In the December '98 issue of MUSICIAN, you'll find a fascinating interview with Joni Mitchell. In six magazine pages she addressed a selection of topics that concern today's musicians: sampling, lyric construction, harmony, the revolution she helped launch in bass line form, and more. But this only scratched the surface: We spent something like two hours together, as she spoke candidly about everything from her preference of Wayne Shorter over John Coltrane to her sources for melodic inspiration and her discouragement with the business aspects of music. We finally cut our conversation short only out of courtesy to a couple of New York Times correspondents who were cooling their heels nearby.
It sounds like a lot of the bass on the new album, "Taming the Tiger," is acoustic.
It's a keyboard, but it's got a good plucked sound on it. It sounds like a Fifties juke box bass. I found it by accident below Middle C on one of the keyboards. It had a limited range, only a little more than an octave; it didn't really go up the neck.
You've got some wonderful bass synth sounds on the record too.
I found it by accident! It's mostly a piano preset, with all different kinds of grands-different echoes and so forth. I borrowed it for a Fender Rhodes sound-it had a pretty good Fender Rhodes sound, which is the basis for "Man from Mars."
That FM type sound?
Well, I was looking for "In a Silent Way," that sound that Herbie plays. But I went through three borrowed instruments, all with woody notes and intonation problems . . .
These were actual Rhodes keyboards?
Yeah, old Rhodes keyboards that he had tweaked. So Freddie said, "Look, I've got a keyboard with a preset on it." At least it was clean, but it wasn't quite the sound I was looking for. That's when I got into smothering it with other sounds, because I love the bottom register but the treble is a little honky for me. So I started burying it under VG-8 sounds.
The interesting thing is, I don't play in standard tuning. I wrote "Urge for Going," my first song in standard tuning, and then I wrote "Harlem in Havana" in standard tuning, mainly because the VG-8 has this palate of presets that you can't access except by standard tuning or by going back to my old method of manually putting the sound I like into a tuning. So I had to learn a little bit of standard guitar tuning-well enough, at least, to figure out how to put the horns on "Man from Mars." Most of the sweetening was done on the guitar in standard tuning, which is a real exercise for me.
Did you play all the keyboard parts?
I played everything, except Wayne Shorter's on pedal steel, and on two pieces, the bass sound I had on the keyboard, this arco sound, wasn't cutting, because the composition was getting so thick. So I had Klein come in and play on those, but as written; he played what I had already sketched out. It was a very compositional album.
As far as the musicians though, it's almost entirely you aside from some sweetening.
Right, from Wayne Shorter.
And you had a muted trumpet on one cut, "Stay in Touch."
Yeah, Mark Isham. And Klein is on two tracks, "Lead Balloon" and "Harlem in Havana," but playing my part.
Why was "Stay in Touch" a trumpet song instead of a Wayne Shorter saxophone song?
Actually, because I had my quota on Wayne. Legally he can't play on any more than five tracks. I'd have Wayne on everything if I could.
Are all the drum parts live?
Yes, they are. Brian and I cut all the tracks live.
There's no sequencing in the rhythm at all?
No . . . Wait, wrong. The last cut. . . .
"Here's to You"?
Yeah. Brian was on the road, and I cut that to one of the first Roland rhythm boxes, which leaked onto the track. It was just to be used to set up a pattern: I held onto the buttons and got a complex rhythm. But my console made an error and took the click track, which is all it was, and printed it off of track one and cross-talked all the way over onto the vocals. So then I had to do vocal percussion, like mimicking the sound of a drum machine over it, to humanize it, because I didn't want to do the vocal over again; the vocal was kind of definitive. But even on that, none of the rhythm is programmed; it's all hand-played. Except for the leakage of this rhythm track, which was never supposed to be heard again.
A lot of your work is very free, with so much rubato. That seems to have a lot to do with how you phrase your vocal line.
It's jazz phrasing.
You also like to hit a chord change before the beat where it's supposed to happen; that also contributes to a very free feeling in the tempo.
I wonder. It's figurative thinking. I push like a jazzer, because I play with jazz musicians so much, and I play across the bar like a jazzer.
Do you build your guitar accompaniment on the flow of the lyric?
No, the lyric is built off of it.
