Joni was interviewed by Joe Smith for his book Off The Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. Transcribed from the audio tape (as is) by Pete Christensen.
Joe: Do we ever think that Joni Mitchell or something like that calls about stripping the floors or stuff like that? As much as you're around celebrity, every once in a while you realize that. You know, I met Stan Getz and I'm thinking, "My god, this man is playing such music," and so forth - and he got all concerned about what kind of bread we should have for the sandwiches he was going to make me for lunch. I went up to see him up in Northern California. He lives up there. Hearing him talk about this - or, Linda Ronstadt once had a bad lawn problem - for some reason, as much as we deal in this -
Joni: You don't think people have ordinary lives.
Joe: You do, but now I know for sure that Sinatra does not do it. He carries echelons of people to go do it. So god forbid he should ever get on a plane. As a matter of fact, his -
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joni: -- to the man and his army to.
Joe: Yeah, I guess so.
Joni: I think it has to do more with self-image than necessity. If you see yourself as a kingly type, then you need your serfs and your army and so on around you. Jackson's like that. I think Jackson Browne needs an entourage.
Joe: Jackson - yes, Jackson loves to have critical people around if the water is leaking or something like that. And I've watched it happen with Steve Ross.
Joni: But they are all sycophants eventually.
Joe: Of course. What are they going to stay for if you're not hot and you're not riding(?)? But I don't guess they think beyond that. I don't guess Jackson thinks beyond that or Sinatra thinks beyond that. It's interesting, but when you're making this phone call while at work and running around - you've got to wash your socks or something - I thought you're working as an arranger, working on a piece of music.
Joni: Well, right now, my housekeeper of 12 years is suing me. So at one time she did take care of some of these things. I'm about to become very, very self-sufficient. I'm more self-sufficient now than - I don't mind to do these things. I like to do my own grocery shopping. People do recognize me. They are kind of shocked. Some people are upset to see you doing ordinary things. Those people, if they were a celebrity, they would have an entourage. The people who are upset to see you alone, you can tell, "I know how you operate," you know. Some people like it. It makes them feel at ease. It confirms their hopes that you are in fact similar to them. Some people can't stand it.
One time I sat down - we had good tickets on the floor at some rock concert and we moved in, we got there late, and the fellow sitting next to me said, "You can't sit here." I said, "Why not? I've got tickets." I showed him my ticket stubs and he said, "But you're Joni Mitchell." I said, "So?" He said, "Well, you shouldn't be sitting there. You should be backstage or you should be up in that box." He was very annoyed that I had sat in what he considered a common place, whereas someone else would relish it. You know, I mean you can't please them.
Yeah, I like my freedom. I like to move around. I travel. I've driven across country by myself. When I felt that fame - people were nosing me out - well, I moved on. I used traveling names; wigs if necessary. I used wigs in New Orleans. I didn't think I had much of a following in the South. I thought I was anonymous down there so I kept to the South. But I found in certain pockets that I was quite recognizable and I just hit a wig store.
Joe: Did you ever fall for it? I mean, did you ever get bitten by the - when it first happens -
Joe: Yes, entourage.
Joni: Oh no no no.
Joe: Elliot never forced that on you or said you should have all these people around you?
Joni: Elliot - people were very protective of me - overly so. I mean, I was in the industry for a long time before I had any idea what drugs people were doing. I'd just say, "Gee, he's looking awful skinny, why doesn't he have an appetite?" I was very, very sheltered by Elliot and CSN and those people when I first entered into it. I was young for my age - not as naïve as they expected but, you know - I don't know why I seem to bring that out in people. Even in my early teens in my home town, I could go - I liked to dance and the best dances were in tough areas and I was always very protected - made sure I had a walk to my bus stop - people always looked out for me in that way. But I really like wandering around by myself. Especially in New York I like wandering around. And there I'm spotted but people usually holler at me from across the street and it gives me a sense of that being my neighborhood.
Joe: Do you still have the place in New York?
Joni: I'm letting it go December. My lease comes up.
Joe: We're letting ours go, too. We bought something and we're not going to last. We bought this big apartment. I thought I was going to be there five-six months a year and I find after about ten days or two weeks - as much as I've been going to it, 20 times here - I get wiped out after about ten days. I can't take it any more than that. You can't have a full-time apartment there if that's all you're going to do is go for ten days.
Joni: Yeah. Well, when I took that place I lived there for - it was a ten-year lease - and the first four years that was my major residence. And now, like I'm lucky to get there for two weeks of the year. When the rent comes up again it's going to be not just doubled; I think it's going to go up by about six -
Joe: You got a loft?
Joni: I have a really wonderful place in SoHo. But I got in before SoHo was SoHo. It was just Little Italy when I was in there. It's still off the touristy track. It's just away from the Saturday action, the crowds and everything. But it's too expensive. It's insane. You've got to be a billionaire to live on Manhattan now.
Joe: [INAUDIBLE] - Yankees still out there. Everybody works. Then I go to the singers - 72-year-old Frankie Lane - they're all working. There is a cruise ship -
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joni: -- to take on domestic duties. Are we off now? [BREAK IN TAPE] We've slid back into the '50s in almost every way. The artist is again in the screw seat, in a certain way. You know, he's a bit of a sharecropper. The gold rush is definitely over. I feel the pinch of that, I think, most acutely in - for instance, on the making of the last album. I have by contract my gate fold; even though that's ridiculous in a certain way according to my sales at this particular time in my career. As Elliot pointed out, "Joan, only Prince gets gate folds." Platinum sellers get gate folds. Well, but I have it by contract because I don't want the standard of my catalogue to drop. It's a good format. The lyrics are important. You know, they'd fall out if you print them on the jacket or the sleeve or something. So it keeps it nice and orderly and it's like Orville Redenbacher Popcorn or the old Camel package design. You don't want to lose that. But I found that, for instance, the cover of "Hejira," which was expensive to make at the time -
Joe: That was the ice skating one, wasn't it?
Joni: -- right -- because of the process. And I did a lot of it myself and didn't pay myself to keep costs down and so on. Well, in the meantime, we went to do this "Dog Eat Dog" cover and we could hardly afford on our budget to buy the film for the shoot. We had to rent wolves; we had to buy the film; Norman Seeff's fee has of course risen; Glen Christensen, who I started out with in-house at your company, in the meantime is not with Geffen so he's an independent and his fee has risen in accordance with the times. By the time I had Norman's fee and Glen's fee, I was over budget. We hadn't even bought film. We hadn't even paid for the wolves. So it was just a mess. So what does an artist say? Well, in my case, I say, "Look, I'll pay for it."
Now, we paid for our videos; we paid for the luxury of working with a team that - this is my band, Norman Seeff and Glen Christensen. This is my art band, in a certain way. I'm used to working with them. We work well. And it's just a shock to find out that I have to now disassemble all of that because I don't sell enough records. Because, digitally speaking; corporately digitally speaking; numerically speaking; I can't work with this - well, this is the loss of a great - this isn't even a luxury to me. This is like terrible news to me.
Now what am I going to do? So they say, "OK, Joan, well you can write one hit." I said, "Look, I think I had four hits on the last album." You know, but my idea of what a hit is: you can dance to it, it makes you feel a certain way - I don't know what a hit is. I mean, who does? You can go to panels and test cases. Nobody really knows. I mean, in other words, I don't know how to sell out. If I tried to sell out I don't think I could. By that I mean, to make an attempt to make a commercial record. I just make them and I think, "If I was a kid I would like this song"; "This one is definitely a little artistic."
