[An edited version of this appeared in Mojo Magazine]
Barney Hoskyns: I really love the record. I think it's fantastic.
Joni Mitchell: Thank you very much.
BH: And that's not just a sort of diplomatic way to start an interview. I think it's really great and I want to really start at the very end in a way or at least the most recent point with the last song, which I think must be one of the most harrowing things you've ever written. It's extraordinary.
JM: Well, I collaborated with God, you know. (Laughs)
BH: The power of the whole album and particularly the way it finishes, you know, really affected me. You know, I find that last song just extraordinary. So anyway, you collaborated with God on that (laughs). Tell me what else went into making it as powerful as it is.
JM: Well, I'll tell you the catalyst for it was - I'm separated from my husband now but we're very good friends -
BH: Yes. Is he on the album?
JM: Oh, yes. We separated and then we began the album the next day, if you can imagine. It was tense for a few weeks. But we bought kittens to put in the studio to lighten it up -
JM: -- but still even under what should have been extremely difficult conditions, we work very well together. There was a certain amount of, I would say, normal separation perversity like withholding of understanding - "I don't know what you mean by that." "Well, you do so!" You know, like that kind of silly stuff.
But for the most part, it was extraordinarily - I can't even put it into a single word. It was a wonderful growth experience I think for both of us and I think we - Klein would say, you know, the friction created a pearl. You know, the friction made me lay down tighter boundaries on his playing, "Oh, don't play like that, you played like that last time." (Laughs). You know, we've gotta go forward. And my guitar playing had become more percussive, more orchestral and bass and drums are indicated. It was harder this time to get bass and drums in even since the last project and the guitar playing was already heading in that direction.
So he had to play very stretched out, minimal, and initially, you know, with the tinge of depression that accompanies a separation, the loss of a long-term friend - he spent a third of his life with me. I spent a quarter of mine with him, you know, so it wasn't - it shouldn't have been the most inspiring of times, and he claimed to be uninspired, and still the combination of being uninspired and the restrictions that I put upon him for freshness, I do believe that we came up with it and that the music that is on the tape is farce and very merry. The keyboards I'm playing -
BH: Really, that's you?
JM: -- or where there are synthetic guitars, or anything orchestral, and we collaborated, as usual, on the drums - we tried real drummers on a lot of things and found it very difficult to get them to play as minimal -
BH: Yes, 'cause sometimes it's just -
JM: Very minimal -
BH: -- a bass drum -
JM: -- and peculiar - the peculiarity of it is my doing. I mean we laid down a track and I whittled it down to nothing. I played some of the percussion myself, Indian shaman rattles and things, but still, all in all, it's fairly sparse. It's basically three guests, Wayne Shorter and Gregory -
BH: I've seen it was Wayne Shorter, yes.
JM: Yeah, well, there's no one like Wayne.
BH: Right. So he's playing on how many tracks?
JM: Is it four or five? I'd have to - he's playing - wherever there's a horn, that's Wayne. You know, wherever there's a - there's only guitars, I think, on the one track. It's a while since I listened to it with that kind of scrutiny but -
BH: So the other two guests are?
JM: The pedal steel player and -
BH: And that's who?
JM: Gregory - oh, God, I'm bad with names. Gregory's last name --
BH: I'll get the information off the album, yeah.
JM: Yeah, get all the names on it. And Bill Dillon played on -
BH: He's a guitar player?
JM: He's a guitar player. He played the guitorgan, that organish sounding thing on the second-to-last cut "Yvette in English." And then some of the keyboards behind that are samples of Bill, what we call "Billatron." Whenever Billatron appears on the album, it's me playing it but it's outtakes of Bill and I'm - I then have compositional access to his sounds, right?
JM: So that's a collaboration between - the Billatron is a collaboration between Bill Dillon and Larry Klein, and myself. Bill Dillon played it, Klein synthesized it, changed it sonically considerably, and then I accessed the construction or the architecture by a keyboard.
BH: Right. When you say you split up the day before you went in the studio, do you literally mean that -
JM: Moved into two houses.
JM: Yeah. Strange way to start a project.
BH: But it's clearly -
JM: Oh, but getting back to Job, he had gone to visit his grandmother, Grandma Mary had become a Christian at a certain point in her life and she was reading the psalms. He came back and he said Grandma Mary was all in reverie about how beautiful the psalms were, and I thought, you know, I'm an old Bible reader from many years on the road, Gideon's, hotel rooms, you know? Makes a scholar out of you after a while -
JM: So I thought, gee, the psalms, I only know the 23rd psalm which is a beautiful poem. It's a strength-giving poem, doesn't matter what your religious background, it's a handy -
BH: What's the first line of that?
JM: It's "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..." You know, it's a poem I've found myself reciting that in walking down dark alleys (laughs), you know, it's a handy, courage-giving poem. So I thought, you know, what else is in there. So I read the psalms, or I intended to, but they're right next to the Book of Job. So I took a scouring glance at the Book of Job, and then I got the St. James and the New Jerusalem and the Gideon's, all three translations, and I began writing down - it's quite a massive poem and it has a lot of redundancy in it, there're a lot of lines that say the same thing slightly differently over and over so you take your favorite way of stating that thought from the many that are chosen in each translation and I made long lists.
Then I searched among them for rhymes so I had to rearrange much of the thinking sequentially but I don't think I disturbed the general idea or condition of this man being tried, you know, for his soul basically. And I think everyone in a lifetime, at one time or another, sinks to the pits or as God says in his speech "sees the janitors of Shadowland." I think it's a good life that sinks that low because without that you don't really have powers of empathy. You may be sympathetic which is a little shallower, but empathy, having been to the bottom, I think that you have an opportunity to be a more compassionate person. Not necessarily, you could become a better person, but you have an opportunity, right?
