TORONTO - Nearly a decade after turning her back on the music industry to focus on painting, poetry and privacy, legendary songstress Joni Mitchell is returning to the spotlight with a new album, a mixed-media art exhibit and plans to expand her ballet for a cross-Canada tour.
Mitchell's long-awaited disc, "Shine," features nine new songs and a reworked version of her classic hit, "Big Yellow Taxi." It's a stirring collection of bittersweet laments that reveals the Canadian icon to be ever the pessimist, but one who believes in miracles, notes friend and collaborator Jean Grand-Maitre.
Grand-Maitre, the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet, says Mitchell's relentless concern for the planet and mankind has been one factor in her recent drive to take on a dizzying array of projects.
"It's been interesting, because there's what, two decades between us, although she has 10 times more energy, passion and ideas than I do," Grand-Maitre says by phone from Calgary, after spending the weekend with Mitchell at her summer home in remote Sechelt, B.C.
"She's an intense conversationalist, you know. I have to really work hard to keep up. At the age of 63 she can run circles around me."
The pair are planning to expand Mitchell's foray into the world of dance, "The Fiddle and the Drum," stretching it to an hour-long performance that could tour the country, and possibly the world, in 2009, Grand-Maitre says.
The ballet, which debuted in Calgary in February, is based on Mitchell's music and set against a backdrop of her politically charged paintings.
Mitchell is keen to work in three or four more songs from her new album, including the title track "Shine," and an original recording of her generation-defining song, "Woodstock," says Grand-Maitre.
The creative spurt comes alongside several Mitchell-related works on the horizon.
She releases her new album on Sept. 25, when she also launches a mixed-media art exhibit in New York, says Grand-Maitre. That same day, good friend Herbie Hancock releases the album "River: The Joni Letters," a tribute to some of her most compelling work, the second such disc this year. In April, "Dreamland" featured covers by admirers young and old, including Sufjan Stevens, Prince and James Taylor.
And in June, Canada Post came out with a stamp in her honour.
When Mitchell retreated from the spotlight years ago, it was with a cutting critique of a music industry she had called "corrupt" and "a cesspool."
She announced her retirement in 2002, spending time with her two grandchildren and reconnecting with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, whom she gave up for adoption at the age of 19. They reunited in 1997.
Much of that time was spent at her oceanside home in Sechelt, says Grand-Maitre, describing the small stone retreat as a rustic abode filled with antiques.
Mitchell swore she would never record again. Her last album of new material had been 1998's "Taming the Tiger."
Nevertheless, she eventually found the songs spilling out of her.
"I came straight out of retirement into doing the work of three 20-year-olds," Mitchell told The Word magazine in an article published in April.
"I really burnt myself out physically but emotionally it was very uplifting. I realized I wasn't ready for retirement, for gardening and watching old movies, which is what I'd been doing for 10 years."
On "Shine," Mitchell offers up rich, piano-based melodies that touch on jazz, soul, pop and classical sounds but, like much of her diverse catalogue, defy categorization.
Stark lyrics mourn over environmental decline and war.
"This album is about the war of the fairy tales, possibly the end of our species from this macho I-got-a-bigger-bomb-than-you-have instinct," she told Word, a prestigious U.K. music magazine.
"This spaceship we are all riding on is dying, somebody tell the captain to stop punching holes in the wall, we have atrocious leadership everywhere, mankind at his most diabolical." Mitchell's return to her 1970 classic, "Big Yellow Taxi," is a rhythmic jolt of African, Latin and jazz beats with guitars and synthesizers, but no percussion instruments.
Grand-Maitre notes that while the original version was very much a warning for its day, the modern take is more of a lament over what's already come to pass.
"There's a little bit of cynicism in there and a little humour," he says. "I find that when I hear it, it's certainly with that older voice, that voice of experience. It's almost like ... it's happening now."
The reworked song served as an encore to the original Alberta Ballet production.
Fans in Toronto will get a chance to see the dance in June 2008 as part of the Luminato festival, where Grand-Maitre says it will have a 10-day run in the Alberta Ballet's first-ever collaboration with the National Ballet of Canada.
He says he and Mitchell hope to begin reworking the ballet soon after that in Alberta, and send it across the country in 2009. Grand-Maitre says there is also interest in staging the ballet in Germany and Australia.v As well, "The Fiddle and the Drum" makes its television debut on Bravo in October.
Grand-Maitre calls Mitchell "a true creative artisan."
"She lives to be reborn and risk. She doesn't mind doing a ballet and doing a jazz album with Mingus or reinventing herself and I think the idea of being reborn through the creative process is one that's kept her very much alive."
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