Special thanks to Catherine McKay for painstakingly transcribing this interview from the video. Watch the entire video here.
Transcriptions starts at 0:36
Jorn W: Good evening. My name is Jorn Weisbrod and I'm the artistic director of the Luminato Festival. [applause] Thank you, thank you. Thank you so much for coming to our last TimesTalks Luminato. This is the first year that we're partnering with the New York Times, one of the great newspapers in the world that really understood that their audience needs to be the world. This is why they go out into the world, and came to Canada for the first time to partner with us in a series of four conversations. We had Willem Dafoe and Bob Wilson. We had Liz Diller and just at 2:00, we had Atom Egoyan. And tonight - oh! Sorry, she disappeared! You have to go home.
Before I tell you who's going to join us, I'd like to take a moment to thank all the wonderful partners that help us to make this festival actually happen: L'Oreal Canada, our partner in creativity, our founding government partner, the province of Ontario, [applause]. Oh! I got that applause in the first Dafoe-Wilson talk and that's why I'm sort of hoping for it all the time - you know, Ontario. And our major partner, the government of Canada, and all the individual sponsors, donors, foundations, corporate and media partners that support this festival and, of course, an especial thanks to the New York Times and Carol Day who is going to introduce Jon Pareles, the interviewer tonight.
And I'm very proud that Joni Mitchell and Brian Blade are going to join us on this stage here tonight. It's been a year, sort of, for me that this journey started, and it's all coming together these days here at the festival, and I managed through a wonderful, wonderful. wonderful artist and friend, and friend of Joni's, Jean Grandmaitre from the Alberta Ballet who put me in touch with her, and we had a wonderful conversation on the phone, and I talked to her about the idea of doing this tribute show at Massey Hall that we're doing on the 18th and 19th of June as part of the festival, as part of the celebration - celebrating her artistry and her 70th birthday.
And she mentioned one name to me that I should contact and that was Brian Blade, and she gave me his phone number, and I called him up, and a very beautiful, soft-spoken voice answered on the other line, and I said, "We want to do this and Joni wants you to be the music director of our band and he immediately said yes. And from there, everything started to happen until we are here today and I would like to welcome now Carole Day from the New York Times on stage and I really want to thank Joni so much from the bottom of my heart for doing this. And she's really a black man in a blonde woman's body. Thank you. [3:45]
Carole Day: Hello, everyone. The New York Times is very happy to be here at Luminato and to be working with Jorn and everyone who's associated with the festival, and also to have these Times Talks in Canada and on our website, our arts blog, Artsbeat at NYTimes dot com slash artsbeat. [http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/] And, as Jorn said, we're just delighted to have these two distinguished guests with us and also to bring our chief pop music critic, and I want to tell you a little bit about him because he'll be doing a lot of the questioning tonight. But, in the 22 years that he's been chief pop music critic for the New York Times, he's watched U2 record an album in Dublin, spent an evening at Radiohead's favourite pub, interviewed Tory Amos in Madrid, and Rufus Wainwright in Aviles, Spain, and been personally denounced from the stage of Madison Square Garden by Axl Rose - twice. So, he's just the perfect interviewer for tonight's wonderful, wonderful guests. So, please join me in welcoming New York Times Chief Pop Music Critic, Jon Pareles, and our very special guests - Joni Mitchell and Brian Blade. [5:15]
Joni Mitchell: Thank you. Thank you. It's a nice little room. Brian?
Jon Pareles: I have to say, the third man is Brian Blade, one of the great drummers of all time. I am actually surprised that you only have four limbs, because of all of the things that I've heard you play with Wayne Shorter, with Emmy Lou Harris and Joni Mitchell. What an amazing musician! And Joni Mitchell, I'm honoured to be speaking to you.
One of the things you're going to be doing at the tribute concert, you're going to be performing a reading from the writings of Emily Carr. [6:25]
JM: Well, it's an adaption from the writings of Emily Carr, actually.
JP: Tell me a little about Emily Carr, because I'm from the lower 48 and we're ignorant down there about Emily Carr. She was a painter and an anthropologist?
