Before I can dive headlong into a conversation with Joni Mitchell, there are a few things that the 71-year-old icon needs to clear up. "You aren't going to call me a folksinger, are you?" she asks. "You aren't going to say that I'm like the female Bob Dylan—or worse—a singer-songwriter, are you?" It's a jarring way to begin an interview, but in Mitchell's case a totally understandable one. Although she is one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, Mitchell remains deeply misunderstood. Some will always see her as the sunny-haired, dulcimer-playing folk naïf of California and Both Sides Now but Mitchell's body of work—a back catalog 19 albums deep—is unlike any other in popular music. Her sense of harmonics, innovative song structures, and uncanny take on jazz remain totally singular. Given the scope of her influence, Mitchell has earned the right to be a little thorny when it comes to the subject of her legacy. "I'm liable in interviews to get frustrated and become stupidly boastful," she says. "I just want things to be acknowledged. It's like, don't make me say it."
The generally press-shy Mitchell is opening up to talk about the release of LOVE HAS MANY FACES: A QUARTET, A BALLET, WAITING TO BE DANCED—a four-disc box set that includes 53 songs from the past 40 years of her career. In addition to the music, the set comes packaged in a book (designed by Mitchell) that also includes six of her paintings and an expansive autobiographical piece of writing in which she goes deep on her own creative process. More than a simple "best of" collection, LOVE HAS MANY FACES recontextualizes Mitchell's work into scores—or acts—each of which has its own distinctive narrative arc. All of the songs included are ruminations on love, which proves to be the binding agent that holds the entire project together. For Mitchell, creating a framework in which all the material can function together as an entirely new work was essential.
"It's really a new genre," she says of the project. "The four discs kind of break down into different styles. The beginning is about '50s nostalgia and the origins of rock and roll. The second side is quite eclectic and dark. The narrative is almost like an episode of Law & Order. The third side is jazzier. The last side involves a lot of classical orchestra. I have my roots—or a root, at least—in each of those camps. That's why I often feel mislabeled when I'm included in the singer-songwriter category. I was always doing something much more complicated than that."
Though Mitchell says she prefers the making of albums to the business of talking about them or dealing with critics ("It's like you give birth to a baby and everyone agrees that it was this lovely experience and then afterwards someone stands up and says, 'What an ugly baby.'"), assembling the box set provided a way to address her own history while simultaneously framing it in a new light. The work also bridges the perceived divide between her early albums and the jazz-inflected work that she later moved into, during the late '70s.
"You want to clear up any errors, which is what I'm hoping that this will do," she explains. "I'm hoping that people will see that the music—whether it's early or late—has a continuity in it. It's really not so shockingly different over time. Also, I've got 24-year-old Joni going up against 65-year-old Joni. There will be someone out there I suppose who makes an unfavorable contrast between the younger voice and the older voice, but to me both of those singers are delivering their lines correctly."
Though many of her most classic songs have been well covered by other artists at this point, her aesthetic remains wonderfully and peculiarly her own. "I never emulated other kinds of music, it just came out of me," she says. "I didn't do like most people, who kind of picked a hero and then sat in a room and practiced to sound like that. For me, it just came out. Everything I admired—from Duke Ellington to Debussy to Chuck Berry to Hank Williams—it was all very eclectic. I just kind of soaked it all up. My approach to music was different than a lot of people in my peer group, which was often just a kind of Xerox of something that had come before. I wanted to be like Charlie Parker, I wanted it to come out of the blue."
Given the descriptions in LOVE'S liner notes, many of which detail the complicated, serendipitous pleasures of making records, one has to wonder if Mitchell—who herself hasn't released an album since 2007—misses the recording studio. "No," she is quick to respond. "I'm painting a lot, and soon I hope to start working on my memoirs. There are all these stupid books out there about me that are just full of gossip and nonsense. The liner notes for this box set were kind of a way for me to get my legs under me and start telling my story. It is something that's been on my mind for a very long time."
LOVE HAS MANY FACES: A QUARTET, A BALLET, WAITING TO BE DANCED is available now from Rhino Records
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