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Rock Arena Show interview   Print

by Susan Dowling
ABC TV
June 7, 1988

Transcribed by Mark-Leon Thorne

Suzanne Dowling: Last week Joni Mitchell flew into Sydney to do some promotion for her new album, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm. Joni has spent the last four months travelling the world, talking to people like me and even after such an extensive tour, she was very enthusiastic to talk about herself and her music. Beginning with childhood, we take up our conversation somewhere in Greece (reference to the photographic wallpaper on the back wall).

Joni Mitchell: Well, I was born near the end of the Second World War in 1943. It was a time of rationing. It was...um...in Saskatchewan and Alberta where I lived, these provinces were only about a generation from the pioneering spirit. Most people came to settle land that was up for grabs, basically. My grandfather came as a homesteader. He raised his children in a town called, New Norway; a Norwegian settlement. My mother also came. We came from fiddle makers and violin makers and cabinet makers in Norway. My mother's parents came from Scotland and Ireland. The Scottish side of the ancestry...um...my great, great grandfather...or my great, great, great...I'm not sure how many greats to put on it, but he was Sir Walter Scott's star plowman. So we came from tillers of the soil. The generation of my parents generation came up in the Great Depression which was a difficult time to have your youth. As a result, their education came to a halt. It was extreme poverty, dust bowl.

Um...let's see...those are my roots, my background. Childhood. We moved around a lot. My father was in the Service. After the war was over, it was difficult to get a job and hold it. He worked in small grocery stores and that lead him to be...he moved around a lot. The migration pattern of us as a family was, from the small store in Maidstone, Saskatchewan - a hamlet of about 400 people, very primitive, no running water, pump in the kitchen, drinking water delivered on horse-drawn wagon...um...to a town with a water tower and two theatres up the road - North Battleford - a marching band. My father played trumpet for dance bands on the weekends sometimes. He was a big Harry James fan. In both of these towns, being small, we lived next to the country. I spent a lot of time walking through the bush by my self as a kid. I liked flowers and birds. I liked looking at the colour of the light out. I drew from a very early age. I had, between childhood diseases and moving a lot, a rich internal life. I was pretty much independent. Although I wasn't without friends, I needed to find creative children to play with. There weren't a lot of creative children coming up where I came up. They were...um...more...athletically prone. Because of my frailty, I...

SD: What was your frailty?

JM: Well, I just was prone to get everything. I got Polio, I got Chicken Pox. Everything I got, I got severely and I was always coming down with something.

SD: Do you think having a sickly or..poor health as a child could have worked as a catalyst in a way for your creativity?

JM: Oh yeah. Hallucinating into the cracks on ceilings and walls in hospitals produces a kind of visionary eye, an imaginative eye. Moving around and constantly being the new kid in town develops a sense...you have to find your own self worth, you know, creates an independence. My parents didn't want me to grow up to be provincial, so they would tear off on their two weeks Summer holidays, driving great distances just to show me other things existed, so, as a prairie child, I would know there were mountains and waterfalls and ah, my mother had been a country school teacher so she was pretty much impressing flora and fauna and history on me. So, these vacations were, I felt an imposition and I would have preferred to just go to the lake like all the other kids and I would've emerged differently and more normal...you know...seeing myself as a kind of phenomenon within the context of my generation and my locale. By the time I got to my teens, kids that I'd babysat for, who were, you know, six to ten years my junior, most of them grew up to become potters and weavers and musicians. I don't think so much by my influences that by that time it was not such an abnormality. Ten years behind me, came a wave of artistic interest. It was seen as something valuable. Up until then, an artist in the family was something to be ignored and dismissed. It was an aberration, I think.

Musical interlude: "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" (from the Shadows and Light performance)

JM: I had been a bad student all the way through the academic system which I think was a blessing. I didn't learn to memorise and regurgitate in the normal manner. To this day, I have a difficult time with labels and things but, I have a good sequential mind. It works better I think for the spacing out all through the school system in some ways. I'm a terrible Trivial Pursuit player which, is the down side. That's as bad as it gets. It's about the only regret I have for spacing out all through the school system.

SD: Was there any particular artist or experience, musical experience that then directed you to music yourself?

JM: Oh, a lot of them. Well, um, when I was in the first few grades of school, my two best friends were quite accomplished child musicians. Franky McKittrick could play complex Bach and Mozart at an early age and he played the church organ, big pipe organ. His feet could barely reach the pedal. So, he had a prodigious talent. The other boy I played with, Peter - he's in an opera company somewhere in the world, I don't know where so...they were the musicians and I was the artists and we used to put on circuses and round up all the kids in the neighbourhood. Kind of like "Our Gang". I would make the posters and nail them all to the trees all over the neighbourhood and I always had an eye for talent so, I would conscript anybody who could do anything to put them in our sideshows. You know, so it was social play also but it was mainly these extravaganzas that we put on annually. Franky and I had both had it instilled in us by Miss Brady, our 4th Grade teacher that the Red Cross was a wonderful institution so we donated everything to charity. It's amazing when I think, we would raise, sometimes 4 or 5 Dollars at a penny a head for these jib joint shows that we put on. You know, "See the boxing match for one penny", step inside and there's match in a box. You know, and all these jib joint side shows. We would raise quite a bit of money and turn it in. I remember the trek, the annual trek down to the woman who would take our Red Cross donation. It was something we did, really, without anybody laying into us. But, Brady had convinced us that temperance and charity were the two major virtues in life, I think.