But even with new bands - I see new bands coming along, like this Boom Town. That's a big hit, isn't it? Well, that's like my idea of a hit. It's the only thing that really kind of interests me that is commercially successful at this time. And I think that, in that kind of a context, or a Peter Gabriel kind of a context, or - that I am a hit maker. However, I have lost my credibility as a hit maker because of these side excursions into other branches of music; by not being consistent. Consistency seems to be all-important.
Joe: Do you regret that?
Joni: Oh, I would do the same thing in a minute. I have no regrets. But how, then, do I regain credibility as a radio artist? I don't know how that happens. I don't know how the structure works. You would know that better than I do.
Joe: How hard is it to - have you accepted the fact that you don't sell more? I mean, does it make you angry or -
Joni: What I'm telling you is - no, it doesn't make me angry. It makes me curious. Why - for instance, the last record all over town - records that are coming out now that are commercially successful - Ric Ocasek's "'Til Tuesday" - people have been using that record in the studio as an instrument of standard. Do you know what I mean? Now, why is a record like that, that the industry - that the producers, that the artists who are successful recognize as a successful album - why can't the industry promote it? Why is it - why? I mean, why am I being forced into a dinosaur situation before -
Joe: Well, you know, it's -
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joni: Sting is not a Joni Mitchell type but he's going over my territory. In other words, when Sting's album came out, I thought, "Fantastic, now he's opened a niche," because he had the power to make that move and also because I and others like me - you know, we had broken the ice. But why, now that that door is open, is there -
Joe: You know what? You take your best shot. You do what you do best.
Joni: I'm not talking about changing my end. I'm talking about -
Joe: What happens on the outside?
Joe: There'll be something that'll come along. There'll be something that will spark something. There'll be some promotion man that will believe in one of those cuts. Something will flag something. And if it doesn't happen on this record, it'll happen on the next record. That's the way it'll happen. That's what it takes, you know? And that's the only way it can happen. You can't go sit and write a song by the Ric Ocasek standards or somebody else's standards. You've got to take your best shot. You're listening to the radio and you hear things - OK; things have influenced you for years, whether it's jazz music or whatever it was - Bob Dylan - whoever influenced. And you go - whatever you do to it when it synthesizes through your head and comes down on paper and then you put it on the tape. You've got to take your best shot, doing what you know to do, and something - if it's not going to come then it's not going to come. Maybe you ran dry. Maybe there are no more great songs. Who knows?
Joni: Oh no no no no. This will never happen.
Joe: I can't believe that.
Joe: But I can't believe -
Joni: See, our timing, like on the last record we were nine months premature. All of the topics on that record, first of all, they were a prophecy of what we're in now in the concrete. All the evangelical material on there was looked upon as alarmist and everything and then suddenly, ten months later, it is now common sense because it's been all over Time Magazine, it's been all over Newsweek. So all of this writing was premature journalism.
Joe: Make a record and hold it for a year.
Joni: Maybe. You know, the same thing happened with "Hissing." "Hissing" was more than -
Joe: That was the first departure, wasn't it?
Joni: It wasn't that radical a departure from "Court and Spark" but it - you know. Anyways, I don't know what - what did you want to talk to me about today? Probably not this.
Joe: Well, no, I wonder about some of these things. I didn't understand how you, this white girl in Western Canada, got so influenced by people like Miles Davis and jazz. Where did you -
Joni: OK, when I was in high school, I was kind of the school artist. I did back drops for school plays; I was always involved in illustrating the yearbooks and so on. And I designed a UNICEF Christmas card for the guy who was like our school leader, the senior watch, and he reimbursed me with a Miles Davis album. I had friends who were in college while I was in high school and I heard Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, "The Hottest New Sound in Jazz," [sic] and that record flipped me out. It was out of print at that time and I finally bought it off of somebody and I had to pay a lot of money for it. I think I paid $15 or something, which was unheard of at that time, to buy their copy because you couldn't get it anywhere. That was my Beatles in high school. That record was the one I wore thin - that I wore out, that I knew every one of the words to. At that time, if you recall, pop music had gotten very diluted.
Joe: Between Presley and the British.
Joni: Right, it was just prior to the Beatles breaking. Music was like it is now. This period of music right now reminds me of it. It was dance-oriented but white pop sort of slick boring -
Joni: Very vanilla. Like the Top 20 now is very unexciting. And you almost see the same tendency now: like there's a lot of, in England especially, kind of folk bands and ethnic bands coming in. The honesty of that music is appealing. That's what happened when the folk boom came across into the pop charts. The music had gotten so slick and so sterile at that time, so I was listening to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Miles - and dancing, still, to this insipid music. I hadn't begun to make my own music yet. And I liked to dance. So when you dance to it you can escape the fact that it isn't particularly creative because you're not passive, you're active. So your activity is your enjoyment.
Joe: But the first music that you started playing when you had gone to New York - after Detroit when you'd gone to New York - was really not that much kind of music. Wasn't it more confessional and more in the groove of what was happening with the singer-songwriters then?
Joni: Well, the finality was like this. When I was 19 I went to art school. I had six months of teaching myself to play baritone ukulele under my belt so I was sort of a novice folkie. When I got there, there was a folk club and some of the people from the art school frequented it. I got a weekend job working there and sometimes traveling up to Edmonton. I could pick up some pin money. It was just a hobby. You know, the art was the serious direction. And I was singing folk songs at that time. At that time I was a folk singer. We got them all out of "Crawdaddy!" and "Let's Sing Out."
Local people had certain repertoires and they were very territorial about that. I would sing "Crow on the Cradle," which was a beautiful song, when Peter Elbling was out of town; and he'd come back and give me a hard time because that was part of his repertoire. I'd say, "Well god, you know, everything is a part of your repertoire." This guy needs 200 songs and I was trying to build one. So it was during that time that I wrote my first song. Nobody thought much of it and I just discarded it. I didn't think anything of it, either. I couldn't get any positive feedback.
Then I went to Toronto to see the Mariposa Folk Festival - actually, to see Buffy Sainte-Marie. I still didn't have an image of myself as a musician. But I found I couldn't work and I didn't have enough money to get in the union: $160. I didn't have it. I worked in women's wear - I worked in a department store - and I could barely make ends meet. And I finally found a scab club in Toronto that allowed me to play. I played there for a couple of months. Then I married Chuck Mitchell and moved across the border and we still were scrambling to work. As a couple we were making $15 a night. And there were clubs that were very cliquish that we couldn't get into.
Well, in Detroit we had a fifth-floor-walkup apartment and it had some extra rooms. So when Eric Andersen and David Blue and Tom Rush and people passed through Detroit, we billeted them there - Bruce Langhorne - they used to stay with us. And Eric taught me a couple of open tunings. He taught me Open G and a Drop D modal tuning. Once I got the open tunings, for some reason I began to get the harmonic sophistication that I heard, that my musical fountain inside was excited by. Once I got some interesting chords to play with, my writing began to come. But at that time I was pretty much a good-time Charlie: I was a bad student in the school system; I failed the 12th grade; I had done my book reports from "Classic Comics." I was anti-intellectual to the nth. Basically, I liked to dance and paint and that was about it. As far as serious discussions went, at that time most of them were overtly pseudo-intellectual and boring. Like, to see teenagers sitting around solving the problems of the world, I thought, "All things considered, I'd rather be dancing."
