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Hege Duckert interviews Joni Print-ready version

TopPop Spesial - NRK Oslo, Norway

NRK (Norway television)
May 1988

[Transcription by Pete Christensen]

[Watch the video here]

Hege: Joni Mitchell, it's 20 years ago since you made your first album and you've come such a long way from there, through all kinds of music, and this last album seems to be a mixture of jazz and folk and rock and everything you've been through. Is that how you view it?

Joni: Yeah, I feel at this point like from time to time the river of my music needed introduction of new tributaries. This album in particular, I guess, is a kind of a potpourri of styles. It gets very folky on the last track and there's a lot of continuing synthesizer experiments. I guess you would say it's a synopsis, a roundup of different styles.

Hege: And you've taken to work with Peter Gabriel. How did that come about?

Joni: At the beginning of the project, before I began to record, my husband was working in the southwest of England with Ben Orr. He was producing Ben Orr's record. News got out that he was in the neighborhood and Peter sent for him to play bass on his album. And when I arrived, I [inaudible] use his facility. While I was there, he of course stuck his head in to see how I was doing from time to time. And so I said, "How would you like to sing on this song?" So this is how it came about, just by accident really.

[Music: "My Secret Place"]

The idea came to me - when he began to sing, he studied my phrasing and the timbre of his voice in that particular register was not typical of Peter. So I remembered The Song of Solomon in the Bible, where something has either happened in the translation or it was written in a way that you can't tell what gender it is. It keeps undulating between a man's point of view and a woman's point of view. So when it came to the editing of where his vocal and my vocal would be, I changed from my voice to his, sometimes in the middle of a word. I think it's kind of nice that way. It becomes then like the inner, communal thoughts of a couple instead of boy singing to girl, girl singing to boy.

Hege: Lyrically, yours have been very, very personal from time to time; almost painfully so. Has that been difficult for you, to express yourself so directly in your lyrics?

Joni: No. I've always felt that human nature is human nature and that the human experience, if well depicted - that it was worth the sacrifice. People had the option then to either - nothing that I said about myself was that specifically me. I mean, I think most people have felt those things that I exposed about myself. But they had the option in listening to say, "Oh, that's how Joni feels," or, "I feel that way, too."

Hege: It's 20 years ago, 1968, and these days it's been a lot of celebrating and a lot of miffs going on about that time. How do you think about that time now, musically, when you look back?

Joni: The '60s? What aspect of it? Gee, that's a big question.

Hege: I know. I think the area around '68-69 when it was all the big folk festivals. It seems to me that a lot of people have a lot of romantic notions about what that was really like.

Joni: Well, it was colorful. The manner of dress was very savage and tribal. These gatherings had an air of pageantry about them. They look very strange now if you look back on them - people with shaved heads and colors painted all over their faces. There was a story told to me at one time. It was an Indian story. I don't know whether it's truth or fiction but I always liked it and it served well as an explanation for the hippie phenomenon in America. And that was: At the end of some battle, a chief, raised up on the battlefield in his death throes on one elbow and seeing his slaughtered young, cursed the white soldiers departing and said, "May the souls of our dead come back in your generations to haunt you." So the very Indian-emulating aspect of the hippie culture - you know, the savage paint and the long hair and the bandanas around the head and the love of nature and all of that - I always wondered if that wasn't kind of a fulfillment of prophecy.

Hege: At that time there were lots of stories about you being very vulnerable when you were onstage; that you'd break into tears during a concert. Was that true?

Joni: Oh yeah. Well, see, I was the sacrificial folkie in a way. I would be presented at these large rock festivals, standing in front of somebody else's mountain of amps. My audience was small and devoted and frequently they would push forward. I'm thinking in particular of one occasion. I could see, because I'm at an elevation, people coming from here and here and here, trying to get closer. They created a commotion in the audience which brought the cops up along the edge of the stage. All the time I'm singing very, very intimate. It's not like I have a band to face off and, like, party with. I'm drawing emotions up from my insides in the face of chaos. So this happened to me on more than one occasion and either I would burst into tears or run.