As you begin work on what will turn out to be a new album, do you approach the project from an integrated album-like concept, or do you treat each new song as its own entity outside of a greater context?
It's very painterly. It evolves. I have Brian on everything initially. Later I took him off from about fifty percent of it-not because he didn't play beautifully, but because the music took off in a different direction. He is a beautiful musical partner for me, by the way. He dots my i's and crosses my t's. He's a jazz/folky guy, right? He writes songs on acoustic guitars. He admires Neil Young and me. And then he's absorbed all this jazz on the other end. Like Jaco, some of the musicians I've needed had to be born and raised [laughs], because when I came into music it was really apartheid. It still is, to a degree, in a different way-then, by the musical interests of the artists themselves; now, by the jurisdiction of sales.
But is there a consistent mindset that you maintain throughout an album project, to keep a sense of continuity to each one?
No, I think the continuity comes from harmonic taste and certain stylistic things. Sometimes the last song on the album tips the next direction.
The last one you record?
Yeah. Like, this album was two years in the making. As you get toward the end, you're almost into your next period. At the onset with this record, all I had to work with was a ferocious contempt for the record industry, for the business itself. That's all I had in me as a writer as I began. Plus a tremendous desire for self-respect. It was like, okay, if I'm in the game but not of the game, it's time to get out. I'm not gonna sit here all suited up and not be allowed to participate. I've done that for twenty years, and enough is enough, right? So I took my swan song, my last gig, on a Sunday in New Orleans. The Sunday before that, I got a call from an L.A. merchant who knew that part of the reason why I was quitting was that I had musically backed myself into a corner with the tunings. I was a guitar killer. It made performing a nightmare for me in that I had to spend half the time tuning. I never was really in tune.
You could have brought a bunch of guitars with you.
But even then, the guitar wasn't intended to be played the way I do it.
What would happen to the instrument?
Well, I had some tunings with A on the bottom-way down, so it was flapping. So it was almost impossible to tune sympathetically to it. So I would have an arsenal of guitars that were worked on and set up into tuning families. But I felt apologetic. I never felt like I was really into it. With all the distortions of modern technology, people don't realize that high-end EQ is an oscillator and they dump it arbitrarily all over the sound, the soundman in the hall. I'd play things back, and I'd hear that I was singing perfectly sharp. Back in the good old days, before technology went nuts . . . I mean, God bless technology for inventing the VG-8 for me, but a lot of it is nutsy and unnecessary. They used to hang a boom mic over you on a TV show and pick up your voice and guitar superbly, without all this hardware in front of you and three middlemen running around.
Anyway, for artistic reasons and for reasons of being undervalued and unable to get my product properly to market, I decided I'd had it. It costs a lot to stay in the game-insurance and all of this stuff. So it was no longer as lucrative. I was starting to be in a pay-to-play position.
You were doing pay-to-play gigs?
Well, kind of, if you add it all up. If somebody rear-ends you, that fits into the commerce of the whole picture. You're paid in advance, but you have to pay it back. You're there for twelve years, and when you divide by twelve and take all the commissions off, it's less than your insurance for being a celebrated person. I mean, there is no profit, right? I still had my publishing company, so I could make a living that way. But not much. Nothing was working with me. Everything was working against me. Everywhere there were replacements for me: Here's a new one, and then another new one, and then another new one. I was supposed to find that flattering, but I found it insulting.
Like, why is she getting the glory?
It isn't even that. If you're dead, that's one thing. If they were better, that would be another thing. But it's just another example of nobody-knows-how-original-I-were kids [sic]. It's not that easy to imitate.
So all of these things added up to taking the fun out of music.
Would you still play for your own amusement at home during this period?
Oh, sure. It's not the art; it's the business. When I was seven I wanted to compose. My piano teacher rapped my knuckles and said, "Why would you want to play by ear when you can have the masters?" That killed my love of it for a while. That was a traditional way of teaching piano, by the way. If you were faster at learning by ear than you were at reading, they'd rap your knuckles. Every piano player I've ever talked with who's my age had their knuckles rapped. That's the way it was taught. But I didn't know that; I just thought there was a personal prejudice against me as a child. I didn't know that that was the system. I just thought I was being punished for the wrong thing-and I was. I was being punished for originality.
