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The Importance of Being Joni Print-ready version

by Ken Tucker
April 1995

So what if she doesn't rack up the sales that her young acolytes do--Joni Mitchell is still the most influential woman in pop music.

When Maire Brennan of the popular Irish folk/rock band Clannad released a solo album recently, the cut she was proudest of was her version of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi." "It's such a brilliant song," Brennan gushed to Billboard magazine. "It was written twenty-five years ago or something like that, and look at the words! It's as if it was written today." (How appropriate that the title of this fan's album is Misty Eyed Adventures.)

Hearing this doesn't really surprise Joni Mitchell. "People say to me, 'Your music doesn't date,' kind of in amazement. Well, the reason it doesn't date is because it's pure music. If it was produced pablum for a juvenile audience, of course it would date, because then I'd just be working in the flux of fad and fashion."

If you listen to any amount of pop music these days, you'll come to realize that, at fifty-one, Joni Mitchell is an enormously influential artist. Her style--using a confiding voice to mix autobiography with poetic imagery, deploying folk and orchestral arrangements in a pop setting where melodies expand beyond the standard verse-chorus-verse structure--can be heard in the work of many younger performers, from Tori Amos to Sheryl Crow. Sarah McLachlan's latest album, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, is a virtual homage to Mitchell in the latter's Blue period. The Canadian-born Mitchell ought to receive royalties for the riffs and phrases that her countrywoman Jane Siberry (When I Was a Boy) has turned into a thriving cult career.

Mitchell herself is aware of her pop-music presence. "I can see my influence in Rickie [Lee Jones]'s work--we're drawn to similar melodies even though we're quite different ... The girl from 10,000 Maniacs [Natalie Merchant]--she shaves off the end of lines the way I do. And there's a clicking thing in my singing that I used to do--for a while there was a thin spot between my real voice and my falsetto, and I did this little click when I had to get up into the falsetto register. Well, Sinead [O'Connor] does that. I did it because I had to; she does it as a kind of stylistic gesture. "As an elder," Mitchell says with mock severity, "I exert a certain influence over my flock." Then she drags on a cigarette and gives out a smoky, self-confident chuckle.

To be sure, Mitchell has to be prodded into making such comparisons. If there's an element of modesty to her reticence, there's also a whiff of resentment, for Mitchell is caught in a mean paradox: the sound that has turned the music of others into a growing business is precisely the sound that now limits Mitchell's commercial success. For years, older fans and many music critics have been fervently hoping Mitchell would turn away from the jazz-inflected music that has characterized her creations since 1975's Hissing of Summer Lawns. Yet when she did just that on the recently released Turbulent Indigo--her seventeenth release and one of her strongest, most consistent collections in years--the album was a fast-fading dud, peaking on the Billboard album charts at a mere No. 47 and dropping off entirely after two months.

We're used to reading profiles of performers who've just released a piece of work: they're out promoting an album, a movie, a book, hoping through interviews and sheer media pervasiveness to get the word out, to shape the way that work is received. You know this sort of patter, convinced of its own optimism and energy: "I thought it was time to stretch myself"; "I think this is a real breakthrough for me," that sort of thing.

But what if the item has been on the market for a while and hasn't lived up to commercial expectations? An interview with the artist becomes less airy and theoretical, and more realistic--more dollars-and-cents. "If I don't push enough digits," Mitchell says with drawling sarcasm, lapsing into music-biz lingo for selling albums, "my record company [Warner Bros] will drop me. I need to sell twice as much as I have so far to recoup [the expenses for making the album]. You know, I haven't seen a royalty [check] in over twenty years, which is kind of a shame, because you would think there'd be at least a million people out there who would appreciate my work." Meanwhile Sheryl Crow racks up Grammy nominations, a Mitchell admirer like Liz Phair wins critics' polls and Sarah McLachlan stays on the charts longer than the source of so much of her inspiration.

Why? Mitchell gets a little stuffy here. "Culturally, Americans seem to like simplistic emotions in music. They like their happiness in major and their tragedy minor, and about as complicated a chord as they can take is a seventh. Throughout my career and up until recently, other musicians and fans alike referred to 'Joni's weird chords,' you know? Or they would call them jazz chords, which they aren't--jazz has its own laws, and my chords deviate from those laws."