JM: Well, sort of an accidental anthropologist. The painting was the drive. She lived in British Columbia. She came from a very strong English, Christian background and, being the artist in the family, she was considered kind of the crazy, evil one. Missionaries used to come and stay with her family, for instance, and they would stay and stay, and she'd say to her sisters and her parents, "They're freeloaders." Which of course immediately put her in the evil eccentric position.
She had a chronic illness that's never brought out. She wrote a lot of books. One of them takes place in a hospital in England. But she says at the beginning, "We're not allowed to talk about our illness," but it's kind of a sanatorium. She talks about everything else. She comes to the room in the winter, whatever it is she's suffering from, and the window has been left open, and she has to knock six inches of snow off of her bed to get into it. So, it's beyond fresh air.
But, she studied art in England when Queen Victoria was going by in carriages, and in Paris she showed. She studied at the Sorbonne along with Matisse, and they showed in group shows. So, that is historically where she belongs. [8:00]
Back in Canada, she should have been included in the Canadian Group of Seven, which is the post-impressionists of our country, but, being a woman, she was kind of... and, being on the other coast - they were all here in Ontario - she was included by them and socialized with them from time to time, but it was never really ... Like for Mary Cassatt, who invented impressionism, was never really included either. So women painters have always been kind of, "Yeah, nice for a girl". Georgia O'Keefe, too, but... [8:33]
JP: I was looking at her paintings, and it seems you've learned a lot from her - the prismatic way she uses light...
JM: No, I'm not influenced by her.
JM: As a painter. As a matter of fact, she has, in the poem, she has a problem with what she can't get at. She says she can't paint the souls of trees. I don't have a problem with that. I'm one of those people that, like a child, still sees figures in the clouds. You know, my grasses are full of faces, and my rocks are full of dogs and cats and things. There's plenty of spirits in my landscapes. She felt she couldn't capture the totemic thing, you know, and, as an anthropologist, I guess she... She canoed with Indians to the islands in British Columbia, where the culture was breaking down, and there would maybe be four old natives living on this island, and the totems were beginning to rot. The paint had worn off and everything, and a lot of her paintings document the end of this culture, and, in the routes to get to these places, she'd spend a lot of time with natives, canoeing around. So, on that level, I guess she's considered an anthropologist. But really, they were her taxi drivers and, in a certain way, they were the ones that got her to the locations that she wanted to paint. But, it's her writing that I love. [10:00]
And she wrote a lot of books, and she was a very modern writer for the time. Victorian writing was very rococo, like a lot of adjectives and so on. Her editors had a problem with her writing style, but she stuck by her guns, and...
JP: So, she was too terse.
JM: Yeah, it was very compacted, and it's also very visual. It's never psychoanalytical. The poem that I wrote, that I will recite, has a scene in it where she's really irritable. It's been raining and raining and raining, which it does in B.C. Raining and raining, and her painting isn't going well, nothing's going well, and she says, "I smacked my dogs." That's all she says. I added a little bit more. If she smacked her dogs, she's really cranky. And then, she doesn't really display her emotions that much. Maybe in her last book, "Hundreds and thousands," where a page and a little bit are the basis for this thing that I wrote in empathy with her. Just being stuck in the B.C. forest with a painting that's not going well.
And she had her monkey. She also had a lot of animals. She had a peacock. She had a monkey that she pushed around in a baby carriage, which also added to her eccentric image. And she raised sheepdogs, English sheepdogs, so she always had quite a few of those.
And she was a landlady. That was her straight job. With her inheritance, she built a little apartment building, lived in the attic, and took on tenants. And she wrote a book about the people that were her tenants [11:42]
JP: Wow! So she was productive.
JM: Very productive.
JP: Brian, you put together this concert. You're herding the cats for the concert.
BB: Yeah, part of it.
JP: [to JM] You're an unschooled musician, pretty much.
JM: Uh, yeah, well..
JM: Pretty much. You know, I heard Rachmaninoff when I was eight, in a movie, "Story of Three Loves", and I loved "Nocturnes", you know, beautiful, melancholy, sweet melodies, but that one took the cake. And I asked if I could have the recording, but it wasn't in the budget, so I used to go down to Grobman's Department Store (1) in North Battleford Saskatchewan and take it out of the brown wrapper and go into the listening booth and put it on, and just swoon, and to me that was my first revelation that music spoke directly to the emotions. To me, at seven or eight, it was like a tender entreaty. It was like the music was saying, "Please! You've got me all wrong! Like, this is how I really am!" It made me think of the misunderstandings that I had with my mother, and it really made me want to be a musician, so I begged and pleaded and finally I got a piano and then was given piano lessons for a year, one-handed - da-da-da, da-da-da, doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo, you know.
