on the art and
soul of her music
Painter or rock star — Joni Mitchell wants to be both. Michael Cable went to Hollywood to meet a woman in two minds
WHISTLE TEST EXTRA
TUESDAY 6.0 BBC2
'EXCEPT ON rare occasions, I haven't seen morning for many years,' confessed Joni Mitchell through a haze of cigarette smoke.
The 42-year old singer-songwriter, profiled in Tuesday's Whistle Test Extra, was in the process of moving into a new 'office' — a former dressmaker's workshop in Santa Monica that she and her guitarist husband Larry Klein have converted into a combined music room and artist's studio — but she was wondering if she could ever get used to a regular working routine.
'Having an office and going to work each day will seem very strange,' she admitted. 'I've never tried to operate like that before. I've always been very impulsive. My songwriting has generally been done late at night, in solitude.'
Joni, an ex-art student, who has recently taken up painting seriously, held her first exhibition in Los Angeles last year. 'I have been painting in my living room at home in Malibu but the trouble with that is that you get torn between artistic expression and house proudness,' she explained. 'I was pulling my punches because I didn't want to be faced with cleaning up the mess.'
With the beret that has become something of a trademark clamped carelessly on one side of her head, she looks much more like an artist than a rock star. Painting was her first love and it was while studying art in Calgary that the small-town girl from the Canadian prairie lands started folk-singing on the side.
Her first album was released in 1968 and she went on to become the darling of the Woodstock generation. But she looks back on those days without very much nostalgia. 'There was no such thing as the generosity of the spirit that we all believed in. And the seeds of the decline of that beautiful era were built into it. It reached a peak at Woodstock and then the drugs took over to a debilitating degree.'
'I guess I'll never have mass appeal - I use big words,' she says, cynically. 'And my music has always been an acquired taste.' After a period in the doldrums her career now seems revitalized by marriage to Klein, 12 years her junior.
Her most recent and different-sounding album DOG EAT DOG won critical acclaim. But she says: 'Under the terms of my contract I have three more albums due after this one and then I will probably retire from music. The business has become very tight and commercial in the 80's and it's increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of your music. It's gotten too complicated for me.'
She can also foresee a time when she will want to move away from her beloved California. 'What I really want is someplace where I can grow old naturally. Hollywood is a terrible town to grow old in - especially with Dynasty and those kinds of facelift shows taking precedence on the air.
'I know soon that the same thing will be getting into the music business. It's a neurotic youth culture, and I'm sure the time will come when it will be the norm to start cutting and snipping, lifting and yanking. I can feel it coming — I'm all antennae, you know!'
WHISTLE TEST EXTRA
A profile and extended interview with one of the most influential personalities in rock. Whistle Test visits folk minstrel, jazz singer, composer and painter Joni Mitchell in California. Richard Skinner finds the writer of Big Yellow Taxi, Woodstock and Free Man in Paris simultaneously putting the finishing touches to her latest LP DOG EAT DOG and preparing an exhibition of her startling abstract paintings for a prestigious Los Angeles gallery. During discussions about her unusual style of painting Ms Mitchell picks up the brushes and demonstrates her technique, providing an amusing and instructive commentary. Including music from a 1970 BBC special, London concerts from 1974 and 1983 and a lavish new video.
Producer TREVOR DANN
(next week Bryan Ferry)
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