Joni Mitchell held court and sparked the fancy of media onlookers yesterday at a rambling, hour-long press conference in the Hot Stove Club at Maple Leaf Gardens.
In town to promote her 15th album, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, Mitchell wore a black hat and long gold earrings and smoked cigarettes.
Famous for her disdain of dumb questions about her life and music, the 44-year-old songwriter seemed in a more forgiving mood, fielding even the silliest inquiries with grace and good humor.
One reporter suggested that Chalk Mark - an album that includes performances by an all-star cast including Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson and Don Henley - was a thematic rant against the upwardly mobile: "You seem to be down on yuppies."
"That's your interpretation," Mitchell responded. "I think if you look at (the lyrics), it's very neutral reporting. It's not passing judgment . . ."
Produced by Mitchell and her husband, bassist Larry Klein, Chalk Mark was recorded at nine different studios, including Peter Gabriel's Ashcombe House in Bath.
She added that the U.S. bombing mission on Libya was launched from an airstrip just over the next ridge, a fact which led to the writing of "The Beat Of Black Wings", one of the best of the new songs.
"At night we could see the orange glow from the landing strip," she recalled. "During that period, all of our thinking turned to war . . ."
This, in turn, led to another glib dig about whether Mitchell felt she was "doing enough" by just being an artist and not lending a hand to more practical causes.
"I work very hard already . . . this is a full-time job," she asserted with a smile.
Later, someone else wanted to know if she felt any bond with Anne Murray, another Canadian "icon" who has done well away from home.
"I've been pitted together with so many odd bedfellows," Mitchell groaned.
From her confessional debut album in 1968 on through to her jazz-inflected experiments on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira in the mid '70s, Mitchell has been a wordsmith whose words have often been taken the wrong way.
"People don't listen very well, as a rule," she explained. "My songs have a lot of 'He said/She said', and if you miss a 'He said' then you're liable to misunderstand the content . . ."
Another fellow, overcome with awe, told her she was a "major contributor" to the culture of the second half of the 20th century, or something like that.
"Ohmigawd," she laughed, lighting a cigarette and doing her diplomatic best to deflect the ridiculous glow of admiration that radiated toward her.
The best moments were quick shots, short reminiscences of her early days as a young Toronto singer, just blown in from her home on the Prairies and soon headed for fame and fortune in the States.
"It was tough getting started here," she said of Toronto. "I didn't have enough money to get in the musicians' union. There was one scab club that I played on Avenue Rd."
On the drug culture: "Crosby, Stills and Nash were going to call their first album The Frozen Noses. I didn't know what that meant!"
On songwriting: "I still start pretty much the same way. I sit down with a guitar and then I flesh it out on the keyboard."
On regrets: "I don't think I'll be remembered for the best of my material." ("Raised On Robbery" and "Big Yellow Taxi", she feels, aren't two of her better songs).
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