So I was mad - I'd had a lot of trouble, as women do with doctors, you know, like and so the physician aspect, these friends of Job's who come first as mourners and then as antagonists -
BH: "Pompous physicians" you call them, don't you?
JM: Yeah. "What carelessness," I think I added that. I took - I added a little bit of personal thought sometimes, and sometimes I had to paraphrase to get a rhyme, but for the most part it's mostly from the Book of Job, three translations, restructured considerably.
BH: Yes, yes. So I mean the obvious question is how much personal experience and feeling is being vented through -
JM: Oh, I identify with Job completely. When I played it for an ex-Los Angeles city cop who had his family killed by - basically he was a good cop who found something rotten within the force and wanted to cure it and his family was killed. And the night that we played the piece for him, you can imagine. So I mean I don't want to limit it by saying yes, of course I identified with it, I identify with the power of empathy, with everything I write. "I am Lakota," I'm not a Lakota Indian, but I'm a Sami. You know, I have that blood so I have, you know, I think that the primitives were very sophisticated, you know, I have that - I don't think I could write anything or sing it without understanding it to a certain degree. And I have had a difficult life as most people have, I mean I don't mean to say that mine's been more difficult than others', but it has been peculiarly difficult, a life of very good luck, very bad luck, a lot of health problems, therefore a lot of contact with bad medical carelessness and so on. So, on that level I identify. I don't think I've ever become faithless. You know, I've never been an atheist. I can't say what orthodoxy I belong to; a bit of each, you know? I kind of like a bit of each and wheat and chaff, I don't like that. I like that, I like that, I like this about this religion, this is bad about it, so on. So I'm kind of a student of religion, comparatively speaking, and I like bits and pieces of all of them.
BH: Early in the song, you talk about spitting out your bitterness and it made me remember that -
JM: Job's, Job says it - it's a play -
BH: Right. But it made me think of things you've said about perceiving hate in your heart - I mean this is a long time ago - and I just wondered to what extent you still feel you have bitterness in you that you want to spit out.
JM: Oh, yeah, you've got to cleanse yourself. I mean, here's the thing: I want to be happy. Therefore I want to be affectionate and receive affection. Krishnamurti said something interesting: "The man who hates his boss hates his wife." And I believe that's true. If you're holding resentment or dark feelings for anyone, it carries over into your relationship, you burden them with your bitterness and so on. So in your life's work it seems to me that if you can find a way to exorcise it - the '80s were really difficult for me physically and emotionally, a lot of betrayals for money, so I mean in every corner. And simultaneously bad health and bad medicine. So the '80s for me, without going into detail, I don't want to get into the poor-me syndrome were really, really like being a prisoner of war. That much physical pain inflicted; that much mental pain inflicted by betrayals and so on, and a climate of mistrust. So it was really difficult and -
BH: Have the '90s been better so far?
JM: Oh, yeah. Much of it came to an end in the '80s. I think even the Yuppies have decided - they must have noticed that goodies only make you so happy, you know. The toys aren't the answer, you know. And, you know, all of the human relationships are so malformed at this point, you know, the heterosexual relationship is extremely malformed. We come up on it in "Not to Blame." Every other woman is raped in her lifetime. Generally, she's raped one, she's raped many times because rape occurs by a brother or a father or a priest and they have access repeatedly. That's every other woman. If she's raped as a child, she will not be a well formed adult woman. So, you know, then you have to wonder why it is that men are so frustrated that they're beating on women, why they feel they have the license ... Contemporary music is very, very full of woman hatred. You know, I've never been a feminist. You know, I like men's company. I never go "Oh, men!" I might say "that man's an asshole" but I don't - it's never gotten to the general with me nor do I like the traditional directions of feminism because it's too apartheid; it's them and us, whereas my thing has always been the relationship, you know, why are we doing this, you know, 'I like this about your action and not this.' So but more on an individual -- I believe in the beauty of closeness across the barrier of difference, be it man-woman, or across the barrier of racist, you know, that is so important.
And that may be the tail end of a hippie sentiment which is basically - I was thinking a hippie is like a beatnik that thinks he's Jesus come back as an Indian (laughs) so you have that heart, brotherhood of man syndrome coming from the Christian influence and then the natural man in nature concept of the Indian, and I kind of bought into that idea and carried it along with me, so ...
BH: Yeah, I mean I was very struck by "Not to Blame" as well and apart from anything else, it seemed to be one of the first kind of a - without being a feminist statement, it seemed to empathize with the lot of womankind in a way that I can't recall any of your songs quite doing.
JM: No, 'cause I'm more of a companion to men; I'm a tomboy. So, you know, as I get older I have more women friends, and also the thing between the man and the woman had gotten so out of line and especially in pop music, the bulk of it - between the maltreatment of doctors who seem to be as a group, most of them seem to be women haters and also the popularity of rap which came out of a pimp's tradition which is 'my bitch is badder than yours,' all of that and football - I mean in America wife battering is a national pastime and the day the hospitals are spilling over with bleeding women is the Rose Bowl game. So, violent sports and wife-battering are synonymous. Why are there so many women in there? Did she bring the beer warm? Also it's the biggest water bill in America, it's the most flushing of toilets. So alcohol has something to do with it, the combination of alcohol and football. So when OJ got himself into this, we don't know if he killed his wife but we do know that he battered her frequently and was kind of smug about it, like he was above the law.
