Broadcast in three parts on three consecutive days - transcribed from the audio by Lindsay Moon
Broadcast April 25, 2005, Monday 07:45:30 - 07:50:20 Eastern Time
Seamus O’Regan: Joni Mitchell and Coco, the dog. Thank you both for coming on Canada A.M.
Joni Mitchell: (Laughs).
SO: How are you?
JM: I’m good.
SO: This is a beautiful compilation, "Songs of a Prairie Girl."
JM: Thank you.
SO: Tell me how you chose the songs, how they made the grade.
JM: Well, Saskatchewan is having its Centennial celebration and I’ve retired basically so they had wanted me to perform and I thought, well, I don’t do that anymore; I’m a painter now. So what I’ll do is I’ll see if Rhino Records will put out a compilation of material that is either inspired or directly addressing my childhood or, you know, songs about the prairie in one way or another.
So "Urge for Going" is one of the first songs that I wrote, and it’s that longing for warmer climates in the middle of the frozen tundra, you know (laughs.)
SO: I think you found it, by the way. I wanted to ask you about "Urge for Going" specifically because at that point in time in your life, was it an urge for going or an urge for arriving somewhere else? I mean, did you want to leave?
JM: Well, in Maidstone, we lived right across from the grain elevators, and the highway with people coming and going was in between us. And the train went by in the morning and I used to get up and wave to -- the train would blow a whistle coming around the bend and I’d hear it and go running out and wave to the conductor every morning. And there wasn’t a lot of traffic and people went 50 miles an hour when I was a child. But to be on the edge of a river really with wheeled vehicles, and people coming and going, I think that that is where the concept comes from. I’m sure as a small child I contemplated where are they going?, these cars that are going, where’s the train going?, you know, they’re passing by but where are they going? So "Urge for Going" is just a desire to get out of the cold.
When I put all of this stuff together, I went, ‘Oh, dear, it’s all about wanting to get out of the cold,’ the whole thing. So that’s why I put on the liner notes, you know, ‘grab a hot beverage and stand next to the heater when you put this thing on!’ (Laughs.) And I took all those chilly photographs too as an illustration for it.
SO: The photographs are beautiful.
JM: They are. Joel Bernstein took those. They really – they turned out -- we were after a classic Hans Brinker shot, the closest of which is the front cover shot. And then the wind just got caught up in this cape that I was wearing and made all sorts of interesting shapes.
SO: I was really surprised that your painting wasn’t on that, one of your paintings weren’t on the cover, I mean like "Both Sides Now." Because you’re painting quite prolifically, are you?
JM: I did last year. I did a series of 22 paintings. Drought in the rainforest. You know, the B.C. forest is burning up on this land that I own and I made peace with the pain of it, you know, watching one species after another sicken and die, you know, by painting a series of paintings. And I hadn’t had a luxury to do that many in a row – I worked from August until I guess April of the following year just kind of non stop.
SO: Whenever you talk about muse and during our conversation, you always point to yourself or inside you, you use this reflex. Can muse have a place though? Can it be geographic? Would you say that your muse or a portion of your muse still exists north of the 49?
JM: Oh! Oh, my goodness, yeah! "Songs of a Prairie Girl" you’ll see the references in the songs. You may be someplace else in the world but you’re thinking always. I mean you carry your childhood with you regardless who you are or where you come – but you always carry your childhood. It doesn’t matter – everybody carries their childhood, you know. I mean, Saskatchewan is in my veins, that stark beauty and the smell of it, the sages and so on. (End of Part 1.)
Beverly Thomson: Interesting.
SO: She’s going to be attending the Centennial celebration later on this year, so, you know, people in Saskatchewan are very excited about that.
Beverly Thomson: Oh, for sure. You know, you were saying before that she doesn’t really give very many interviews –
Beverly Thomson. – and she doesn’t. Did you find when you first met her that she was shy in the beginning and it took some …
SO: It did and we talked for a little while beforehand and she wanted some comfort about, I guess, what kind of person I guess I was and we talked at great length –
Beverly Thomson: Did you tell her the truth?
Beverly Thomson: I’m kidding. Sorry.
SO: But she went ahead with the interview anyway! Can you believe it?
Beverly Thomson: I know. I was wondering why –
SO: I asked her about the smoking because that’s the first thing you notice, and she said it opens up her body language. That’s why she enjoys smoking. Otherwise she gets very closed and reserved. So she’s been smoking for a long, long time, and if she wants to smoke during the interview --
Beverly Thomson: If you want an interview, she’ll smoke during it.
