Introductory text by Wally Breese, Interview by Jody Denberg.
Austin, Texas DJ, Jody Denberg, interviewed Joni Mitchell at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles on September 9, 1998. A large chunk of the interview was aired on KGSR-FM, the radio station where he works, and later a small portion was published in the Austin Chronicle newspaper. Reprise Records also released a promotional-only CD which included the interview and songs, exactly as it aired on KGSR.
I contacted Jody regarding his interview with Joni, and asked if there was more of it that hadn't been aired. He told me, "Yes, there is," and kindly sent me a cassette of the uncut interview. He also agreed to allow me to transcribe it and post the entire thing here on Joni's website.
I asked Jody a few questions about his IV with Joni, and also about the 1995 promotional CD that has cuts from various artists, and includes the song "The Sire Of Sorrow" from Joni's 1994 album Turbulent Indigo. An original painting of Joni's (also from the TI package) is reproduced as the cover of the CD.
Wally: How did the 1995 KGSR sampler come about, and how did you get Joni to not only agree to include one of her songs on it but also allow you to use one of her paintings as the cover shot?
Jody: The KGSR samplers were actually produced for many AAA stations and customized for each with our logo. The labels support them to expose the music. I was not involved with it.
Wally: When did you first meet Joni?
Jody: I had never met her before that day. I have done CDs of this nature before with artists like B.B. King & Yoko Ono, amongst others, and her label reps passed my proposal to Joni & she approved.
Wally: What was your general impression of Joni as a person?
Jody: My impression of Joni as a person was ... well, first of all my meeting with her engendered mega-respect. She was open and expansive with her answers, articulate and forthcoming. Joni is a bit bitter about the music industry and rightfully so - it prizes the almighty dollar over innovation and imagination (but what business doesn't?). Yet she comes off almost vulnerable at times. Off-mic she bemoaned the fact that she was no longer together with her former beau (the one who co-wrote "The Crazy Cries Of Love"), and seemed wistful and a bit sad. She has a strong sense of herself - and a strong opinion of her own worth - and so do I!
(This is Jody Denberg's introduction to the segment of his interview that was printed in the Austin Chronicle):
Joni Mitchell recently read in a book of birthdays that she was born on the day of the discoverer in the week of depth, and her more than 30 years' worth of songs and paintings certainly prove the astrologers right. During an hour-long interview conducted last month at Los Angeles' plush Bel Air Hotel for a promotional compact disc, Mitchell, who turns 55 November 7, seemed eager to not only express her triumphs and frustrations, but also to learn about herself in the process. Though she smokes one cigarette after another and her voice maintains its native Canadian lilt, Mitchell's glowing face still appears quintessentially Californian as she recounts the endless litigation she endured during the Eighties (related to tax woes and battles with her bank and business manager). The last decade has also found the iconic singer-songwriter's albums critically and commercially under-appreciated. More troubling, perhaps, is Mitchell's faltering health, due in part to five years of "dental hell" coupled with post-polio syndrome -- the fallout from a childhood bout with polio that made it difficult for her to even hold a guitar.
Mercifully, Mitchell's life in the Nineties has moved her to write in a new song that "Happiness Is The Best Face Lift." Having abandoned Western medicine for a "Chinese mystic acupuncturist," Mitchell now feels fine, and a wafer-thin guitar has made it easier for her to hold the instrument. A slew of accolades came in the wake of her last album of new material, 1994's Turbulent Indigo: induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, two Grammys, Billboard's 1995 Century Award, and the National Academy of Songwriters' 1996 Lifetime Achievement Award. Two career compilations followed (Hits and Misses), and when Mitchell was finally reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption at birth -- and found out that she was a grandmother to boot -- her physical, emotional, and artistic facelift was complete.
Now comes Mitchell's new album, Taming the Tiger, brimming with the first-person revelations her longtime fans crave and chock-full of the melodies her critics claim are absent from much of her later work. Yet Tiger is not a compromised capitulation; in fact Wayne Shorter's sax playing is in the tradition of his work with Weather Report and Miles Davis, while the disc's opening track echoes Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. "Harlem In Havana" starts the album as if it were an invitation to a big bash and Mitchell agrees.
HERE'S THE COMPLETE, UN-CUT INTERVIEW:
(Jody plays the track "Harlem In Havana.")
JD: That was "Harlem In Havana" the opening song of Joni Mitchell's first album of new material in four years which is Taming The Tiger. Joni, "Harlem In Havana" sounds like an invitation to a big party.