Finally, at the end of the year, two hands were put together and I played a piece written by a nun called "Little Regret", which went from the major to the minor, and it was kind of a nice piece of music.
Then, after that, I wrote my first song, instrumentally. I wrote it out, in notation. It was called "Robin Walk", and I brought it to my teacher, who was a typical piano teacher of that time, but I didn't know. I took what she did personally. They carried a ruler in their left hand, and they used to corporal punish, and every piano player my age went through that. But I thought... She played piano and trumpet duets with my Dad, and I thought she had a crush on him, and didn't like me and my Mom, you know? I thought, "Yeah, that's what it is. She likes my Dad and she doesn't like me." But, I played this piece with pride, you know, "Look what I've done," and, at the end of it, she said, "Why would you want to play by ear" (Whack! And she hit me on my left hand), "when you can have the masters under your fingers?" So, I quit. And my mother, from then on, thought of me as a quitter and, in her 80s, 30 years into my career, or 50 years in, she said, "All that money we spent on your piano lessons! And you quit!" [14:43]
And I said, "I just got two hands together. I never had the masters under my fingers!"
In a way it was good that they were virginal, because then the shapes that I made were my own. They hadn't gone over Tchaikovsky's shapes and Beethoven's shapes, so what came out was somewhat virginal. But, when I got my doctorate, there were some things that went on that night, and I said to the dean who had a really good sense of humour, an Irishman, I said, "Oh my God. If this is higher education, I'm glad I missed it." And he said, "Well, Joni, you know we're just processing these people for the orchestras of the world." So, much of what happens in modern education and everything is just processing, you know, processing, processing. My education really was that I got to play with musicians of such stellar ability, with such great musicians. You couldn't get that in school. [15:50]
So, you can't really say I'm uneducated, but I'm strong-willed. I'm like a Jack Russell, I'm going to do it the way I'm going to do it, and it's going to be...
We're really winging this thing. We haven't really arrived at structure yet. We did three different versions at rehearsal. It's going to go somewhat one of those ways. But this is jazz, and these guys, you have to kind of hang by your toes, and who knows what will happen, but we're gonna wing it at people. [16:24]
JP: And your guitar is also shapes that you've found?
JM: Yeah. The guitar playing. Well, I took a lot of childhood diseases and my mother had mumps when she was carrying me. I have a lot of anomalies and things from that, so my left hand isn't too good. My right hand was very articulate. My left hand had tricky knuckles and just didn't work very well, so early I wrote one song in standard tuning and then Eric Andersen showed me open G, which is banjo tuning, which is what Keith Richards plays in and all the old blues guys. And then I took it from there and invented about fifty-some tunings which was very difficult in performance because you had to have a sea of guitars tuned into families, and still you seem to be spending half the concert just tuning up all the time.
And so, as a composer, it was wonderful, because it coughed up fresh-sounding chordal movement, really some of it that had never been done in the history of music, I'm told by a man who analyzed the work. Some very eccentric things. And also, not being educated, sus-chords had their laws within musical schools, even among the avant-garde. Wayne Shorter said to me at one point - it was on Ethiopia, "Well, well, what are these chords? These are not guitar chords and these are not piano chords. What are these chords?" and then he said, in the next breath, "They taught us at Berkley School of Music never to stay on a sus-chord too long and never to go from a sus-chord to a sus-chord."
Well, the sus-chord to me is a chord of inquiry. It's an unresolved chord with a question mark in it, and my life was full of... Well, all of our lives. The bomb was hanging over it, there's lack of resolution, you know, the cold war. My daughter then was missing. There's another question mark. My life was full of question marks and full of surprises. Sudden illnesses. You'd just go off a cliff. So, my music, too, was like my life. It didn't want to stay in one key. It didn't want to stay in one modality. And so it came out kind of logical, but eccentric, if you analyzed it. Players would come in and they wouldn't even notice it was eccentric until they went to write out the lead sheet and then the chords were coming out like diminished augmented da-da, you know inverted blah-blah and they'd go, "Oh, this is kind of deceptive." So, yeah, it developed in unique and original ways in that it is music in that it comes from the muse. The chords come from, not so much schooling of other people's muses, but directly, they make the emotional depiction that I want for the emotional depiction that I want in the work, that they work theatrically as partners [19:17]
JP: So, a finger-shape to you, a shape on the fretboard, is a colour, or is an emotional state?
