A hot summer day in New York City.
The streets resemble a noisy parking lot.
A cacophony of idling engines, squealing tires,
piercing sirens, shouting voices and honking
To most, it sounds like headache-producing
chaos. To Joni Mitchell, it sounds like jazz.
Joni Mitchell is a poet, a musician, a
song-writer, an artist, and most recently,
a film-maker. She sees and hears things that
Like the street noise of New York City.
"New York is jazz ... it just is jazz,"
she says. To her it seems obvious, and she
can't understand why you don't immediately
know what she's talking about.
"You hear a car going uptown of (sic)
Fifth Avenue. There's a car on one street and
a car on another. They don't even see each
"Then for whatever reason, -- maybe there's
something in front of them -- they hit their horns,
and suddenly you have this beautiful chord.
You always have these chords. The city just
sounds like that."
Her ear, her ability to see musical
possibilities where others don't, helped
make her one of the dominant forces in
contemporary music in the 1970s.
Her albums, from Clouds to Court and
Spark to Mingus, and her songs from
Both Sides, Now and Big Yellow Taxi to
Raised on Robbery and Coyote, broke new ground,
both musically and lyrically, throughout
But she hasn't always heard the street sounds
of New York. She grew up with less strident
sounds -- the sounds of Fort Macleod, Alberta,
Maidstone and North Battleford, Saskatchewan,
and mainly, Saskatoon.
She moved so often as a child because her
father, William Anderson, was in the air force,
then became a manager in a chain of grocery
stores. The three of them, William and Myrtle
and daughter Joan, were never in one place very
long as she grew up.
She was always the new kid in town, she
"It changes things; it makes a gypsy out of
you. It changes your ability to relate, compared
to somebody who grows up stationary. Even
after you've settled down in one place for as
long as four or five years, you still have that
new-kid feeling built into you."
That mobility -- rootlessness, perhaps -- in
her youth also may have contributed to the
development of the artistic bent which is now
You learn solitary play, she said, since you
never really develop close friends. Add to that
that she was an only child, and it becomes clear
that she would become what she calls the
That part of her life -- that mobility -- hasn't
really changed despite the success and drastic
change in lifestyle. She hasn't opted for a
sedentary, comfortable existence, with a
well-ordered and controlled life, with everything
close by. Even now, some of that gypsy remains
|Joni looks out at the endless expanse of prairie.
Photograph taken by her mother, Myrtle Anderson in 1974.|
"I have three residences (New York, Los
Angeles and British Columbia) and none of them
is really home," she says.
"Even with something as superficial as dressing
I notice it. I'll put on my green blouse and
I'll go for the green belt. Only it's in
New York and I'm in California. I come in and see
the friends that live in the areas where I
have these residences and they say, 'Gee, we
never see you.' I say, 'I'll be back,'
then two years go by."
"So it does make you kind of rootless, but
in my business we're all kind of rootless."
What roots Joni does have are in
the Prairies, and every now and then she returns.
It's usually something like Christmas, the
occasion this winter when she was interviewed.
Her now-retired father and mother still
live in the same house Joni grew up in, a house
she still feels at home in. But it's not the same
Saskatoon; both the city and the people she
used to know have gone.
"A lot of the friends who were childhood
friends have scattered and I'm never sure exactly
who's in town. And a lot of times when I come home
people just aren't here -- they've gone off
to visit their in-laws or something."
The city also looks different. The
architecture has changed [...]ally -- "There's a
totally new skyline" -- and the trees she saw planted
as a youngster now dwarf some of the houses.
Of course, it shouldn't be too surprising that
there have been so many changes, since it was 1961
when Joan Anderson left Saskatoon for good. She headed
off for art school in Calgary, stayed there a year, and
then at age 20 went to Toronto to become a musician.
A lot of people have probably gone to Toronto to become
a musician -- it's a lot easier to say than do, though.
Even someone with as much obvious talent as Joni had
a tough time, and it was perhaps her determination and
stubborness as much as her talent that made the
"It was really difficult. It was very expensive in Toronto
at the time. While they had an enormous musical scene it
was hard to get into a musicians' union ... it cost a
lot of money."
She worked in a clothing store to pay the bills, but
still remembers with a laugh that she was "always $30 short."
But she never looked back to Saskatoon for help once she
had made the decision to make a career in music.
"I was too proud, in a certain way, to write home for
money, especially since all my life I had wanted to go to
art school and then abandoned it for music."
Nor did she ever consider returning to Saskatchewan
when things weren't going well in Toronto: "I wasn't
the type to run back into the nest, and I guess I had
a certain amount of self-confidence in my talent."