JM: It does, yeah, in a certain way. It is an attempt to recreate the sound at the end of the mile-long midway. There was a midway that came up from Florida and played in my hometown every summer and at the very end of it was the double ferris wheel, Club Lido was along the side, dancing waters, the caterpillar, the motorcyle, cyclatron or whatever it was, all of these things with their own generators so there was a tremendous cacaphony and the one place that we were all forbidden, any kid that I knew anyway, we were forbidden to stop in front of "Harlem In Havana." My parents said, "Don't let me catch you there." All it was was black burlesque and every hour on the hour the band would come out onto the bandstand and it had a good horn section and it was my first exposure to black music live, and it was way back on the beat and swampy and a source of total fascination for me. Whenever I heard the "Harlem In Havana Revue" coming out, down I would run. At the age of thirteen a girl who lived about a block away from me who ripened rather early ran off with the trumpet player from "Harlem In Havana" for the summer and came back a bleached blonde and I was forbidden to hang out with her. The following year when "Harlem In Havana" returned, she and I went and we stood out in front and the chorus girls came out with their blue satin capes, these big silver spangles on them and their darned stockings and looking very tired and bored, and chewing gum, some of them, and they made a kind of a, the tallest girl was in the middle so they made a kind of a pyramid, shorter girls were on the outer edges, and they stood there with their capes and the barker was barking and every once in a while they would open their capes, flap them open and all they had underneath was a teddy, it wasn't that risque but somehow or other this was viewed at that time as very shocking, and my girlfriend said to me, "You see the tall guy in the middle?" And I said, "Yeah." "That's a man." "No, I couldn't believe this." The fifties were such an isolated and naive and innocent time. Anyway she got us in, we were both under sixteen and we watched this show which was really kind of Red Foxx comedy and a lot of plumage and high kicking and great music, to my ears anyway. The thickness of the arrangement, the density of it is an attempt to in an orderly fashion create the cacaphony and the compressed density of the sound as you listen to that band through the whirring of the generators of the caterpillar which was adjacent and the screams of people on the double ferris wheel which was to the other side of it.
JD: You mention the horn section, I'm assuming it's Wayne Shorter.
JM: Well, Wayne, and I'm playing horns on the VG8, on the guitar, which has in its palette also some horn samples.
JD: I knew it sounded like a party and the thing is, is sometimes people have an image of Joni Mitchell being real serious, but there's always been songs like, "Shiny Toys", "Ray's Dad's Cadillac," "In France They Kiss On Main Street," those are all kick-up-your-heels dancing swing songs.
JM: Oh, I was a dancer in my teens and kind of a party animal. I think it was a shock to my friends when, suddenly, I bought a guitar, and introverted, and began to think somewhat deeply. After all, I was a blonde!
JD: So do people miss that part of your personality, does it go by them that you like to have a good time?
JM: Not my friends. There's usually quite a mixture of material on an album, especially the later albums. Blue was a sad album, for the most part. For The Roses was juggling to understand or to find something in lieu of religion which seemed pretty corrupt, to hang on to. I discovered Nietzsche who's the bible for the godless, really. He gives you, but you have to really kind of sink into the pits to understand Nietzsche because he looks at more truth than most people could. Even Carl Jung opened up his writings, slammed it shut, and said, "Whew! He'll have no friends."
JD: There was scuttle butt about a year ago that you were going to retire from the music business, what changed your mind?
JM: The VG8, the guitar, basically. The problems that I had seemed to be many. I seemed to have been blacklisted for about twenty-five years. Everybody, no matter what I did nothing seemed to come up to Court And Spark for people including Hejira which was kind of trashed at the time and later was listed as a classic. It just seemed that I was in the game and not of it. You know suited up but not allowed to run or a man of war in the pasture as they said in Mojo magazine, they translated it into manure in the pasture, let's get that typo staight. And along came this guitar, the other problem that I had was technical, that I had invented all of these tunings and required a rack of instruments around me in order to play. And still never seemed to really get in tune and I have good pitch and I was frustrated that I spent most of the time in concert in the act of tuning. And along came this instrument which gave me normal guitar player's tuning problems, to have the capacity, not that it was designed for this, but you could use it in this way, you could take over some of the color channels and lie to it basically, because it's all zeros and ones, right? You could file all of my fifty different tunings into this instrument so that I could go from one to the other with a turn of the dial, like a radio station, and I would be in the next tuning. It even has a button on it that if you're in the middle of performance and you're out of tune and you don't want to stop and tune manually you just hit it and hold it down and it tunes it back up numercially. So, I'm using it in a way that most people aren't. For most people coming to the instrument it's just a little box that contains a lot of different amps and a lot of different guitar sounds and some horn sounds and some odd sounds like a computer guitar. But for me it's the brain that holds all of these tunings and allows me to perform with facility without this handicap. Yeah, that was the main thing.
JD: And also, is it your health? Because I had read that when you were younger did that keep you off the road.
JM: Yeah. The 80s were very kind of hard on me. I was butchered by dentists, that's a story we don't really want to get into, but I spent about five years in dental hell, and simultaneously in litigation, several court cases. Everybody that could robbed me in the greedy 80s, the government of California, my bank, my business manager, everyone around me. So the 80s were a rough decade for me and on top of it I was diagnosed as having post-polio syndrome which they said was inevitable for I'm a polio survivor, that forty years after you had the disease, which is a disease of the nervous system, the wires that animate certain muscles are taken out by the disease, and the body in its ingenious way, the filaments of the adjacent muscles send out branches and try to animate that muscle. It's kind of like the EverReady bunny, the muscles all around the muscles that are gone begin to go also because they've been trying to drive this muscle for so long. That's the nature of what was happening so I had it mostly in my back, so you don't see it as much as you would in a withered leg or an arm. But the weight of the guitar became unbearable. Also, acoustic guitar requires that you extend your shoulder out in an abnormal way and coincidentally some of the damage to my back in combination with that position was very painful. So, there was a merchant in Los Angeles who knew of my difficulties and knew that this machine was coming along that would solve my tuning problems and he made on spec a Stratocaster for me out of yellow cedar that was very light and thin as a wafer, so an electric guitar is a more comfortable design for my handicap. Then, a genius lothier built me this two and a half pound guitar which is not only beautiful to look at but it kind of contours to my body. It fits my hip and even kind of cups up like a bra! It's just beautifully designed and then also I abandoned regular medicine and fell into the hands first of a Kahuna and then a Chinese mystic acupuncturist who put down his pins and just points at you. I know this sounds real quacky but they did some mysterious good to the problem and I feel fine.