JM: Yeah, well, you know, I'll just sit and noodle around, and, when it feels right, Oh! That's the feeling... you build this diagram of feelings, and this is the architecture of the song and then, to it, usually the words would come next. They would be parqueted in, so this emotion is going to have to be supported by the idea, right? It's kind of like doing the score for the movie and then writing the movie.
JP: Did a chord ever lead you to an emotional revelation?
JM: Well, not really, they just suddenly... I used one chord in "Sunny Sunday" that I'd never heard before. It's not even a very attractive chord shape but it seemed theatrically correct. It's like, here's this woman, she's in a bad relationship, and she has a gun, and, from time to time, she goes out on the front steps and she shoots at the streetlight, but she always misses it, and the day she hits that damn thing, she's gonna leave this guy. And that's basically all the song is, and the atmosphere of the night, and it goes, that one little victory, that's all she needs. And under that, that one little victory, there's a strange chord progression that I'd never heard before. It's not attractive, but it suits the text. And somebody said, "Oh, that's the devil's interval." And I said, "What's the devil's interval?" Well, it was forbidden by the church because it evoked doubt, and so nobody ever played it ever again. It was outlawed, and no wonder it sounded so fresh. Nobody ever used it. So, you know, the only thing devilish about it is that it evokes doubt, and they wanted all the music to keep the eyes up on the cathedral ceiling for the theatre of that event. [21:22]
JP: It's interesting that we're in Toronto, because it was such a pivotal place for you, and, if not for being in Toronto, you might be an artist.
JM: Right. Yeah, I came here pretending to be a musician. I was a folksinger at that time, and that was just a hobby. I hadn't begun to write yet. It took another tragedy. I had to be made ill to get me to stay at home. My destiny pattern, I've got very bad luck in a way. One planet puts me in a position that's called "Stuck at home." So, what's going to make me stay at home when I'm basically a fun-loving gregarious type? Well, only if they make me sick. It's kind of like Hawking wouldn't use his brain. They gave him Lou Gehrig's disease. It kills everybody in three years, except him. They took away all distractions, Divinity, whatever, the forces that be, to get him to make himself useful, to use what he's supposed to use. [22:30]
JP: So this was the childhood polio that immobilized you?
JM: Well, polio took away my athletic ability, which took away a certain amount of my popularity. Then I was the last chosen on teams and stuff, so I became kind of... Well, it set me back on the playground.
JP: You were the observer, then, instead of the...
JM: Right. So that helped to make the transformation, I think, to an inner life, and to an artistic life.
But the other planet that governs my luck, it says, well, stuck at home by the one planet, get to know yourself, and take up a musical instrument. So, I guess I'm a fulfilled destiny [23:08]
JP: In Toronto, you were working in folk clubs.
JM: Well, not folk clubs, because it was a union town, and I didn't have the money to get in the union. I played... yeah, nobody would really hire you much. I played a couple of gigs, and then there was a scab club, The Purple Onion on Avenue Road, that took me on, and I was the best scab act around, so I played there for a couple of months, but I was pregnant, and I had to disappear at a certain point. And when I disappeared, the club folded 'cause they couldn't really find a replacement. Cheap labour! They couldn't find it.
JP: Well, you must have been pretty pivotal.
JM: Yeah. [23:50]
JP: I spent the last week listening to your entire catalogue, which is nice work if you can get it, and I was thinking that your early songs were fascinated by symmetry. "Both sides now" is about symmetry. "The Circle Game"is about symmetry. "Urge for Going" is about symmetry. And then, all of a sudden, this revelation strikes you when you are wildly asymmetrical. You have melodies like the melody of "Help me". It seems like there's this sea-change in your music.