Because their tradition is conformist: You want to sound as close to the canon as you can.
Right, and in the arts they send you to jail if you do that! The better copyist you are as a painter, the more likely you'll go to jail for painting like somebody else.
Although most abstract painters probably needed to get to their style through training that would be analogous to doing scales and drills as a musician. Even in abstract art, there is still a common concept of technique as a starting block.
Yeah, but there's a lot of hype in that field too. We have to take the word of one man for all of that. The artists themselves were not sure. And they weren't that good. It wasn't like Munch. Some of the earlier innovators or deviants were very brave, Munch especially. He liked to take the legitimate chops that he had and draw like a child, which would subject himself to ridicule. By the time the abstractionists came along, the initial shock was passed, and a lot of hype fell on a lot of that. I'm not a fan of that period of music or that period of painting. I think it covers a kind of a world [unintelligible] I think Greenberg was his name, one man said it was good-
He was an art critic?
Yeah, so I'm still not sure.
Reportedly when Thelonious Monk came to Harlem, he was playing in a more traditional, Tatum-like style than the style for which he was later best known.
Well, you gotta start somewhere.
The point is, he had legit technique, and he decided to step back and develop a new perspective from the foundation of that technique.
Well, he let the band breathe; that's basically what he did. And it gave him time to stand up and dance a little bit. We used to play Spot the Critic, particularly in Europe. We could usually find him in the audience. Then when we would step forward and play fast, we'd get a rise out of him. So Monk playing bold, angular block chords was beautiful. I'm like Monk in a certain way, with bold block chords. But I bring in the sixteenth-note players for the filigree lines, because if we all do-dee, do-dee, you get hyper bebop, which was not my favorite period, with everyone flashing on how fast you could play. Somebody's got to lay the foundation for songs. I lay down a moving pattern with odd accents. They don't intimidate someone like Wayne [Shorter]; he'll go, "Man, they're never gonna know where one is!" Wayne is a certified genius-and I'm not even sure that Coltrane was. I'm not a Coltrane fan. I can't hear him. Wayne is a tributary of Coltrane, but as far as emotional breadth, depth, and width, and innocence and sophistication, not to mention the architecture, there's no comparison. Some people think Trane is the greatest jazz musician who ever lived-and I think that's . . . unfortunate. I just don't think the soul had the dynamic to be great.
Wayne Shorter, of course, makes more minimal gestures than Coltrane, which perhaps allows him to play more complementary parts around the kind of complex structures people like you and Steely Dan create for him.
The way I've always worked with Wayne is, I give him twelve tracks and cut him loose, and then I edit him. So he can play everywhere, but I know the places where I want him to play, so I can cut air in. But he'll literally crawl over the notes like a fly. He'll have one leg on the trumpet and one leg on the piano, going back and forth-and then he'll lift off and land on the string. I've heard him say, "No, I'm not gonna play the horn. I'm gonna play strings." More than anybody I ever played with, he'll go straight to the heart of the
problem in the music and solve it even before he's into his own interpretation.
Has he always been the guy who plays soprano saxophone parts on your records?
Well, Tom Scott played a little soprano for me back then. But since my relationship began with Wayne,
there is no other.
Does he record the soprano parts after you've laid down your vocals? Or do you ever do them live at the same time?
I just cut some Gershwin tunes live with him and Herbie for Herbie's album. And Stevie Wonder! That was delightful. We can do it that way, but these are my compositions, so I tend to layer it.
In listening to the new album, as well as some of your previous albums, it occurred to me that if you deleted the sax parts, the songs would still be complete.
I put Wayne in for something for me to listen to. Now, when I finish a record, it isn't really for me to listen to. But when somebody's got it on someplace and I hear it, I just thrill to listen to Wayne on there.
What Gershwin songs did you sing with Herbie?
"Summertime" and "The Man I Love."
Did you and Stevie sing back and forth?
He came in on an instrumental in the middle. It's like, I got two verses, then there was an instrumental. Wayne and Herbie and I were all around each other; you just wait for your hole and you jump in. They'd also just come off of a really tight duo tour, so they were really in sync, and sometimes I had to wait quite a while, because the third element was kind of new to them. It was like Herbie was playing over the line, and I had to wait for a note I could get in on with my note because he's coming across the top.