JD: So the 90s so far have been a better decade then?
JM: Oh yeah. The 80s were just awful for me.
JD: The last album that you did of new studio material, Turbulent Indigo, was in '94. It won a couple of Grammys, there were honors coming from every direction. Did you anticipate the higher profile and recognition that followed Turbulent Indigo?
JM: No, no. One would never anticipate this.
JD: It was a great piece of work though, when you put it out did you think, "I'm just going to cast this stone into the water and see what ripples come back" and then waves sort of came back.
JM: Well, I was fed up and I put a black joke on the cover, a Van Gogh with his ear cut off, because I was that frustrated. So I kind of cut my ear off in effigy. And I don't know whether people got it or whether it was catalyst to change, but things did begin to change. I felt that I had been doing good work for 20 some years and that it was not being recognized at all. Of course, it was by my fans. I have a loyal body of people that look forward to the next album in the same way, I suppose, that I look forward to [Carlos] Castaneda's next book. I would keep going, keep going.
JD: Did you feel a sense of vindication when The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira first came out, they got slammed by some people and now of course they're heralded. Did you feel vindicated?
JM: Yes and no. I mean, the reviews for instance, of this last concert tour, were very schizophrenic. The laments for the lack of early material in this last performance were also accompanied by some strange statements. For 25 years, the public voice, in particular the white press, lamented the lack of four-on-the-floor and major/minor harmony as my work got more progressive and absorbed more black culture, which is inevitable because I love black music, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis. Not that I set out to be a jazzer or that I am a jazzer. Most of my friends are in the jazz camp. I know more people in that community, and I know the lyrics to Forties and Fifties standards, whereas I don't really know Sixties and Seventies pop music. So I'm drawing from a resource of American music that's very black-influenced with this little pocket of Irish and English ballads, which I learned as I was learning to play the guitar. Basically, it was like trainer wheels for me, that music. But people want to keep me in my trainer wheels, whereas my passion lies in Duke Ellington, more so than Gershwin, the originators, Charlie Parker. I like Patsy Cline. The originals in every camp were always given a hard time.
JD: You felt as your music absorbed more of these black influences and it was based less on simple harmony and melody, there was a real resistance years later.
JM: Believe me, I get my strokes on the street, but I don't generally in the press. The press has a tendency to listen to it, not like it, and then it appears at the end of the year in their top ten list. But they kill the first sales somehow or other with their expectation for it to be something else. And this tendency especially from white reviewers to say that there's no melody there because white rockers are scared of anything more complex than a 7th chord, and I like wide harmony. I like Debussy, it's modern. I like modern classical music. To me those things are somewhat quaint and charming but they're no longer an influence and so I can't go back there. So I feel like for twenty-five years the criticism levied against me has been unjust. It's asking me to go in a direction that I outgrew. That was easy to assimilate and it didn't really depict my emotionality, blacks and women have a lot in common. We've been repressed and we're entering into a world and trying to find our place. So if a chord depicts an emotionality, our emotionality is going to be more complex. So, wider voicings, I don't suffer in a pure minor. I just don't. I'm not happy in a pure major, there's always some, ever since the bomb dropped, there's always been a second note running through everybody's lives whether they're sensitive to it or not. But where that second lies or that eleventh or whatever it is, there's a lot of prejudice levied against that particular kind of harmony in the rock press.
JD: What about the latest batch of songs on Taming the Tiger? You spent a couple of years making it. Did these songs come from a specific period or were they written ever since the last record came out?
JM: Well, I've been struggling to write since the last record came out. And it's four years like you say, but you have to understand that the record company, that I turned this in quite awhile ago. And I did Hits and Misses, which took a lot of research; I had to listen to everything I ever did in the middle. There was a project in the middle, it wasn't just a complete throw out there, there was a lot of thought that went into that, also. The thing that I found was that my experience in the 80s, I got a radical hit of the 80s. The worst part of the 80s fell on me, I had unguarded marbles. So he who has unguarded marbles in a period which is permissive, and it's fashionable to be greedy, suffers, and I did. And so I had rich people's problems basically. It wasn't that I was taken down to starvation, but this tiny percentage that I am able to glean from this business, because everybody strips off your profits, then you have 30% comes off of that, you manage to get this tiny distillate, you generate a lot of money, but you manage to get this tiny distillate and then the government of California levied an unjust tax against me. Twelve people in the country received this tax and it was retroactive, it was 15% of that tiny little bit that we managed to glean from the record company who took beyond the lion's share, then the manager, the agent, and then what's left of that, the government. And then they levied a 15% tax against the gross. I had financial difficulties. You can't really write about that, it's unattractive. Oh yeah, the business been good to you. Nobody wants to know. So, as a writer I suddenly found that my problems were those that lacked a universiality, they just sounded like kind of a whining. And at the same time my work was being tremendously undervalued, and nobody was being sent to adjudicate it with the intelligence to comprehend it. And so the public statements against it to me were just flat out ignorant. And I had health problems then, on top of all of this, so what am I going to write about? I just got madder and madder and madder at the business. And then all these honors came. Well, the honors kind of fell short. It seemed like it was kind of a copycat crime, that once one was given to me, the others felt the necessity to do it, but they didn't really know why. And once the honors had kind of passed, we went back into this thing, "Your later work isn't as good as your older work," which isn't true. There's been a tremendous amount of growth. Besides, an actress is not expected to continue to play her ingenue roles. I've written roles for myself to grow into gracefully, but there is no growing into gracefully in the pop world, unfortunately, because the airwaves -- everybody is in the same bind. You know this. We're all in this same bind. Since the record business went public and the men at the top want the graph to go up and nothing else, everybody's getting the squash, including the record company executives. From the top of the business down, we're all now in the same boat, so I'm not just a whiny artist. It used to be that you could pin it. The business is sick. And music and the genuinely gifted, such as myself, and there aren't a lot in any generation, being shunned from the airwaves in favor of tits-and-ass bubble gum kind of junk food is a tragedy. And there is no other arena for me to make music in. So I feel constantly in a position of injustice. There's a civil liberties thing here. Is it my chronological age? That should never be held against an artist. We're all going to grow middle-aged. We need middle-aged songs. I'm an unusual thing. I'm a viable voice. For some reason, even though I want to quit all the time, you know, I still have a driving wheel to do this thing.
