New biography reveals Joni Mitchell’s feelings on her career

by Phil Hirschkorn
PBS NewsHour
November 26, 2017

Joni Mitchell is one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters in modern times. Her seminal albums, from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, sold millions of copies and influenced generations of artists. Now, a new biography, "Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell," offers a deep portrait of the 74-year-old Mitchell, from surviving polio to turning pop into a high art. NewsHour Weekend’s Phil Hirschkorn spoke to the book’s author David Yaffe.

Song Lyrics:

“I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from give and take, but still somehow, it’s love’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know love…at all.”

Phil Hirschkorn:

Growing up in rural Canada, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell taught herself to play guitar and piano and became a voice of the generation that came of age in the 1960’s. Biographer David Yaffe sees her approach to songwriting as painterly.

David Yaffe:

In a great Rembrandt painting, in a great Rembrandt portrait, you are not only seeing representations of people, you’re somehow looking into their souls. And I feel like Joni Mitchell’s songs are like that. They go right to the core of who people really are, not who they want to present themselves as being, but who they really are, maybe who they’re hiding.

Phil Hirschkorn:

Early songs like Both Sides Now show a certain maturity and having lived life, at least the lyrics do.

David Yaffe:

Yes. I think part of it was that she had survived polio as a 10-year-old, and then she gave up her daughter and couldn’t talk about it, which meant that she hadn’t lived the typical life of a 21-year-old when she was writing these incredible songs at 21, 22, 23. Circle Game is a great example.

Song Lyrics:

“And the seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down…”

Phil Hirschkorn:

How did giving up her baby for adoption change the arc of her career and her life?

David Yaffe:

It was the start of her career. This songwriting began after she gave up her daughter. She’s in this unhappy marriage, then she’s repressed, and so all of this expression of melancholy and beauty comes out.

Phil Hirschkorn:

Joni Mitchell was supposed to play at Woodstock. She didn’t get there. But yet she writes the anthem that becomes the song “Woodstock,“ better known by Crosby Stills and Nash.

David Yaffe:

But her version is more interesting, I think. The lyrics are not really a celebration, especially when you hear the way she sings it, it’s a dirge.

SONG LYRICS: “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”

David Yaffe:

She’s saying, ‘We have fallen. We have to get ourselves back to the garden. But that is not what’s happening.’

Song Lyrics:

“I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, looking for something, what can it be…”

Phil Hirschkorn:

This summer, when NPR compiled a list of the 150 best albums by women. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” came out on top. Why is that?

David Yaffe:

Well, I’ll start by saying that Joni never likes being genderized, which is a word she uses. But Blue, over time, has this legend about it. And there’s nothing like any of it but especially the darkest songs on there, the title track, for example.

Song Lyrics:

“Blue…songs are like tattoos….

David Yaffe:

I just think there’s such an intimacy to it that when we hear that voice, we hear that it is singing directly to us.

Phil Hirschkorn:

You call her as a singer-songwriter martyr. How is that?

David Yaffe:

To her, the point was not to confess, the point was to reveal. With Joni, it’s more like disclosure.

Song Lyrics:

“Help me, I think I’m falling, in love again…”

David Yaffe:

After her biggest hit, Court and Spark, she hired a jazz band to be her band. And Joni had these musicians that she liked working with, and she started to experiment.

Song Lyrics:

There’s comfort in melancholy, when there’s no need to explain….

David Yaffe:

But she started to lose her audience. And she ended up making music that doesn’t really have a category; it wasn’t jazz, but it was not quite pop either. It was something else — it was Joni Mitchell music. And when she collaborated with Charles Mingus on his final project a lot of people in the jazz world attacked it, because it’s not a jazz record.

Phil Hirschkorn:

In the 1980s, Mitchell turned to rock ‘n roll, but her record sales did not rebound much. Or when she returned to a stripped down sound in the 1990s.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: What do you think happened?

David Yaffe:

You know, the times were changing, and so Joni was of her time in the 70s, and she could go through those changes and her audience would stick with her. The sales started to drop after Court and Spark. But she still had an audience. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was still a gold record. It was the last one.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Mitchell won the best pop album Grammy for her 1994 release “Turbulent Indigo.” But by 2000, she stopped touring and later released re-recordings of her old songs.

Song Lyrics:

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. They pave paradise and put up a parking lot…”

David Yaffe:

Because of her four pack a day smoking habit, her voice was changing quickly; it dropped an octave and became much more brittle. But one thing I want to say about those albums is that there are some times when you’re feeling ravaged, and you want to hear a voice that’s been through things, because that’s how you feel.

Phil Hirschkorn:

In the PBS American Masters documentary she says at one point, ‘They were putting me on a pedestal, and I was wobbling.’ Did she have a hard time handling all the fame and accolades that came her way?

David Yaffe:

She did, but not for the typical reason. I think it was because when she would play folk clubs she could make eye contact with people and the audience, and she could sort of see everybody and communicate with everyone and do that thing that she does, which is being so real. And so when she’s up on the larger stage, it could be a little confusing or alienating, because she was still taking in, it was too much to take in.

Phil Hirschkorn:

So in the 1990s, Joni Mitchell rediscovers the daughter who she gave up for adoption as a baby, and they meet. How did that work out?

David Yaffe:

At first it was like a love affair. And they’re so giddy and happy and high. And finally the circle is closed in my life. She’s got these wonderful grandchildren. And then she and the daughter are off and on after that.

Phil Hirschkorn:

What would you say is Joni Mitchell’s legacy?

David Yaffe:

As someone who started out in folk, then turned to pop, and then experimented with jazz she really elevated the pop song to an art song. It’s high art even when it’s fun.

Song Lyrics:

“California I’m coming home. I’m going to see the folks I dig, I’ll even kiss a sunset pig…California when I get home…”


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