And that attitude, the fact that women can't walk alone at night, the precariousness of my gender at this particular time, in the office place, in the public streets, even in the swimming pools, in "Sex Kills," 'the rapist in the pool,' "whirlpooling," that's like gang rape of a young girl in a public place in broad daylight, they just surround her, peel her like a banana and have a go at her right in a public swimming pool, you know? And all of the child molesting and the acceleration of perversity, there's a lot - because that's the climate that the writing took place in, it reflects in the writing.
BH: Yes. I mean "Sex Kills" took me back to the mood of "Dog Eat Dog," actually.
JM: But no one was ready for that mood at that time. They were all into "Rah-Rah Ronnie," you know? See, I was being stung by the government. I was one of 12 artists in the country, in the state, that received an enormous, 15 percent of our income between '71 and '77, 12 people were taxed that much -
BH: I do remember you referring to this -
JM: So that kind of woke me up politically, like, what kind of an outlaw government can levy this experiment upon us. And that was, you know - so that album, "It's dog eat dog / I'm just waking up," that was the first blow. Then there were more to descend on me, as rackets appeared, it was all about stowing up marbles, and then there was another contingency, 'they've got marbles stowed up, let's get 'em!' You know. So the greed of that decade, maybe it was supposed to descend on me heavier than the average person, more irrationally. But I did feel like Alice and the Red Queen, you know, like I felt like I was in a world where irrational law was coming at me always, "here are my ways." Part of the reason I was taxed that was for saying "and then I turned it in." Those were incriminating words; they made me sound like an independent. And an independent therefore was going to have to pay a wholesale tax.
So, yeah, to work out - my music has always been therapeutic. Not all autobiographical but, like I say, using the power of empathy, you know, some things touch me because I have something in my experience to relate to it. So I can kind of feel for them rather than think, oh, that's too bad that that's happening to them, I'm glad it's not happening to me. You know, that's sympathy. That's very, very distant. Empathy is much more involved, you know?
BH: Yes, absolutely. There's a huskiness about your voice and a -- and a sense of vulnerability that's very moving on this record. How do you feel about your singing at the moment?
JM: I'm finally developing enough character in my voice I think to play the roles that I write for myself. Like "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" which was fairly early should be sung by a man or I think I could probably sing it better now because it's about the seduction of heroin. I never did heroin but I was around people who were doing it, you know, again with empathy, and their description of the journey. There are some songs that I think that I was miscast in, in that they were - I performed them as an ingénue. Even "Both Sides Now" which was one of my first songs I wrote when I was 21 I think is better sung by someone in their 50's or 60's reflecting back on their life, speaking theatrically.
BH: Sinatra did that, didn't he?
JM: Not - oh, but poor Frank, though. They gave him this terrible arrangement - deedle-do - it was copied - it was all wrong for him. And on the album cover he has his hand over his face and he's sitting on the curb. And I felt for him. I thought I would love if we do a tribute album if they would get a really good arranger to stretch it out and let him sing it like "When I Was Seventeen," in his own genre rather than trying to make a folk-rocker out of Frank. (Laughs)
BH: You sang "Woodstock" at the Edmonton Festival. What have your thoughts been about the anniversary hype this year?
JM: Oh, it's silly.
JM: Yeah. (Laughs)
BH: Yeah, there's not much more to say about it. Apropos of that, before Edmonton, I think you told an interviewer you hoped people wouldn't use you as a sentimental journey, I think was your quote. And that was in terms of everyone expecting you to play the songs that they wanted to hear -
JM: Yeah, so they could reflect on their -
BH: You talked about wanting people to make new memories of newer songs -
BH: Have you always resisted that sort of implicit demand from your - from people to be used as a sentimental journey, as a sentimental soundtrack for their lives?
JM: Well, I understand how that is. Usually people really get intensely involved during their courtship years which, generally speaking for people is in their youth. And all their best years are wrapped up against that music and those times. And they tend to listen to music less and less as they get older, right? So, but I'm a maker of music, and I have a painter's spirit really more than a musician's spirit so, and I like pioneering. I like to keep moving forward rather than getting stuck in a regurgitive [sic] situation, you know, where I'm painting the same thing over and over basically. I don't want to become a duty player as Miles Davis would say.
BH: Right, absolutely. Is there any kind of a justification for the Rolling Stones heading out on the road yet again or the Eagles,' quote/unquote, Greed Tour. I mean are all these things just grand huge scale exercises in -
JM: I don't know. Like it's hard to imagine a greed tour for instance. It's so expensive to take it on the road. People think we make a lot of money out there. I was out nine months the last time I toured. I made $60,000; less than my roadie. The artist is the last to get paid when you take a big show. I took that money, I plowed it back into a video, and basically my agent and my manager tried to beat me out of it in small print. So, I mean, that's like nine months - the artist frequently is working for nothing, you're the last to be paid. Why would - everybody assumes you're making so much money. You know, I don't know, speaking about the Eagles, I heard they made a lot of money, but the gross and the net is an entirely different animal. I mean the Stones have got - they've got about - when I went out I took really small, I mean as small as you could get it -
BH: Right, they've got about 200 -
JM: -- 200 -- 21 people, and if I take three days off which I have to do, I've got 21 people to feed, you know, and accommodate so I'm lucky if I break even. And you don't expect to make money. They say, "oh, you're not going to make money in Europe, and you're not going to make money here," It's all due to self-promotion. Then they get you with their bookkeeping so you don't get a record royalty. It is very tough for an artist to make money at this time in the business. A lot of money is made but not by the artist. So, you know, for instance, I have another friend that's out on the road. He's been out for months, I don't know how many. His manager's made $45,000, that's at 15 percent. He's made 5-; that's a seventh of 15 percent. But when they print 'he made so much money,' they print the gross figures. He's paying for a big band and, you know, God knows what, but I don't know how greedy those things are. Prince lost money with those big shows that he put on.
