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Mood indigo: Joni Mitchell gets blue again Print-ready version

by Martin Simpson
Guitar Player (Magazine)
February 1995

Rumors are not only ugly creatures, but very often sad ones as well. About two years ago, word on the grapevine was that Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell were both very ill--dying, some said--and unable to work. We lost Frank, but Joni remains with us, larger than life, having recovered from the kind of pre-cancerous bleeding throat lesions that killed Sammy Davis, Jr.

In person Mitchell chain-smokes unapologetically and laughs in a higher register than her smoky speaking voice would bring you to expect. She talks of keeping evil spirits at bay. Her conversation is frank yet guarded, lucid, witty, and occasionally brutal. When asked her opinion of a Canadian tribute album featuring covers of her songs, she remarks that she sees her songs as three separate threads--chordal construction, melody, and lyrics--and she finds it unfortunate that the people who contributed to the record seemed to have missed that concept.

Mitchell has recorded 17 albums in 26 years, moving from solo acoustic work that still exerts great charm and influence to collaborations with many leading lights of the acoustic side of rock and on into ever more complex musical areas. Shortly before his death, the great jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus extended the greatest of accolades to Joni by asking her to write lyrics for his music. She worked with many of the finest young jazz musicians and was the catalyst for some of their best work. Many consider Jaco Pastorius' accompaniments on Hejira to be his finest performance.

At the 1994 Edmonton Folk Festival, Joni played her first full-length set in six years. "It had a homecoming kind of feeling," says Mitchell. "The locals were very enthusiastic. I had a large group of relatives present who are getting quite old, who'd never seen me play. I had to drink two flasks of sake to get up there, because that could have been a hard audience." Onstage was a rack of acoustic guitars in a bewildering array of tunings. Occasionally she swapped guitars and retuned them as she went. Holding the capacity crowd in rapt attention, she treated the audience to a performance of great intimacy without facade. To great effect she sang in a voice which is both eroded and loved. It was not a safe performance. The most familiar songs were "Hejira," "Just Like This Train," and "Cherokee Louise," from Night Ride Home, which appropriately opened the set, but the body of the material came from her new Reprise album, Turbulent Indigo. These songs revealed her increasingly outward-looking stance, compassion, and moral outrage. After a first encore of "Magdalene Laundries," Joni came back with "Woodstock" and a much reworked "Big Yellow Taxi."

In a 1990 interview with England's Sunday Times, Joni responded to inquiries about the rising tide of young female singer/songwriters, allegedly her legacy, by saying, "There are dozens of them, but I don't hear much there, frankly. When it comes to knowing where to put the chords, how to tell a story, and how to build to a chorus, most of them can't touch me." Indeed, the woman who describes her musical process as "intuitive" and "idiot savant" is perhaps the most influential female guitarist of the century, and one of the least understood. Hers is not a transparent or single talent. Her guitar playing, from her earliest and most accessible experiments in straight major tunings to her present idiosyncratic polytonal grooves, continues to be an inspiration to many musicians, from would-be singer/songwriters to major stars.

You have a great deal of separation between the threads of the composition. You treat the lyrical content, the melodic content, and the guitar independently. How do you regard the guitar in that context?

I think of the guitar as an orchestra, and I have ever since I started to write my own music, which began about '65. Prior to that I played folk songs, and my style was quite different. People were always telling me I was playing things wrong. [Laughs.] When I started to write my own music, then I was the final authority on it, and it was orchestral from the beginning. I can't remember how I thought of the strings back then, but I do remember that I wrote a rather long composition, which was more like "Peter And The Wolf" than anything else. I'd gone to England for the first time, before I started to record, and did a few gigs with the Incredible String Band and some of my own. We were in a pub somewhere, and there was a poster on the wall. I think it was a very old theatrical poster, probably from Shakespearean times by the look of it, and it had a listing of the cast of characters in this particular play. I came back to America, and I made up a composition where each of the characters had a figurative motif.