SD: Growing up in the '50s was nice.

JM: Yeah...I had difficult times. Harry Peg used to break my huts down in my backyard. Geraldine Campbell used to chase me down the back alley with an axe but, aside from that, it was OK (laughs).

The way my music developed, because of the eccentric way I play the guitar, you see I play...the neck is never the same. It's tuned a lot of different ways. There's 30 something at this point, almost 40. Because of that, and I slap on the drum down here. My rhythmic sense and my harmonic sense is different and, in the difference, it doesn't really fit into any idiom; jazz or pop or...it's just kind of different and, rock players couldn't play it, they didn't have enough harmonic sophistication, so they would be laying a major or a minor or a seventh or, at most, an augmented chord, you know, which was their only harmonic vocabulary, against these chords, so they'd be squashing them. It would be like painting red over a dusty road or something. You know what I mean? They couldn't...and rhythmically, they'd be marching through it like folk rock. You know, four beats to the bar, you know, the back beat, you can't lose it and the music won't hold that, there are bars of three chords and suddenly there are intricacies, rhythmically so... Finally, one drummer said to me, you're going to have to play with jazz musicians. So, I went looking around the jazz clubs for my players, and I'd been interested in jazz as a listener, in my teens, I'd been exposed to some of Miles and Lambert, Kendricks and Ross so I wasn't a stranger to it. You could say that it even had an influence in my harmonics sense since I had listened to it...and classical music...and rock 'n' roll. Before I began to make my own music, I'd absorbed several different idioms, including, you know, big band era and McGuire Sister harmony and so on.

Musical interlude: "Good Friends" (music video)

SD: Do you have a definite idea of what the record will sound like when you've recorded it?

JM: I don't go into the project with an intellectual map. All I have is a collection of songs which, if I was to record them the way they are born, you wouldn't see much difference between my early work and my later work. In other words, most people would not discern the harmonic growth, and my phrasing has obviously changed, but a girl and a guitar would resemble more like how I began. So, we have the architecture and the structure and the limitation of the song in that form and, from then on, it's more of an intuitive process based on luck, who's around, an idea followed by a phone call...um...the lucky accident. I need a lot of surprises in the studio to feel happy and lucky. So, there needs to be a climate where failure is not scrutinised by intellect or...you know...um...where failure can take place in order for new things can be discovered. That's the hardest part when you're working with new people.

SD: In fact, you use some some surprise musicians on this new album, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm. Ben Orr. Peter Gabriel too and, Billy Idol. How did you come by choosing those people to sing with?

JM: Well, Ben Orr and Peter Gabriel were in the neighbourhood where I began recording. They were at hand. Peter offered me his studio to record in, fell by...and, you know, I put him to work. in a most playful way. We began working on Secret Place. My husband was producing Ben Orr forty miles away, on the other side of Bath. I would go into their studio dates from time to time. Ben had a remarkable range - about three octaves. His solo voice came somewhere from the mid to the upper range so, the low voice, which he would use in his own harmonic stacking, wasn't really being used that much on his project. It was getting lost at the bottom of a chord or something. I had sung, on The Beat of Black Wings, a sketch from Manu Katche. It was to be a talking drum part. It went, "Pah-pa-dapeh-pum we-du". It was at the bottom of my range, you know, and it was to be replaced but, when I heard Ben sing in this low rich voice, I said, wait a minute, I think I'm going to double it with his voice and not replace it with talking drums. So, ideas remain flexible. So, when he had a day off one day, I said, "Why don't you come with me to Peter's studio?" We drove out there and put it on.

SD: The single that has been released so far off the new album is, Secret Place. Could you tell me a bit about that particular song?

JM: It's a love song. It's basically set in the time period in the beginning of a relationship, at the most psychic part of romance infatuation when a man and a woman seem to be thinking, feeling as a unit. You know, before they split off and wars begin again (laughs). You know, so I think the way Peter's voice and mine undulates through each other is pretty good. I mean, it's like, two minds becoming one mind, you know, the beginning, tentative part of a relationship where there's uncertainty and the uncertainty breeds a certain kind of attentiveness and respect, you know, that can dissipate when people feel secure, unfortunately.

SD: The video itself has a real childlike quality to it. You and Peter Gabriel together. That's really nice.

JM: Oh, it was lovely doing it. And Anton - the guy who directed it, I think did a splendid job, just amazing. Yeah, it was really fun doing it.

SD: Thank you very much, Joni Mitchell.

Musical finale: My Secret Place (music video)

 

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