So it was Leonard Cohen that I finally - first of all, my husband had a degree in literature and I married into a camp of literary types. And they - not "they" so much, but Chuck in particular - really didn't believe that you could write unless you've read a lot. Considering me an illiterate, he didn't give me a great deal of encouragement regarding my writing, but Tom Rush did. And Tom would come through and say, "Do you have any new songs?" I'd play him a batch of them and he'd say, "Any more?" and I'd say, "Well, there's one more." I always would hold one out for some reason, thinking it was too sensitive, too feminine for him and that would always be the one he'd choose. So he chose "Urge for Going." He chose "Circle Game." And where he traveled and played those songs, clubs opened up to me because the song was my introduction to that club work.
So then I began to expand. I was playing as far south as Florida. I played in Fort Bragg, which was interesting - to gung-ho soldiers, while everybody I knew was burning their draft cards and claiming homosexuality and anything they could to get out of the draft. I played in Charleston, which was to the navy; and to these women from Savannah, who were the worst audience in the world - they talked all the way through your set because if the boyfriend gave you a moment of attention they couldn't stand it, you know. So there was always the buzz of women in Charleston.
Joe: Did you book it yourself?
Joni: I booked myself.
Joe: You did all this, all by your own?
Joni: Yeah, I was my own -
Joe: No band, no nothing?
Joni: Nope. I booked myself. And at that time I met Elliot Roberts, who came in - I had a hard time working in New York. I used to beg these clubs to work me in, even as an opening act to an opening act to a headliner. And finally in that capacity, one night Elliot came in to hear the comic. He was second on the bill and I was third. Of course the crowd was talking over me because opening act is always assumed to be inferior. I had all the material I had for my first two records and Elliot thought it was good. Buffy Sainte-Marie had touted me to him, also. She was in the stable that he was associated with. So immediately after that we came to California. As soon as I signed with Elliot we moved west.
Joe: We thought you emerged full-blown. You were the princess right from the start. It was hard for us to even think of you playing Fort Bragg or Charleston. It was either good selling from Elliot and later David as well; or just listening to the first album, which was rather an amazing record. And we were a singer-songwriter kind of record company at the time so we had some pretty good mentions. These were all some pretty personal songs, too, weren't they?
Joni: Not initially, no.
Joe: Later on.
Joni: By the fourth album. The first album -
Joni: "Song to a Seagull" was the first one. "Clouds" was the second. Let's see: "Ladies of the Canyon" was the third and "Blue" was when it became confessional.
Joe: What happened at a -
Joni: Well, I liked playing in small clubs. I really liked holding the attention of 30 or 40 people. I never liked the roar of the big crowd. I was very maladjusted to it. I didn't like the sound of people gasping at the mere mention of my name. It horrified me for a lot of reasons - because I knew people were fickle; I knew that they were buying an illusion. And I thought, "Well, maybe they should know who I am" - you know - a little more. I wanted to believe that the attention that I was getting was for my - I didn't want there to be such a gulf between who I presented and who I was. I couldn't live that lie, somehow or other. It affects everybody differently but first of all, as Geffen pointed out, he said, "You're the only star I ever met that wanted to be ordinary."
You know, I never really wanted to be a star. Exercising my talent as it developed - I didn't even know I had that talent, but as it developed, the exercising of it became important. Even you can't just turn your back on a talent. But along with it came some things that I couldn't handle emotionally. I didn't like entering the room with all eyes on me. I still don't really like the attention of a birthday party. I prefer Christmas, which is everybody's holiday. It's just my nature. I don't like being that zeroed-in on, like en masse. Over the years I've adjusted to it, in the last few tours. Now I'm the other way around: you can give me 400,000 hostile people and I won't even break sweat, but if you give me 200 adoring people my mouth will dry up. Because I have no experience like at that end anymore - but, coming into it, it was the other way around. I was intimidated by the large roar.
Joe: The large roar really came loose with "Court and Spark," with a couple of Top 30 singles, Grammy nominations. Were you able to deal with that or was that just in stride?
Joni: No, to me, the large roar was - this was even before I started recording. I went to the Newport Folk Festival. Judy Collins called me up. She was supposed to take me. Al Kooper had put us in touch as we were supposed to meet and go to the Newport festival. Well, Judy stood me up. And Judy was my hero, so it was kind of heart-breaking. I waited and I waited and waited and she never came to pick me up to take me to this thing. So a day went by and I got a phone call from her. She sounded kind of sheepish and she said somebody had sung one of my songs in a workshop. It was a terrible rendition but people went crazy, so she really felt that I should be there. She gave me instructions how to come and how to get there and they billeted me when I got there. Well, anyway, when I played I got the large roar and it made me incredibly nervous.
That night, my girlfriend Jane Lurie and I (she was road managing for me), we went to a party in one of those old mansions. Standing at the gate - it was like Studio 54 - standing at the gate were some people who couldn't get in and a guard. He asked us for some kind of credentials and I kind of waxed passive and backed down. Jane, who was always trying to get me to use my existential edge, said, "Do you know who she is?" I was an unknown, really, except for this performance. And he said, "No, I don't know who she is." She said my name and these kids standing at the gate went [gasp] and sucked their breath in like that - and my heart started to beat like crazy and I ran in the other direction. And I ran and I ran and I ran. I must have run about five blocks because it pumped me so full of adrenaline. I slowed down and I thought, "Oh god, what a strange reaction." So I came back to Jane, I said, "That's a really crazy reaction." But she said, "I think it's a healthy thing to do." In fact it really was, because you burn off all of that adrenaline. I mean, adrenaline is given to you to stand your ground or to flee, right? So I just took off like a crazed animal.
Joe: You didn't love it at all, or was it just curious, this reaction? Had to be some satisfaction, knowing you were recognized like that.
Joni: No, it wasn't like that. It has to do - how do you like it if - supposing some girl has a horrendous crush on you and you don't really know her and you can't reciprocate: how do you feel? It's awkward, isn't it?
Joni: Well, to me, that's what it was, only on a larger scale. Suddenly - you know, I was used to singing my heart out and receiving, except in a few venues where they were small and we all kind of knew each other and it was kind of fun, I was always up against it. And suddenly to receive this mass adoration, something about it struck me as unreal. It happened so large and so close to fighting an audience for their attention.
Joe: Later on, when you had this run of very successful records, how much were you aware of how much you were being imitated and how people were talking about "he sounds like" or "she writes like"? Were you aware of that at all?
Joni: Well, I did read my press and for the most part I found that they initially always lumped me in with the women, whereas in fact what I was doing was not what most of the women were doing. My peer group was really Phil Ochs and Dylan and Eric and David Blue. Basically that was my peer group. But they had me lumped in with Judy Collins, who didn't really write at that time; and Baez, mainly that I was a woman with an acoustic guitar. Then later on there came some women who were somewhat writers, I would call them, but not really - they could kind of write, like -
Joe: Not very many.
Joni: Well, there was Janis Ian and they lumped me in with Janis and Carly.
Joe: Laura Nyro.
Joni: Well, Laura is an exception. Now Laura, I would say, you could lump us together and that would be fine because we were odd ducks; we were doing something that no one was doing at that time. For a while they did lump us together and I'd say, "That's fine, I admit I belong to this group but I do not belong to the Janis Ian -
Joe: Carly Simon.
Joni: -- Carly Simon school." No, not at all.
Joe: You also got lumped with Laurel Canyon. Maybe it was because of label identification, but all of a sudden you were with the Eagles and Jackson - when they talked about California Rock, you became a part of that. Was that valid at all?