Finally she got into a club that was non-union, began
to play regularly, attracted the attention of reviewers
and other musicians, and, perhaps just as important at
the time, began to get a little money saved up. Not a
lot -- just enough to have $60 in the bank "so you
weren't always living on the edge."
It was while she was in Toronto that she met and
married Chuck Mitchell, a musicain from the United
States. They performed as a duo for a while, but her
restless talent led her in other directions and their
marriage ended within two years.
The next step in her journey was New York, a city she now
loves but one that was doubtless somewhat intimidating to
a young, single musician from the Prairies who had little
but her guitar and talent to survive by.
All this time, while confident and self-assured of her
musical abilities, Joni now admits she didn't expect her
career to go the way it did.
"My goals were always very modest ... my goal in
Toronto at first was just to get hired by a club. I didn't
even consider making records. My goal after that was to play
at the Mariposa Folk Festival and eventually I did that."
She did that and much more. She began recording and
releasing albums. Some of the songs, like Both Sides, Now,
Chelsea Morning and The Circle Game became hits and her name
began to become well-known not only in the coffee-huses
of New York and Toronto, but across North America.
She performed those songs on her early albums with
little accompaniment besides her guitar or piano,
relying on her voice for most of the impact. They were
melodic, lilting, lyrical songs, which dealt with such
themes as loneliness, lost love and growing up, often
on a level of personal intensity that was unheard of at
the time, which reached out and touched a nerve in
"She speaks in sorry sentences
I don't believe her.
Tomorrow he will come to me
And speak his sorrow endlessly and ask me why
Why can't I leave her?"
(from Conversation, *1967,
Siquomb Publishing Corp.)
"It was unusual to write that intimately at that time.
A lot of people were kind of shocked by it, especially the
men who were writers, because the popular style of
writing was mostly a lot of posturing as a hero, not an
anti-hero, or a person with problems," she says now.
"Telephone, even the sound of your voice is still new
All alone in California and talking to you
And feeling too foolish and strange
to say the words that I had planned
I guess it's too early,
'cause I don't know where I stand."
(from I Don't Know Where I Stand,
*Siquomb Publishing Corp.)
At first that kind of writing was difficult, Joni recalled,
but it happened so instinctively and naturally that she never
really thought how differenct it was. And that style of writing
may have even become a defence against the kind of superficial,
star persona that takes over many successful songwriters and
As the success overtook her, Joni says, she was for a
time bowled over by it all. Her identity was threatened,
and her parents, especially her mother, she suspects,
may have had an equally hard time understanding it and
dealing with it.
"Papa was just proud. For myself and my mother it became
almost like Joni Mitchell was an external creation, with all
this attention being paid to "Joni Mitchell" -- but what
about the person?
"Is there room for the person or is there only this
fascination with the phenomenon of success. How much room
is there for you to remain human?"
One way she handled the problem was through her songs,
which took on an almost carthartic (sic) significance.
"I think I became a more intimate, confessional poet,
in part because I wanted to maintain a certain amount of
dimension as a person.
"If they were going to worship this creation,
Joni Mitchell, let's see how much dimension they could
take with it."
That all seems a long time ago now. Joni MItchell
and her songs have become a major part of the musical
history of the late 1960s and 1970s. (She laughs that
she has even heard Both Sides, Now being played in a
supermarket as she shopped).
But just as success hasn't taken the gypsy out of
Joni, neither has her music stood still.
Many musical artists become, in a sense, trapped by
their own success. They find a formula that will
produce hits and sell records, and then won't do anything
else; won't risk ruining a good thing.
That hasn't been the case with Joni. Almost every
album represents a departure of some sort from what
The acoustical, haunting melodies of her early albums
bear almost no resemblance to her latest effort, an
album produced with and dedicated to the late jazz
great Charles Mingus. The album is jazz, pure and simple.
She says her music has become more "textural" over the
years; while some critics say she has lost her melodies,
she feels her melodies have become more unusual.
"In some circles people have seen what I consider
to be my progress as something else, because it's
deviated from rock and roll topically and rhythmically.
But the voicings that I like and the rhythms that I like
aren't necessarily rock and roll.
"I'm 36 years old now. Hopefully I will mellow as I
get older. Not that I'm getting old and tired, but it
seems organically natural as you mature to create a
mature kind of music," she said.
I've always been drawn to more complex chords.
It was a natural thing that eventually I would be
led into the world of jazz, where harmony was more
complex and sophisticated."
Trying to remember the way you thought or felt
about things 10 or 15 years ago is an almost impossible
task. Memories are selectively cloudy; you remember the way
you would have liked to have felt or the way you think,
in retrospect, you should have.
