Five years ago she retired from making music but now -thanks to a voice doctor, a contempt for the status quo and a desire to avenge her critics - Joni Mitchell is working on a new record. "A late birth," she tells Robin Eggar. "I kept my legs crossed but here it came."
Joni Mitchell is lost in her own music, eyes closed, head still, an American Spirit smoldering between her fingers. A barely touched glass of red wine sits next to a bowl of cooling soup. The song is Shine, the putative title track of an album that was never meant to be since in 2002 Joni announced her absolute final retirement with a stiletto sharp attack on the record business.
She looks just like Joni Mitchell should look, obviously a little more lined than on the cover of Hejira but nowhere near 63 (Both her parents are going strong in their nineties). Joni is in the Hotel Arts in Calgary, Alberta, a few days before the world premiere of The Fiddle and the Drum, a ballet of ten Mitchell songs choreographed by Jean Grand-Maitre, the Artistic Director of the Alberta Ballet. It's her first serious collaboration with anyone since Charles Mingus in 1978 and she's loving every minute. The ballet received a rapturous reception and a follow-up is being discussed.
Joni inhabits a world without computers, voice mail, mobiles and e-mail. Until Grand-Maitre loaned her his home stereo she was listening to the mixes of Shine on the bedside CD radio alarm.
She happily hitches a lift in my rental car and though desperate for a cigarette, obeys the "NO SMOKING" stickers. Her only visible extravagance is her expensive clothes and exquisite jewelry. To rehearsals she's wearing a jaunty green beret decorated by a diamante lizard which she admired at Graham Nash's 60th birthday party until its owner gave it to her.
For someone without a current record label and a world view that has been in direct conflict with prevailing political and business orthodoxies for the past 20 years, Mitchell is in overdrive. She says she's working a triple shift, doing the work of three 20-yearolds and she loves it. She's just closed her first ever art exhibition, "Flag Dance," sixty pieces of anti-war mixed-media art and there's her first album of new material in 10 years.
She comes alive at night when the stories, brought alive by her extraordinary painter's eye, unfold. She doesn't talk about her daughter, Kilauren, adopted when she was 21, with whom she was reunited a decade ago but talks fondly of her grandsons and she smokes.
How did you get involved with the Albert Ballet's production of The Fiddle and the Drum?
It just happened at a time when I was already very busy. I had a few phone conversations with Jean (Grand Maitre) and I liked what I heard. I am very intuitive. He came down to visit me and told me about his idea. It was called Dancing Joni and was somewhat autobiographical. It isn't the set I would have put together so I told Jean that I wasn't interested in escapist entertainment when the planet is at red alert. We're busy wasting our time on this fairy tale war when nobody's fighting for God's creation.
I was preparing for an art show of about sixty pieces and I had a model of my installation on my pool table. The paintings were 8 feet high, they were all war and torture and revolution. Jean liked what he saw and said "I want to put this with the ballet." I said not with this ballet but I could put together a ballet for you. I was in the process of recording which I hadn't done in 10 years so I already had two very big projects going on. I came straight out of retirement into doing the work of three 20-year-olds. I really burnt myself out physically but emotionally it was very uplifting. I realized I wasn't ready for retirement, for gardening and watching old movies which is what I'd being doing for 10 years.
There are two new songs included in the Ballet, a reworking of Rudyard Kipling's If and If Had a Heart I'd Cry. Were they written especially for the ballet?
I was already writing the album, which would have been the whole ballet, but I have only just finished it now and couldn't get in time for Jean to choreograph but it did include those two pieces.
You announced in 2002 that you were sick of the cesspool that passed for the record business and that you'd had enough of it. Forever. So what changed your mind?
I really believed I was never going to make another record. I convinced a lot of people and oops, here it came. I was trying to keep my legs crossed and it was like a late birth. They all come out that way. It's like they're writing me.
What made you quit?
I have taken a year off here and there before. For the Roses &that was one of my first swansongs. Some parts of the job, the creative processes, I loved, some I didn't like at all. I like a certain amount of attention but &it got more and more difficult to be a public person. The public person became more and more of hostile witness. My work is deep, it's all there and you can't get any deeper so there became aspects of the job that became repugnant to me. I started having nightmares about it and when it hits your subconscious like that it's time to quit.
Was there any particular event that sparked those nightmares?