On the question of standard tuning, when you began playing guitar, did you deviate from normal tuning because you heard different harmonies in your head, or did you just not know how to tune a guitar traditionally?
I started as a classical musician. That's where my love of melody began. My dad listened to Harry James, but his tastes and mum's tastes were pretty classical, and all the records we had at home were classical. At eight I fell in love with melody: Debussy, Clair de lune. I used to dream that I could do it-like, literally dream that I could play the piano beautifully, because I kept company with a childhood friend who did play the piano beautifully, so the dream wasn't impossible, although he'd had three or four years' training. That's what sent me to piano lessons: to get these melodies out. I actually wrote songs down by notes, these instrumentals, with the primitive abilities I had at the end of one year of piano lessons. But that was discouraged; It was called playing by ear, and it wasn't viewed as creative; it was viewed as a hindrance to instruction.
Anyway, when I got a guitar, I was modeling and working as a waitress in a coffee house, trying to get money to go to art school. I did the guitar more for fun at parties, where everybody was sitting around. I'd come through the rock and roll era; in my teens I was a rock and roll dancer. I liked it if you could dance to it. So I had that head. So I was painting murals for people and doing art assignments here and there, and I was being paid with jazz records.
Now, this is all to answer your question, just to give you a chronology. As I began to play folk music, in order to learn the guitar, I got a Pete Seeger "How to Play" record, and I tried to do "Cotten picking"-picking in the style of Elizabeth Cotten. I had a good ear for pitch.
Well, I think it's perfect if I memorize the names. I don't know if I have that, but I have finer pitch than most
people around me. Mingus and I heard things on records that no one else did. He was kindred in that way. He pointed out things on my records that were out of tune that I had argued with people about. The first thing Mingus said to me when I met him was, "The strings on 'Paprika Plains' are out of tune!" He meant to be confronting me, but I said, "Yeah! Thank you!" Because the conductor didn't hear it, the engineer didn't hear it; everybody thought I was just being picayune.
That's why it's intriguing to wonder whether the kinds of chords you play were already forecast in your head as a child, or whether you developed your harmonic language as an outgrowth of not knowing how to do standard tuning.
Maybe this is partly developed, like, an eye and an ear. Like, the staff is one form of taking the ear and converting it to the eye-which I was punished for bypassing, right? I developed my own system of viewing music, so that you see patterns and layers in a much more painterly way. . . .
What about your sense of melody?
I think my melodic taste in kindred to Wayne's. But we have a love of those intervals that leave a lot of people behind. I don't know where he got his, but I got mine from singing descant in church choir. I was singing descant in the church choir at nine, and none of the kids wanted it. To me, it was a beautiful melody; I called it "the pretty melody." Other kids found it difficult because they had to sing fourths and fifths, those funny intervals. Wayne's melodies are like that-more so than mine. But mine will go along neatly and then take a drop. I'll be going along, it's a nice sunny day, and I'm picking berries, and it's lovely-and suddenly the ground opens up beneath me, and I'm falling into an ancient cistern. And I'm swallowed in shit! The music has to show this radical karma. I know that Wayne's life has been like that: His wife blew up in a plane, and his daughter committed suicide at a young age. I know that his life is full of those sudden things, where the ground swallows you up in shit. So it stands to reason that he and I would both depict chordal movement with sudden drop-aways. For someone who's living on more of an even keel, those sudden drop-aways would be disconcerting. But I have to have them in my music-otherwise I'm not depicting my life.
How, then, would you feel about the artists who make the formulaic music we hear on the charts today?
Music, in the sense that I understood it as a child, tells a story in notes. And I'm a lover of stories. On this record I can say that "Man from Mars," for instance, is not just notes. The mix is extraordinarily deep: There are low things going off way in the distance. My cat was missing, my beloved Nietzsche, and for eighteen days I went out in the darkness into my neighborhood, like a mother. And I've had a history of stalkers, but I was completely fearless, listening so far for his distinctive little voice in the mix of the night. Where I live, the night is really quiet-but when you get out in it, it's not quiet at all. Things go thump, and things go bump, and there are songbirds and dogs and rustles and freeways in the distance. I've tried to capture that deep mix of silence on that piece of music. Now, that has nothing to do with the pop arena.