Joni: Yes and no. I didn't really have that sound, that predilection to sound which was a little white rhythm and blues or coming out of Buddy Holly tributaries. See, at the time that I went to put a band together, I tried to use the section and the bands that were being used as the folk singers went folk-rock and that idiom developed. I tried to use the same players, which would have probably - if it had been possible, there might have been more commercial success at that time period. But it was heart-breaking. They didn't understand the voicings of my music. Where the voicing had maybe seven colors in it, they would play a three- or a four-color chord against it. Or, where, the polyrhythmic aspect of my work: they'd just play two and four all the way through it and the subtle time changes and things would get lost. I was unable to articulate to them what to do but what they were doing instinctively was breaking my heart. And finally it was Russ Kunkel that turned to me. And I had just fallen - I wouldn't be able to explain it so I'd just kind of get depressed. You know, I wouldn't be able to guide them. Russ said to me, "Look, Joni, I think you're going to have to play with jazz musicians." So I went down to the Baked Potato one night to hear a band play, which was the L.A. Express, and they were really exciting. The L.A. Express at that time was Larry Carlton on guitar and Tom Scott and John Guerin and Max Bennett. I was very impressed with that band. It sounded good to me.
Joe: It had to be hard to get them to play with you, too, huh?
Joni: Well, at first they thought it was kind of folkie and they were bigoted. See, the camps were really divided then. They're not now. There's been a lot of cross-pollinations since that time. But, then, if you were folk you were folk and you were jazz you were jazz and you were rock and you were rock. Folk-rock was the first kind of hybrid-y thing. But otherwise, never the twain shall meet. So, yeah, there was a bit of prejudice. But once they tried to make their lead sheets, once they started writing out the chords that we're playing, they'd go, "Gee, do you realize what she's playing here? - da-da-da-da-da-da." So then they'd get intrigued because of the drones and because of the open voicing you were entering into; the kind of harmony that was not jazz - it didn't have traditional jazz movement or structure - but it was more sophisticated than pop music was at that time. Not at this time. There's a lot of more complex chords in this new wave of rock and roll that's come along. But in the California grouping and the CSN and all of that, the harmonies were pretty simple. I mean, you can see it. Like if you look at jazz, like you've got, um, "Pork Pie Hat" -
Joe: You mean Lester Young.
Joni: Lester Young. So Lester Young was playing - what - 7th? He had brought some distinctive change to the harmony of jazz. And then Charlie Parker comes along and he starts playing 9th and 13th and some stuff and the harmony changes again. And then after that it just went avant-garde and it just went all over the place, right? So that legwork, musically, that adventure had already occurred in another field but it hadn't occurred in pop. And yet I was doing it because I had assimilated a certain amount of this harmony and had incorporated it into folk music. By the tunings, see, I could set up chords that had this modern sound to me that I had assimilated from jazz, but I still looked like a folk singer.
Joe: What record was that, that you brought in Tom Scott and Larry and those people?
Joni: "Court and Spark." That was the sixth record.
Joe: And then with "The Hissing," with this slight change - it wasn't a major change, but then you indulged all these old loves of jazz and music and you really started to make some very jazz-flavored records.
Joni: Well, what I think happened between "Court and Spark" and "Hissing," it wasn't that radical a change. The standard of the writing was just as high. It was no deeper. For some reason - I've seen it happen since then. It was a mystery to me how "Court and Spark" could be so loved and "Hissing" could be so hated and the change could be perceived as so radical.
For one thing, I introduced ethnic drums. I'd always loved that Burundi piece of music and what I played against that was very eccentric. The bass part on it didn't play the root of the chord. Max Bennett kept saying, "No, no, that's wrong," like, "you're not playing the root of the chord." So I had done something eccentric to it on two levels: one, I was playing counter-melody on the bottom instead of rooting it and I was using this wild, pre-Bo Diddley liquid I had lifted out. Well, in the New Wave that sound has really been - what's his name, Adam Ant? - using African music - it's only now that that's becoming in vogue. Well, they hated that. That was one thing that I got like strung out for. They really crucified me for that - especially Rolling Stone: it was almost slanderous in its description of that experiment. Nobody noticed the caliber of the writing.
"Aja" and "Gaucho" came along later; two classy projects - hard to get two records back to back with that much musicianship and that quality of lyricism. "Aja" was loved and "Gaucho" was slandered. You know, it did all right but it got dumped on. And it's my theory that if - they're both of the same period as are "Court and Spark" - which is also very experimental. ("Down to You" was one of the longest pop songs you ever heard.) And if they'd been released in reverse order, I think "Hissing" would have been loved and "Court and Spark" would have been hated. I can't -
Joni: Well, I know - "Gaucho" and "Aja," I betcha. It's almost like human nature. If something is really loved - look at what's happening to Tina this time. They're trying to tear Tina down, right? - because she was successful with her last project. Because they loved it so much, they're coming back looking to love this next one that much. It happened with the Beatles.
Joe: If you do the same thing, you're put down for doing chapter two -
Joe: -- and if you change: "how could you change?" I used to debate Bob Hill about it.
Joni: And even if it's the same period. Even if it was like a painter's same period - interchangeable, the two collections, right? - and they loved one; they're going to hate the next one, generally, because they think you're going to get too puffed up. You've had enough positive attention. Editorial policy, send in the cartoonists.
Joe: What's your guess on what'll happen to Bruce Springsteen?
Joni: When he releases the next record?
Joe: This is two records down the line or something. You think they'll turn on him?
Joni: I don't know.
Joe: Hard to tell. He may be above it at this moment but you can't bet it would last. They did it to Elton. They did it to the Beatles. How much does that bother you?
Joe: The critical reviews.
Joni: Well, I think it's unfortunate. It bothers me on this level because it's a chain reaction - that a certain amount of the populace are sheep and if a critic lambastes you, unfortunately (even though he's a shoddy little writer to begin with, underpaid, jealous to boot, has an axe to grind) that his word can influence a certain amount of people who can't think for themselves. Plus, these reviews do tend to get accumulative. They tend to get regurgitated. Lazy reviewers look up other people's reviews and they write the same thing, so you get people writing crap based on crap, right? It does have the power to influence and the power to influence is costing those extra records, which means that I have to haggle over paying Glen Christensen and Norman Seeff. Norman threw in the price of his film on the making of this last. He didn't charge me for the film. It's when the budget gets so tight - and I know that you could pick up more sales if this guy hadn't said -
OK, for instance, this is how it works. I was very cooperative; I was more cooperative than I have ever been in my entire career regarding this last album. "You want me to do some press?" I said. "I'll do some press." I did almost everything that was offered to me. I was in Peter's office all day. I was doing 12, 14, 16 interviews. You know, long days - constantly, "OK, send in another one, here's a phoner, OK," running off at the mouth all day long. Hustling, right? So after about a week of this I get, "Toronto wants to interview you." So they give me like about eight projects in Toronto. I said, "Aw," (now I'm starting to wear down) "I'll take this one, this one, this one and this one." The two that I omitted, the two newspapers that I omitted doing interviews with, gave me the worst reviews worldwide. Now there's got to be some correlation. They got slighted, right?
And the things they wrote were really stupid. I wanted to call the guy up. Like he said to me - first of all, in this era - as you know - with records coming out, lyrics are not important. In the context of records that are being released now, my writing is really good. I don't even have the running mates that I had a decade ago, generally speaking. So this guy writes that he's never read such sophomoric lyrics. I wanted to call him up and say to him, "Please turn me on to these excellent lyrics against which you are measuring me. If these are sophomoric lyrics, I would really like you to turn me on to the records that you like, where the lyrics are not sophomoric." You know? Things like that, they're irritating because somebody who doesn't know what they're talking about has the power, based on some little vendetta like that, to influence.