SO: That’s right. We’re going to have the second part of the interview with Joni Mitchell tomorrow, an exclusive on Canada A.M. We’ll be right back.
Part 2 (April 26, 2005, Tuesday 08:39:40 - 08:45:10 Eastern Time):
SO: Well, Joni Mitchell’s new CD’s in stores today. It’s called "Songs of a Prairie Girl." It is music that she either wrote about Saskatchewan, where she’s originally from, or while she was there, while she was living there. Now, her last album or her album that she inspired was a Starbucks compilation of songs that she was inspired by, artists from Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington to the New Radicals.
Here’s the second part of my interview with Joni Mitchell at the Bel Air Hotel and as you’ll see, her dog Coco is never far away.
SO: You don’t – you don’t listen to music much anymore, do you?
JM: Not – not – not for years. I came to hate it actually. (Laughs.) I just came to hate it.
SO: When you say you retired from music, you mean it.
JM: Oh, yeah.
SO: I mean –
JM: No, I don’t really – to do the Starbucks compilation, I asked to do that. You know, when I saw that it existed I went, "Oh, could I do one of these? Because I would like to know what, if anything, I ever liked about music. What did I like, or why is it so gone?"
SO: I find that so dispiriting, though. I mean –
SO: Well, I guess because you’re so good, and the fact that you are so angry at the industry I guess –
JM: For 20 years I’ve been told I’m no good. I mean it’s kind of like you – you – you deliver a project with great enthusiasm and then you run into a hostile press and a stupid press, you know? Like the dumbing down is very much apparent, you know (laughs)? And all they wanted me to do for the last 10 years – once they found out I didn’t like music, then to their delight, all they wanted out of me was to dis on everybody. Well, you know, everything was way below my standards, my own standards had gotten so high, you know, I’d think why are these people all puffed up? You’d think they’re jumping seven feet and they’re jumping – if they’re lucky – seven inches. I mean, what about Chopin? What about – what happened to this masterful talent? What happened to the muse, you know? The relationship between the musician and their muse had been usurped by an intermediary who was calculating demographics and polls and "Oh, no, no, that’s too smart for them, take that out." Or "Oh," you know, "that’s too controversial." I mean, the things that I’ve been told to kill in my work by the record company and management and the reasons behind it, had I done that it would have been a tragedy. That would have been a tragedy. The idea that our youth is being brainwashed by this sarcasm and bad potty training and scatological humor, it’s contrived money music. You know, you hear young artists talking and they’re talking demographics. And I saw one girl, a 14-year-old, you know with a brand new bosom and she shoved it at the camera and said, "I want to get my music to the world!" you know? And I thought there’s no muse in this. There’s a drive to be looked at, you know? So this is not -- these are not creative people; these are created people.
SO: Where does Canada fit into that? You’re here, we’re in L.A., we’re in Beverly Hills right now. You’re living here. You’ve an amazing vantage point on our country now.
JM: Comedians have always had a sense of humor about themselves. And they have a global vision to a degree. America is so blinded by – it’s like communist Russia, it talks a lot about freedom, but it really doesn’t know much beyond its own borderlines. So it has the illusion that it’s the best in the world but it’s never seen the rest of the world. How would it know that?
SO: Do you accept yourself as someone who inspires other musicians? Because many musicians will often cite you as an inspiration.
JM: I’m grateful when people like the work, really I am, you know? There’s an intent to some of my work – you know, I’m one of those fools that thinks the pen is mightier than the sword and we can actually change the world (laughs), you know? I mean, I’ve had that optimism. The world is just getting worse and worse and worse so my optimism is kind of paling but …
SO: So you must be inspired by the fact that you’ve made George Bush’s iPod.
JM: (Laughs). Oh, God.
SO: He’s listening to you, Joni!
JM: (Sings) "You’re so square, baby!" (Laughs).
SO: He’s singing along! When you found that out, how did it make you feel?
JM: It gave me a giggle. Yeah. I wish it was something else. I wish they’d put in "Dog Eat Dog," you know? "Land of snap decisions / land of short attention spans / nothing is savored long enough to really understand / In every culture in decline / the watchful ones among the slaves / know all that is genuine will be conned and scorned and cast away." I wish he had some stuff like that in his little noggin. But he’s got "You’re so square, baby!" (Laughs).
SO: Oh, well. Thank you very much.
JM: You’re very welcome.
SO: Joni Mitchell, great to meet you.
JM: Great to meet you. (End of Part 2.)
SO: Tomorrow on Canada A.M. Joni and I are going to take a walk through the Bel Air Hotel, and she’s going to talk about how she suffered polio as a child and was told she would never walk again. She fought it back as a 12-year-old. It’s a great story.