The pop arena seems to fear silence.
In fact, on "Taming the Tiger," you emphasize the line "and stare up at the stars" by stopping the music suddenly, and we're left with this image of you looking up into the heavens. That use of silence seems both adventurous and absent from a lot of what we hear today.
I used to have a Police record with "doo-doo-doo dah-dot-dah-dot," with Fifties-type stops in it! I've produced most of my records, and even the ones I did in conjunction with Klein had to pass through my scrutiny, though we had to have debates. But on "Chalkmark in a Rainstorm," I said, don't cross the threshold. I love you, but don't come in here! I'm taking it back again, because I just don't feel like having debates over music. It makes me feel too butch to argue with a guy. I have the right to do it the way I want to without debate. I insist on it! I managed to do so many records-thirteen before we married-and then with "Dog Eat Dog," Elliott Summer, behind my back, made them all producers and gave them all authority. That was a nightmare for me! I was in tears through half of that record. I wanted big Brazilian drums, which were not in vogue at that time; this was pre-world beat. So the drum sounds are a compromise. Other than that, it's all my music, except that it's Dolby's sound, which he'd get off the keyboard and give me the keyboard to play them was also a lot of effort. Yet he signed on to do that, just to set up colors and go away, but he started trying to make a "Downbeat" singer out of me. I said, "Look, don't tell me how to sing. I'm not gonna intellectualize my singing at this late date."
Your vocal range has obviously lowered over the years. How has that changed your approach to writing?
It's definitely affected the keys. But you know, I'm probably not a soprano. I'm actually a mimic by nature, and because of the youth cultishness of this culture, Americans tend to squeak a lot. If I was a European female, I probably would speak in a deeper voice-[falls into husky Marlene Dietrich tone] more like that, you know what I mean? Nobody talks like that in America. Who knows which pitch I would have chosen to be my norm, because I have a lot of them. Then I came into folk music, and the vogue there-aside from Odetta-was for sopranos. I do believe that I started in falsetto. So all of that was in an unnatural voice.
So even on your early records, your range was lower than listeners might now think.
Well, this thing happened to me that makes me think about that. It would be 1965 or '66, and Chuck Mitchell and I had a gig in Jacksonville, Florida, double-billed with another singer-I can't recall who it was, but it was somebody on the folk circuit. After the show we jammed some stuff up in three-part harmony. To find a blend with the boys-both of them were tenors-I ended up going for the low part, and to everyone's surprise I found that I had this low voice, which I had never really used except for mimicking people in jokes, like doing the man's voice and the woman's voice. We sang like that for an extended period of time. The next gig I had was solo in Philadelphia, and when I got there and was warming up in the dressing room, I blew out my soprano voice. By using this low voice, something happened to the higher one. In those days I capoed up on a lot of songs, so I took the capo off and I tuned down-and still I could only salvage a part of my repertoire, even by taking it four or five frets lower than I had been doing it! The high voice, which was my signature at that time, was gone for about a month. And when it came back, I had the two voices, but there was a thin part in between. I had been singing all that time in falsetto; I'm not a natural soprano.
That break between your voices is another hallmark of your phrasing.
It was just a thin spot, somewhere above Middle C.
I'm thinking about, for example, that obvious break at the end of "Woodstock."
Oh, that yodelly stuff. I used that break to do some glottal jumps. Once I knew it was there, I started playing around with it. But I would say now that the soprano part was falsetto, and everything below that break is my natural voice. Smoking, of course, had something to do with it-although Aretha is a smoker too. Most female vocalists I know are smokers. And time-a soprano generally retires around the age of fifty. I used to speak all squeaky and high too. My father had a huge range in his speaking voice too. When he was serious, his voice would drop an octave. If he had something important to impart, he would speak very deeply.
Are you saying that even your speaking voice back then was a cultivated departure from what would have been natural for you?
No, not a cultivated effect, but more of a regional accent. What is it that makes you choose how to speak? You have it all, so something makes you choose to speak in a certain way. . . .
Like much of your current material, a lot of your older songs, like "Taxi," address contemporary concerns, but in a lighter, less polemical way.