Joe: Don't you think you would still have a good deal of residual good will in the music world and the press and the radio?
Joni: Scattered. Rolling Stone hates me. They must have an editorial policy to do me in.
Joe: And we tried to patch it up. You wanted to have an enthusiastic -
Joni: What happened? I don't remember this.
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joni: He is an asshole, you know.
Joe: Of course he is. Elliot calls me, he says, "Joan wants to meet the press and make amends for things that have happened and make peace. She's going to be playing in Nassau. I said at 9:30 the next morning I'm the keynote speaker at the R&R convention in Atlanta. He says, "You've got to do it even if you have to charter a plane." I said, "Oh god," so I came to New York and I remember, I came from Atlanta - I got to Atlanta the day before and then I flew up. And when he comes down I do a little number on him and I set it up and you come over and the next day I hear, "She called you an a--" [BREAK IN TAPE] Rolling Stone has been on your case on the other hand.
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joni: --"That one wasn't too successful. Then she did this and that wasn't too successful. And then she married her bass player." I mean, that's how I go down in history. It's like, "Well that one was a dog, and that one was a dog."
Joe: Well, it says here, "Joni Mitchell might be regretfully inconsistent of late. But, although she may be, the spirit of romance and artistic wanderlust that percolates through her work makes her an important standard-bearer in the confessional singer-songwriter genre." I think that's kind back-handed.
Joni: Really. God. "Also ran."
Joe: "Also ran." What has happened to all the rest of your compatriots in the singer-songwriter world there?
Joni: Like who?
Joe: James ... uh ...
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joni: I remember once when I was making "Court and Spark," which was my most successful project, David was trying to sign Dylan for the "Planet Waves" project. David and I were sharing a house, so I'd been working all this under his nose and maybe he'd heard it through too many stages. But I knew I was making something - I was excited about it. You can tell when you're making something fresh. Being a freshness freak, you're looking for it. Even the "Mingus" project, I was searching. I tried a lot of different bands. A lot of them were great players who at that particular time I felt were kind of stagnant - or that particular evening. They weren't surpassing themselves. You're waiting for something new to happen all the time.
So with "Court and Spark" I felt really that this was something new. It wasn't folk-rock, it wasn't - it was a new idiom that was being birthed here and it was very musical. I was excited. So came the night to play it back. It was Louie Kemp and Bobby and Louie Kemp's girlfriend, I forget her name. And, played "Court and Spark" and Bobby fell asleep and snored all the way through it. When the record came to an end they went, "uh-huh, uh-huh," and they put on "Planet Waves" and everybody jumped up and down, there was so much enthusiasm. "Planet Waves" wasn't one of Bobby's best projects. It wasn't as if you were A-B-ing - I hadn't expected it to be a competitive situation. But suddenly, for the first time in my career, I felt like sibling rivalry here. Because I know this is an ordinary record for Bobby. This is a transitional piece. It's not that - everybody was cheering, jumping up and down and this girlfriend of Louie's took me aside and she said, "Oh god," she said, "Those boys. I don't think they have any ears." So she kind of gave me some comfort on that. But I couldn't get any reaction. The only thing that David said about that album was that he wanted the portrait of him taken off. He didn't rest easy with that. You know, the one song. And I said to him, "Well look, it's only things that you've been saying. All I've done is quoted you." - "I was a free man in Paris," right? He hated that portrait. It took him about three years to like it and then I noticed he was bright. "That's about me," I'd hear him say. So he got used to it.
Joe: As you look back on the making of that album, was there anything special happening that made it so fresh and new? Was it just the quality of songs, or - because that's a classic. Of the albums that you take away with you, that's one of the great albums that people want to always list. Did anything special happen during the making of the record, instrumentally, musically?
Joni: Well, I'll tell you what I remember. The bottom end of music was changing. At that time in music - there are fads that occur sound-wise in various sectors of the instruments and, generally speaking, you can't them to - that's what's hip and that's it - and if you try and get somebody to step outside that, it's like pulling teeth. Well, it was hip at that time to have dead strings on your bass and have your kick drum all stuffed full of pillow. So the bottom end would telescope back into the track and it was kind of dead. It didn't have any round fullness to it. It didn't have enough trash to it. Since this was the first time I was working with a band, in the back of my mind was the bottom end of the music in the late '50s, which was another sound altogether. The bass was very boomy and you could hear it like blocks away if it was playing on a jukebox someplace.
And I also was trying a new mix level to get it to come up forward, which didn't happen for a few years later. And I met with resistance from just about everybody - the players - and from Henry. Like on "Down to You," there's a place in the music where it goes - it's in the instrumental section where it goes, "doon, doon, a-doon, a-doon," and then it releases. But there's about four or five pushes. And I was on the fader, pushing. This was my first year on the fader. There was nothing to mix like for the first four records, right? So I'm saying each one of these has got to be louder than the next and the last one's got to make the needle go berserk. Well, you didn't do that, so Henry kept pulling my hand down on the fader. At that time, Stevie Wonder was working with moog bottom and the bottom was changed. So finally I took Henry over and took our tapes over to Cecil & Margouleff's session and Stevie was there. I put it on the turntable - because they had their bass focus just right, like right over the mixing and everything, and I thought, "Play it here. We'll be hearing how they're working with the bottom end first and we'll play it here. Maybe you'll get the picture. There's a lot of room to bring it forward."
So that helped. That helped. And we came back and pulled it a little bit forward but I'd still like to remix it to this day. It would have held up - it's classic, but it would have had more classicism if it wasn't for this imposition of style. For instance, I'll tell you what the imposition of style I was fighting on the last record was. It was in the treble end, not in the bottom. The bottom now, as we know, is up front - or to an irritating degree. Sometimes it's too far up front in the mixes: a big snare drum right in your face, right? And you'll have a guitar player screaming. Now he's telescoped back in. Well, it was the other way round in the '60s. So the thing was, the high-end sounds - the synthesizer frequencies in the high-end department, hi-fi or lo-fi - all the sounds that I kept picking, that I wanted to use, were round and warm and almost '40s-ish - the horn sounds that I was selecting to use on this piece of music. Whereas, generally speaking, what seems to be exciting and "with it," they go hand in hand. I'm not so interested in what is "with it," but what is fresh, right? I'm already sick of what is "with it." But what is "with it" is a lot of high-end buzz. If you get a radio station, for instance, that plays oldies - plays '60s, '70s,'50s and back - you'll find that, as soon as the '80s music comes back on, it's extremely irritating overall. It's designed to - it's an exciter but it's also a stressor. It's got all this high-end, fingernails-on-the-blackboard, screechy stuff on it which I don't really care for. I still use it; you can use it a little bit, but I like to do a back wash of rounder sounds.
Joe: Soft and mellow maybe.
Joni: Well, if you do too much of that, people say it has no energy or it's too mellow and you'll get stuck over on MOR, right? It's not that you want MOR but you don't - this other thing, it'll break one of these days. You'll see it and it's going to sound like a wah-wah pedal. So in order to give your music continuity and classicism and lasting quality, you want to sidestep some of these things. And it's hard. It's like pulling teeth because everybody's kind of trendy on their axe.
Joe: None of these were real considerations during the making of the "Mingus" album, were they?
Joe: They were?