BH: I know he did, yeah. I wasn't really referring so much to the sort of mercenary aspect of it, not only sort of, quote/unquote, greed tour, just referring to that tour -
JM: They're musicians, they should be allowed to work. If they feel they want to do it and people want to come, fantastic.
BH: Well, of course, absolutely. Nobody knocks a green gross of the making a living.
JM: I want to make money this time out. I've never been money-motivated, but I never understood my finances. Unfortunately, I'm no longer ignorant and I've been burned a lot so this time I'm going to try and make some money, and looking at it on paper, it's very difficult. By the time you pay your lawyers and all the people that have a piece of you and your overhead, there's not that much. Unless you get a sponsor. Who's going to sponsor me, tobacco companies? People will really love that.
BH: How do you look back now on your - on the folky years. I bring this up just because there's a quote in the latest Mojo which is the magazine I'm doing this for in which John Martin says that for him, the problem with folk was that it didn't swing. Do you agree with that?
JM: Well, I don't know - I swing, but then I'm not really folk.
BH: Yeah, but when you look back on the first two albums, there wasn't a lot of swing there, was there?
JM: Well, but see, I was born in a swing era and I was a rock dancer before I became a musician. Well, first of all I studied classical when I was a child. My playmates were classical child prodigies 'cause they were the only creative kids where I came from, right? Two of them. And one is in an Italian opera company and one was a very, very prodigious piano player as a young child.
So my first musical love was classical music then rock and roll was born. And I had polio, I had lost - you know, I was paralyzed, I had to learn to walk again. As Neil Young did -
BH: Right, there was a big outbreak, wasn't there, in Canada?
JM: Right. Having my legs taken away and getting them back, by God, when I got 'em back I rock-and-roll danced my way through my teens. So there when it was partner dancing and every guy was like a different drummer. And you learned to play with people who rushed, whose time was inconsistent, who had good time or laid back on the beat and so on, and I think that gave me, you know, a sense of rhythm which I didn't really - my music was always very rhythmic but it had no drums. But the first albums that I made, as I began to write my first songs, they were quite intricate and quite classical, really.
BH: Yes, classical, yes.
JM: So they went back to my first roots, my friends who only knew me as a party doll and a dancer thought what is this and where is this coming from but that - you know, it started off in the first six months as folk music because folk music is so simple, you know? You know, that's a good place to get in on the guitar but then as I began to write, you know, it got more, um, Celtic really. And even like German lieder as I added the piano back into it. And then it began to swing. Well, you know, like I say I was born in the swing era so I was steeped in it in my early years and I loved music - not knowing that I would be a musician. I absorbed a lot of the -- sometimes it takes a long time for your influences to show up, be digested, and become your own. Like I'm not a "oh, I like that sound, I want that sound" kind of artist at all. It's all pretty pure stuff and it just kind of bubbles up and you say, "oh, my God, listen to that note, that's a Tony Bennett note." Or, you know, like even people that you never really admired that much, occasionally the note will creep out and you'll say, "Oh, my God, I've assimilated that too!" (Laughs.)
BH: I mean I just wonder, do you ever look back on famous songs such as "Both Sides, Now" or "The Circle Game" and think how far away that girl seems now. There's something so kind of virginal and kind of maidenly about that voice and the purity of the phrasing and the whole style.
JM: Yeah, well, I sang "Circle Game" as an encore in Edmonton and I kind of avoid it because I think of it as ingénue. A lot of children learned "Circle Game" in school. I got a letter from a boy who was 21 and he said, you know, 'I sang that song, Circle Game, in summer camp year after year after year. I had to.' He said 'I never understood it. I just turned 21.' You know. It was a nice letter to receive. So that and "Big Yellow Taxi" has become culture. It's taught to grade three-ers as a kind of a nursery rhyme. I'm very pleased. I didn't write it as a child's song but I'm very pleased to see it go into the culture at that age, and I think it's - one teacher in New Jersey sent me a lot of his drawings. He said 'I have my Grade 3 kids illustrate this every year. I thought I'd send you this year's batch.' And the one for "Big Yellow Taxi," 'came and took away my old man' was really funny. It had the blue strip of sky at the top with the circle and the spokes of the sun and white below it and a tree with a circle with a round trunk, typical, and a bird that's oversized sitting on top of it and a taxi going by. And this little stick figure holding on to the bumper and he's horizontal and he's got a stick hat on, you know, like the thing is moving and he's holding on to the bumper and it's like pulling him along straight out. Really cute.
So, like when I go back to relearn old songs, I don't - I think, okay, those songs are out in the world, they're already out there, but I'm more tempted to run by some of the songs that I felt maybe I never received a compliment on, no one ever seemed to notice them that I feel have some value in terms of human nature. And really running by them - "Moon at the Window" is one, for instance, I did in Edmonton, and it was very well received. And no one ever really noticed it on - on "Wild Things."
BH: Because I noticed you did that and on the review in Mojo - did I mention that? Yeah, there's a review of that show by an Edmontonian in fact who wrote about how much it meant to everybody that you went back there and performed that -
JM: It was a sweet experience -
BH: -- like a homecoming kind of thing.