Well, "Taxi" is a nursery rhyme. It's like a skipping song, almost, like "Ring Around the Rosie." It's light, but it's about the bubonic plague [laughs]. A lot of those old nursery rhymes are heavy, but children skip 'em. That's basically what that is, so it endures in the culture. It's a good little song. Did you know that two parking lots went down and parks went up in their place in America? I wish I could tell you where, but I've gotten letters about it. So it's really done a little good.
On a number of cuts on the new album you've used clichés as prominent lyrical elements.
They're well-placed, though [laughs].
One treads on thin ice when doing this kind of a thing. How do you decide when a cliché is usable?
Well, tell me what they are.
"Taming the Tiger" has "the old man is snoring." The previous song had "snakes, snails, and puppy tails," although you left the "dog" out of the more familiar version. And then "The Crazy Cries of Love" begins with "It was a dark and stormy night."
Each one is different. Let's start with "snake, snails, and puppy tails." The "puppy tails are wagging in the wound," so that changes into something else. That's symbolic of maleness, right? The cliché, then, is almost like a single word; just about everyone knows that it means "boy." Most men that I know-not all-still believe that no matter what happens to us, technology will get us out. Women generally do not believe that; they believe we're way in over our heads. That's a major difference between the general thinking of women and the general thinking of men. The idea is that men's tails are just wagging through all these disasters [laughs].
But how did you get to the point of feeling good about using that precise expression?
It probably had to do with rhyming choices that will trigger some other idea.
What about "the old man is snoring"?
Well, it rhymes with "boring." But also, inside the house in this scenario, the man has gone to bed. So it
works literally and it works as a rhyme. It's not just filler.
And "it was a dark and stormy night"?
Okay, I wrote the choruses on this song, and Don Fried wrote the verses. "The New Yorker" had a competition to write a short story beginning with "it was a dark and stormy night," so Donald, as an exercise, wrote this. But the second line is a brilliant deviation from the cliché: "Everyone was at the wing-ding." It's a beautiful out, but that was because it was competition to dig yourself out of a cliché hole in an original way. He never sent it in to "The New Yorker," but he just did it as an original exercise.
You write songs that reflect upon the concerns of each period in your life as you go on. "The Circle Game" was one of the earliest examples of this-and it ends when the guy is twenty years old.
He's in that limbo, between childhood and legal drinking age.
Did you ever think about revisiting that song and extending it further into the young man's life?
Well, that was an answer to a Neil Young song, "Oh, to Live on Sugar Mountain." I met Neil when he was eighteen and still living at home, and he had that song in his repertoire. His song was about being too old for the teen club and too young for the bar, so you had this terrible age of twenty when you were neither/nor. Well, when he was twenty, I think I was 23, so I wrote "The Circle Game" as a kind of personal letter in response to that song.
But for listeners who didn't know that, "The Circle Game" seems like the beginning of an archetypal story that seems to beg for continuation.
But in a way it's complete, because that song found its way into summer camp. Thirteen-year-olds were forced to sing that song by rote; they learned it without really knowing what it was about. I got a letter one time from a guy who is now into his twenties. He said he learned that song in summer camp, liked it but didn't know what it meant until he hit that peculiar year, and it really hit home. In his particular case, where he learned it at nine or ten, the words came ringing back when he hit twenty. It's gonna hit you the most if you were twenty and you knew it before. You can enjoy it as a parent watching your child grow up, but the most profound impact is when you know it and then you hit twenty. I just rode on a merry-go-round with my grandson in Saskatoon, and I was thinking that he was growing so fast.
You've addressed that experience in your new album too.
Inadvertently. "Stay in Touch" applies. That's the thing about locking songs into the original inspiration: It's limiting, because you can write about a specific incident, and hopefully it'll have a universal quality that isn't gonna be just about what you went through. You want it to ring it against a lot of different but similar incidents, and even some of the details are gonna lock up perfectly and people are gonna have a thrill out of that. Like, someone can read their mind, you know? But within one life, in the life of the author, I wrote "Stay in Touch" and never intended to set it to music, based on the beginning of a love affair. We each threw the I Ching, and this was the combination of the two readings. I always thought it was too high to put into a song, but I attempted it and couldn't really find a melody. I thought, "Well, this is a very high song. What's the highest melody I've ever heard? I ended up taking my most inspirational melody, "Variations on a Theme by Paganini," and snitching a bit of that. I don't generally snitch melody, but Rachmaninoff snitched it from Paganini [laughs]. It had the right spirit.
