A chalk talk with Joni Mitchell

by Divina Infusino
San Diego Union Tribune
April 3, 1988

A limo drives into a backstage area of yellow tile and fluorescent lights. The car pulls up at the back of a red velvet stage curtain and Joni Mitchell, disheveled in a plaid shirt and jeans, is hoisted from the back seat into a wheelchair.

The wheelchair moves up a ramp, bursts through the curtains and rushes down an incline. The chair stops eventually, but Mitchell goes flying and lands, disoriented, on the stage. The audience, powdered and wigged members of Marie Antoinette's court, laugh at her.

This dream was a premonition of a dramatic real-life experience for Joni Mitchell. Sitting in Geffen Records' offices recently, chatting late into the evening, Mitchell veers from talk about her new album, "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm," to how her dream and the event it portended sum up her career as a pop musician.

"I did a benefit in Toronto for the Cree Indians. I went on stage and did my set, but it was a restless audience. I never fare well at these group benefit things. I'm never loud enough to overcome the audience's talking. I came off the stage with a slightly defeated feeling, like I hadn't done my best.

"I went into the dressing room, and there was a red-in-the-face angry French girl, being restrained by a man, her arms behind her back. Suddenly, she burst loose from the man and charged toward me, screaming, 'The English whore. The English whore.' Seconds later, an Indian boy walked up to me and said, 'On behalf of my people, we thank you for coming. We think you are a saint.'

"And I thought to myself, isn't this strange, these two extreme reactions at the same moment.

"And then I remembered that we had come down an entrance of yellow tile and fluorescent lights. And the limo had pulled up at the back of the red velvet curtained stage, which is very unusual. And it was a French audience.

"The dream seemed to be forewarning me to notice this moment, the culmination of being damned and sainted at the same time. You would think that this would be enough of a life lesson that every compliment and every insult would roll off your back from that day on."

Was it?

"No," Mitchell says, breaking into a laugh. "the whole thing was entirely wasted on me."

"My 'karma,'" as Mitchell puts it, "is to really experience something to the fullest. Everything comes to me in a rash."

Between 1968 and 1974, Mitchell experienced her rash of success. With acclaimed albums like "Blue," and her big seller, "Court and Spark," she triumphed as queen of the folk divas and confessional singer-songwriters.

"At that time I noticed people worshipping me. And I thought, 'Whoops, what's happening here?'" Mitchell says, chortling. "That's a terrible position to be in. Because the first time I show any kind of humanness, I'm going to have to come falling down off of there. I don't want to be up there. No, no, no. I wanted to humanize myself, get rid of the worship."

She didn't have to wait long. With 1975's "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," the worship changed to a rash of disdain. Rolling Stone magazine declared "Hissing" the worst LP of year. She met with further criticism and skepticism when she ventured into her 1976-79 "jazz period," recording three albums of jazz-rock that culminated with the highly controversial "Mingus," based on the work of jazz great Charlie Mingus.

In 1982, Mitchell moved from jazz toward pop again with "Wild Things Run Fast." Beginning with that album, "My timing has been bad," Mitchell says. "'Wild Things' was an album of love songs released into one of the most unromantic periods of music. "Dog Eat Dog' (1985) was seen as too negative for the time."

But now, with "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm," her third post-jazz album, Mitchell thinks her karma may be changing again. This LP has received good advance press. But just as when she was worshiped and reviled, she still doesn't know why this album shows signs of acceptance, while the two preceding LPs never found a mass audience.

"Only days before we started to get all the good feedback on "Chalk Mark,' the industry was saying to me, 'Gee, couldn't you give us something more commercial?'" she says, a baffled look crossing her face. "I have no idea why people didn't like the last one and love this one. I see "Chalk Mark' as an extension of "Dog Eat Dog.' I was happy with all of them."

During the interview, Mitchell conducts herself with confidence. She is dressed in a striking black outfit of gaucho pants and a loose jacket belted over a black and silver blouse. A heavy silver necklace circles her neck and two silver earrings —one shaped as a feather, the other as a fish Skeleton—dangle to her shoulders. A black hat tops her long, stick-straight blonde hair.

As she talks for nearly two hours, her black outfit melts into the darkened office, leaving only her face, pale like a moon. Photos emphasize her wide, arched mouth and soaring cheekbones. But in person, with the flame of her cigarette lighter regularly illuminating her face, her large, cool blue eyes dominate. Lines appear on her 45-year-old face only when she laughs - which is often.

Mitchell is relaxed partly because "Chalk Mark" is her most accessible album in years. Those who haven't heard Mitchell since her folk or jazz days will be surprised at the absence of acoustic guitars or searing sax solos. Instead, she uses synthesizers, loads of them, layered into odd but pleasing harmonic structures and a discernible dance beat. Many of the rhythm sections were recorded live, lending some cuts, such as "Number One" a spontaneous, experimental quality.