JM: Yeah. Actually there was a kind of an aesthetic shift because I expressed myself in different forms. The work was very.... Leonard Cohen had a friend who was a sculptor and we were in New York in Washington Square and I said, "I don't like my drawings." They were very Aubrey Beardsley-ish, which was kind of like what young art students did at that time. We used to draw together, a bunch of girls in Philadelphia and we'd draw in that style, all on the same paper. So we developed this kind of homogenous style. And it was very fanciful and fairy tale-ish, because we were coming out of Walt Disney. We were raised on the stuff. [25:00]
And suddenly, I just thought it was naive and so Mort, Leonard's friend, said, "What don't you like about it"
And I said, "It's too naive" and so he said, "Draw me, and don't look at the paper."
And that created a very bold minimal line with a lot things left out, so, in the drawing, it took a shift and then, in the writing, the adjectives fell away and, in the music, it also became more block chord and less classical. All of the little grace notes in the first album, which was almost like German lieder more than pop music or folk music - semi-classical. And it started getting more junk in. The voice lost a lot of classicism, it became kind of the fourth voice to CSN, kind of nasal and I don't really like that vocal period, the second and the third album for that reason. [25:59]
And then, "Blue", I kind of get... that all assimilates into a kind of a pop/rock'n'roll voice, out of vibrato and semi-classical singing.
JP: So, you think "Blue" was really your first mature, pardon the expression, album?
JM: No, the first one was totally mature but a different period. But the second two were searching around and I was also... the second album I produced myself because the first one ... the guy that produced it ... I thought, itfthat's a producer, I don't need one.
But you did, in a way. I made mistakes sonically, but, after that, just an engineer and I, we made 13 albums and all of that stuff - the beauty of it was that we didn't get involved in anything hip and trendy, which a producer would have sicced onto me. And it still... it doesn't date. It's just kind of pure music.
JP: Very much so, yes. but, you must have been pretty strong-willed to wrest artistic control as a young songwriter. That was part of your deal?
JM: Oh yeah. I had a painter's ego. If you're in art school, the teacher can put a mark on your canvas, but after you're out, "Hey! Y'know? Hands off!" And you make your own decisions. You produce yourself. You don't want to have somebody going, "Do this, do that". Unless you're Jackson Pollock. The abstractionists, they were manipulated by an art critic and I don't think they ever knew... I don't like that period of art, because it's produced, kind of. and it's kind of hyped and produced and they took away Pollock's real palate. Beige, black, grey, very decorative, and he never knew, I don't think, if he was any good.
JP: But a lot of young...
JM: One out of ten ain't bad.
JP: Eight out of ten?
JM: One out of ten. [28:08]
JP: But a lot of young musicians think they need to be apprentices, or think they need to take advice, and it seems like you were very determined very early.
JM: There are two different heads. Playing for form, you need to go southwest, which is sensual and emotional. If it doesn't have that, it stiffens up, it's intellectual, and so on. But, to produce yourself, it takes the opposite head. It takes intellect and clarity, which is... you don't want to be playing from there. But, you need the clarity for speed and the intellect for knowledge of what could be too adjudicated, and you have to go in... I can do it quicker. I've seen people deliberate: "Oh, do we have to debate this?" It's like, it's three days later and you're still trying to get a drum sound right. You've seen that! I mean, please! You put the mike here, you put the mike there, you know, "Hit it again, Brian!" It can be done fairly rapidly, so there's too much bog down in analysis and lack of clarity in producers. And they act like God. They burst in like coitus interruptus in the middle of a performance and, I thought... They tell you you moved off your mark and there's something technical and I thought, "This will make me hate music." I already lost it. One slap on the wrist for playing by ear and ten years it went underground. If I'm produced, I'll be out of here in two years. I'll never make it. We've got to keep the joy. I had a wonderful engineer in Henry Lewy. It was like a print-puller. That's all I need as a painter because I have a painter's ego more really than a musician's ego, although I can collaborate. I've had wonderful collaborations. Brian and I is one. We've had so much fun with it.
JP: I know. You can hear it on all of your albums, how much you're working with the musicians, like Jaco Pastorius and Wayne, with Brian.