When I'm writing, I put the guitar in the tuning first of all--sometimes a familiar tuning. I have 50 of them now. Sometimes I get lost going between one and the other, and I find a new one. Then I have an adventure ahead of me because I have to figure out the shapes in it in order to retrieve the composition. Once I find six or seven chords, I begin to arrange them in an attractive manner. Because of the way I play now I can't really remember the whole chronology of it. I tend to think of the top three strings as muted trumpets, or the high end of an orchestra--horn stops. I think of the midrange as viola, I guess not violins--but the orchestra's mid-register, say French horn and viola. The thumb is a very sparse, eccentric bass line. Timewise the thumb can play vertically while the rest of the fingers are swinging, which gives a funny kind of Senegalese quality to my shuffle, as if my thumb is playing a monkey chant and the rest of me is swinging somewhere in the U.S.A.--like Robert Johnson on Mars.

I was really taken by your live solo version of "Cherokee Louise." In the recorded version it isn't quite as clear just how much the vocal cuts across the guitar part, and it's a very eccentric time signature. I got the same kind of feeling from "Turbulent Indigo."

It's my attempt to play a shuffle out of the black blues idiom. It's swinging but it's almost indicated more than pronounced. Sometimes the voice will swing it. It's like playing swing with your voice, with the guitar note swinging exactly straight, but that's the way you angle it. So once I've got the chordal movement designed, it almost holds up instrumentally. Then you add your free lines, which will be your lead violin. The voice becomes like a lead violin or a horn player against it.

You've had a lot of different instruments, including a Steve Klein custom and a 12-fret 000 Martin. How would you describe your relationship with the instrument?

My first instrument was a baritone ukulele. Needless to say, it wasn't a very good instrument, but it was all I could afford--I couldn't afford a guitar. Then I had a nylon-string guitar, and it disappeared. Somewhere along the line I lost it. The first good instrument I had was a small-bodied Martin that didn't have very good bass response.

During the Vietnam war I played in Fort Bragg for soldiers coming back from and going to the war. It was mostly a male audience. There was a captain there who'd been to Vietnam and returned, and he had two instruments that he'd taken with him. I guess this whole place was a battlefield, and shrapnel hit his tent and demolished one guitar. The only surviving thing was a Martin D-28, which I'd always wanted but couldn't afford. One night after I'd played, he told me, "Joni, you're better than Peter, Paul And Mary, and you should have this guitar," and he told me the history of it. Being an independent girl, I said, "I couldn't take it as a gift, but I'll buy it off you." So he sold it to me for nothing really--a lot less than its value at that time. That guitar, which I used for at least my first four albums, was superb. It got cracked on the airlines--its face got crushed. It was repaired, but it never sounded right. It just died.

After that I became very promiscuous with guitars, and I could never find one with that balance and resonance. It was a better D-28 than anybody ever heard. It was a 1956, built at a time when Martin was very selective; their craftsmanship was at its pinnacle, I think. It wasn't so mass produced. After that the D-28 got spottier and spottier. Every acoustic player that ever touched that guitar just drooled over it, and it even stood up to my tunings, which put a lot of stress on the neck. It just seemed to eat that up. It traveled well, through hot and cold, and it was my true love. Anyway, it finally was stolen off a carousel in Maui, of all places, and that was the end of it.

In the years to follow I became promiscuous again. I searched and bought old Martins, but nothing compared. Neil Young gave me my first electric guitar. He told me it was time to plug in. He gave me the guitar that he played with the Buffalo Springfield and a little Boogie amp. I finally switched over to electric guitar in the early '80s. Because of the tunings, I bought a fleet of them, and each one was set up to hold a different tuning from Hejira. I was using mostly Ibanez George Bensons.

The electric wasn't really the right instrument for the way I play either. I need a round, rich, resonant, well-balanced sound. Everybody has different ears and likes their guitars to sound a different way. But last year I bought the Martin D-45 that I was playing in Edmonton. That guitar is the closest to my old Martin that I have found. The same dealer who sold me the D-45 introduced me to a new guitar maker called Collings, who fancies himself to be Martin reincarnated. He's making Martin clones, but in the old way--a small number a year and with the details that fell by the way as Martin went for mass production. I picked up two more instruments that I think are really superb: a baby guitar with a 14-fret neck and a dreadnought. I need the long necks for my tunings, although I enjoy the wide, old 12-fret necks. So now I have an arsenal of acoustics to suit my music for the first time in my career.