Joni: On the "Mingus" album I had a different set of problems. First of all, Charlie was prejudiced against electric music to begin with. So to please him, which I wanted to do more than anything (I'm writing a man's epitaph), I had to use musicians that he suggested and they were all acoustic. Well, the band that I really wanted to use was an electric band. It was - well, Herbie could play electric or he could play acoustic, so there was some versatility there; but electric bass, definitely Jaco, and Charles was down on electric bass - and Wayne Shorter. That was the band that I wanted to use but Charlie wasn't keen on that. So I ran all the personnel that he suggested. I'd go to these dates and we'd cut the song and I'd come back. I'd be like down and he'd say, "He plays too notey, don't he?" He knew all the shortcomings of all these players. I'd say, "Yeah, it's not happening." Charlie had written fairly traditional melodies. I had these traditional melodies to work with. Basically, to me they were a dead idiom and coloring them acoustically was going to make them more dead. I didn't want to come into the jazz arena as an outsider, playing a dead traditional sound. I wanted to bring something to it. It had to be fresh. So I tried all kinds of personnel. That's why that record was expensive. We scrapped versions. And there were some that grooved better that the ones that I ended up with and some I even sang better on; but, overall, I was going for - OK, I'll give you an example.
One thing: when Charles was teaching me the melodies, he played me a lot of things of his that had been done by different people and he was constantly saying, "He's playing the wrong note. That's the wrong note." So I got brainwashed with "the wrong note, the wrong note, the wrong note." Well, when it came to writing this one song called "Sweet Sucker Dance," at the end of the phrase when I got my words on it, it was supposed to go [sings notes], to a blue note. And the way the words were, it sounded better if I went [sings notes], right? - to open it up. So I sing it that way and Charlie says to me, "You singing the wrong note." I said, "I know but, Charlie, if you listen to the word it sounds better if it goes up than if it goes to a blue note, to me, here." And he said, "But that's a square note." I said, "Well you know, Charlie, your note's been hip so long that it's square now and this one's been square so long that it's hip now." And he looked at me, he gave me a real wry look and he said to me, "OK, motherfuck, you sing your note and my note and put in a grace note for God."
Joe: I heard there was a couple of points in that album where you really lost heart because it was so difficult and you wanted to walk and then you couldn't walk away from it.
Joni: Well, the one place, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Charlie assailed me with all kinds of Lester Young history; what Lester's father was like and how he grew up. And every time he told me a story -
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joe: In the Lester Young phase, telling the story of the family...
Joni: He played me a lyric that had been set - "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" at that point was a song that had been around for a number of years already, without lyrics, and Hendricks had set words to it. And Hendricks was one of my teen-age heroes. So he played me this version that Hendricks had written and he watched me while I was listening to it. Charlie was looking at me. And it was awful; it was maudlin. It was like, "Oh, the poor black guy on the chittlin's circuit," right? It was like, not good. So when it was all done, Charlie looked at me and said, "It's awful, isn't it? It's awful." I was surprised because, if there's anybody who could write good lyrics -
Joe: John Hendricks.
Joni: He's the guy, to jazz, right? So then he gives me about five or six versions of "Pork Pie Hat," tells me to take my choice. Each one has a different solo. And I picked one that I liked the solo the best in, and it had a passage of triple tonguing in it. So I say, "Well, I like this one the best but I suppose you want me to set lyrics to this section, too." He says, "Yeah." Well, it's humanly impossible, you know. So not only was it hard to - it was hard to memorize that melody. It was like an aria. It was very complex, that solo. And then to parquet it - and the way I am about it, I'm a stickler for the word being married to the melody without messing with English inflection. So if a word has a certain emphasis on a certain syllable, the melody has to, too. So between the difficulty of the melody to begin with and this standard to my craft, it was a nightmare, this thing.
And then, in the telling of the story, what am I going to tell? Well, I decided that all three of us were going to be in the song: that Lester was going to be in it, that Charlie was going to be in it and that I was going to be in it, also, as a narrator. I had it all written but I couldn't get the last verse - and Charles was dying. I mean he was deteriorating rapidly and I wanted so much to have this completed before he died. I wanted him to see it all finished so he could lie down easy. So with the race against time, that made it doubly frustrating. And I couldn't get an ending and I couldn't get an ending.
And one night Don Elias and I took a bus uptown. For some reason, he decided we should get off a block early. We got off. We came up out of the subway. We came up like in a cloud of steam somewhere in the late 40s or the early 50s at about Eighth Street, I think, or something. So we look ahead and two blocks up the street we see this group of pimps standing there. You know they're pimps; they've all got the same hat on: broad brim, light-colored with a dark ribbon on it. So I'm curious, I say, "What are they looking at?" It's right on our route so we go walking up to this place. It's under a red-and-black striped awning that this is taking place. Red-and-black striped awning, circle of pimps, two little kids - they were the first poppers I'd ever seen. One was about nine, one was about twelve and it was about midnight. They're up in the street and they're dancing. They're doing all this robot action and these pimps are laughing. One of these guys slaps his thigh, he bends over and says, "Well, looks like the end of tap-dancing." And then suddenly I got this picture. These kids were like the new growth. I thought, even with Lester gone and Charlie going, there's always something innovative coming along - because I'd never seen this dance. Just then I looked up and the next bar down, in red script, said, "Charlie's." So I took it to be an omen. I turned to Don and I said, "This is my last verse." So I got very alert. We stood there a while, laughing, watching these kids dance. As we turned to leave, I took one glimpse back - and you know what it said on the red-and-black striped awning?
Joni: Pork Pie Hat Bar.
Joe: Named after Lester?
Joni: Yeah. So one night we went into this bar. I kept pestering - to take me in there. Well, it was in a tough neighborhood. It was like where the pimps, when they have their women around on the corner, they go in. It wasn't exactly the place for a blonde woman to be going and I kept pestering Don to take me in there for a long time. Finally, one winter's day we pulled into the parking lot next door and he said, "OK, tonight we're going in." We went into this place. It had a red and a blue light bulb, or red and green or something - some kind of like bohemian lighting - black and white posters of Lester Young all around the place. There was a Lester Young record playing on the jukebox as we came in. In the back were all these pimps with their hats on, completely immobile, playing backgammon and chess - just so cool that they didn't ruffle anything. They looked like they were cut out of cardboard. And the whole place was full of this kind of beigey smoke. And up the central aisle, the only thing that was moving was this guy - this same guy (this was nearly a year later) that said, "Looks like the end of tap-dancing" - and he was just tapping up a storm. Up and down the aisle he kept dancing, up and down the aisle. And behind the bar was a guy that was kind of pear-shaped. He looked like - what do you call it, an endomorph? He had small shoulders and was given to putting on fatty tissue. He must have had some female hormones in him, like - like what's that guy that's the performer in Vegas?
Joe: I know who you mean.
Joni: You know who I mean? Anyway, he was wiping a glass behind the bar. There was one woman in there. It was all men in there - all pimps in there. It was a pimps' bar, right? But it was so colorful and all.
Joe: And, my god, what a sign from someone, the Pork Pie Hat thing. Have you lost at the moment your investigations into jazz kind of projects?
Joni: I like certain periods of jazz and I liked them when they were living, but it doesn't take them long to cool off. Do you know what I mean? Right now I don't think there's much being done in jazz. Weather Report was exceptional. They were doing the most fascinating sounds in the latter '70s. The sound of Weather Report's music, to me, was more interesting than anything. Then came the British invasion and all this Fairlight and so on and pop music began to also play around with those sounds. Weather Report made about three or four or five great albums and then they kind of cooled or something. Jaco went into his madness and they got a new bass player but seemed to peak with Jaco. I don't think that, after Jaco left, that they really - they didn't really interest me, as a band. As individuals, Shorter is always great. He's a forever great musician like Miles.