JD: One of the songs on the new album actually has the lyrics written by someone else, "The Crazy Cries Of Love." I'm not familiar with the gentleman whose lyrics you used for this song.
JM: He's a songwriter from my home town and he had these words set to an entirely different kind of music. And I just loved it because I've written a lot about the bridges of Saskatoon, it's called the "city of bridges." "Cherokee Louise" is a story that takes place with an Indian girlfriend of mine in the Broadway bridge. This takes place on another bridge in Saskatoon, one stormy night. One by one, I'm setting stories on the bridges of Saskatoon, I guess, and it appealed to me on that level. Also I liked the flirty quality of it, and in the mood that I was in, I really wanted to be singing flirty songs but was incapable of writing them. So, I wrote the choruses, he wrote the verses, and I set it to music and I set it to a kind of a Hank Williams kind of country swing feel.
(Jody plays "The Crazy Cries Of Love.")
JD: The song we just heard, "The Crazy Cries Of Love," was a collaboration between you and Don Freed. I was wondering how you feel about this unwitting collaboration with Janet Jackson when she sampled one of your songs. And then, of course, people are covering your songs, how do you feel about that?
JM: Specifically, the Janet Jackson piece, I love that. As a matter of fact, at that time, I was trying to break down my prejudice to contemporary radio and I was listening to a station. I'd leave it set there and I'd listen to it for a couple of days to give it a fair shake and at that particular time, that song sailed out of everything else, I thought, I loved the contouring between her voice and my voice and "Why you wanna go and do that, uh huh huh." And I loved the video, the video to me was one of my favorite videos ever - the dignity and the liveliness - Picasso would have loved that video. There were 100 paintings in that video - the spirit of it. I guess it was all taken from a book of photographs taken in South Africa at a certain point and they reshot it in L.A., although I don't know where they found those squat toilets. I didn't think they existed on this continent. It had a humanity and a quiet dignity. I was very honored to be a part of that.
JD: And then of course other people cover your work. Sarah McLaughlin did a version of Blue. Sometimes, in interviews, you seem a little put out by those female singer-songwriters who claim you as an influence. They really can't touch you artistically but they sell a lot of records. Do you feel like you compete with them in the pop arena?
JM: No, I'm forced to compete by the interview system. I have no problem. I'm honored to be an influence. I think art should beget art and spark it. And I'm always looking for something to spark me. But I'm less likely to be influenced by a tributary of myself. I mean, you can learn from students from time to time, but what I resent, in a nutshell, and this has been done to me, is to be pitted against them intentionally and be told I'm not as good. Like, there was a radio show, for instance, that was done a while ago that somebody gave me thinking I'd be honored. It was a lot of the new women coming up. And the interviewer began by saying, "There are a lot of women coming onto the scene these days, all of them claiming Joni Mitchell as an influence. You can even tell what albums they've been listening to. Take this one." And he would play it. "She's been listening to Court And Spark." And he'd play the record. I started playing in tunings because I couldn't get at the chords that were in my head on the guitar, they didn't exist on the guitar really. Harmonically, by the time I got to Court And Spark, it was very, very deviant. The harmony the girl was using was very primary colors, the content of the lyric. I thought, "How can you say she's been listening to Court And Spark? It's an insult to Court And Spark, because this is so rudimentary." This one's been listening to this and this one's been listening to that. Then the final insult at the end of it was that he said, and this is what gets levied against me a lot, all of these girls are beating her at her own game. She has no sense of melody. And he played a choral piece, "The Reoccuring Dream," as an example of my loss of perspective. That's a beautiful piece of music, but melody is not the point of it. It's textural and there are snippets of melody. This is one of the hardest things for me to bear is to be told again and again that I have no melodic sense or that there's no melody here. My argument is that- does Marvin Gaye have melody? I try to sing the words and give them their proper inflection. Every time I sing it, I sing it different.
JD: Why would you feel like you have to measure the success of one of your pieces by what someone says in the press about the sales of it?
JM: I don't. But the press has pitted me against the women coming up. It's not a battle of my choosing.
JD: I don't feel like you have to compete in that arena.