You describe your tunings in terms of fret positions.

5, 5, 5, 4, 5, right? E bottom, 5, 5, 5, 4, 5--that would be standard tuning. Because my voice has deepened I'm generally playing C on the bottom string. Even though I might have recorded some of them like "Big Yellow Taxi" in what was really my meat-and-potatoes tuning, with a D bottom, I've mostly come down to a C, and "Magdalene Laundries" has a Bb bottom.

When you first got into open tunings, it was inspired by a traditional music background, in the sense that you were on the periphery of the folk scene. But you evolved very quickly and took those tunings to a place where no one else had really gone. What was the first step that caused you to stray from those traditional tunings?

Maybe I could answer that when I start looking at the box set. Then I could see when it begins to arrive. But I think maybe it arrived first in the piano. I think I had a prodigious creative ability as a musician, but the community that I grew up in disallowed it. I know I wanted to compose for the piano, that I heard music in my head at the age of seven and had to learn it. I got my fingers rapped with a ruler, and I was told at the time, "Why would you want to compose music when you could have the masters under your fingers?" The young Mozart was encouraged by his father, and the idea of composition coming at an early age wasn't ruled out, but it certainly was in this little community. The idea of being an original creative person was almost like anathema. Playing by ear was considered to be declasse. It was really misunderstood and discouraged. But the classical forms and harmonies were some-thing that thrilled me, and everything that thrilled me at an early age was harmonically wide and rich. I heard a lot of swing music and things like Frank Sinatra. In order for musicians to play that stuff you have to have a background in European harmony and structure. I was hearing and absorbing this music with no real understanding.

People referred to you as a folksinger at first. I always felt that was a bizarre title.

Well, I was a girl with a guitar, you know.

Did you have much of a background in traditional music?

Traditional music meaning...?

North American folk music.

Well, I picked up the guitar--or the ukulele--at the age of 18 with no ambition to have a career in music, just to accompany bawdy drinking songs.

That sounds like a traditional background.

There was no pub tradition in my town. The original fathers were temperance types. There wasn't a lot of public drinking--in the bars the women went in one door, the men the other--not like the English tradition. My first true passion, particularly about melody, was a piece of classical music by Paganini. That still remains the most beautiful melody I ever heard. I used to go down to the store where you could take a 78 and go into a glass listening booth, play it, and decide if you wanted it or not. Well, I couldn't buy it because I was a child, but I used to go in and listen from time to time. So that love of melody made me want to create music. My next passion was Chuck Berry and rock and roll. That took a different form. I became a dancer, a really serious dancer, doing the Lindy hop and swing dances. Then at 18 I took up the guitar, and nobody knew who I was anymore.

It must sometimes be very painful to be so visible in your growth and in your changes, not just personally but artistically. You've made musical moves that are expansive and beautiful and received very negative reactions.

Not that I'm likening myself to Mozart, but the reason he's on my mind is because last weekend when I was in Toronto, my boyfriend and I went out to Sparrow Lake, and we rented a cabin with a fireplace. We sat by the fire and listened to hours and hours of CBC Radio. It was very diversified programming. Several of those hours were classical. There was one hour devoted to excerpts from various symphonies. Frankly, I find most symphonies rather dull because they're restricted to one key. I like more surprise. I tend to like other forms of music better, with a few exceptions. Now Mozart, although I can see the virtuosity and the technique, the basis of his work is like a nursery rhyme--simple harmony and melody. I'm sure that made it the pop music of his day. It seemed to me that he'd taken these simple melodies, and he'd gained popularity because he had the virtuosity to play and harmonize these things no matter how simple they were. Then Mozart's writing became too difficult, and he fell from favor. Well, my God, when it became too difficult, did it ever become beautiful!

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