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Joni says she's never been just a singer Print-ready version

by Martin Knelman
Toronto Star
June 12, 2008

Joni Mitchell hates the D word: dilettante.

Rejecting the notion that her celebrity as a singer/songwriter draws the public to her visual art show, "Green Flag Song," and the related ballet piece The Fiddle and the Drum  both showcased this week at Luminato  she says it works against her for those who want to dismiss her radical ideas.

"This is not my secondary thing," she explained yesterday, to two journalists, a publicist, an agent and Jean Grand-MaƮtre, the Alberta Ballet artistic director who collaborated with her on a dance piece that will have its Toronto premiere tomorrow. "It's my primary thing."

After a slight pause, she added, with a throaty laugh: "Music is my day job."

Even in 1963, when she had her first paying gig singing at a club in Calgary, a newspaper referred to her as "a two-career girl" because she was also enrolled in local painting courses.

Forty-five years later, on a Toronto summer day, she wore a rich blue top, matching pants with a gold necklace that seemed casual but exquisitely enhanced her fresh blond-and-blue-eyed Prairie girl look.

She made a glancing reference to a health crisis but quickly changed the subject and declined to offer details except to say an astrologist told her she was genetically programmed to have a "life-and-death battle" at 65, the age she will reach in the fall.

She prefers to avoid personal talk and focus on the work.

"The ballet is so beautiful and it's the most exciting thing I've ever done," she proclaimed.

"It's about ignorance and human stupidity, and about the inconvenient truth that we've got to change or die. We have to suck in our belts a bit and go backward. Technology won't get us out of this."

In "Green Flag Song"  an art exhibit of 30-plus pieces  the disturbing green images are collages of photographs she took from a dysfunctional TV set that inadvertently captured her sense of a sickness infecting the world.

In the 50-minute dance piece, those images are wedded to three songs composed and sung by Mitchell.

As a result, she claimed, "important songs of mine that were dismissed as negative and sophomoric at the time suddenly become palatable."

When first approached about doing a dance piece, the idea was to focus on her life, not the planet.

"I'm most famous for personal stuff I've written, but who cares about that? There are issues I have tried to address for 40 years and no one listened. We're an ignorant species and we need re-educating."

But don't get the idea the ballet is a downer.

She believes that, like the movies of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Busby Berkeley, this work alludes to grim issues while still giving the audience a good time. And she is delighted that there now seems to be a public appetite for ideas once unpopular.

"In the '80s, I did my protest and no one wanted to hear it. The record companies buried it. Yet in a way it was a blessing that I lost my audience. I did my best work when no one was paying attention."

After living in Los Angeles for more than three decades, she would like to move back to Canada, if only she were not having so much trouble getting a year-round home built in the B.C. rural spot where she has a summer-only place.

After 90 minutes of talk, it was time for a cigarette. Don't get her started on the anti-smoking mood of our times.

The reason, she claims, is political, not concern for health. She has been smoking since the age of 9 and considers it a form of self-medication.

She spoke wistfully of the days of a rough childhood in North Battleford, when she would ride her bike to the edge of town to enjoy lighting up and watching the birds.

"That was the best part of my childhood," she said. " Nobody has any focus any more. I think it's because they quit smoking."

This article has been viewed 380 times since being added on June 12, 2008.

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