The bonus track on the album, "The Taming Bones," is instrumental. How did the creation of that song differ from your more typical song with lyrics?
That's "Taming the Tiger" without the lyrics. Teddy, my daughter's boyfriend, heard it that way. That's how it started, and then everything was built off of there, including the lyric. And he said, "I'd really like to have a tape of just that." I thought, okay, maybe people would like that. You can hear the guitar-as-orchestra; it's the same part that the song is built on. I sang the melody before I had the words, and already Teddy was confused; he'd already gotten used to it as an instrumental. I could just keep stacking up the counter-melody, because I know this goes to that, and that interlocks to this. But there's a lot of music in the guitar alone.
You've always had a very distinctive approach to each component of music: rhythm, harmony, and melody. It seems as if there is a trend of downplaying melody and, to a lesser degree, harmony, at the expense of the beat.
"Stand By Me" used to be the formula. Now, I like that formula, to a degree. A lot of the pop of that era measured itself against those chords, because they were heart chords.
You paid homage to that when you covered "Unchained Melody."
Exactly. And it does work. Works on me. As formulas went, that was one of my favorites. I didn't use it in my personal writing, because I have a very unruly, painterly muse. There's a lot of stuff I like that hasn't influenced-or hasn't yet. Like, "Dog Eat Dog" was criticized as being negative, because America was in ostrich mode and didn't want to admit that it was number two. So it was loving Ronnie and waving the flag. It was almost like Russia, where people intuitively knew that if they spoke up they would not be promoted. It was almost like that kind of Russian pressure: "Don't say anything against the regime or you won't get the nice apartment." That's how it struck me at that time.
So I woke up politically. I was against the grain. And because of the presence of Thomas Dolby, it was assumed that I had been musically taken over and that it was an attempt at being commercial, whereas in fact people don't know that I was a dancer. I don't really like the dumbness of straight disco, but all of the drum patterns on there were my programming. I chose where the little beats went and the big beats went. Now, the sonics on it don't hold up for me. I don't like some of the sounds. The people who were providing them were prejudiced because it wasn't the hip thing yet. They were trying to push me in a way I couldn't go, because I heard this big drum sound . . .
Like in "The Jungle Line."
Yeah, in Brazil. I'd been there during Carnival, where everybody was beating on anything they could beat on. There were big formations of them coming down the street, and they were passing by each other, so you had even more complex rhythms. So in the musical way of it, because I loved that so much, it was my time to put it out, whether it was hip or not. But world beat was yet to come.
All of the diverse elements you've absorbed into your style over the years, from the Brazilian drums to the jazz horns to the guitar effects, have found a contextual place in your language. But the philosophy behind much of today's sample-driven music seems to involve snatching random bits that function more to disrupt than to augment. This seems like a very different compositional approach to drawing from the reservoir of sounds and effects.
Well, I loved the Janet Jackson piece into which I was snipped. I think it was integrated beautifully. There were three hooks going. I loved her melody, the way it went into my part. And I loved the rap. Plus the dancer in me liked the groove. Whether it was me or not, that was one of my favorite records in that genre that year.
She created a valid context for the sample.
Plus I guess she loved that little snippet. I loved the Burundi drummers when I cut them and put them back together for "The Jungle Line." . . . I got to see them perform it in Liverpool. This was not G. I. Joe: These guys danced into androgyny and then went to war, with their feminine twinkling and their masculine strength. They danced to the cusp of gender and then went to war. It wasn't like, "I'll kill you, motherfucker!" It was more, "What a good day to die!"
Oddly enough, the number 13: the Jesus drum and the Twelve Apostles, this numerology of divinity. I thought, is that coincidence? Or is there a divinity to twelve and one? And each one of the twelve dancers moved up and addressed the Jesus drum, as I called it, and did unbelievable things, but each one interpreted the rhythm in an individual way, with a few common licks and shows of masculine strength and prowess. They'd leap with their arms extended in front of them and their feet up to touch them with their hands. That's unbelievable, beyond Cossacks. . . .
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