Joe: But there's nothing happening in jazz that you would like to play with now?
Joe: There's only, it seems to me, only been a few great players -
Joni: Miles - I would love to play with Miles.
Joe: How about Wynton Marsalis or somebody like Sammy Jordan? I don't think you can do anything with them. They're off by themselves. They're making individual music. They could make solo albums with no band at all. There's a lot of technique but I don't hear anything and I'm a crazed jazz buff.
Joni: Yeah, I think the exciting field right now is pop music because pop music is suddenly getting more sophisticated. You know: I think Steely Dan, I think Peter Gabriel ... there aren't that many there, either.
Joe: You listen a lot?
Joni: Well, my husband listens to everything. He buys literally every new release that comes out.
Joe: And you listen?
Joni: And I listen - he kind of filters it down, too. We listen to some things together. There's very little to discover right now. It's not an exciting time anywhere in music or in the arts. Look what's happening in painting: neoclassicism. It's not an exciting time. I mean it's searching - it's searching for something new with the possibility that - well, you hear things like... What was the new one I heard the other day? Heavy Nova. So there are these strange hybrids that are being attempted. Heavy Nova.
Joe: I read the interview that you did with Rolling Stone a few years ago with Cameron Crowe and you said there were times when you wanted to just pack it all in and not do it anymore. You thought about living up in a solar-heated something or other. You knew you couldn't do that but there are periods, aren't there, for any creative person where you just say, "I can't do this anymore"?
Joni: Yeah. Oh, I've been threatening to quit since the day I started it. I've always said, "This is the last one." Even on the first record, "I'm midway down the midway and I'm already slowing down," that's a metaphor for - see, I came in late. People think I'm a peer of Judy Collins and Joan Baez but I'm not. I'm a wave after that. I'm with Jackson. They'd been around for many years before I even touched an instrument. I'm not really a contemporary of Dylan, either. At the time that I came into the business, like I'm a contemporary of - well, even CSN - they had already been around for a while, playing with the Hollies and the Byrds. I don't know who -
Joe: Your first record was -
Joni: Jimi Hendrix was signed in the same year.
Joe: He signed about the same time.
Joni: Yeah, so he would be -
Joe: Do you ever hit periods where nothing comes when you're writing? Are there dry periods or are you prolific enough to keep writing?
Joni: Musically, I would never run dry. Any time I sit down to an instrument I could write a song. I try not to steal from myself but the modality creates similarity. Musically, I don't think I'd ever dry up. I trust my musical invention. Lyrics are hard. You know, the year that I wrote my love album, it couldn't have been more off-timed. It was such a cynical year. All the videos had women in high-heeled shoes, like driving spikes into men's hands, and it was not a romantic period. It just happened that I met my husband and we got married. They lambasted that project. "You know how many times she said 'love' on this album?" It was completely - that's the "Wild Things" one, right? - the looseness of it, the playerishness of it, fell against the time period when the synthesizer was at its most supreme. So musically it was out of whack with the times and topically it was out of whack. Now, if it had been released at the time that "Dog Eat Dog" - because when "Dog Eat Dog" came out, it was an angry album and they said, "Where are the love songs?"
Joe: Make a record and hold it for a year.
Joni: Yeah, my timing is just rotten, see?
Joe: You've also been ambivalent, it seems, about playing in person. There's an awful lot of false starts on tours or things like that. Is it because you're ambivalent or was there an explanation for all of those -
Joni: No. No, no. Well, the one that you came out to - I was living with a drummer, we split up just before we hit New York, where you came out. And not wanting to be a tyrant, I told him that since we had split - there was an old girlfriend he wanted to bring out - I said, "You can bring her out but don't let me see her." Well, there was a fiasco. Also, I was coming down with like a terrible flu. The ol' show must go on; but the combination of this betrayal - anyway, she did show up. As a matter of fact, he went to his usual seat on the plane after one show and she went to my usual seat and I had to sit back with the crew. So, needless to say, I was in a nasty temper; I was ill; I thought, "All the money in the world cannot make me finish this tour." And Elliot begged me, "Please, just go to here and here and here so we don't get into big losses." I took it as far as I could civilly and I quit. Now, I've always been of frail health. I've had a lot of illness in my life. And the road is a real wear-down. So most of it was due to illness, I think, when I cancelled out.
Joe: Do you look forward now to going out and doing something?
Joni: Well, I'll tell you, the last tour I took out was wonderful.
Joe: Last year, was it?
Joni: '83. We were out nine months. The tour chemistry was excellent. The fraternization between tour and crew was the way I like it. I'm sort of a democrat or I don't know what you'd call it. I don't like it to get too -
Joe: Czar and -
Joni: Right. It's more fun if you can keep it like a big - anyway, it worked like that for nine months. I think we had wonderful camaraderie. I never enjoyed a tour that much since before I hit the record business. It was almost like some kind of maturity on my part, I guess. Late to arrive but there it was, wasn't it? But, also, finally I had a band that could play both rock and jazz.
Joe: Who was the band?
Joni: Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, my husband Larry on bass, Michael Landau on lead guitar. You know, he comes out of heavy metal - Jimi Hendrix - and yet he can play delicate, sophisticated jazz things.
Joe: Did you cast this band yourself or did somebody put it together for you?
Joni: Well, it evolved out of the record.
Joe: Ah, I see, they played on the record. If this explanation is such a back-handed slap (this article states you're an important standard-bearer) - how would you like it, at this stage of your career, to have someone say, "This is what Joni Mitchell is; this is what Joni Mitchell has been"? Is there some kind of description?
Joni: I'm a musician and a poet. You know, I'm a musician and a poet.
Joe: And if there was a year or a period of time that you could put in a bottle and put up on a shelf and 30 years from now - I mean, up to now - that you say, "Boy, this was the best, everything was grooving," is there a time period you can be isolate?
Joni: No. I mean, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," which is an experimental record, not one of my favorite records at all (it wasn't one which was completed; it was searching) was one of the most visually interesting. I wish I had a film of how that record was made in the studio.
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joe: -- with "Don Juan's."
Joni: In other words, every time, for every negativity there was always a compensation. The breakup of that tour, the tour that died - it died two cities after you arrived, after I called Jann an asshole, which doomed my review -
Joe: But a great sentence in rock and roll.
Joni: -- we terminated in the Edgewater Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. We got that far. The tour moved out. Joel Bernstein and I stayed behind because the lake at the edge of the Edgewater was frozen over. Now, it was about to thaw. It had thawed the day before and then frozen again. So all around the lake, all the trees had glass-like ice on them - thick, thick ice. If you walked along the banks of it you could hear this crash and tinkling like breaking glass as these boughs broke under the weight of it. To get onto the ice you had to take a big leap. I went through a couple of times before I got on because it was real soft and spongy. And that day, it was freezing cold. It was so cold that I got welts all over my face, like from snow coming up off the ice and stinging. It was freezing cold. But anyway, here was the end of the tour - premature abortion of a tour - disaster. Joel and I stay behind. We go into town, I get some skates. I got black skates, which everybody thought was weird because they were men's skates, but I wanted it to all look - I was in mourning; I didn't want white skates, I wanted black skates, you know? I put these black skates on. I put on this black skirt. And I had a fur cape that Joel thought was kind of ostentatious. It had like ermine tails or something on it. I said, "No, this is the costume." We were going for - do you remember an old song of mine called, "I Wish I Had a River I Could Skate Away On"?