JM: I don't either. But one thing that I do get tired of all the way along is the "Women of Rock" articles. There used to be smaller groups, always the "Women of Rock." My favorite compliments have come from the black community. A blind black piano player said to me, "Joan, you make genderless, raceless music." Now that's my optimism and I think that limiting me...Let me put it this way, the painters, the women who painted, the women impressionists, you don't really hear about them and they all attended the same academy. There was an extra letter added to their name - associates of the academy. They were never allowed really to be academy members, always associates of the academy. By continuously lumping me in with the women, which the white press does and the black press doesn't. The black press recently, in Vibe magazine, had an article where they singled out Miles Davis, Santana, and myself, and said, "All you kids with your tight little abs and your two hits, take a look at these guys." I feel that that is a more accurate museum grouping for me. And that genderization is a form of bigotry and not really hearing what I'm doing.
JD: In the music business, as we've already discussed is geared to the lowest common denominator and younger demographics. If it wasn't that way, your work would probably be heard by more people. It has always seemed that you're more interested in innovating anyway than being influenced by others. It does seem that your work is apart, it's not influenced by the contemporary artists.
JM: My process of learning has been peculiar. I don't have the right kind of brain for an academic. I learn most intensely by admiration. If I admire something or am interested in something, I become very alert and I take in a lot all at once and it stores and then it mulches and it sifts down. I went and sang in this revue, I sang "Stormy Weather." When I heard the tape back, there's a Ray Charles lick in there, I swear to God. I wasn't even aware I was influenced by Ray Charles. But for the better part of a bar, his presence is on me. There's a lot of Cab Calloway in "Harlem In Havana," certainly a lot of Duke Ellington. Cab Calloway I absorbed as a pre-teener, pre Rock & Roll, because there were a few clips of his that used to run as shorts in our home television station because they hadn't filled up with commercials yet so the TV coming up from the states, which had this gap for commercials, we didn't have that many commercials up there yet so they'd fill it in with shorts, and Cab Calloway was one of them. It surprises me every once in a while like I'll hear, "Oh, listen to that. I know where I got that from." Cause all the time I'm trying to be un-influenced by anything including myself, not to steal from myself. That's one reason I invented the tunings. Because every time I twist and twiddle the strings into a new tuning, pain in the butt as it got to be in terms of performance, I am back to square one, the neck is completely foreign again and I have to discover. I have to find the chords in the tuning. Astrologically I just found out there's a book of birthdays. I'm born the week of depth and the day of the discoverer, so I have a need to discover because of astrological influence.
JD: There's a line in the song "Taming The Tiger" you sing, "Every disc a poker chip, every song just a one night stand." You describe popular music as "genuine junk food for juveniles." But pop music like that has always existed, hasn't it?
JM: Yeah, it has. But the difference has been radio, for instance, let's take your field. In Toronto, or rather when I lived in New York, I was on the road most of the time playing little clubs. And when I had time off and came back to New York, I would run into the house and I would turn on the radio and disc jockeys back then were creative. If it was raining, and the disc jockey was an audiophile and he was hired for his talent and his scope, he could play a rain piece by Charlie Parker. If his scope embraced some bubble gum, he could follow it up with that so that you could have an afternoon of rain montage all over the place. I just don't like the segregation that has occurred for the sake of commerce in music. I don't like being told that this album doesn't fit any format, that music of this caliber doesn't fit into a format. I will not pander to a format. Does that mean I never get on the airwaves? If music of this caliber is being made, don't you think it's kind of a crime that it has no outlet that will accept it? I think it is.
JD: What can the music industry do to foster it's true visionaries? That's not unfortunately the business of the music industry or the radio industry.
JM: No, they're motivated to sell jeans and junk.
JD: Joni, there's a beautiful self-portrait on the cover of Taming the Tiger, you're holding a kitty cat. I know it's a pretty easy observation to make, but it seems especially on the new album, there's a couple of songs: "Harlem in Havana" and "Love Puts on a New Face," that share qualities with your artwork. Sometimes they're austere, other times they're bright and bursting with color and imagery. Does painting offer you similar rewards as making music?
JM: Well, I'm a painter first, and a musician second, as it turns out. I had impulses to create classical music when I was seven and eight, but I had my love of it taken away by raps on the knuckles from my piano teacher saying, "Why would you want to play by ear when you could have the masters under your fingertips?" So the impulse to compose in the community that I grew up in was thwarted and it didn't come out for quite awhile later. I switched to the guitar with no ambition to be in show business. As a matter of fact, as a teenager, I felt sorry for stars for their loss of privacy and I wrote a poem about it in high school. So I'm an odd candidate for celebrity in that I didn't practice in front of the mirror and I never really wanted the grand hurrah and I'm not addicted to applause. I have a painter's ego and I get a thrill of juxtaposing one color against another. I get like a private rush. I'm an only child. It's a form of solitary play. If I put that color next to that color and add another color, you know, I get a buzz. It's the same with music. I don't have any of the musician's languages. I read as a child, but I let the reading ability go. I don't use it in the recording process, because I fiddle around with the guitar so much that I'm not playing it normally anyway. The numerical language that some musicians have doesn't mean anything within my system, nor does the alphabetical system. I don't know what key I'm playing in. So I'm a sophisticated ignorant is basically what I am. But there are people who can come in, listen to what I play, write it out, and follow it. My harmony is selected by my own interest in the same way that I would select to put that color next to that color. I've produced most of my albums, except during my marriage to Klein, we did more collaboration so that we could see each other because albums are kind of consuming. I think of myself as a painter who writes music.
