Joni Mitchell - The Benign Dictator

by Perry Stern
Canadian Musician
February 1986

Joni Mitchell has a special, almost exalted place in the imaginations of Canadians. If all she had done was write "Both Sides Now" and "Circle Game" she'd still be as highly regarded as, say, Gordon Lightfoot or Leonard Cohen. But she went much further than that. If she'd moved on from folk music to pop and stopped there, she'd share the kind of cross-over success that Anne Murray has basked in. She'd be a perennial on awards shows and we'd feel like a rich cousin had come home for a visit twice a year. But she went farther still. Having grown past commercial success in the late seventies she experimented with jazz and stretched the limits of "popular" music. That put Joni and Neil Young at the summit of our contribution to modern music. And still she hasn't stepped back. While good ol' boy Neil has retreated into right-wing politics and country music, Joni has stepped forward, again, leaving her most popular convention - the love song - behind, taking a hard look at the social issues of the day.

The first record I ever bought with my own money was Blue. While my father never seemed to mind my brother's Allman Brothers or my sister's Monkees, there was something about Joni's high notes that drove him wild. He forbid me playing it while he was home and my love affair with her began clandestinely and passionately. When I finally saw her, performing Court and Spark with Tom Scott's LA Express at Massey Hall, she had already developed a harder, more independent jazz sound. It was around the time Rolling Stone labeled her "Old Lady of the Year" and, as a teen-ager, I felt intimidated by the love songs she wrote. They seemed to involve a lot of betrayal and disappointment and I wasn't prepared to be that cynical yet.

Dog Eat Dog is Mitchell's fourteenth album since 1968. She has run the gamut from folk to pop to jazz and is now making music that, put simply, contained elements of each style but is confined to none. It was a hard album to make - "one of the hardest," she explained - at least partly because technology has just about caught up with her imagination. It meant sharing production chores for the first time and it meant relying strongly on other peoples' ability to translate thought into sound, something she's been "messin' around with for years."

"I'm a painter by prediliction," Mitchell explained, and she often relied on her artist's vocabulary to describe her musical situation. She'll "colour" a song with sound effects and "flesh out" a spot that lacks depth. As we talked, she'd sing a line here and there, or imitate a sound to "flesh out" a description. Words didn't fail her, it's just that sometimes they were inadequate.

We talked about three particular aspect of Dog Eat Dog in the short time we had: The production team the project required; how the songs were constructed in the studio; and, the effect that technology, particularly the Fairlight CMI, has had on her recording. I interrupted her infrequently with questions, she seemed to know where each one led and answered fully. The first thing I asked was how she managed to get anything done with three co-producers?

"I've always produced my own records so I'm used to being a benign dictator, or free-school teacher. I'll bring players in and give them as much verbal instruction as I can. I don't know what I'm looking for so it's more or less letting them go and waiting until I discover what it is I'm looking for. A lot of my process is intuitive.

"There was some pressure from management and the record company. The tried to sick a producer on me. Having never had one, I met with some of these 'Golden Boys' they suggested, but I wouldn't give it over. We felt secure that Larry (Klein, her husband, bassist and co-writer of two songs), Mike Shipley (the engineer) and I were capable of bringing about the music we wanted. I don't even like the word 'producer'. I think it slipped onto the last album but I never called for it to be used. It makes me feel like a head of lettuce. Like 'pro-duce'.

"Thomas (Dolby) had kind of a bid in to produce me, and, of course the record company was kind of intrigued by that idea. We felt we needed a technician who could help speed us up. In the studio we were still slow at simply getting our sounds out and manipulating the equipment. We needed someone who could type faster (she laughs), someone who could move around on the thing and give us a display of possibilities rapidly.

"We called Thomas and I explained to him what we needed was really a more menial position than the one he had vied for - to take a backseat on the project and to be more supportive than a producer who has the last say. He said that would be fine with him, it would be lovely, and that he was tired of people looking to him for all the answers. While he said that I thought: Wait a minute - this guy's had three or four years of being in the foreground and it's almost like A Chorus Line. Can a person who's used to having control do that? If you can do that you're a better man that I am Gunga Din! It's very hard to restrain the joy and compulsion of the creative process.

"We did have some difficulties because Thomas would get a roll going. He'd get a sound set up and instead of turning it over to one of us, you'd practically have to hogtie him and carry him off the axe. (Laughing) I thought, maybe I'll have to get this guy a red hat and a green hat for Technical Tommy and Creative Tommy."

Had all this input affected the music she had prepared in pre-production and how did Dog Eat Dog compare to her previous albums in this respect?

"Each project is different. In regard to this project my husband and I had sketched out a lot of the tunes at home with a little eight track machine, a primitive drum machine, a Fairlight (I nearly choked when she said she had a Fairlight in her house), and a couple of other keyboards. We didn't have it all fleshed out because we wanted to leave something open to spontaneity in the studio. We felt we were slow on the Fairlight since we had just acquired it.

"Say I needed to add brass in a certain section. I needed to run the Wave and the DX and the Fairlight to see all the brass sounds that were available. I need to put those colours up quickly, say 'that's it: hand it over and there we go, so it was Larry and Thomas who would often set the keyboard sound up for me. Then I would play the part, sometimes they would.