I did a VH1 interview and I ended up sitting for 5 hours on a stool answering questions. After that I felt so miserable, so drained that I went to bed for three days. I just didn't understand why I felt so awful. I got up and Klein (her ex-husband producer Larry Klein) was watching TV so I took the remote off him and started channel-hopping. For some reason I stopped it on Larry King who was talking to this soldier who been a prisoner in the first Gulf War. He'd also been a prisoner in Vietnam and explained how they tortured people differently there. They'd sit you on a chair and fire questions at you for hours and hours until you'd tell them anything they wanted. That way I knew what had happened to me. What are the chances of that, eh?
What inspired you to start recording again?
I've had a small place up in British Columbia for years. It's where I wrote For the Roses and it's always been the place I feel most comfortable and secure. Plus I can smoke there as much as I want (laughs). I just started playing this instrumental piece on the piano. I had a guitar there but after 10 years off you have to go through a little pain. I had no calluses left and I bled at first. On the piano your chops will be down but there's no physical pain. Suddenly I had four piano songs. It started off piano-dominant as For the Roses had. I worked alone in a room with Dan Marnien (engineer on Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo and Taming the Tiger). I am kind of profuse with ideas and I had to train Klein to either leave the room or zip it so he didn't disturb the experiment. It is much less dense than my last albums. I had to go through density. I would have made Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm denser but Klein stopped me. I was seeing it graphically. Wherever there was a hollow I'd put a musical figure in it that had two hollows in it like a W and in those two hollows I'd plant another figure with a hollow in it and then put the cherry on the pudding. This time it is not as wordy as it has been. That was another experiment - how many words could I get in a line -then Paul Simon started doing that when I heard him doing that I thought "this is a bad idea." Woe be to the imitators.
You seem to enjoy setting poetry to music. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, your adaptation of WB Yeats' s The Second Coming from Night Ride Home) is one of the highlights of the ballet. What made you choose Kipling's If?
Synchronicity. In the middle of writing the album Val (Broadway dancer Charles Valentino) read it to me over the phone. I said "that's perfect for the ending of the album." I had to do a little rewrite on it. That was the fifth song and the first guitar song. Then they decided to whittle down this mountain behind my sanctuary and sell it to California as gravel for Mac Mansions so came the second guitar song. The rest were coughed up by this wonderful color box, a 5-year-old Yamaha synthesizer.
My guitar has always been very orchestral, even on the first album it is not folk music, it is semi-classical, very easy to orchestrate, songs like Marcie are more like Schubert than folk music. I don't know Schubert that well but the New York Times seem to think there is something similar though the only thing I can think of is that he set a lot of popular German poems to music which I have done a little bit with The Book of Job and the Yeats poem. It was called folk because that was what it looked like - a girl with a guitar. I am not a folk singer at all. I have an appetite for Debussy. My childhood roots were in Rachmanioff, Tchaikovsky, the Nocturnes, Moonlight Sonata, Au Clair de La Lune and variations on a theme by Paganini. That was what made me want to make beautiful music which I don't think is either masculine or feminine. I took 1 year of piano lessons but they used to hit me with a ruler. I didn't like that too much. It made me quit.
Classical music today is underwater elevator music, bad Brian Eno. I love Music for Airports, he is the champ of classical composition but at this point they are all doing this electronic horizontal stuff. It's a weird direction because of its sameness. It's a copycat crime. I guess it always was except for Debussy & there was no one like him.
What inspired If I Had a Heart? It is such a beautiful ballad that the impact of the lyrics - "Holy earth/How can we heal you/We cover you like blight/Strange Birds of Appetite/If had a heart I'd cry." -take a while to come through.
During the ballet we projected seven night photographs of the earth from every angle onto the screen. It's frightening to witness what an electronic blight we are. Ever since I saw those pictures of North America at night I turn lights off at night. All of that energy is sucking from nature, the man-made has taken over the natural world. All over the globe war is accelerating,
We need that energy diverted into saving the planet while the planet is trying to shake us off its back. It is our host and we are this bacteria, this infection. We insist on wounding it more and more. War is ridiculous at this time and then to add insult to injury by calling it a holy war is just obscene, ignorant and tragic.
This album is about the war of the fairy tales, possibly the end of our species from this macho I-got-a-bigger-bomb-than-you-have instinct. This spaceship we are all riding on is dying, somebody tell the captain to stop punching holes in the wall, we have atrocious leadership everywhere, mankind at his most diabolical.