JM: It really was, yeah. For me too. There was a neighborhood very close to the hotel - the hotel was on the riverbank - and there were bike trails, and my boyfriend, who's also a prairie boy, a prairie man, he's from my home town, we rented bikes and we went down into a neighboring neighborhood and this neighborhood was basically for old baba's, you know, grandmothers coming from the old country. Little granny houses. It was a poor neighborhood with wooden sidewalks, beautiful, little clapboard grocery stores and everything. Right near downtown Edmonton there was an attempt at one point by realtors to gentrify it. Thank God they didn't. It was still fields with wild weeds that I remember from my childhood. It's very well kept and neat, and tiny, little houses, you know? We went cycling through there almost every day at the time that we were there, had popsicles at the little corner store. My boyfriend and I, for us it was like, you know, reliving our childhoods in a certain way. I was glad that a piece of that remains, that real estate had not butchered it yet.
BH: Yeah. Do you keep in touch with any of your folk contemporaries such as Eric Andersen -
JM: Yes. Eric I see when he's in the country and he writes me letters and postcards. He's a great --
BH: He lives in Europe now, doesn't he?
JM: Yes, he lives in Norway.
BH: He lives in Norway. Because he had a kind of hit record there with Danko --
JM: Beautiful, yeah.
BH: And Jonas Fjeld. Who is it, D.A. Pennebaker showed me a little film he made of the three of them traveling around New York playing little bars, and there were just some fantastic songs there - I think a song "Blue River" -
JM: Oh, yeah. I sang on that on the original recording, well, the first time he recorded it.
BH: I mean, any of the other - from your very earliest days when you were playing?
JM: Well, Eric and his ex-wife Debbie Green ... I guess that, of that group, is the person that I'm the closest to.
BH: That's interesting. The conflict between a kind of fear of the crowd and on the other hand temptations of fame seem to be a kind of preoccupation of some of the songs in the '70s and maybe even the '80s too ...
JM: Can you give me an example?
BH: Um ...
JM: Fear of the crowd, for instance.
BH: Well, I'm thinking of being lured back to Los Angeles and -
JM: Oh, "I couldn't let go of L.A."?
BH: Yeah ... of L.A. and the sound of - "it sounded like applause," the sound of fame coming through the airwaves -
JM: Well, I withdrew from society "For the Roses" was - the original cover was a horse's ass. They made a billboard of it on Sunset, there was a cartoon of it, a horse's ass, with a wreath, you know, around his neck and a big balloon and a big horse grin, and a balloon coming out of his mouth that said "For the Roses." David wouldn't let me use it for the album cover but he did let me put it up as a billboard on Sunset so I had that thrill of seeing - I was really mad at show business at that time. I think I entered into it with a bad idea.
To give you an example why, I wrote a poem when I was 16, before I picked up on - show business was not in my mind at 16 in any positive way. It was called "The Fish Bowl," and you'd wonder how I'd end up in this game with this insight, but I had to write something in school. And I wrote it basically out of empathy for Sandra Dee and Bobby Darrin who were being raked over the cover of every rag at that time - they were having marital difficulties or something. And I felt for them. I thought, gee, that must be an awful job, you know, to have all of this private stuff exposed, you know? So I wrote this poem called "The Fish Bowl" which went:
The fish bowl is a world reversed
Where fishermen with hooks
That dangle from the bottom up
Reel down their catch on gilded bait
Without a fight.
Pike, pickerel, bass, the common fish
Ogle through distorting glass
See only glitter, glamour, gaiety
Lunge towards the bait and miss
And weep for fortunes lost
Envy the goldfish? Why?
His bubbles breaking 'round the rim while
Silly fishes faint for him and say
"Oh, look! I think he winked at me!"
So now with that insight, why in blazes would you go into this business, and I've always been somewhat reluctant. I liked small clubs. I am a ham and I am an enjoyer, you know? I enjoy partying so a club is kind of a party, it's fairly loose. But the big stage, you know, timing is of the essence, I work in 50 different tunings, you know, to tune between and there's this interminal [sic] thing to get it right and if I don't get it tuned right in tight I don't enjoy myself. On the big stage your sound gives you sonic distortion. It's very hard to tune when the thing has the juice running through it. I can tune real quickly in an acoustic environment in a small room. But on the big stage you get all these overtones, no, it's like you're getting an inaccurate feedback. I'm still working - 30 years in the business I'm still working on that point of craft because I don't like playing out of tune but I'm forced to sometimes. And then you receive the criticism for that, you know, like in - like it's a real pain in the butt. You know, standard tuning would have been easier but then of course I wouldn't have had all of that original chordal movement and, um ... the tunings coughed up wonderful composition.
So it's a trade-off. The other thing is too at a certain point, yes, I became too contemptuous of the audience. They seemed - critics seemed to praise me when I felt I was poor and slam me when I felt that I was at my peak, and there didn't seem to be any - and I ran into that on Rolling Thunder, like Dylan on the tour before I felt was like going through his paces, but on Rolling Thunder he was really empowered. And they had praised him on the tour where he was going through his paces and now it was editorial attitude. Oh, no, we were nice to him but no -- it was not the time to get him, it was time to praise him. He was never so powerful. He was tormented but he was radiant. So that also fed my bad attitude towards the business and especially the performance aspect. I've always loved making the albums and the writing. That's more like the painting process anyway. You know, painting and exhibiting. But the self-promotion used to be distasteful. Now it's just kind of funny to me. It's one of the beauties of getting older, you know, you have less energy to worry, you know? (Laughs).
BH: You've said at various points in your career that you regard yourself as a painter first and foremost. Is that still true?
JM: Oh, yeah.
BH: And that's always been true?
BH: What kind of tipped you over the line towards becoming a performer?
