Joni Mitchell's fighting words: When the world becomes 'a massive mess with nobody at the helm,' says the Canadian singer-songwriter, it's time for artists to make their mark.
Joni Mitchell has stepped out of retirement to work on her first album of new songs in nearly a decade, driven by a desire to add a fresh voice to the warnings of pending disaster from war and environmental damage and offer "courage through tough times."
"I was pretty sure that was it, but the music just started coming and so I'm going with it," the Canadian singer-songwriter revealed in a lengthy interview with the Citizen. "It feels good."
Ms. Mitchell has already laid down the basic tracks for five songs in her home studio in Los Angeles. The album is still untitled, and she doesn't know when it will be released, or even how - by choice, she is no longer under contract to any recording company.
One of the new songs draws its lyrics from If, Rudyard Kipling's 1908 poetic blueprint for personal integrity, although Ms. Mitchell has changed some of the words to make its message more direct and to "better fit" her own thinking.
Another song, Holy War, is a condemnation of war waged in the name of religion, and while it doesn't name names, it is clearly an open-ended attack on both terrorist groups and U.S. President George W. Bush.
"Since religions have failed and politics have failed and the world is in a massive mess with nobody is at the helm, the job of the artist becomes all the more important," Ms. Mitchell said. "You have to make some kind of an attempt, not to offend leaders and society, but to include and inspire them to be far-sighted."
Besides, she said, "you have to be careful how you put things these days or somebody'll kill you."
Media-shy in recent years, Ms. Mitchell agreed to talk to the Citizen on the 30th anniversary of the release of Hejira, a deeply personal road album about doomed love, considered her finest work by many critics and fans.
But in an interview that lasted well over an hour, the 62-year-old singer also talked about her views on living in the United States, her worries about Canada, the role of artists in public debate, her difficult relationship with the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965, her dislike of the music industry and computers, and her first album of new songs since 1998.
Never a star who easily accepted disapproval, nor an artist overburdened with modesty, Ms. Mitchell stopped writing songs after the social and political commentary on 1998's Taming the Tiger was knocked by many critics for being excessively negative.
"I blocked myself after that," she said. "People just weren't ready for a lot of my later work - they had their heads in the sand, or up their ass, or something. I was just dismissed as Chicken Little and now, of course, everything I wrote is with us in a way that no one can deny."
In characteristic outspoken style, Ms. Mitchell didn't depart the music business quietly.
To fulfill her contract obligations, she put out a couple of albums of standards and her older songs and then went on a verbal rampage. She was ashamed, she said, to have been part of an industry that was a "corrupt cesspool" producing "appallingly sick" and "vulgar" music.
Her opinion hasn't mellowed much since. She's not sure how she'll market her new album - directly to listeners over the Internet seems a good bet - but she's determined the industry won't get a penny.
"The record labels are criminally insane ... ugly, screwed up, crooked, uncreative, selfish," she told the Citizen. "After the last work that I did, the vice-president of the company (Reprise) came up to me and said, 'Joan, this is a work of genius, but we're just selling cars now. We've got cute cars, we've got fast cars, we've got ugly cars - and we just don't know what to do with your car.'"
Like many of her records since 1972's For The Roses, Ms. Mitchell's new recording will feature jazz musicians, notably her long-time drummer Brian Blade, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and possibly pianist Herbie Hancock. Ms.
Mitchell will also play piano, along with electric and acoustic guitars and synthesizers.
She is still working on the lyrics for several songs, refining and polishing as she goes along, sometimes altering the words enough that she's forced to change the musical accompaniment to suit them.
"There's a lot of back and forth, back and forth," she said. "But it's coming."
Her use of the Kipling poem - not to be confused with crooner Roger Whitaker's soppy 1970s adaptation - marks the second time she's set classic verse to music. On her 1991 album Night Ride Home, Ms. Mitchell rewrote several sections of The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats' 1921 lament about society's descent into mediocrity.
The changes are less radical on If, essentially a set of motivational rules for grown-up living that Ms. Mitchell believes remains as relevant today as a century ago.
In one case, Ms. Mitchell changed the lines, "If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools" to "If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken/Twisted and misconstrued by some smug fool."
"I thought 'knaves' was too archaic," she said. "And I wanted the message to be more direct. You don't have the same time to savour the words in a song as you do in a poem."
To get rid of Kipling's "macho" ending, she also altered the poem's final line - "And, which is more, you'll be a Man, my son!" -- to "And, what is more, you'll be alright," which rhymes with a change made two lines before.
Does she think Kipling would mind?