Hege: Was it a tough time?

Joni: Well, these were tough moments but it wasn't so much of a tough time. I just never fared well in big festivals. My work was too intimate. Imagine yourself trying to carry on a conversation. I mean, here you are on your podium - supposedly you have something to say - and you're looking out frequently at pandemonium. It becomes absurd. And the animal has adrenaline given to it, to fight or to flee; and you have seconds to assess it and if you don't do either one - if you neither get bigger than life nor run - you get kinetic. Your whole body goes into arrest and trembling. So I usually assessed it and said, "No, I'm not big enough to stand." So I would take off.

Hege: People have had a lot of emotions about what you've been doing. Like when you did the "Mingus" album, there was a lot of talk "and now she's getting into jazz," and people were very angry and felt very strongly about it. Why do you think that is?

Joni: People were afraid of jazz, I think. People are afraid of things they don't understand. In the rock community, I know my peer group was afraid of my playing with jazz musicians. They took it as a kind of personal betrayal. They used to ridicule me for it and some of them felt that I had pretensions to something that I wasn't. But it's typecasting, really. I mean, when I was a kid in my teens, I loved to dance. I was a rock & roll, mindless, happy-go-lucky dancing type. So you can imagine what that community of friends thought of me when suddenly I'm a folkie and I'm singing these intimate little - they'd say, "What happened to her?" But the people who met me when I was singing like that, then when I went into jazz, they couldn't relate. So I mean, if you're going to let people rule your life you'll never come to your full development.

Hege: The jazz period, has that changed how you view rock today?

Joni: The way I see rock today. Hm. Well, I like rock & roll better than rock. The roll of it is - like rock & roll to me is [vocalized rhythm] the push beat. And rock is like [vocalized rhythm]. The swing, the absence of that joyous spirit, which died in the '60s, I miss. I like boogie-woogie. I like rock & roll. I like some rock. But rock is very vertical and very white and the white history of drumming is martial. The '60s were a very war-oriented people; the singers had anxiety on their faces and the drum was white militant, you know. I like that period of rock & roll's history probably the least.

Joni: I even liked it better when it hit the '80s and it was [vocalized rhythm], this neurotic little beat, I liked better than the anxious militant beat of rock & roll in the '60s - with a few exceptions, of course: the giants, the geniuses like Jimi Hendrix and Sly. To me, those are the great talents - for me - of the '60s. But rock & roll was born a black idiom and it was a saucy kind of thing. It was designed to get your spirits high and then it became this militant alarm ringing. I mean this is what I like outside of my own music. I'm not talking now at all about my own music.

Hege: When you were in the Canadian Band Aid, I also read somewhere that you said that you weren't really for those kinds of things, the kind of events like the Band Aid; that it was -

Joni: That I wasn't for them?

Hege: Well, that you had some opinions about maybe people used it more for their own fame than actually for somebody else's famine.

Joni: Oh, and frequently the money never gets to the cause. They are a bit of a self-congratulatory... I think they do more to make heroes out of the people who support them than they actually do for the event. That's been proven. For instance, the Bangladesh, which was Dylan and George Harrison: there was tremendous amount of celebration and of course they were elevated as humanitarians and so on; the money never got there. It just came out of escrow a few years ago. But I'm not against these things. I still think that they - they do so much less than they seem to do; but that little that they do, as trivial as it is, as miniscule, is important. I'm not against them, no. It's just that the reality of them is they're so much less than they seem to be.

Hege: When you wrote the song "Ethiopia," had you been there or was it just through what you heard on the news?