JM: Art school. You know, I drew and I wrote poems. I hated poetry but wrote poems which I didn't show people except when I had "The Fish Bowl" which I had to turn in for a class project. It was expected. I wrote poetry secretly kind of and I drew all through my notebooks. Basically I was a poor scholar, like most poets I was a bad learner so to speak. And music, I was always very involved in music but not in any kind of career direction. Like I say, as a dancer ... mostly as a spirit-lifter. So the irony that I would become a confessional poet and a serious musician to people who knew me in my teens it was kind of out of context.
Anyway just before I went to art school I picked up a ukulele and - with the intention of accompanying dirty drinking songs at wiener roasts, no more ambition than that, just for having a good time. When I got to art college there was a coffeehouse there, and I went down to see if I could pick up some pin money because I was on a student's budget and they were willing to pay me like $15 a night or a weekend or whatever it was, and that had some buying power in those days. So I spent my weekends performing and the art education was extremely disappointing to me because all the profs were fans of De Kooning and Barnett Newman and the abstractionists, and I wanted to - I wanted classical knowledge, you know? It was not given at that time. So I was in conflict with my profs, I wasn't learning what I wanted to learn, I was making money with the music, and then I went east to hear the Mariposa Folk Festival and Buffy St. Marie was the headliner and in Toronto at that time there were 17 coffeehouses functioning, but I didn't have the money to get into the musician's union. So they wouldn't hire me.
I went to work in women's wear and I played occasionally here and there like little hoots and things around, but Canada has a tendency to eat its young alive and they would hire mediocre Americans but they were afraid, you know, the Canadian chip is such that while they're Canadian they can't be much. You know, that's the unfortunate mental sickness of my people but once I crossed the border I began to write. I didn't write, I was really a folksinger up 'til 1965, my repertoire was folk songs.
And once I crossed the border I began to write and my voice even changed. I no longer was imitative of the folk style, really, my voice was then my real voice and with a slight folk influence but from the first album that was no longer folk music.
JM: It was just a girl with a guitar that made it look that way. And no section could play it, it was too intricate harmonically and rhythmically. When you put the groups that James Taylor, for instance, who has a bigger pop base than I did at that time and Carole King, who had a pop base, they both had more Tin Pan Alley. I had more classicism. So I tried for four projects to find a band and I tried things with players but it always squashed it. Finally it was recommended to me by the players that I was trying to work with that I look for jazz musicians. And I found the LA Express and that worked well on "Court & Spark."
BH: Absolutely, yes. Yeah, this is what I was going to ask you something, just about the - I mean, yes, if the professors at the Calgary art school had given you the classical knowledge you wanted, I mean could one conjecture that you might not have -
BH: -- ended up performing?
JM: Oh, no, I would have devoted myself to painting.
BH: Right, yeah. So that had something to do with it.
JM: Mm-hmm. If I had not had polio I would probably be an athlete and not an artist at all (laughs).
BH: I mean it's funny when you talk about dancing and all that kind of stuff, I suppose that's one of the things that is fascinating about you that you manage to combine these things which for some people are almost irreconcilable on the one hand.
JM: Which things?
BH: A girl with a guitar and on the other hand a girl who likes to d- -- I remember reading --
JM: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's because of the lines. People are very campy. I remember I went to art school, I'd been a model in a small town so I dressed a little Jackie Kennedy. So there were 150 first year art students, four of them had drawn all their lives, like were born artists. The rest of them decided they wanted to be artists when they finished high school as more of an image.
Now the profs preferred the unschooled because they could get them directly into abstraction whereas the four that could draw well, and especially me not dressing in the bohemian uniform which was little John Lennon glasses, U.S. draft dodger green shirt and blue jeans, and I forget the footwear at that time, but it was a uniform, you know? It was hip conformity. So to come in against the grain like that, like a small town debutante, and being able to render - I knew which way light struck an object and all those things -- __________ was a waste of time for me in a lot of ways. They said 'It's the age of the camera, you don't need to know that anymore, you should be a commercial artist. You know, which was kind of an insult because then they have you doing Dunlop tire ads and layout and paste-up work, you know? Really a waste of - so that was really very disappointing education that was offered to me and the attitude too. That's the trouble with hip ... you know, one reason I've always been suspicious of hip is because - although I do occasionally tip my hat to it, but there are some things within trends that I like, you know? Be it fashion, musical fashion, you know. Style is interesting to me, even though it's one of the shallower aspects of the arts, it's still fun to play around with, you know?
But it was kind of disappointing and also, once - the life of a painter is very isolated and there is not much feedback. You can do a masterpiece and everyone will stand there and go "mm-hmm, mm-hmm," rub their chin, whereas a good song will knock somebody off the back of their chair. You know, the communication factor of it, of working in that medium. You know, my early songs, I wasn't sure what a song was. I used to get Dell songbooks with "Tutti Frutti" and all the words to the rock songs in it, and I never, even as a closet poet, thought poetry and songwriting had anything to do with each other, because the songs that I got the words to had no poetry, except for (44:58) Chuck Berry, who really was a kind of a folk-poet. You know, there wasn't much writing in that generation, you know, it didn't matter. I mean, some of the things were great, like Poison Ivy -
BH: Lieber & Stoller were great.
JM: -- yeah. And I loved "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" which was Goffin and King, you know. But still that was great songwriting, but not poetry. It wasn't until "Positively 4th Street" that a light bulb went off in my head and I said, "Oh!" You know, up until then Dylan seemed to me like a Woody Guthrie clone, and I was a detractor I guess you'd have to say. You know, I was always in debate in the coffeehouses, "Oh, what's the fuss over?" you know, "he's just second generation Woody and it's kind of silly, he's a middle-class kid you know, he's not riding the boxcars." But then his stuff started to really come from his own blood, you know? And when he wrote that song, I thought, "Oh, my God, we can write about anything now." The songs -
BH: It was that song in particular?
