Joni Mitchell’s latest album is a career vacation of sorts for one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of the modern pop era not that the album is in any way a casual affair. Discouraged by the state of society and the reality of the conglomerate-dominated music business these days, Mitchell wanted to step back and do something that totally enchanted her. The result is “Both Sides Now”, a collection of standards woven together ambitiously to reflect on the early glow and final ashes of relationships. The album - featuring such vintage tunes as “Stormy eather” as well as two of her own songs - was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. The arrangements, by Vince Mendoza, evoke in places the signature sounds of such jazz masters as Duke Ellington and Gil Evans.
Regular copies of the album won’t be released until March 21, but special editions, featuring elaborate packaging and lithographs of Mitchell paintings, go on sale Tuesday. Some listeners may lament the absence of new Mitchell material (see review, Page 66). but Mitchell herself is so pleased with working with the orchestra that she is now planning to record an entire album of her own old songs this way. In an interview, Mitchell, 56, spoke about the album, the music business and her own latest relationship.
Why didn’t you want to do an album of new Joni Mitchell songs?
Because my music is drawn from my [feelings] and I just didn’t want to be a social commentator at this time. I feel these are difficult times and we all need to develop some type of ... discipline or soul nourishment or strength to deal with all the problems facing the world, problems that are coming to a head in every department. Even I wouldn’t want to hear an album of that stuff right now. I just feel my point of view is too realistic and reality is too bleak.
What about the state of pop music these days?
I think it is in a horrible state. I don’t even think of it as music anymore, but just the “ic” business. It’s “icky” because the “muse” has gone out of it. The divinity that it once contained is gone.
Part of it is the capitalistic feeding frenzy. Music today is viewed [by corporations] as simply a [sales line] that is either going up or down. It’s just a graph for shareholders. We don’t even know who is at the top anymore of all these corporations. There used to be the chairman, who was as high up in a company as you could go, but now the chairman is just a piss-ant in the larger corporation. The other thing I notice is music is being made by committees. I received a lifetime achievement award recently from Sony and they played the year’s big songs. They were horrible, one after the other. ... Drivel, commercial crap. And when people got up to receive the awards, you could see why: There were four to eight people getting up, and sometimes there was a businessman among them. A committee cannot make a work of art. Art is created by one person or two people working in unity.
So how did you get enthusiasm to make the new record?
I decided to do it after singing “Stormy Weather” at the Don Henly benefit in Los Angeles in 1998. It was liberating just to sing someone else’s music. Plus, I wanted to make an album that represented a romantic journey with [musical ideas] culled from some of the most creative music of the 20th century.
What about the romantic journey?
It’s the one we’ve all been on. First, you are smitten, which is the first song, “You’re My Thrill”, which was a Billie Holiday recording. Then you go through facets of pleading and making concessions along the way, then the romantic love goes away and the album ends with “Both Sides Now”, which says you don’t know love at all.
The album brings us to the debate over songwriting traditions ... the pre-World War II tradition and then more introspective and complex tradition that you and Bob Dylan helped create. How do you rate those traditions?
It's interesting, because “Both Sides Now”, which was one of the first songs I wrote, clearly has one foot in each camp ... old songwriting and new songwriting. The old songs were very symbolic. They used the weather a lot because they were coming out of an agrarian culture. There was a tremendous amount of references to the sky to denote emotion ... "You are my sunshine”, "Stormy Weather". But there was very little of the intimate soul-scraping of [the new tradition].
So how did you go about finding your place in all that?
With Dylan’s words, you could have nice chord changes, but you couldn't be very musical. What I wanted to do was keep the melodic invention and bring the two together, ... the musicality of the old school, but create a greater realism... A less symbolic art and a more illuminating art.
Let’s go back to the album's theme. What have you learned about romantic love over the years?
Romantic love is a trick of nature, fueled by anxiety and insecurity. The moment the thing is secured it dissipates. It’s a trick of nature to get us to procreate. There are other kinds of love, however, that are more stable. Romantic love goes out. The Sinatra song [”I wish I were in Love Again"] deals with it well.... “The quick toboggan when you reach the heights“... It’s all downhill. But you end up saying “Oh, I want another hit of it”. It’s kind of like drug addiction.
So how about yourself - are you optimistic about lasting relationships? Are you in a relationship?
I have a very good relationship with a man from my hometown. He still lives there. We get together and travel. We are old enough where we are comfortable with a long-distance romance. In our youth, I don’t think we could have done it. It’s a growing, flowering relationship of nearly seven years. Plus, I have really good friends who I love. I have cats I love. I have a daughter I love. I have grandchildren I love. These are all different kinds of love, but lasting love.
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