Joni: Every night on Sunday night television in the States, there was a series of evangelical broadcasts. And the last one was really bait for bleeding hearts. I mean it was ripe for scamming and possibly was a scam. There they would show these poor and desperate people; and there would be a man and a woman - she dressed in Rodeo Boulevard safari suits - silk safari suits wandering through. I mean it was pretty awful. And they would flash the telephone number where you could send money. Again, at the risk of sounding like a cynic - I don't live in cynicism. Part of what may sound cynical is factual, so it's more... These things are difficult. I'm very empathetic with the Ethiopian people but it has to run the gauntlet of their very corrupt government; bad organization to get the food to them in the first place; the fact that the government basically wants these people destroyed and there is a kind of genocide at work - difficult, very difficult.

Hege: Do you feel more cynical now?

Joni: In defense of my point of view, it is fairly well informed. I think I have my moments of cynicism, where my realism is exaggerated and flippant, but I think that it's based on unfortunate fact.

Hege: A lot of your lyrics have been about your troubled relationships with men. Do you feel that you shift a bit now, that you emphasize different things in your lyrics?

Joni: Well, I did write about the anatomy of the crime a lot; about people's inability to really love and their mistaken knowledge of what love is. Again, people are taught in these cultures how to be sexy. There's a lot of emphasis on being sexy and very little emphasis on loving. So that has been a constant theme with me. I made it kind of my life's work to figure out what love was; to analyze my capacity for it; hopefully, to increase my capacity for it; always with the optimism that if I was properly prepared and was capable of loving, that love would come to me. I'm happily married now. So it gives me space to turn to other themes.

Hege: Do you think that an album like "Blue" could have been made today?

Joni: Not against the cynical climate of the '80s, where it's chic to insult the artists. I mean, I took some flak back then for writing that intimately, but not of the viciousness that accompanied journalism at the onset of this decade. Were I young and writing like that at the onset of this decade? What I could imagine what they would have done with that? No, I don't think I would have survived it. I would have gone back in my shell and would never have had the courage to continue. Well, I don't know, maybe I would have. I don't know. It's hard to say because it's all hypothetical. I know in Montreal I just gave some interviews and, there, the interviewers were encouraging me to write another album like that. And that's what I said to them, "Are you kidding? You guys would pin me to the wall if I reveal these kinds of vulnerable things." To be vulnerable in the '80s is death itself, isn't it? I mean the whole world is striving to be hip and cool and well-defended.

Hege: That doesn't leave much for music, though, does it?

Joni: No, it makes music have a lot of posturing and not much real human spirit. But a lot of posing and posturing: "I'm bad, I'm bad."

Hege: Not your favorite record, is it?

Joni: No, no, I like that. But I mean it's typical of how we must present ourselves in order to be hip in this decade. You know: "Don't mess with me because I'm well-defended." You would never go, "Please be my friend, I'm not very well-defended." You wouldn't offer yourself forward. No, they'd eat you alive, wouldn't you think? I think so.

Hege: I read that you said sometimes that the intellect was a very overrated instrument; that you'd rather work from intuition. Is that how you still work?

Joni: Well, my intuition, I think, is more accurate than my intellect. My instinct will tell me - First of all, instinct is like a computer chip. It's like Shakespeare on a pin head. You get a lot of information very fast - "n-yip." Now, if you wanted to expand on that, you would have to go to your intellect to expand it. But you would know - "n-yip" - that fast, with instinct, a tremendous amount. And if somebody says, "What are you thinking?" you have to now go to intellect to tell it. So it's slower, intellect is a lot slower. And sometimes intellect, too, will tell you - it gets mixed up with image. It's slower and ... stupider. It's a good tool but it's linear and analytical. Reason is revered as being the great standard. I think it's a wonderful tool but highly overrated. I think that there are other ways that knowledge comes that are clearer and quicker and they can't necessarily be explained.

Hege: So if people say to you that you are an intellectual artist, would you like that or would you not?

Joni: It's not true. In answer to your question - which direction will I go in? - well, there are all these possibilities. I've always wanted to do something very minimal with Miles, for instance; maybe just voice and guitar and trumpet; very small. Or maybe to put together a band, like Manu Katché on drums - I mean, I have a lot of ideas but they're all idiomatically different. I don't know.

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