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Joni Mitchell: A Resurgence of Music and Art Print-ready version

by Reese Erlich
National Public Radio
September 28, 2007

by Reese Erlich and Tom Huizenga Singer-song writer Joni Mitchell was a major musical star in the 1970s and 80s, but she hasn't produced a recording of original work in nearly 10 years. Then, in a burst of activity over the past months, she's collaborated on a ballet, released a new album titled Shine and launched a new art exhibit.

At an art gallery in New York City's Little Italy, workers busily saw open crates and unwrap huge photos. Mitchell's artwork has arrived and everyone is scrambling to get the show hung on time. Mitchell oversees the placement and hanging of some 40 pieces.

A Painterly Approach to Music

Mitchell attended art school as a young woman and has had numerous gallery showings of her work. She paints the same way she creates music. She says both involve putting down layers until something fully formed emerges.

"You do your preliminary sketch; you build your skeleton," Mitchell says. "Then you start overdubbing an additional area. You put your first mark on your canvass. It's the same way you lay your first bed whatever it might be, a drum part or bass part. It's exactly the same process."

It may be a surprise, but Mitchell says that she writes her music first and then her lyrics.

"It's a harder puzzle," Mitchell admits. "It's like you do the score and then do the movie. But by the score you know where your climatic statements fall and where your descriptive passages can go. And you get a more unusual rhyme scheme."

A Tribute from Herbie Hancock

Shine is not the only new Joni Mitchell recording. Jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock has just released a tribute CD, River: The Joni Letters (audio), which features guest vocalists such as Norah Jones, Leonard Cohen and Mitchell.

Hancock says he was inspired by Mitchell's brilliant words, imagery and metaphors.

"The foundation of her music is really her poetry," Hancock says. "If I want to do justice to her music, I have to begin with the words. Many of her lyrics are narrative and descriptive of the scene, not just intuitive. So it's treated almost like doing a movie score."

For her own album, Mitchell also found music and images inextricably linked.

Words and War

"The songs," Mitchell says, "simultaneously came out of working with these images and watching so much war history."

The images in Mitchell's New York exhibition are, in part, a response to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One triptych shows washed out images of the U.S. Capitol dome, the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, and a group of U.S. senators.

In one way, the show is a departure for Mitchell. While much of her previous visual art has been painting and drawing, the new works are modified photographs taken with disposable cameras. But in another way, the exhibit revisits recurring themes in Mitchell's art. She has always been known for her political and social concerns.

"Why don't they learn from history?" she asks. "Didn't they notice that Russia went broke in Afghanistan? You can't beat these people on their own turf. The whole thing is stupid. They're just not observant."

On the new album, Mitchell expresses those sentiments in the song "Strong and Wrong."(audio)

For nearly a decade, Mitchell resisted the urge to write songs expressing her political feelings. In fact, she says, she didn't write any music, nor even touch a piano or guitar.

"One of the things that made me quit was that I said I wasn't going to write any more social commentary," Mitchell says. "When I quit 10 years ago, I got stubborn with myself. I took a lot of flack. I didn't want to go through the experience.

"I was mad at America. Come on wake up. You know, wake 'em, shake 'em. I just didn't want to be the one."

But ultimately, she couldn't fight what was inside.

Mitchell wrote all of the lyrics on her new recording save one. It's called "If," her musical setting of a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling's poem portrays a father giving advice to his son. Mitchell uses most of the poem, but made some changes. She doesn't like Kipling's advice at the end.

"He tells the boy in the last stanza, if you endure you'll inherit the earth," Mitchell says. "I thought that's not what makes you inherit the earth. So how do you inherit the earth? By being awake."

And Joni Mitchell is back, wide awake, with new music and new art.


TRANSCRIPT

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Joni Mitchell didn't produce an album of new songs for nearly 10 years. Stories and rumors abounded about the reasons - she was fed up with the record industry, she was losing her voice. But in a burst of activity over the last 12 months, she's collaborated on a ballet. She's opened an exhibition of her artwork. And she's released that long-awaited CD.

Reese Erlich spent some time with Joni Mitchell as she worked on her art show in New York. He has this report.

REESE ERLICH: At an art gallery in New York's Little Italy, workers busily saw open crates and unwrap huge photos. Joni Mitchell's artwork has arrived a day late and everyone is scrambling to get the show hung on time. Mitchell oversees the placement and hanging of each of some 40 pieces.

Ms. JONI MITCHELL (Musician, Painter): I would move that one over here and bring in the "Hitler Went Down(ph)" onto the floor.