JD: And you do both on an instinctual basis. Does the art world view you as a dilettante because of your notoriety as a musician?
JM: Always, because of Socrates, we are a society of specialists, with the exception of the Italians. I think the Italians perhaps could recognize a renaissance person, but in Socrates' Utopia, you couldn't be a poet and a painter and a musician. You had to be one or the other and it was actually against the law in his utopian just society and I think that spills over so that you're not really taken seriously as a painter which is fine by me because I've managed to keep the music pure anyway even in the pop arena. And the art world, they have the same problem. I'm trying to assimilate too many periods. I'm glad I didn't make a career of painting but I'm driven to paint. And they work as a farmer's trick, they summer follow one another. So when the soil gets sick, I keep the creative juices going by switching from one to the other. So when the music or the writing dries up, I paint. Sometimes you bang into boogie men, so psychologically I think the switching from poetry to painting and back to music, there are three different psychologies really, when you paint you set down the inner dialogue completely, you come down to synapses, and occasionally a voice like Robbie the Robot goes, "Red in the upper right hand corner." Poetry is almost insane, you have to stir up overlapping thoughts, chaos in the mind and then pluck from it. Without the painting to clear the head I don't think I could do it. And the music is a true gift and has always been kind of soothing to me and not a problem. The poetry is psychologically dangerous and the painting kind of balances it out.
JD: Is there a physical place where you like to paint or write, special places like where you live and certain rooms where you do most of your work?
JM: I'm influenced by environment but not to that degree where I have some kind of la la setting, you know?
JD: I was thinking about your guitar tunings since we were talking about that earlier and it just seems to draw this analogy between the colors and the paints and the different tunings that you use. And how did these tunings develop? You were just looking for different ways to do things, rather than just playing the standard major chords?
JM: Well, I wrote my first song, "Urge for Going," in standard tuning, and I guess it's because of the stars. The guitar, in the folk houses, the chords that everybody played sounded the same, while the chords that I heard in my head you couldn't get off the neck, even with tremendous facility. They just don't exist. The chords that I play, if you don't twiddle the strings, you don't get them. I've made the guitar kind of orchestral. It's much wider, it's down into the territory of the bass in some cases. And the chords are very, very wide relative to what guitar chords usually are. You couldn't get that without the tunings. There are traditions of tunings. The Hawaiians, for instance, played in slack key and they were usually major chords. The old blues guys tuned in banjo tuning, which is open G tuning, which is what Keith Richards plays in. He doesn't even play the sixth string on the guitar. He plays the guitar like a five-string banjo. So, most of the old blues men, coming from banjo to guitar, not knowing anything about Spanish tuning, tuned the guitar into open G or D modal, which is just a dropped D. These tunings were kicking around the coffeehouses. There were about three of them. It was Eric Andersen that turned me onto them one night in Detroit. Because we used to board musicians passing through that town when I was married to Chuck Mitchell. We had extra bedrooms and everyone was poor so they usually stayed at our house and we played music and if there were songwriters we shared the songs that had been written since we saw each other last and so on. So in that way I got into the tunings. Well, soon they seemed to be explored and I didn't seem to be able to get any fresh colors out of them. So then I started tuning the guitar to chords that I heard in my head. And that's the way it went.
JD: You've said, I think this might have been in the Mojo piece, "My chords reflect my complex life, which is why my simple, old songs don't suit me." And I also read that you saw John Kelly doing some of your older songs. When you happen to hear one, do you ever feel like rediscovering them? I know you get this from your fans who've been with you from the beginning, but, why couldn't you ever sing, say, "Little Green?"
JM: First of all, my voice has changed. Secondly, the way I played guitar back then is completely foreign to me. I have no idea how I did it. It's how I did it then. It's like, as a painter, if you ask Picasso to go back and paint in an early period of his, I doubt that he could. You're moving forward and it's always evolving. Basically, the reason I'm so unruly in this business is because I think like a painter, not like a musician. And I never wanted to be a human jukebox. I think more like a film or a dramatic actress and a playwright. These plays are more suitable to me. I feel miscast in my early songs. They're ingenue roles.
JD: Maybe Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Neil Young don't think like painters, because they seem to have no problem playing those earlier songs or putting those old clothes on that maybe fit.
JM: But their styles didn't change as radically as mine over time, either. It's not that difficult for them to go back. Overall, they haven't changed as much.
JD: You had a chance recently to reassess your work when you issued the Hits album and then the Misses compilations. Did you feel like Misses was a way for folks to catch up with you if they hadn't been around for the whole ride or to expose people to your more difficult pieces?
