they're made by a committee now. Eight people stand up to take a bow. Eight people can't make a decent song. I'm sorry (laughter). Tavis:
(Laughter) You got to love Joni Mitchell. You got to love her. Golly, you're putting out too much for thirty minutes. I can't fit all this in in thirty minutes (laughter). So tell me about the new CD. I mentioned earlier that you're the second artist signed on the Hear Music label, Starbucks label. Tell me about "Shine". Mitchell:
What do you want to know about it? Tavis:
Everything. Whatever you want to tell me about it. Mitchell:
The whole album or the song in particular? Tavis:
The project, yeah. Mitchell:
You had fun doing it? Mitchell:
I had fun doing it. Dano, my engineer, and I enjoyed each other's company. Even after that long layoff, I felt like - I had this wonderful synthesizer. Most producers will tell you, don't play off one instrument. You know, mix it up. Then there's this whole hierarchy of what's the hippest new one and all that.
This had great sounds in it, so I just did it on one machine which means the vibratos match, which is a little tight. But then Duke Ellington's guys played together so long that their vibratos matched. That was my defense of making it all off one machine. Tavis:
It worked for Duke (laughter). Mitchell:
It worked for Duke. You know, I'm like, okay, my band's been together for forty years. That's why they play so tight (laughter). Tavis:
What made you go back to "Big Yellow Taxi"? Mitchell:
For the ballet? Tavis:
You know, you don't have encores in the ballet, but he said we need to do an encore, so I thought okay. The ballet was composed of my least popular material. It's a war ballet basically. I said to Jean - they had a ballet called "Dancing Joni" which was about my life and he said, "What do you think?" I said, "I think it's kind of fluffy for the times."
I was doing this art show and he saw the mockup on my pool table. I had it all laid out in miniature. He went, "Oh, we must put this in the ballet." I said, "Well, you can't put that with that ballet. It's too fluffy. I'll give you a war ballet, but I warn you that these are my least popular songs.
B, your sponsors are Texas oil men. They'll pull out and so on and so on and so on. Nobody likes these songs. I think they're my best songs I ever did, but people don't want social commentary from me for some reason. You know, they want me to suffer personally for them (laughter).
I don't know what it is, but your sponsors will probably pull out. Are you willing to take this risk?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Okay, let's do it." So they did pull out. He had to hustle to find a sponsor for the ballet and everything, but once we performed it, it was a tremendous success.
The pre-press had me like this monster, "Joni's coming to insult the business community in Calgary", which is oil men, and they had me looking like I'm on the warpath with all of these cracking oil factories behind me. It was on the business page of "McLean's" magazine. Then afterwards, the post-press was remarkable and I got letters saying, "Well, I'm a business person, but I must admit I really enjoyed your ballet." (laughter). Tavis:
That makes you a true renaissance woman when you're doing records and ballets, to say nothing of the art. Before my time runs out, this catalog. Your painting is wonderful. Mitchell:
It's ink on canvas and they're large as a door. It's kind of like "Duck Soup". You know, it's kind of like one war turns into another war, just looking at war and torture and just taking a look at it, you know, I wouldn't call it protest, although I certainly have that in me. Tavis:
You couldn't get away from the social commentary if you wanted to. It's just part of who you are. Mitchell:
So now that you're back ten years later, are you going to stick around for a while or are you going to disappear on us again? Mitchell:
Well, no. I think I'm going to keep going. I'd like to do another one. I mean, this label has been very good. I should have been on a jazz label a long time ago, I guess, because I'm a moderate seller. You know, I have a small, relatively to a pop, audience like Miles. You know, I sell well as a jazzer, but I'm the wrong generation.
You know, every generation has a larger constituency built in because there's more people and there's more players in the home and they've been programmed to stick to their demographic. That folksinger from the 1960s, they try to kill you off.
You're not supposed to be able to ride several decades, whereas actors can. It's just the way the music business is structured for money. You're supposed to die so you don't get to a second contract and they don't have to pay you a decent wage (laughter). Tavis:
The word icon is way over-used in our society. Speaking of what's wrong with our society, the word "icon" used way too easily. It just flows off our lips with ease. But Joni Mitchell is an iconic figure. I revel in your humanity. Mitchell:
Oh, thank you. Tavis:
I'm just delighted and honored that you came by to see us. The new CD from Joni Mitchell on Hear Music. Go to Starbucks and get it anywhere. Joni Mitchell, the new CD is "Shine". She's back and she promises to stick around for a while. What a delight to have you here. Mitchell:
Oh, my pleasure. Tavis:
Thank you so much. I appreciate it. I'll die and go to heaven now. Mitchell:
Tavis: That's our show for tonight.
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