It's a little different for an artist like Joni Mitchell.
Her songs from those years tell her exactly what she
was feeling and thinking and doing. She can see how she
grew up, and changed.
She doesn't look back very often, though; she's too busy
learning and experiencing new things, striving for
excellence, she says. It's only when she goes on a concert
tour and has to learn some of her old songs again that
she sees how she used to be.
"Some things I can't sing; I feel miscast.
Songs that have the longings and ideals of a girl.
"But some songs have a maturity that reached beyond
my experience at the time that I wrote it and these
things I can still perform. Both Sides, Now is really
a simple little songs, but I can sing that when I'm
80 ... it still holds up."
"But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
But something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day
I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all."
(Both Sides, Now,
*Siquomb Publishing Corp.)
Her ability to use the language, the images
and metaphors that jump out at you and
tell you in one sentence what might require
verses from a lesser writer, is one of the things
that has set her music apart.
That lyrical ability is one of the things that can be traced
back to her Canadian roots, Joni says. It's a trait her music
shares with several other Canadian songwriters and performers,
like Neil Young, The Band, Gordon Lightfoot, and it can be
partly attributed to the British heritage in Canadian
education, she thinks.
"I think we all, because of the English education we share,
have a certain literary emphasis. That's certainly lost now,
to a large degree, in the American educational system."
Despite those nice words about the Canadian education system,
Joni doesn't harbor many positive memories of her schooling.
She progressed through the system and eventually graduated
from Aden Bowman high school in Saskatoon, but as she looks
back now she doesn't think she got much out of it.
"Painting and poetry -- the arts -- were things I doodled
around with while I should have perhaps been paying more attention
to the academic. But all the time I was preparing myself. I was
educating myself for what my life was to be ... intuitively."
In those early days she didn't see herself being a musician
(despite an aptitude test which said that's the direction she
should take). Painting was her passion and she always identified
herself as an artist.
Even now she retains her love of painting -- "I've been a
painter all my life. I've been a musician for part of the
last 15 years."
Most of her album covers have included paintings she has
done. Her latest album, Mingus, included four of her works in
the album package.
Since that was released, and since the publication of a
book call Star Art, in which her painting is included in
a collection of artwork by celebrities in other fields,
she finds herself being taken seriously as a painter
for the first time.
Being taken seriously and having her work shown provide
great satisfaction, but also add a kind of pressure which
wasn't there when her painting was more for herself and
her friends, more just a hobby.
Her artwork has always been personal and precious, she
said and now she finds herself having to listen to it being
reviewed, sometimes dismissed by art critics as "corny."
"I'd rather not have to concern myself with whether it's
corny or not. It never really mattered to me before."
Painting, poetry, music, and now film. She bemoans the
impact of television on education and North American
culture generally -- that it has taken away skills in
writing and verbal communication -- but she recognizes the
power and versatility of visual communication. Her latest
project is designed to take advantage of that.
She's in the process of putting together a 90-minute
film which "weaves" her music with visual images. For
example, the song Amelia, a tribute of sorts to Amelia
Earhart in which Earhart's fateful flight is used as an
allegory of a personal relationship, is played while
a newsreel film of Earhart and concert footage of Joni
The film represents a culumination of sorts, a coming
together of her art and her music for the first time,
she says. She hopes to sell it to European or Canadian
The future? When the film is finished, it will probably
be time for a break from the touring, recording and writing
which has been almost full-time over the past two years.
She said she'd like to travel in Europe for a while, writing
as the inspiration hits her. And all the while learning.
"For all the time I wasted in the educational system,
doodling around and daydreaming and looking like a turkey
academically, I'm a thirsty, thirsty student now and I just
gravitate to those things which interest me strongly."
It was late. Joni and a friend came up out of the subway
somewhere in New York, just enjoying the night. The album,
Mingus, was almost finished. Charles Mingus was in Mexico,
being treated for the illness that would take his life.
Joni needed an ending for the final song on the album, a song
which told of much of the struggle black musicians had
faced in becoming accepted. Joni Mitchell hears things others
don't hear and, sometimes, sees things others don't see. She
stepped up out of the subway, and she had her ending:
"We came up from the subway
On the music midnight makes
To Charlie's bass and Lester's
in taxi horns and brakes
Now Charlie's down in Mexico
With the healers
So the sidewalk leads us with music
To two little dancers
Dancing outside a black bar
There's a sign up on the awning
It says 'Pork Pie Hat Bar'
And there's black babies dancing ...
(from Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,
1978 Crazy Crow Music and Jazz Workshop, Inc.)