JM: It's hard to say what my reasoning was in the selection there, because most of my work was technically misses. I mean, the Hits is padded. I didn't really have enough hits to make a real "Hits" album, really, by the Hit Parade measure. But like "Circle Game," which was never on the Hit Parade, was distributed through summer camps all across the North American continent and was a hit. It was like "Old MacDonald." The same with "Big Yellow Taxi." I turned on the TV one day, I was like dialing around, and I saw a woman holding an alligator so I stopped. And there were a lot of New York inner-city kids around her. Turned out it was coming from the Bronx Zoo. And she said, "This is Harvey, do you want to pet him?" And all these little grade-three kids got up and looked at him. And then she held up a skin, you know. And she said, "And this is Harvey's brother, look what they did to him." And they went, "Oh." And then she said, "Let's sing a song." She picked up a guitar and she sang "Big Yellow Taxi." And all these little rainbow of kids, little yellow kids and white kids and black kids and brown kids started singing my song, in grade three. And they knew all of the words. And I wept. So that was never a hit either on the Hit Parade because back in the early days, hits were on AM and I was an FM artist or an album-oriented artist. You have to understand that to go on AM you had to have a band. I couldn't find a band that could play my music till my sixth album and when I did it was a jazz band, the L.A. Express. And so I entered into that world. Some of the reviews from this last tour said my music was not rhythmic and that there was no melody. The problem is that there's more rhythm there than they can cope with and a lot of times we're not dealing with the four major beats because we know where they are. All right, we know where they are, so where they're saying there is none, in fact, there's too much. There's too much melody.
JD: With Brian Blade on drums how could they say there's no rhythm? You did play some of your older songs on the recent tour, "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock." Did you feel you could put those clothes on comfortably still?
JM: "Woodstock," oddly enough, because it should be kind of a curio about an event, still has a life for me. And "Big Yellow Taxi" is just kind of cute. (Laughs) It's a ditty.
JD: People say, "Joni doesn't have the same melody that she used to and she doesn't write about herself any more, she's always writing about other people." On Taming The Tiger there's a great deal of music that's on a first person basis. One of the songs, "Face Lift," tells of your relationship with your mother. Was it easy to write such a seemingly naked song at this stage of the game?
JM: I had no choice because the fight that I had with my mother was so disturbing that I dwelt on it obsessively. I mean, it was a major family squabble. We rocked, you know. It seemed odd that a woman in her fifties, I was 50 at the time, would be having this fight with her mother. Even though it's written as a middle-aged story, I had a girlfriend who went home for Christmas and came back and said, "That's exactly what happened to me." She was thirty, so wherever unmarried sex takes place in this country with parental disapproval it doesn't matter how old you are. The irony is that my mother is still worried about these things in these times when everything like that is so broken down in terms of television. They're not sleeping in twin beds anymore on TV. (Laughs)
JD: Has your mom heard "Face Lift?"
JM: Yes, she dislikes it, you know, finds it humiliating. You should never get too close to a writer, I guess.
JD: Joni, as you say, "Happiness Is The Best Face Lift," it seems like you've been having a lot of fun lately and I wanted to ask you about some of the recent projects that you've been doing. The tour that you did with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, was it a good experience for you?
JM: I think it was a great triple bill and I took it on that account. I hadn't performed in a long time and I thought, "Oh, that's a good show." But I had a little bad luck. Right out of the chute, I got a virus. We bussed out of Vancouver to the Gorge, and the bus had new carpet with glue, and the glue was really stinky. We burnt Patchouli like old hippies to kind of mask it. Also, I'm allergic to air conditioning. To make a long story short, by the time we got to the Gorge, I was really sick and the roof of my mouth was red and my throat was like hamburger. And they sent me a doctor who gave me really extraordinarily violent medicine. And I played the two Gorge dates very ill, like delirious, but happy. I was enjoying it, but I was delirious, literally. And when we got to the eve of the San Jose gig, I couldn't get out of bed, my motor functions, I had to tell myself to walk and tell myself to chew. So, the medicine really worked some violence on me and they sent for another doctor, a Chinese doctor who recognized it. "Doctors pills give you brand new ills." (Laughs) So I did the whole tour really from behind the wheel in terms of stamina. The San Jose show, in particular, I was afraid to hit a high note. It takes a lot more air to hit a high note. And every time I went to hit a high note, I'd go all pins and needles and start to black out. So I had to kind of jockey things around. And I apologized, I believe, although I don't even remember that show. I said something, but I don't know what it was. The press picked up on it and assumed it was that I was rusty from not having been out of the chute for a long time. But I was just really ill.
JD: What was it like playing with your ex-husband in the band, Larry Klein?
JM: Oh, we're really good friends. He called me up, I wasn't going to take a bass player because the guitar has so much bottom on it. And he said, "Joan, you've got to let me come." We're the best of friends.
JD: I was surprised that there was no collaboration between the three artists on the bill.
JM: Well, Bobby keeps so much to himself. Van came to me at one point and said, "Have you spoken to Bobby yet?" And I said, "Yeah, I saw him after the Vancouver show." "Well, he hasn't spoken to me," he said. And I said, "Well, come on, let's crash his set." So there was a song in Japan that closed the show Bob and I were in in Tokyo of his, and he kind of short-sheeted me on stage. He pulled a number on me. So I said, "Well, we'll go out on this song of his and we'll get him." So we went out and kind of crashed the set the one night. And Bob got a big kick out of it. It was really rough and I blew the words on it and blew the rhyme and had to make one up. And Bobby was looking at me grinning, "What is she going to rhyme with it?" because I got the first rhyming line wrong.
JD: What song was it?
JM: "I Shall Be Released."
JD: Also recently you did the Walden Woods benefit in April. You sang "Stormy Weather" backed by an orchestra. Would you ever do an album of cover songs?