JM: Yeah, with the right players, God, it's just heaven. Or Jean, with the ballet, that's a beautiful collaboration too. So, and there's no ego. We work through it to the best results together. [30:30]
JP: Sort of looping back, but I was thinking that you said that you really found a voice you like with Blue
JM: No. Not necessarily. It got kind of... From singing along with the boys, I developed a nasal thing. I used to do it before I was a singer, to imitate Kitty Wells [sings] "There are three ways..." (2)
But I did it as comedy, before I was a singer. And, when I listen to those records now, it's just not quite there. It's going between periods, and you're developing. And there's a few good tracks on those. But, generally speaking, there's a stylistic searching. There's a lot of them on the record. There's things that I did with rhythm. I took a lot of chances with rhythm. Because I can hold a groove. That's easy. But, trying to get almost atonal with rhythm - it's almost arrhythmical with background voices and things, and sometimes it just sounds like bad time to me. But, it does pay off in "Ethiopia" where I have kind of a cacophony of rhythms in a village and a drum. If you set it far back enough in the mix, and you have a really strong forward beat, you can pull it off. And then it's like cinema, some kind of cinematic, theatrical thing I'm playing around with sometimes.
JP: There's a fluidity to it, instead of a march
JM: Yeah, yeah. [32:10]
JP: But I was also thinking, "Blue" is such a defenceless album, in a way.
JM: Yes, it is.
JP: And I wonder if any of... Those songs struck everybody who heard them so deeply. But I'm wondering if that pure, naked honesty- pure undefended honesty - helped you find the way you wanted to sing?
JM: Well, it's not that simple. Everything was just kind of developing along that way, and then I ran away from show business and I travelled around in Europe, and all those travel songs. The travel was rich. You know, when you're alone in your hotel room to meditate on it. So I ended up with that collection of songs. But, when I played it for the men, the singer-songwriter community, they were horrified. They were just... they were horrified by it.
JM: Because it was unprecedentedly intimate. It made the men very uncomfortable. But, later their work also went a little deeper. Neil's did, Kris Kristofferson's did. The ones that... I don't remember Neil's reaction being so... Kris was kind of horrified by it, Johnny Cash was kind of horrified by it. And it didn't sell well at first. It was over time that people came to it. It was kind of like rubbernecking a car accident. And I ran away after that. It was all I had to work with. I thought the place that I was at which was, a position, it may even have been the onset of this Morgellen's thing which was very systemically debilitating in that it attacks all over the place. You never know where's going to attack. It's systemic. It could have been the beginning of that. But things made me very sad. I'd look at things and weep. And also, I seemed to have powers coming in where I could see through people, and I didn't really want to. I thought I had the evil eye and I thought they could see through me. [34:29]
And also, I was developing an audience, and I didn't want to have a phoney relationship with my audience, because it had been the golden couple of Detroit with Chuck Mitchell, and that was not a good relationship so I never wanted to be dishonest like that, because I'm supposed to be a secretive Scorpio, but something blew me open and I just decided, foolishly or not, to not have any secrets in a way and that it was only life and it was only human, and I still say that people, to get something out of that particular album, you have to see yourself in it, otherwise you're just rubbernecking a car accident. But these things are not... I didn't stay there. It was something that was a period of change for me that was very painful, and a lot of it had to do with, "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden", this urgency that I felt, that we, as a stupid species, were destroying our planet. And that's what Johnny picked up on, that I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, that I was alarmed at the electricity we were using, for instance, and certain things. I built a house and buried my electrical lines and didn't even use it for a long time. The things, they seemed eccentric at the time but really they were quite progressive when you look at it now. They were actual revelations and I'm an individual which, defined by Nietzsche, is a person who can't follow and doesn't want to lead. So, when you have these kind of things, you do kind of want to lead, but how you don't really... You don't really want people sitting at your knee. [36:24]
JP: You don't want disciples.
JM: Yeah, no, I don't want disciples. But you've got to get out some of this in some way, so I used the songwriting as a vehicle for passing on things that I learned, which are very simple. Like, I just read something my ex-husband wrote. One of the things he got was, "Nothing lasts for long." Well, that struck him as profound, and I'm sure if did me when I wrote it, 'cause I repeat it. It doesn't strike me... it seems kind of nothing now. But, those little things, when you come on them the first time, they can change your course in a way. They can give you acceptance and a certain understanding and then they lose their power. They go off at a certain time, and they're all so simple [37:16]
JP: You were really... I'm thinking of the mid-70s work you did so rapidly. You did "Blue", you did "For the roses" and you did "Court and Spark" which, to me, is an equally beautiful album coming from an incredibly different direction.