"Oh no! I've made it better," she said with a big smoky laugh.
While Ms. Mitchell might not lack self-assurance - "she's about as humble as Mussolini," one of her old boyfriends, rocker David Crosby, said once - she can back it up.
Driven by a sort of restless inventiveness, Ms. Mitchell took folk stylings of near innocence in the '60s and transformed them into intensely personal, intelligent pop, jazz, avant-garde and world music in the '70s, presaging the explosion in multicultural music by a decade.
Her refusal to conform to the demands of the recording industry paved the way for female musicians like Ani DiFranco, Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morissette, Shawn Colvin, Chrissie Hynde and Gillian Welch. Her singing and songwriting have been described as an inspiration by artists as diverse as Van Morrison, Pat Metheny, Ute Lemper, Iggy Pop, Cassandra Wilson, Tony Bennett, Renee Fleming, Elton John and Roseanne Cash.
She's in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, won or been nominated for a half dozen Grammys and a dozen Junos, and been made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Several of her songs, including Both Sides Now, A Case of You, River, Urge for Goin' and The Circle Game, have become modern standards recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to metal headbangers Nazareth.
"Lilith Fair was a playground for Joni wannabes," punk rocker Carole Pope told the Citizen a few years ago. "All those angst-ridden confessional singer-songerwriters try so hard to emulate her style, but it's just a pale imitation of her genius."
Ms. Mitchell seems unfazed by all the flattery, and distressed that so little of her influence is apparent in the pop and rock she hears today.
"So much of it is trivial and coarse and really not sincere. They are preaching to the choir and trying to make the other side angry," she said.
"But protest isn't really that effective."
She's become convinced that to have any resonance, the message must contain the seeds of optimism, to provide ways to build rather than just tear down.
Of course, none of that stops her from ripping apart the Bush administration, which she described as gang of thugs trying to sell their war in Iraq as some sort of holy crusade.
"It disgraces the word holy," Ms. Mitchell said. "To carry on that kind of activity under the banner of spirituality is truly blasphemous."
Her bitterness is not reserved for George W. Bush, however. She is equally angry at terror groups who kill and destroy in the name of their gods.
"To do this shows they really can't understand the prophet they purport to represent," she said. "Why can't the holy men get a little holier? The world has gone mad."
Ms. Mitchell said she still finds solace on the 80-acre property she's owned since the early 1970s on British Columbia's rugged Sunshine Coast, where she tries to go for a few months every spring and fall.
"L.A. is my workplace, B.C. is my heartbeat," she said.
But even that is in danger from a British company that wants to pave a bit of her paradise by building a $100-million industrial rock mine not far from her home north of Sechelt. The B.C. government has approved the plan pending an environmental impact study, due next year.
Ms. Mitchell said the 4,000 people who signed a petition to keep the mine out have been painted by the government and business press as "just a bunch of farmers and rich retirees who don't know what we're talking about. It's sickening, really."
And while she still sees herself as a Canadian first - she is both a Canadian and U.S. citizen - Ms. Mitchell believes the country is sliding dangerously close to assimilation with the U.S., politically, economically and culturally.
"Canada has got a bad case of Americanitis," she said. "Our governments have become too impressed with America. It's safer sometimes to stand back a bit from the big guys."
If all this makes her seem like a bit of a curmudgeon, Ms. Mitchell doesn't seem to care. She cheerfully concedes she doesn't own a cellphone, a computer or use e-mail.
"I don't believe in them. I just don't want 'em. Computers are eating the earth. They are frying people's brains. They are mental illness personified, and if you really want to know, I think they are part of the manifestation of human insanity."
Reminded she might need the Internet to sell her new album, Ms. Mitchell allowed that computers have "their good side," but insisted they are "just not healthy" overall.
Ms. Mitchell said she's found satisfaction as a matriarch after reuniting with Kilauren Gibb, the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was starting out as a folksinger at 21.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, there have been difficulties between mother and daughter since they came together amid a media frenzy in 1997. But Ms.
Mitchell said there are as many good days as bad.
"We're in a difficult phase. She has a lot of issues. Family life does not go smoothly in the best of circumstances, and these weren't the best of circumstances," she said. "I'd say it's a work in progress and will say no more."
In an interview a few years ago, Ms. Mitchell described her daughter as "a difficult girl" and said she was "going to have to forgive me ... before we can really get along. It's something she's going to have to work through. I can't really help her with it."
But the reunion has also brought Ms. Mitchell two "gifts that mean everything" -- grandchildren, Marlin, 13, and Daisy, 7. "I just love 'em like crazy."