JM: Yeah. That song, I thought if you can express anger in a song, then you can express almost - because anger was really kind of a closeted emotion -
BH: Taboo, ______________, yeah.
JM: It just never went into songs. Do you remember any angry songs? I don't remember an angry song.
BH: Well, I always thought it was kind of framed within very codified, political terms, wasn't it, in terms of folk music. It wasn't expressed in that sort of subjective way by the Dylan _____________
JM: It was just, "You got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend." Just that one line, whoa! I thought what an opener. I thought, oh, gee, like the power of the storyteller in this form opened up to me. So that changed my direction, and I think after that my songs got real he said/she said, you know, they began to be kind of like playlets and soliloquies.
BH: Yes, I remember that you said that you like to write songs which -- either soliloquies or - I don't think you used the term playlets at that point - but effectively mini dramas in which characters butted heads.
BH: You've claimed that David Geffen said that you were the only star he knew who wanted to be ordinary.
JM: He did say that in passing one time.
BH: Does that now seem a little ingenuous, I mean the idea that you could ever have been ordinary. I mean, to me it's a little bit like k.d. lang or something coming out of Western Canada and -
JM: You'd have to ask him -
BH: -- and how could you not have been anything other than extraordinary -
JM: In a way I think because I could always start fads - all the time when I was (47:43) a kid I started fads. You know, if I did something, kids would follow suit, you know. So in a way, if I pasted Dennison crate* stars all over my blue suede shoes, the kids would paste Dennison - you know, goofy stuff we're talking. And in high school I ended up - they gave me in the newspaper a column Fads & Fashions, so I played around with those games in my teens and - what was the question? Focus me again.
BH: Well, the idea that you wanted to be ordinary. I wondered if that now is perhaps a little disingenuous but I can see where you're going and what you're gonna say. I think you wanted the opposite of that really.
JM: Well, I guess -
BH: Because you'd always been the opposite, I mean "the search for higher achievement," perhaps by a relatively young age, you'd had enough of being the high achiever.
JM: People treated me, like especially in New York, like in New York strangers on the street holler at me across the street like someone in your class at school, you know, "Hey! Joni! When you going to do a concert here?" you know, and go waving on by. That is extraordinary but it's ordinary. They don't suck in their breath and go (makes sucking-in noise). You know, I never liked being - when you were playing in the clubs and you were playing on a small stage you could go down and have a drink with those people and maybe even go over to their house and listen to music, you know. That's what I mean, you're not quite ordinary but you haven't lost your access to life. Right?When you get so that you're like Beatles size, you know, where you're trapped in your hotel room by screaming mobs, if you run they chase, if you stand there, they'll stand there. You know what I mean?
JM: So the fight since you're in this extraordinary position or somewhat extraordinary because there are thousands of us, you know? If you're in the somewhat - you're public person among thousands of public people, you know, of those thousands of public people all of them expect different results. Some of them like to be worshipped, you know? Some of them really want to feel superior, you know?I guess what he meant, what I thought he meant - 'cause I thought it was true in a way when he said it - was that in some areas because of my position I need exceptional treatment, you know, it's a courtesy to offer me exceptional treatment, you know, it's practical to offer me exceptional treatment. In other cases it's stupid to offer me exceptional treatment and lonely-making.
BH: Right, yes. Tell me about moving back to Reprise after 20-odd years.
JM: Oh, well, I had my choice. You know, I could give this record to Geffen and call it "Swan Song" which I was tempted to do and make it my last and get out and get on with my painting. Or because they had not done much with me really in the time that I had been with them, I was just kind of hired and forgotten on a lot of levels, it seemed in the feedback I got from everyone around me was that that would be a shame, you know? And since Mo at Warners was very enthusiastic to have me back to go to the point of enthusiasm for this project. However, in going for that enthusiasm for this project, which seemed to deserve it because in my entire career there hasn't been a lot of excitement for my albums coming out; there is excitement for this one. Something in the times, people are ready to think, they're ready to listen, you know, they're ready to take something a little more to heart and to mind than they have in the past. Um, something about this project, people are ready and hungry, you know. I've always been a couple of years ahead of people in my personal changes so that when records come out, people kind of dump on 'em and then two years later they go through the changes and something becomes their favorite but it's too late. It's already - it's got a bad tailwind on it, you know? It's too late for my child, you know? The child's been bloodied on the playground so to speak. A lot of them have been out of sync that way.
So I had to weigh a lot of things. I really was tempted to get out, you know, and head up into the Canadian back bush and garden and paint and get on with my life. On the other hand I don't feel like many of my peers. I haven't hit a writer's block. If I hit a writer's block I paint. That's an old farmer's trick; I just crop-rotate so that you never notice that there's - they feed each other.
So since I guess I haven't lost my voice and since I've made peace, I'm over the middle-age hump, you know, with becoming an elder, and since I think that - I wondered could a woman continue in this youth-oriented genre. As a painter you're just beginning to ripen at 50. As a musician there's a lot of scrutiny on how you look, da-da-da-da, and it's such a shallow business really, and a fickle - it's a shallow, fickle business. Not that the art world is any bowl of cherries, it isn't, it's really strange too. So, um, but it seemed almost economically sensible to reduce my holdings, like, you know, I have a house here and I have a house in Canada, taxes are going up, things are going up, in this business, everybody has their hand out, you know, you get the trickle down, you know, like with all costs going up and your salary going down, it almost seemed wise to get out of the business but on the other hand I did have a public voice, a somewhat rare public voice, um, perhaps I was needed (laughs), you know, there are some people that would say so and there are many that would say no, we've got a lot of new women that are younger -
BH: I can't believe -
JM: No, but, you know what I'm saying, all these things had to be weighed. So anyway I opted to go back in and here I am.