JM: Yeah, because now...
JP:... in a couple of years
JM: I'm not alone on stage anymore. I've got a band with me, and it's more fun. I'm not as isolated. I'm not alone on the tightrope with everybody wondering, "Will she fall off?"
JP: But also, on "Court and Spark", I think you really had to... That was probably when you first had to translate your music to other musicians.
JM: Well, I sang a lot...
JP: Did they look at you funny, when you started playing them those songs?
JM: I sang a lot of the parts. That one I really, it was kind of as writ. I sang the horn parts, and then Tom transcribed them. Sometimes I left some of the voices in. So, it was pretty much written. The guitar player, I gave certain instructions to. Bass and drums took care of themselves because I found the right players. And then, on "Hissing", I cut my players a lot of slack and it went more towards jazz. They began to use the colours of their background more, and a lot of people didn't dig that, you know? I was going over the edges of the box I was supposed to be in. And then that led to "Mingus", which was all the way into jazz. But, even there I wanted to do something...
JP: But, it should be noted that the musicians you had, Weather Report, I mean these guys were not amateurs.
JM: Oh, no, they were great, incredible. Jaco... I was trying to get bass players. Later, I was able to play the bass myself, like on "If", a synthetic sounds was good I left it, otherwise I'd get someone to come in and play it as writ. And my bass-playing style was more figurative space. It wasn't just playing the root of the chord. So, five years went by and I tried to use bass players but I would tell them, "Could you do this? Could you do that?" And they'd go, "You're trying to tell me how to play my axe. I played with So-and-so and So-and-so." And finally, it was suggested to me that there was this weird bass player in Florida who played with Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller, that I would probably like. So, I sent for him. I never even... and it was Jaco. And he was doing the things I was asking them to do and then some. So, we were on the same page in terms of where the bass should go. [40:20]
JP: "Court and Spark" also has a lot of characters in it for the first time. I'm sure it's not your first character study, but they're all over that album.
JM: From travelling. Yeah.
JP: Was that what it was?
JM: Yeah. A lot of people travelling.
JP: Did you carry a notebook around when you travelled and see a detail and write it down?
JP: Ahh, I wish I could do that! Reporters carry notebooks. But the travels just gave you all of those people?
JM: Yeah, great character. He blew out of a restaurant in Matala. That's how I met him. I was staring out towards Turkey, and the sun is setting, and, Kaboom! and I turned around, and here was this red-bearded, turbaned, all-in-whites like from Benares, India, blowing out the door of a restaurant, and I went, "Great entrance! I have to meet that person!" Boom! It's like they just blew into my life. He was a character. [41:15]
JP: I should ask about the "Raised on Robbery" lady.
JM: Yeah, well, that is more of a composite character. That's after the "Women and Escorts" (3) thing fell down in the pubs. Native hookers would come in. She's really more of a fictional character based on things I've seen.
JP: Yeah, 'cause it seems like you went so deep into yourself on "Blue" and on "For the Roses". Those really seem naked to me.
JM: Yeah, then you're pulling out on the next one. You're lifting out.
JP: And then later you're confronting a lot of problems in the outside world.
JM: Right. Well, you're supposed to go through, as a human being, your angst, especially if you're young, in your teens, that pocket of painful self-discovery and facing yourself and a lot of people never do it. I had a friend who didn't do it until he was in his fifties. That's not so good, because then you dodge it and you can give... he gave himself bursitis. It's harder when you're that far along in the game to develop that self-knowledge. You need to do it when you're young and resilient. Your body can take it.
JP: Yeah, definitely. Did people come to you and say, "You shouldn't have written that song about me", who you didn't write it about?
JM: There are songs that people came up and said, "Is that about me?" and it wasn't, which is good, because it means it's universal.
JP: No, it means that many more people can see themselves in the song.