JM: That's what I want to do. Rather than tour this album, because I'm so far behind, because they're taking so long to release it, I want to go straight into the studio and record in that genre. That's really where, as a singer, if you separate all these things, just forget Joni the writer, because I write these kind of soliloquies which take more dramatic skills than vocal skills. There's no room to put a trill in. You've got so many syllables to deal with. And you have to enact them, like an actress, as opposed to just singing a mood piece. So I need a break from my own music. And to disappear into standards would be a treat. I did two standards with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] and Stevie Wonder on Herbie Hancock's album, which is coming out; "The Man I Love" and "Summertime." And my band and I now, since Woodstock, have an arrangement of "Summertime" that I think is really fresh. And I saw four chins quivering in the audience at Woodstock to that old chestnut. So I know it has a power.
JD: You didn't play the original festival. Was this summer's "A Day in the Garden" concert in Woodstock a good experience for you?
JM: Oh, it was beautiful. It was beautiful. It was a beautiful audience. They loved my band. After some of the prejudice against my music for being too jazzy -- all that the West Coast press tends to levy against me -- the East Coast doesn't so much. And there was a banner in the audience about eight-foot long that said, "Joni's Jazz" and all these smiling heads above it. When I hit the stage, I thought, "Oh, good." And they applauded my band genuinely and enthusiastically every time a color entered and left, because, I mean, we took a big leap in growth, I think. It felt like the band was that much more solid. Well, I was well, for one thing. And we added [Mark] Isham and the addition of muted trumpet, which is a color that I love. It seemed to flesh everything out. And the audience was wonderful.
JD: And there's a TV show that you have in the can that I think was done before the Woodstock show and I guess that's going to come out this fall.
JM: I've got to go up in a couple of weeks and finish editing it. The editing isn't completed yet.
JD: And recently there was a beautiful book of your lyrics. And I had read at that time that you might do a short story book or an autobiography.
JM: I'm contracted for an autobiography. But you can't get my life to go into one book. So I want to start, actually, kind of in the middle -- the Don Juan's Reckless Daughter period, which is a very mystical period of my life and colorful. Not mystical on bended knee. If I was a novelist, I would like that to be my first novel. And it begins with the line, "I was the only black man at the party." (Laughs) So I've got my opening line.
JD: Do you have a lot of songs that have been left off of your various projects? I'm sure you're asked the question if you are going to compile a boxed set and bring out some things that have not been released along the way.
JM: In terms of a boxed set, you know my stock was so low that Hits and Misses is basically my box set. I don't know what will happen now but they wouldn't even put out a complete box set. So I got rid of that part of the contract in Hits and Misses. I never wanted to put out a "Hits" because like I say I felt that legitimately I didn't really have that many hits and that the most popular things in my repertoire were not my best work really. Hits and Misses kind of fulfills what contractually at that point in my career they would spring for.
JD: But is there stuff that didn't make it out that you are holding on to?
JM: Oh yeah, there are Mingus outtakes. I cut that with four or five different bands, all-star bands, like the cream of the jazz world. But the Mingus album itself was so poorly received that it's archival. I think it would be interesting to people who like music, but the record business which currently doesn't really care about music, doesn't care about a box set.
JD: Finally, Joni, there's a poignant song on your new album called "Stay in Touch." Last year you reunited with your daughter who you gave up for adoption after she was born. I don't want to assume that this was written about your daughter, but I can ask you if it was?
JM: When the kids came [to visit], Kilauren's boyfriend heard the song and said, "Kilauren, this is about you." And it is. It's about the beginnings of love, conducting yourself through it wisely. I don't think there's another song like it in existence. It's always how foolish we all are when we're smitten. It applies. It wasn't the catalyst for it. Kilauren came in the middle of the project, and one of the reasons why there was a delay in finishing it was because we just had to spend a lot of time with each other. So we'd spend three weeks and then I'd go back in the studio and then I'd go up there and we'd spend some more time and then I'd go back in the studio. And it definitely applies. But it applies to any new, terrific attraction. It's basically how to steer yourself through that smitten period.
JD: You had said before that you would send her messages in some of your earlier songs. When I heard you say that I thought maybe "Chinese Cafe."
JM: She said, "Joan, it's so vague I would never have picked up on that." But the irony is that I sat in flight with my hand on an Evian spritzer bottle, misting my face, because we were travelling a lot to prevent dehydration, with my fingers over my daughter's face because she was on the Evian spritzer bottle for a long time. So she probably heard the songs but didn't recognize herself and I covered up her face with my fingers. We were passing each other all over the place.
JD: When you met your daughter after so many years, did you see any of your qualities in her?
JM: Oh, well, when we first met, we walked into the kitchen. They arrived and I was upstairs and I was glazing the cover painting (for Taming The Tiger). I was varnishing it. So I walked out on the balcony of the house with brushes in my hand and I saw her kind of in the dark. And I ran downstairs. We went into the kitchen and we looked at each other and we said [giggles], "Hmm, hmm," exactly at the same time and in the same tone. And our speaking voices are almost identical. And in the first few weeks, well, even now, we say exactly the same thing with the same inflection, like at the same time, which people do sometimes when they're in the beginning of relationships -- there's a lot of kind of psychic things. It's terrific. And we've had a couple of little skirmishes. And we're getting to know each other and it's just terrific [laughs]. And I love my grandson, [she lets out the last word like a sigh] yeah ...
My thanks to Jody Denberg for allowing me to post his complete interview with Joni, and to Leslie Mixon for transcribing the text.
This article has been viewed 44,899 times since being added on November 10, 2005.
Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.
Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.
You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.