BH: It's a kind of full circle feeling about it in a way and the fact that you're back on the label where you started, and also that David Crosby has co-written, co-wrote "Yvette in English," is that right?
BH: He doesn't sing on it, does he?
BH: I couldn't pick out the inimitable harmony voice.
JM: No, it's a couple of friends of mine, Charles Valentino and Kris.
BH: But I thought it's interesting, here you are back on Reprise and David involved maybe in only one song but it kind of takes you back where you started.
JM: David called up for his record actually. That was the first song of this collection born. He called up, he wanted me to produce them, I didn't feel I could, then he called up and said did I have any songs. No, I didn't have any and he said well, would I look at something that he'd written so he faxed me some words that he'd written and I paraphrased some of it, I kept some lines, I structured it, I set it to music and I sent it back, and he recorded it first.
BH: Okay, so it was on his album wasn't it?
BH: _______________________. Is it the one that had the Jimmy Webb song on it?
BH: What were your first impressions of Los Angeles at the time that Crosby produced that first album - I mean I think - I mean you're still here but we go back to the kind of LA of Mama Cass and B. Mitchell Reed. I mean is it a very different place?
JM: Oh, yeah. I remember driving for when I first got here in Crosby's car with a good stereo and I think it was "Magical Mystery Tour" and driving around up in the canyons especially because it reminded me of cottages at the lake. There were no sidewalks, there were no regimented lines like the way I was used to cities being laid out, no gridwork, and the ruralness, having lived in New York and then coming here having trees in the yard, you know, ducks in my neighbor's yard floating around on the pond, the ducks on the "Ladies of the Canyon" album on a pond that I could see from my dining room window, the ruralness of it, the friendliness of it, no one locked their doors. Two strange girls in the '60s showed up at my door and asked for sanctuary. I gave them the keys to my house, told them to feed my cats, and said I'd be back in two weeks. You know? You did things like that. We were young --
BH: You're going to tell me they turned out to be two of the Manson girls -
JM: No, no!
BH: Most people when they tell you a story like that, it's like -
JM: But I have had some of the Manson clan in my garden, you know? There was one guy, I forget his name, but he had a parrot called Captain Blood, and he was always scribbling things on the inside walls of my house. Neil Young's too, you know, real cryptic things, so there were a lot of weird people around. But still - and I was burgled five times but they were small crimes, you know, one thing at a time they just basically picked off all my electrical equipment a piece at a time, which wasn't that great in the '60s, you know, like they couldn't even lift my reel to reel, there were no cassette players.
BH: Are the accounts of Crosby sort of showing you off to all his superstar pals accurate? I got the impression - it was the picture I've always had of, "Now, here's my genius, now play something, Joni!" He would bring you out to sort of play a song to Eric Clapton or that famous Henry Diltz picture of you and Crosby and Clapton sort of sitting there watching you play -
JM: Crosby - I met David in -
JM: -- in Florida in a club, and he came in and he loved the music, and his enthusiasm for it - he was twinkly about it, very enthused and when - he was afraid when I got my contract that - because folk music was dead - his instincts were correct. You may have read this, but his instincts were "I'm going to pretend to produce you but I'm not going to do anything." Because at that time he was in The Byrds, he was the new wave, folk-rock was happening, he was out of The Byrds, they'd kicked him out or something -
BH: Yes, that's right.
JM: -- but they already had their hit so he basically was going to protect it because he liked it the way it was, you know? And that's basically what we did, we just went in - I couldn't overdub at that point, I'd sing and play. So we just went in and went for the performance, and I did a little bit of sweetening on it -
BH: It's still quite a bit of bass.
JM: A little bit -
BH: A tiny bit.
JM: A tiny bit of sweetening but very little, and I think perhaps without David's protection they might have sicced some kind of producer on me who would try to make an apple out of an orange. I don't think I would have survived it because that's what happened on the second record and it was such hell. I made - I had a producer on one single, I turned to the engineer - the producer said "I'll be back in two weeks to finish this," he was a very busy man, you know, he was producing other people, a hotshot. I said "Henry, I can't go through this." I said, you know, this will kill my love for music, you know, I'll never want to record again if I have to go through this process. Could we get it (59:35) done in two weeks before he gets back? Sure, said Henry. That was the beginning of a relationship. Henry and I made 13 albums without a producer, you know. Now, Henry was more than a producer in that of the producer's duties, the ones that I really needed were the paperwork to be done, I didn't need a babysitter, I didn't need an idea man. You know, I worked in a focused way in the studio so I didn't need somebody, you know, reeling me in because I was wasting time. And I didn't need anybody to tell me how my music should go, you know, so I really didn't need one. I didn't work with a producer for 13 records.
Also, I'd heard studio musicians complaining that producers, all they did was give them lame ideas to play and make them go over and over them, whereas they themselves had better ideas. So I thought okay, let me see what happens when you cut a musician loose. Okay, play me what you would play. Okay, and then I can work with it, modify it, you know.
And I also learned it was difficult for a woman to direct men, they bruised very easily and -
BH: I believe that.
JM: -- and I - I found a way, having insulted a couple of guys inadvertently just trying to describe what I wanted - one guy I told to play a little ... (recording ends)
Barney Hoskyns is a British music critic and editor of the online music journalism archive Rock's Backpages.
This article has been viewed 3,042 times since being added on September 28, 2009.
Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.
Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.
You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.