Joni: We had talked for years about a Hans Brinker type of shot if we ever found something frozen to skate on. So on this melancholy occasion - you know, like the end of my long relationship with this man; the premature breaking up of the tour - we were going after this "I Wish I Had a River I Could Skate Away On," Hans-Brinker-skating-out-on-the-ice image. Well, when we got out there, this cape that I had on turned out to be a sail. You could open it up and the wind would blow you all around. And the shapes that happened from it - I looked like a crow, I looked like a bird. The shapes were surrealistic. We hadn't counted on what happened. It was a really magical photo session. I've still got them. I saw some of the prints the other day. These are all covered with glassy ice. And these are northern shots that we -
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joe: So do you paint much?
Joni: I haven't done it much this year. I did 30 paintings while we were in England - but small, you know.
Joe: Did you see Georgia O'Keefe before she died or how long before when you did see her?
Joni: I didn't. I saw her in '83. Larry and I went, after the tour ended. I wanted him to meet her.
Joe: When did she die? In '85?
Joni: No, she died this spring, or before spring.
Joe: Had you been in touch with her at all or talked with her?
Joni: Not since '83, but we were planning to go and see her this fall.
Joe: And what's ahead? You just going to make some songs and make some records?
Joni: I've got a really good record in the works. It's almost completed. But the last one was really good, too. I don't mean to sound immodest. What I mean by "really good" is that my standards are high and it's hard to get them up to my standards and these are up to my standards. But I don't know what will happen with it.
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joe: -- band now. You're not - because they're making records or because there are three or four bands - you're not going to do that. I mean, that's not -
Joni: You see, Simply Red has that one, I really like that record. If you analyze it, I could never make a record like that because it's bad lounge jazz. I'm not that dumb about jazz. I couldn't go back and make something - but at least it's bringing that music (it's like beginner's jazz, in a certain way) to people. That's the whole trouble. It's the funniest business, making a record, because if you're a true artist - by that, meaning you didn't do it just to be a pop star; you were motivated by your talent and not by - you know that there are hundreds of bands that just want to be somebody, right? - that don't have any talent. Hype bands?
Joni: Right. As opposed to an artist who has a musical gift to tap, right? Like a Van Morrison or somebody who really has talent. What's the point I'm trying to make?
Joe: You were talking about Simply Red and about making records that sound like someone. You've got to make your records.
Joni: See, I could be - here's the thing: I could be a Simply Red. You know how that record came about? That record was out for a long, long time and one of the video stations liked it and didn't let go of it. In other words, it didn't happen normally; it happened because certain people here and certain people there - it was a real long shot, that thing, and only because some people heard it. It didn't happen through any brilliance in the business or any brilliance on the record. It just happened kind of accidentally that somebody kept playing - instead of just saying, "Oh, it didn't happen; yank the video, we won't play it anymore," it kept playing on the easy listening outlet. Some things are slow developers.
My record, like Simply Red's music, is a slow developer. People now are starting to - it always takes them about a year. They hate it when it first comes out. Peter Gabriel hated my record when it first came out. He's starting to get into it. People who destroyed it critically at its first release said "oops" and put it on their Ten Favorite list. Mark Slater. But you can't hope to get a review that has this many layers to it. It's designed to have a certain amount of immediate appeal and to be played and reviewed and discovered. Like anything good, it has to have depth to it. So you have to have a certain amount of grab-ability initially and then something that wears well; that you'll love for years to come. That's what anything fine is. It's recognized in painting; it's not recognized - I'm just working in a toss-away industry. I'm a fine artist working in a commercial arena so that's my cross to bear. But there are some success stories. Steely Dan, I think, is a great example. They do fine art in a commercial arena. The only reason I'm quite content - I just don't like to see my lack of sales affect my ability to put out quality product. If it gets to that point, what's the point of me staying in? You can bolster it up by saying, "I'll pay for that, I'll pay for that, I'll pay for that," and at a certain point it's ridiculous. It's stupid.
Joe: Who is - Glen and Don. Glen wanted to go out on tour with his first record. Well, you know [INAUDIBLE] he had the money and I wasn't running any raffle for him but I - you can't disappoint beyond but you don't enforce it. It seems to me, as long as you're making records somebody will provide the money for you to make the kind of records that you want to make.
Joni: Well, you know... This is off the record, OK? - because I don't like to -
[BREAK IN TAPE]
We've got a group now. Two heads are better than one. Annie Ross was right.
Joe: How many records have you got to go on this deal?
Joni: I've got three, unfortunately, left - including this one that I'm working on. So two more.
Joe: Including the one that's coming out.
Joni: Yes, two after this one.
Joe: Well, I thank you for the time today.
[BREAK IN TAPE]
Joni: It was actually pretty funny. [BREAK IN TAPE] I think it was in Studio A. There was a lot of fraternity. People would step in - they'd stick their nose in from across the hall to see what you were doing. It always had that kind of open atmosphere and sometimes you'd interplay. So one day Harry Nilsson and Lennon came in and sat down. I forget what song we were working on. But after it had played back once, Lennon jumped up and he said, "Oh god," he said, "It's all a product of over-education. What you need here is more fiddles. Put fiddles on it. You want a hit don't you? Why did you ever let Judy Collins have that hit? You should have had that hit." And he walked out. So a couple of days later I went across the hall to watch them recording. Well, Phil in his true, uh - he likes multiples of everything. So he had multiples of everything. He had a couple of drummers and he had a couple of piano players and a couple of bass players. He had multiples of everything in a very dark room that was honeycombed with baffling, just packed solid with all these guys. Sometimes I think he even had triplicates in there - maybe three bass players, four guitars - it was just packed with musicians. And it was very dark, with dimmer switches. So the dimmer switch was way down in the studio and it way down in the control booth. And I came in and just kind of took up my position by the door, trying to be real low-profile. So this is the way it starts.
Lennon wasn't there that day. Specter's wearing little pink-colored glasses, rose-colored sunglasses, and he's got an armed bodyguard there with him and he's got a long kind of stringy wig and a hat thrown on over it. He gets on the talkback button and he says, "OK, guys, now I want the piano player to come in first and I want the drums to come in and then the bass player. OK, you got it? OK, hit it." So the band strikes up and it's this huge chord, right? They get about five bars into it, he hits the talkback button right into the track, "No, no, no. I told you: the drummer starts first and then the bass player and then the piano comes in. OK, you got it? Let's go." OK, so they start up again in this new order. They get about eight bars into it and he goes, "No, I told you the bass player starts first and then the drums come in and then the piano player, OK?" So they do this again and at this point I'm stifling a laugh because it's absurd. It's like the March Hare, like "Alice in Wonderland." I've wandered into something weird.
So this goes on and on and in all this coitus interruptus he keeps starting them and stopping them and blaming them and giving them new instructions. They take ten. Everybody steps out into the hall. I step out into the hall. All the players conspire. They're shaking their heads, they can't believe it. So they all conspire to take up a different axe. When they go back in, the drummers go to basses or pianos or whatever - you know, everybody plays something else a little bit. They all take over and he starts them up again. (They're all playing not their axes, right?) "OK, now I want the keyboard started. OK, you got this now? Then the drums come in and then the bass player comes in." So they started making this record and everybody was playing on a secondary axe and he never even noticed. It was so dark in the room. It was so dark in his room. Anyway, at a certain point I laughed out loud and he kicked me out. He wouldn't let me back in. So I sent him some roses. Actually I sent him some roses and asked that I please be allowed to come back in because I didn't want to miss it.
Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link: https://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=3119
Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read 'Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement' at JoniMitchell.com/legal.cfm