Joni Mitchell, her muse still bright at 55, has the distinction of being a passionate interdisciplinary and intermedia artist who happens to have become a musical icon along the way. She has also been cast unwittingly as a generational spokeswoman and misunderstood repeatedly by fans and media uncomfortable with the broad and adventurous scope of her varied expressions. Mitchell has an exceptional new recording project out, Taming the Tiger, her follow up to 1994's double-Grammy winner Turbulent Indigo. Featuring a rich blend of tones and words, with liner notes full of her subdued yet glowing paintings, this new album shows Mitchell still has the knack to create musical pieces that immediately stand out from the norm, stories and lyric impressions set against musical backdrops that are more than mere songs. Mitchell declares that she has always been a painter first, a painter who writes music. With no real desire for pop stardom, and a conservative musical upbringing as a child in Canada that nixed the original sounds she was hearing in her head, Mitchell dove headlong into poetry and painting before picking up a guitar. To this day she still considers herself an "odd candidate for celebrity". But her music and the sharp poetic power of her descriptive language, especially when addressing moods and feelings, has bonded her creations indelibly with her fans.
Mitchell has always juggled a triad of mediums - painting, music and poetry. She explained in a recent radio interview how these discipline mesh: "I have a painter's ego and I get a thrill from juxtaposing one color against the other. It's the same with music, I think I paint with it. I arrange sounds and tones as if I am painting. My harmonies and words are selected in my own interest, just how I would select a color."
Her early releases, while still cherished by her fans, are primarily straightforward and strummy folk-based expressions that Mitchell now characterizes as "too much primary color" with songs that place her in "ingenue roles I am uncomfortable in revisiting". After the mainstream rock success of 1974's Court and Spark, her music took a left turn with 1975's Hissing of Summer Lawns, which some to this day don't quite understand.
Through the seventies, Mitchell continued to adventurously record with a wider tonal pallet backed by stellar jazzers like Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Airto, Phil Woods, Eddie Gomez and Tony Williams on groundbreaking albums like her homageMingus, the vision quest of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and the transcendent Hejira. Her free-form and devoted approach to finding new colors in sound found her few friends in the mainstream music world, accused of having lost her sense of melody by those hoping for "Chelsea Morning" redux. A series of traumatic financial and physical setbacks in the '80s sidetracked her musical output for the most part. Mitchell took much solace in her painting during this period, as she has done many times before in her cycles between painting, music and poetry. "I keep the creative juices flowing by switching from one to the other. When the music or writing dries up, I paint. You have to rest the ear and the inner mind. The music is a gift, it comes easy and it is a soothing process. Without the painting to clear my head, I don't think I could do it."
1994 brought her musical comeback with Turbulent Indigo, an anxious and insightful set of songs with a fair share of anger and bitterness towards the way the world has gone, both personally and outwardly. While the positive reaction and awards for Turbulent Indigo were surely gratifying to Mitchell, she came to a point where she considered leaving music for good.
Ever since she early-on jettisoned the basic major and minor folk chords, her unique and original chord structures and patterns have been difficult to manifest on guitar, especially in live performance. Also, her bout with post-polio syndrome left her back muscles weak to the point where holding a heavy guitar was nearly impossible. She claims her exit from music was prevented by the acquisition of a custom-made Roland V-8 guitar, ergonomically designed to overcome her physical constraints, and full of digital goodies that easily memorize her avant tunings, eliminating constant retuning and guitar switching on stage.
A major turning point in Mitchell's decision to stick with music came at the 1997 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which at the time she considered her last. It was her first live performance with her new guitar system, and I was lucky enough to be at Jazzfest that year. Pulling myself away from some supercharged Afro-pop, I crossed the festival grounds in a pilgrimage of sorts to lay eyes and ears on an artist I hadn't seen since the Court and Spark tour of 1974. Looking a bit nervous, Mitchell took the stage with just her guitar. Taking a backroads tour of her more adventurous older tunes and the songs of Turbulent Indigo, a shimmering rich variety of tones and melodic clusters hung in the thick Louisiana air, and a satisfied smile came to her quickly as if thoroughly enjoying the way her sound sprayed into the sunny expanse to a rave response from the large crowd.
Needless to say, Mitchell decided not to give up on music. Of her unique harmonic approach to guitar and composing, Mitchell says, "The chords that I hear in my head, you just can't get off the neck in standard tuning, even with tremendous facility - they just don't exist. The chords are very, very wide when compared to standard guitar chords. Those standard chords haven't contained any fresh colors for me in a long time."
Her new release, Taming The Tiger, opens with a track that shows clearly the mature level of musical sound painting Mitchell has reached. "Harlem In Havana" tells the story of her first strong impression of African-American music, as a teen, going to the off-limits black burlesque tent at the local carnival midway. Opening with synth pulses that could be The Orb, sounds of a carnival layer into a cacophony that builds a widescreen of sonic imagery which breaks into a laid back jazzy groove which soon welcomes Mitchell's deeply focused yet relaxed wordplay. It is a reassuring and satisfying moment, hearing her deeper-with-age and chainsmoking-textured voice kick in with her lucid and lyrical storytelling, which feels like fresh wisdom from an old friend.
The rest of the album is full of knowing, artful soliloquies, social commentary and rage against the machine, with some truly wise lyrical musings on familial and intimate relationships. Flipping through the CD booklet to scan lyrics, one stops at her rough textured impressionistic paintings, simple yet striking, the inner light reflections of her deep visual meditations. The confidence, inner knowledge, and fearless creative expression contained in the whole of Mitchell's sounds, words, and images leaves the feeling that she is just hitting her stride.