There is to Joni Mitchell an abiding sense that she is fundamentally misunderstood, that the music which brought her acclaim early in her career typecast her as a mere sensitive soul, a quivering artiste, when she considers herself a thick-skinned laborer, a stubborn innovator whose high standards haven't been recognized.

"I don't know how to say this without sounding snotty, but if you're building [your music] off a base of 10,000 Maniacs songs--if that's the kind of music you took in and that's the kind of music you want to make--then it's not going to be great ... Also, the usual role of the producer in the work of these women we are discussing is to help them add to their music, because they don't necessarily know how to do it. They're not composers, per se; they're songwriters and they need that [extra help] ... I'm not a 'produced artist'--a producer does not laminate his taste onto me. Every note that goes into the music on my records is my composition. I made thirteen albums without a producer; then I married a bass player who became a producer [Larry Klein] and he helped me work with the Fairlight [synthesizer]. We agreed it was a coproduction."

Still, Mitchell seems resigned to her lot. "If [Warner Bros] drops me, I could always find another label, but I doubt I would. I think I would just quit and paint."

She doesn't sound as if she is kidding or looking for pity, either. She has a head full of potential projects. "I want to get out a book of poems ... poems written for the page as well as the song lyrics I think work as poetry. Like, I wouldn't have [Court & Spark's] 'Help Me'--that's not poetry--but I'd have 'Hejira': real poems that I've set to music. I want to write a book about two weeks when I visited Charles Mingus near the end of his life in Cuernavaca, Mexico; and I've done preliminary sketches for a section about my visit with Georgia O'Keeffe."

Talking to Mitchell, it occurs to me that I can't think of another rock performer of her stature who is as fully immersed in arts other than music. (Sorry, the sentimental portraiture practiced by John Mellencamp and the Rolling Stones' Ron Wood--stuff you imagine they do as soothing therapy after a grueling tour--just doesn't count.) The opening minutes of our interview, for example, had nothing to do with Turbulent Indigo, but rather with Mitchell's paintings, and a few quick comments about artists who have influenced her. "I've been painting mostly landscapes for the past couple of years," she says. "I keep going back and forth between figuration and abstraction. See, when I was thirteen, I was taught by a disciple of [abstract expressionist] Barnett Newman, and I rebelled by making all the jokes they used to make about abstract art--you know, a kindergartner could do this, that kind of thing--and I insisted that I wanted to paint realistically. But that feeling wore off after a while, and I did do a lot of abstract work, but I never felt it was that good. To be technical about it, I have a loopy line to my abstract gesture like Matisse and Picasso, but when I draw," she laughs, "my loop ends up looking like a lot of round-figured, kind of koala-bear-shaped figures."

As for musical influences, by the way, all Mitchell will admit to is that, "I started off copying a girl named Shelby Flint--I heard her on the radio late at night on a station I could pick up from Texas. She was a brassy little soprano with not much vibrato ... When I was in college, I made some pin money in art school with my little repertoire of Judy Collins songs--just folky stuff. But as soon as I began to write my own songs, I had my own voice, because I was delivering words that came from me. Immediately, any stylistic affects were gone; they became the voice of my own spirit."

Over the years, Mitchell has said in many interviews that hearing Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street"--with its use of colloquial language and the way it accommodated naked feelings of jealousy and romantic agony--made her realize how many creative options there were in popular music. But if she cares that her own songs now serve as a liberating influence on a lot of younger performers, she doesn't let on. Instead, she talks as if she's reached the stage where she's more concerned with summing up her work and taking it in different directions.

"I've had such a colorful life, not so much in what celebrities I've bumped into--y'know, when publishers want you to write your autobiography, they want to know, " and here she puts on a deep, goofy voice, "'What other famous people did'ja know?' but my life is rich with hundreds of little tales. Colorful experiences that I'd like to turn into short stories. Some of them deal with the life of a rock star, but some of them don't. I'd write them in the form of a barroom yarn, you know? In another era, before television, I guess I'd be an old raconteur."

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