Thematically, the topics jump from personal relationships to social issues, although sometime her lyrics and thoughts are simplistic, even trite. "Snakes and Ladders," a song about the demise of the perfect American young couple, refers to the girl as "a Barbie doll" and puts the guy "on a corporate climb."

While "Number One" is innovative musically, lyrically it simply reworks the standard looking-out-for-Number-One theme.

The album also contains oddball covers of classics, "Cool Water," and a sparse, modern reworking of "Corrina, Corrina."

The LP's biggest surprise is the rocking story song "Dancin' Clowns," with character parts sung by Billy Idol and Tom Petty, and crunchy guitar parts provided by Idol's guitarist, Steve Stevens. Given the LP's extended list of guest stars, including Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Wendy and Lisa, and Benjamin Orr from The Cars, "Chalk Mark" seems at least conscious of the marketplace.

"I'm not so much concerned about being a mass artist, but I do want to recoup my costs," says Mitchell, who co-produced the album with her husband and bass player Larry Klein. "I've cast characters before on my records. I've used Henley before. I asked Billy Idol on the album because we saw him on the Grammys and thought he would be perfect for the part of Rowdy Yates. Billy plays the bad boy with a sense of humor, like Elvis did.

"I know Petty because we have the same management. My husband produced an album for Ben Orr at Peter Gabriel's studio in England. So that's how they ended up on the record. Willie happened to play in town one night, so be came over in his bus and laid down a few tracks. Wendy and Lisa I met through Prince."

Prince, as Mitchell describes him, "has been my biggest PR rep." Prince has publicly praised Mitchell and used her recordings as the pre-concert music on his tours. Why didn't Prince participate on her album?

"We've been talking about it for some time. He wrote a song for me. One of these days I'll do it. We'll work together. It's got to be the right project," she says.

Joni lunching with Ben Orr, singing with Billy Idol, hanging out with Prince. Such scenes are hard to imagine.

"Why? Who do you think I should be banging out with?" she asks only half rhetorically. "If Prince and I lived in the same small town in Canada, we'd know each other. I like to dance. And he's creative, sensitive, dedicated to his work. And he's an odd duck."

So is Mitchell, except that lately her life has been quite normal. "I'm settled now. I don't run around as much as I used to. Larry and I spend time watching television. So much for a while that I was going to name "Dog Eat Dog' 'Songs of a Couch Potato,"' she says with a chuckle.

But any evidence of normalcy disappears when she enters the studio to record. But then, Mitchell never did approach music traditionally.

"My chords are inverted the natural order of the scale is altered and twisted," she says. "My chords are like questions. They are a depiction of complex emotions. Most major chords are a depiction of well-being and happiness. My major chord will have a dissonant note leading to sorrow, then another note leading back to joy. There is always the possibility of the opposite emotion in my chords."

Mitchell does not approach music with a strategy, she says. in fact, she avoids preconceived ideas, which has driven some collaborators and co-producers crazy.

"People working with you need to know where you're going with an idea. But I don't have an intellectual plan. So there are times when people working with me think I'm lost. But part of my process is to get good and lost. I start to work in random mode and try out crazy ideas. I put my critic to sleep during that process. But if I'm surrounded by minds with their critic wide awake, it's frustrating for me, for everyone.

"That's one of the reasons I like working with Larry, my husband. We've worked together on three albums now. He knows how I work. Recording together has also brought us closer in our marriage as well."

Mitchell's style of intuitive songwriting and arranging is one reason her work is often oblivious to the demands in the pop marketplace. She says: "I'm not a pop star. The role of pop stars is to present themselves as larger than life, more desirable than anyone. Pop is an illusionary world. They don't present their human foibles. That's the realm of art and literature. I'm an artist working in a pop arena."

Because pop has its limits, Mitchell is looking to additional means of expression, short stories and possibly a symphony. She also continues to paint. Mitchell will have a major one-woman show of 18 paintings in Japan this spring.

She is an abstract artist, layering paint thickly with a roller. To some degree her art parallels her music.

"The further I got into jazz, the more abstract and spontaneous my paintings became. Now I'm beginning to go back to more structure," she says.

"Painting is important to me. I know how much of myself has gone into them, and how much meditation. It's not junk. But I don't know if it communicates."

What about music? Is it, as her album title suggests, just chalk marks in a rainstorm, washed away by forces beyond her control?

Mitchell recognizes that the cultural environment in which an album is released is very important. "I know that," she says. "But I think I have a unique musical gift, that I've stumbled onto things that were overlooked by accident. In music, I am truly an original."

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