Why do you hate critics so much?
They hold you in your decade. You are supposed to stay neatly in your decade and then die. From my sixth album on they were dismissive while I knew I was still growing. It was an extraordinary rejection of good work. Everything was compared unfavorably to Court and Spark until Blue surpassed it in sales. Blue was not a hit out of the chute either but once the sales got bigger, that became the masterpiece. It was all contingent on sales, my later work did not sell and the press did not help me in any way. Dog Eat Dog was literally repressed and taken off the market for 20 years.
I just recently got it reinstated. People called it negative but they had their heads in the sand. It was getting more like Russia where people were getting more and more ignorant and buying the propaganda, somebody had to say something but it didn't make me very popular so the album got dumped. From then on I felt like Gauguin and Van Gogh. I knew the work was progressive but it was not selling, not receiving respectful attention, the general consensus was thumbs down. I know enough to know when I am doing good work but fools were reviewing it. I'd see the crap they'd elevate. They'd pit me against three-chord wonders who weren't saying anything. It was my time to die. It wasn't rational but it finally killed my interest in doing it. I couldn't face any more stupidity. I don't care for fame and fortune but the rejection of my later work was too extreme. Everything about the business was ignorance. The company would say "you didn't give us anything." Nothing! Didn't they listen to the songs?
Now there is a reprise coming around. Prince always says Hissing of Summer Lawns is his favorite album. People who came in from there carried on and the earlier work that was so hallowed they never got into. It depends where you got in on the ride. I never wanted to be a human jukebox when Bob and Van and I went out on tour, they were playing their hits. I was advised to do mine and went "no way."
Personally I always thought your earlier stuff was a bit girlie.
I was girlie, "twee" as the English might say. I got more tooth later. One of my favorite compliments was from a blind black piano player who said that my work was raceless and genderless. I considered that a true honor coming from him. I set out to get rid of the girlie part to give it strength. I think I accomplished that as a writer. You can't tell a girl wrote my later work. It doesn't have feminine perspective.
Are you frustrated by this lack of recognition for work that has got better as its sales have declined?
They (the critics) didn't like the harmonies and general musicality of the direction I was going in. It's not jazz, it's outside the laws of jazz, totally original music that is now being studied in music schools, my harmonics. The great jazzers Herbie and Wayne (Shorter) accept me as a member of the academy, the lesser jazzers go "where is the downbeat?"
What made you start writing political songs?
I got stung by Reaganomics, he levied an unjust tax against me for not having a producer which made me look not slave enough and seized money from my bank account. I fought two courts and I won but it cost a lot of money and the lawyers picked a lot off me. That was my life savings. They broke me and I had already had to run a gauntlet of corporate thieves to glean that little bit of money.
I was a girl so I was underpaid compared to mens' wages. I had two points on my first record, two pennies on Blue. That's, excuse me, "N-word" wages - actually it's less than that. My N-friends (chuckles) were appalled. Basically they robbed me. That awoke me as a political animal and I wrote Dog Eat Dog. A lot of songs I wrote at the time were a warning which people may be ready for now but they weren't then. It was dismissed as negative and sophomoric. That tells you something about an American culture that says once you are past first year of college you shouldn't be worrying about the world. You are supposed to grow up and go with the program.
On your last recordings your voice had lost a lot of range.
I had lost some of my voice. It was severe. I'd go to hit a note and there was nothing there. I used to have three octaves and people blamed it on my smoking. I went to a throat specialist who assured me it wasn't and said it had to do with my digestion partially. I also had nodes from singing rock and roll. I went to do this lecture on how to instill a love of nature on Earth Day in San Francisco to the Commonwealth Club -which is one of those groups of very wealthy people who buy presidents, the power behind the throne. I was a bit nervous as what I was going to say was going to be more critical of the western mind in general and psychology in particular. They sent me a masseuse, who turned out also to be a chiropractor, as a gift. After she worked on me she said "are you having problems singing? No wonder, your larynx is compressed." She gave me a Styrofoam block to realign my spine that had been damaged from polio and as it had gotten worse my neck was pokey.