SO: All week we’ve been showing you excerpts of our exclusive interview with Joni Mitchell. Today, the final segment, Joni and I take a walk through the gardens at California’s Bel Air Hotel in Beverly Hills where she talks about her childhood battle with polio.
SO: Tell me about seeing Ray Charles.
JM: Oh, well, he was arrested in Calgary for possession of heroin, and as a little kid – ‘cause drugs weren’t part of the culture then – I remember feeling sad like he’d done something bad but I wasn’t exactly sure what. You know, ‘Oh, heroin,’ that seemed like a really bad thing to do. And they didn’t hold him, the show went on, so our tickets were good. We were all going (makes grimacing sound) he’s not going to come here. The show was wonderful. It was a wonderful experience except I’ve got the rockin’ pneumonia sitting down at a rhythm revue. It was held in the arena in Saskatoon and you couldn’t get up and dance. And every time you did stand up on your chair and start to emote, someone would come down the aisle and make us sit again. It was very repressive.
SO: And after you had put the rhinestones on your jeans you wanted to show them off!
JM: I studded them all the way down the side, oh, yeah.
SO: Where did you get that sense of individuality? Did your parents foster that?
JM: My parents are very much individuals. I mean, even though they completely towed the old line, they functioned – but they just think individually. And I, also, I was on my own. I had a lot of childhood illness so I was nearly dying all the time.
SO: You had polio for one?
JM: Well, polio was kind of in a long list of diseases that I took. You know, so when you’re sick as a child you – it’s not a normal childhood because you’re facing mortality all the time. I mean teenagers usually aren’t aware of their mortality. At this age you’re supposed to be aware of your mortality and I’m not really – I’m kind of like, well, if I’m lucky I’ve still got 30 years to go. My parents are in their 90s. I could get a lot done in 30 years, you know? That’s the way I look at it, rather than, ‘Oh, dear, I’m middle-aged’ and …
You know, I love this leg of my life. It’s different. Things have fallen away but they’ve been easy to give up and new things have popped up in their stead and, you know, I come from long-living people but I took a lot of disease. But as a child facing your mortality like that I think makes you different from other children.
SO: What did you reflect upon? May I take your arm again?
SO: What did you reflect upon when you were bedridden when you were a child when you were recovering from polio? I mean what, what did you think about?
JM: I can only remember one reflection in regard to polio and that was it was coming Christmas and I wanted to go home and they said I couldn’t. "Why can’t I?" I said, and the doctor that came to me, he had had polio and he was in a wheelchair. He said, "Well, you can’t walk." I said, "Okay, what if I walk? Can I go home then?" And he said, "Well, you can’t even stand." And I said, "Well, what if I stand and walk?" And he hung his head like this. He didn’t say anything, he hung his head, which was kind of like an intimation that I wouldn’t stand and I wouldn’t walk.
So I said to my Christmas tree – my mother put a little Christmas tree in my room and gave me decorations for it – I decorated that tree and I said to that tree, "I am not a cripple. No way. No way." And I took the Sister Kenny treatments which were very – some kids – you had the option; you could take them or not. They didn’t really necessarily believe in them but they were quite miraculous, but they were excruciatingly painful. They pin scalding hot rags all over you, right?
SO: Oh, my gosh.
JM: And the kid in the bed next to me -- there was a boy to the room I was in -- he wouldn’t take them. So I did all my treatments and one day I said to them, "Okay, I’m going to try and walk." We were in a trailer camp, trailers chained together outside the hospital because it was so infectious, and there was a ramp from the trailer that I was in to a ramp where the kids that were in iron lungs were in. And you could hear these things wheezing and that was the thing, oh, don’t let it hit my lungs because then you’re a vegetable for the rest of your life. So now I was merely a cripple but, you know, anyway I said, "I want to try it." So they wheeled me out to this hallway which had double chrome handrails along the side and there were several people in wheelchair. I had a bit of a cheering squad. And they lined up, I got out of the chair, they stood me up and I moved along this corridor, hand over hand on these chrome rails. And I got to the end and I said, "Now can I go home?" because I lived in a little wartime house on the top floor so you would have to -- how are they going to get me up and down the stairs even with a wheelchair, you know? So I did it and I went home for Christmas. (End of Part 3)
SO: Boy, isn’t that stuff awesome? Wow.
Beverly Thomson. Good stuff. Good work.
SO: Talk about opening up. You just don’t see that. You do not see that.
Beverly Thomson. Oh, yeah.
SO: She doesn’t do interviews.
Beverly Thomson: No, she doesn’t.
SO: It was a real thrill to meet her.