"I'll give you an example of building something: "The Three Great Stimulants". I had bits and pieces of sounds I wanted to use. For instance, the first thing I wanted on tape was the sound of a helicopter blade in straight eights. (She imitates the sound uncannily. ) That would be our click track, so to speak. It would be the first rhythm that was laid down. We had sketched out a groove for the piece which was basically a rock'n'roll groove. You know, snare on two and four, which is how it goes when it gets to the tag. But the song is six minutes long so I created a more orchestral rhythm for the verses. I danced that rhythm part off and it's kind of an eccentric beat until it locks out at the end.

"Another thing that I knew I was going to use was a sound I had captured in New York on Super 8 film with sound. I was shooting a wall of graffiti and when I got the film back there was a guy hammering and a burglar alarm going off. It was a very ominous sound—like judges' gavels and Gestapo marching. I wanted to use it on the chorus to set up a kind of foreboding.

"All good things are born of some travail, I guess. I'm very pleased with this album, but I was in a room with three guys. On "The Three Great Stimulants" everything that I suggested they fought me on. It took a lot of energy to hold true to my vision. Nobody was particularly keen on the straight eights. I insisted on it and with my insistence they improved on

my idea. Because they basically didn't like it they made it better. They were all dead set against it and I said: "Just don't argue (laughing). Just give me four minutes of straight eights. It might not even remain there, but we've got to make a first stroke.

"Instead of just a helicopter blade they laid down two tracks, and they distilled that sound so that there's an audio illusion. You have two tracks that are stereoed and are slightly offset. I would probably have stuck with the stock sound. Then we went on to the hammering/burglar alarm idea. I was told it wasn't 'HiFi' enough. (They used it, anyway.) There's a harp sound that nobody liked, to illustrate 'innocence', a

beat from Stravinsky that represents 'brutality' and a beat from Madonna that represents 'artifice'. I mean there's so much going on there and every one of those ideas seemed eccentric. No one had the overview, including me. When the thing was completely fleshed out, everyone said, 'Ohh . . . yeah'. Then it began to sound good. But during the process of getting there nobody knew what I was doing (she laughs, again)."

You seem to be using a lot of effects to create the final interpretation of each song.

"Well, I always did. On Hissing of Summer Lawns there's a song called "Harry's House" that opens with the sound of a plane landing. What I did was

have a player with a muted trumpet play a note as long as he could hold it out. Then I gave him another note, and I did that with several tracks. It's a very disonnant chord. Then we took that piece of tape and that harmony—with the equipment back then it was a real three-handed effort—and we dialed it down with a pitch modulator. So you get this sound (she makes the sound) that sets up the beginning of the song.

"That's the kind of illustrative music we're doing now, only the equipment has made that thinking appear more frequently. More people are doing that kind of thing now, quite simply because the machine itself has all the sounds built into it. When they're running through the files they find a sound and maybe they find a place for it. But I've been messin' around with that for a lot of years, now. It's just that the equipment opens up the possibilities to a greater degree.

"Sometimes there are flaws in the programming of the machine and it's the flaws that I think I like best. A bad loop will show up someplace on the programming, maybe like on F. You'll hear a pulse beat along with the chord. You'll hear whoa... whoa... whoa... whoa... but if you move it up a key it will go 'whoa. whoa. whoa. whoa.' The tempo picks up with the pitch. So you find a key where the pulse will be a tempo that you like the groove of. You hold down the chord so that it's droning. It has a limited amount of voicing, it doesn't have any modulation, and you hold it for four minutes and you build your track off that. That, for me, would be a discipline of monochromatic harmony. It would be an intriguing tack to take and something I intend to do.

"Music is funny and so trendy. It always has blind spots. For instance: In the sixties I had a heck of a time. The style then was for bass players to play with dead strings and for drummers to have the snare heads really tight and a pillow stuffed in the kick. A tight little sound. I was always craving rounder tones off the bass and slacker drum heads. Well, that came around in the late seventies and early eighties. Trend shifted and suddenly there were a lot of people who played that way. That's heavenly for me because I always heard sound that way. You're always bucking a trend that's so followed that if you told a bass player: 'Look, can you change your strings...?' First of all he'd think you've got no taste!

"Sometimes the things I want are so out of synch with fashion, and it appeared that this was happening again. I've been in this business long enough to have bucked these things before. The difficulty is in holding your ground and maintaining confidence in your own ideas against unanimous expertise."


"Both Sides Now" (covered by Judy Collins) and "The Circle Game" (covered by Tom Rush) are picked up before she ever records. 1968 -Song To A Seagull, produced by David Crosby.

1969 -Clouds, includes "Woodstock".

1970 -Ladies of the Canyon She moves away from folk towards "pop" sounds.

1971 -Blue

1972 -For The Roses Moving towards jazz, Tom Scott and the LA Express become her back-up band.

1974 -Court and Spark; Miles of Aisles, double live album. Well past pop, she moves deeper into jazz using members of Weather Report.

1975 -The Hissing of Summer Lawns

1976 -Hejira

1977 -Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, double studio album. On the cover she poses as a black man.

1979 -Mingus, only record, besides her first, to not reach "Gold" status.

1980 -Shadows And Light, live album with members of the Pat Metheny Group and the Persuasions. She moves beyond jazz towards a more contemporary sound.

1982 -Wild Things Run Fast

1985 - Dog Eat Dog

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