I'd had it straightened out by a Chinese healer who had regenerated my back so the nerves came back to life. Neil Young, who caught polio in the same epidemic as me as a child, had the same injury and he went the western way, they struck a metal pole in his back and charged him thousands of dollars. Still a bad idea as this Chinese guy regenerated the nerves in my back for $200. He gave me some exercises to maintain my joints. I had been doing them for a couple of years which put my shoulders back. One shoulder was out from playing acoustic guitar - it took me about 2 years to stop it rubbing the socket. As everything went back, some of my high end came back. I am singing well on this album, certainly better than on the two before. People always like to blame it on my smoking. I have smoked since I was 9 so it obviously didn't affect the early work that much. My voice isn't completely back as my sinuses are screwed up. Maybe that is from smoking or the L.A. air. I have progressed as a singer, my stroke is better, my phrasing is better. I have learned a lot. I am closer to the singers I really love. I never imagined I'd be able to sing like Edith Piaf.
Do you have a record deal for the new album?
Because the corporations bought up a lot of record companies they became a conglomerate. My Warners catalogue descended to Rhino Records to exploit. Robin (Hurley of Rhino) came to me with an album tentatively called the Best of Joni Mitchell. I said to him "I wouldn't call it that. I'd call it Boss's Choices." It was all singles but I had no say in their release and I don't think it is my best work. Robin and I developed a relationship. We did some creative recycling and I worked on the package. I figured, why don't we make it interesting enough so that people who don't' have those songs will want to acquire it because it rounds up a theme?
We did Dreamland, then Songs of a Prairie Girl which was for the Saskatchewan centennial and has all the songs that refer back to my time there. We intend to do a couple more but as I didn't think I was going to be doing another album, I took time off to do these other projects. I don't have a contract for my new songs since my deal with Nonesuch ended. My manager is looking at it because the business has fallen apart and there a lot of ways to enter back into the game. Everything is in a state of flux in the world right now. Newspapers are struggling against the Internet as information givers, trying all their tricks to stay alive. I understand that. Record companies are drowning trying to get artists back by giving them fair deals - what a concept!
But you might have to play the media game.
I know but I don't give good sound bite. Some of the stuff I am thinking about, especially now, is awfully deep, you can't speak of it flippantly in a good sound bite. The project I am working on now is as serious a work as I've done. I am a wordsmith and so careful to try and be clear even if it is clear in a surrealistic way to get the images right.
You don't like people reducing what you say to sound bites.
It doesn't go very well. It dumbs it down. It breaks my heart that it's the hardest thing about this job for me. It takes up a lot of space to explain things correctly. Condensing it down over simplifies it, it doesn't bother other people but it does bother me. I find it difficult when they put quotations around things you didn't say that have been edited and the point has been missed.
Do you think that what people find hard is that your melodies and voice are so pretty that the message in the lyrics doesn't fit with what they are hearing?
Somehow the music makes it more palatable than my usual irritated tone in conversation about it. Maybe if I had developed a crusty old character like Bobby (Dylan) I could have got the lines across better theatrically but he didn't succeed, tried to tell everybody certain things but couldn't get it across. According to himself, it is a bit of a problem with straight white males.
Gay men don't have a problem and neither do black men. The white straight male is afraid of emotionality in himself and is liable to be caught off guard because my chords are sneaky. There is a fear to go in there in case you cry like a girly girl. I have a big black audience, fans who are warriors all round the world. The second in command of the Crips in L.A. is a 300-pound black man and he is a fan. They are emotional people who do not fear to listen to me.
Is there anything you wish you had turned out differently?
I don't indulge that much in wishing. I've always kept the carrot pretty close to the nose, just inched my way forward. I don't look back much. I'll indulge in reminiscing with old friends.
What about your autobiography - it was announced years ago?
I am still circling it trying to find a way to approach it, they paid me 5-6 years ago and they're getting a bit chompy. Recently, I had the idea for "Cats, Characters and Dreams" - disjointed vignettes. In a linear biography I could get bogged down in verbosity which makes a boring book. I tried to tell stories to people but I didn't find myself scintillating. It seemed artificial, flat. Stories I remember I store like film, they don't need embellishment or exaggeration. When I am in a story that is happening all around me, I come alert and soak all the dialogue. I am a really good listener, I scoop it. I have a gift of chronology so I would remember exactly how things unfolded but I am losing my ability for new memories - not so much the older ones, they are kinda locked in.
I remember too much, that's the problem. I wasn't a druggie long enough!
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