ERLICH: Mitchell attended art school as a young woman and has had numerous gallery showings of her work. She paints the same way she creates music. She says both involve putting down layers until something fully formed emerges.

Ms. MITCHELL: You do your preliminary sketch. You build your skeleton. And then you start overdubbing an additional area there, but not there, you know? Like - it's like, okay, you put your first mark on your canvas, and when you put your second one on, where do you put it? Well, your eye is drawn to put it to the upper right in the same way that you layer your first bed whatever it might be a bass part or a drum part. And then your ear is drawn to put a little bit there but not there. It's exactly the same process.

(Soundbite of song "Shine")

Ms. MITCHELL: (Singing) Oh, let your little light shine. Let your little light shine.

ERLICH: It may be a surprise to learn that Mitchell writes the music first and then the lyrics.

Ms. MITCHELL: It's a harder puzzle going that way. But you do the score and then you do make the movie. But by the score, you know where your climatic statements fall and you know where your descriptive passages can go. And you get a more unusual rhyme scheme.

(Soundbite of song "Shine")

Ms. MITCHELL: (Singing) Shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas. Shine on our Frankenstein technologies. Shine on science. With its tunnel vision, tunnel vision. Shine on fertile farmland buried under subdivisions.

Mr. HERBIE HANCOCK (Jazz Pianist): Her words are so brilliant. The metaphors and imagery are incredible.

ERLICH: Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock is a huge Joni Mitchell fan. So much so that he's just released his own recording of some of her songs.

Mr. HANCOCK: If I wanted to do justice to - or attempt to do justice to her music, I have to begin with the words. Many of her lyrics are narrative. They're descriptive of a scene and something happening in the scene, not just intuitive. So it's treated almost like doing a movie score.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: For her own CD, Joni Mitchell also found music and images inextricably linked.

Ms. MITCHELL: The song simultaneously came out of working with these images and watching so much war history.

ERLICH: The images in Mitchell's New York exhibition are, in part, a response to U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One triptych juxtaposes washed out images of the U.S. Capitol dome, the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, and a group of U.S. senators.

Ms. MITCHELL: You know, I thought, why don't they learn from history? I mean, didn't they notice Russia went broke in Afghanistan? I mean, you can't beat these people on their own turf, you know? The whole thing is stupid. They don't - they just aren't observant.

ERLICH: The show is in one way a departure for Mitchell. While much of her previous visual art has been painting and drawing, these works are modified photographs taken with disposable cameras. But in another way, it isn't. Mitchell has always been known for her political and social concerns. For nearly a decade, Mitchell had resisted the urge to write songs expressing her political feelings. In fact, she says, she didn't write any music or even touch her piano or guitar.

Ms. MITCHELL: One of the things that made me quit was I said I'm not going to write any more social commentary. I'm not going to write this. I just went, no. I just got stubborn with myself. No more, because, you know, I took a lot of flack and I just thought that I didn't want to go through the experience. I was mad at America. And I thought, you know, come on. Wake up, you know? like wake them, shake them. But I didn't want to be the one.

ERLICH: But ultimately, she couldn't fight what was inside.

(Soundbite of song "Strong and Wrong")

Ms. MITCHELL: (Singing) Strong and wrong you win. Only because that's the way it's always been. Men love war! That's what history's for. History. A mass-murder mystery. His story. Strong and wrong. You lose everything.

ERLICH: Joni Mitchell wrote all of the lyrics for the songs on her new recording save one. It's called "If." Her musical setting of a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Ms. MITCHELL: If you can keep your head while all about you, by losing theirs and blaming you. If you can trust yourself when everybody doubts you…

(Soundbite of song "If")

Ms. MITCHELL: (Singing) When everybody doubts you. And make allowance for their doubting, too. If you can wait and not get tired of waiting. And when lied about it, stand tall don't deal in lies. And when hated, don't give in to hating back. Don't need to look so good. Don't need to talk too wise.

ERLICH: Kipling's poem portrays a father giving advice to his son. Mitchell kept most of the poem but made some changes. She doesn't like Kipling's advice at the end.

Ms. MITCHELL: Basically, what he tells the boy in the last stanza is: If you can endure, you'll inherit the Earth. And I thought that's not what makes you inherit the Earth. So how do you inherit the Earth? By being awake.

ERLICH: And Joni Mitchell is back with the alarm clock.

For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

BLOCK: You can see a slideshow of Joni Mitchell's new artwork on display in New York. And hear songs from her new CD at npr.org.

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Added to Library on September 28, 2007. (691)

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