One of the few Canadian musicians who's made it really big internationally is sitting before a phalanx of microphones photographers, TV cameramen, and music journalists, patiently answering questions and chatting about her work.
It's Joni Mitchell, the Toronto folk singer who journeyed to New York City in the late '60s to try her luck at being a pop star, and succeeded on a grand scale. The surprise isn't that she's just released her 15th album, called "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm," but rather that she's actually here, letting herself be probed and prodded by questions that are alternately bright and stupid. For years, Mitchell refused to subject herself to this type of media scrutiny, but now, at a very youthful-looking 44, she's changed her tune. Asked why, she gives a generous reply.
"Well," she says, "there's an idea that I like very much that entered Western thought via Carl Jung. It's an old Indian idea called 'The Medicine Wheel' that's a very good diagram to communications. North is intellect; south is feeling and emotion, east is clarity, and west is introspection or sensation. In order to speak the whole truth, you have to be well-versed and spend time in all those directions - they all help develop your perceptions.
"I spent most of my 20s in the west. I spent some time in the north, too, being an intellectual: nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there….."
Now firmly entrenched in the clarity of the eastern zone, she's feeling "better than I did 20 years ago." Poet, singer, guitarist, and keyboard player - not to mention painter - she's taken on a new role: casting director.
The guest list of the new album reads like a Who's Who of pop music. Big stars such as Peter Gabriel, Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Wendy & Lisa, and Thomas Dolby all made themselves available for singing or playing parts in various songs. For instance, on "Dancin' Clown," Billy Idol sings the growly vocals of Rowdy Yates, a bully who's "all chide and snide and bluff/ stuck in the romantic tradition/ of acting rough and tough," whereas Tom Petty sings the part of the "thin-skinned" Jesse.
Not all the tracks on the album are like musical soap operas, though. Most put Mitchell right in the centre, with the music swirling around her in layers of soothing melodies and clever instrumental arrangements. You could call the music a mellower side of rock, but that would be to ignore its subtleties and complexities that have the power to throw your perception into "the secret place" that Mitchell sings about in the first track.
As for her familiarity with ancient Indian philosophy, Indian ideas and symbolism make frequent appearances in the Joni Mitchell milieu. In the album cover photo, she's wrapped in a Navaho blanket. And the song "Lakota" poignantly indicts the American government for trying to grab Hopi Indian land to mine it for uranium. That one issue serves as a reminder that the whole Earth is being trampled and choked because of money madness.
Mitchell's ex-manager Elliot Roberts once suggested she write about "sex and parties like everyone else," but she sees her main function as being "to try and articulate what it's like to live in these times." Not only does she show concern for environmental issues and the loss of ancient culture, she also points up the horror and absurdities of war. "The Tea Leaf Prophecy" and "The Beat of Black Wings" both lambast war.
"We were in England when U.S. planes stationed there bombed Libya," Mitchell says. "During that time period, all our thinking turned to war and how small the planet was. We were also there when the accident occurred in Chernobyl. A friend of mine had just had twins in Norway. In Sweden, the mothers' milk was contaminated… All of these events came into the writing."
For Mitchell, making a record album is an intuitive process. She sculpts music out of the messages and perceptions that pass through her and spontaneously seep out in the form of emotion.
"I try when starting a record to not have too much of a concept," she says. "I think it gets in the way of the magic - magic being those things that occur spontaneously. If you have too much of a roadmap in front of you, you can sleep through the best of the spontaneity."
Mitchell's husband, guitarist Larry Klein, produced the album because "he understood my process, that it was delicate and intuitive, and that you shouldn't bring intellect into it. Most producers don't understand about spirit. I don't really need a producer. I just need someone to bounce ideas off of and set up the technology for me."
Mitchell talks a lot about magic and intuition, and these themes show up - covertly and overtly - on "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm." It's an album that balances intellect, emotion, clarity and introspection, and thus appeals on all those levels.