JP: Do you think about writing for somebody? Or is it looking inward? [42:57]
M: Well, I did character studies on "Court and Spark", but always with bad results, because David Geffen begged me to take "Free Man in Paris" off the record. It made him feel exposed and vulnerable. And I said, "David, it's not an unflattering portrait". And it took him a long time to not feel like I had exposed him. So I thought, "OK, if I'm going to write about human nature, I better use myself as a model, because I can take it." But then it's too, then it's hung up on the autobiographical aspect of it, and that's annoying too, because you think, "Don't look at me. Look at yourself." The ones that do find themselves in it, certainly it's a richer experience. Otherwise, it's just "People" magazine. It's like, "What's that famous person doing now?" [43:54]
JP: I want to talk about "Hejira" too, because you went out on the road yet again. Was that a different experience from what led to "Blue"?
JM: "Hejira" gets a little more philosophical.
JM: If I may say so, because I said that to an interviewer, and he went, "Philosophical?" I went, "Yeah, philosophical." If you make a good marriage, God bless you. If you make a bad one, become a philosopher. That's all it is. No big lofty thing. So, it dug in a little deeper and came to an endurance... You're starting to become a warrior, and you get your endurance stripes.
JP: It often seems the form of the songs changed. They got more and more conversational, less and less metered.
JM: Huh. Yes. That's true. Well, that's from working with jazz musicians. So I wanted to take the same liberty as a horn player because I thought, well, I can use as many syllables as I want. I just have to cluster-phrase like Wayne. And then Paul Simon started to copy me and I went, "Uh-oh." Like, we'll be the imitators, and I stopped doing that. 'Cause it was just experimental. But some of the things on "Hejira", I think, were good for it 'cause it needed that many words. "In this vigorous anonymity, a blank face at the window stares and stares." It's almost like sung prose." [45:28]
JP: With a good melody.
JM: With a good melody.
JP: Do you think about... I'll go back to "Help Me," because that's such a wild melody. It's falling when it's falling, and it's leaping way up, and it's gliding back down again. You do a lot of that from then on.
JM: I guess because I could. I had a large range and it's kind of like tobogganing or something. it was just fun. I can't do that anymore. I'm down to four iffy notes, or five, or something like that but yeah, I could sing any note I could think, I could trade with the guitar players in concert, and we'd do that. They'd throw me something and we'd riff. It was fun. It was effortless.
JP: It was.
JP: 'Cause, if you try to analyse it, it looks really difficult.
JM: Yeah, if you... Don't analyse! It's a waste of time. Or, if you do, get in, get out, don't spend too much time in there. You'll turn into Freud. What a disaster! [46:40]
JP: You experiment a lot in the 80s with synthesizers, with really wildly complex arrangements. Was it to challenge yourself?
JM: Yeah. I would have even gone further. There was a tiny period, wherever there was a dip in the music, I'd plant something. Say there's a V and I'd plant a W, and the W had two more dips and I'd want to plant. It was kind of graphic. And Klein said, "Joan-Joan, you're overproducing it." And I thought, "Well, I'm not producing it, I'm arranging it." But I was arranging it, not to the fly-shit, not to the usual standard score, but more in terms of graphic design, and I could have taken it further, but already it was too complex for a lot of people. [47:37]
When we dance it, we can dance the different parts and it's a visual aid for people who maybe can't take it all in with their ears. It's too complicated. Like Bach is relatively simple. It's like one melody in the bottom and one on the top. With Muslims, it's against the law. You know, one melody for Allah. This stuff has got a lot of counter-melody and colours coming and going.
Those early Duke Ellington compositions were incredible that way. And Duke would play against them, "Caravan" comes to mind, Duke Ellington's early 30s arrangement. It's very, very complex. And humorous because the horns are so sassy and joyous. So I really like those arrangements. They're some of my favourite compositions of the 20th century. [48:38]
JP: Duke Ellington! You can't go wrong.
JM: No, you can't go wrong.
JP: And Johnny Hodges, you've got it there.
JM: Oh, Johnny! Yeah. He's my love.
JP: Johnny Hodges was Duke Ellington's alto player and the sultriest sound on earth.
JM: So flirty, and so just beautiful. And his stories, on a simple blues which is a simple format, his choice of notes, and Duke's too, it's just a thrilling choice of notes, spontaneous composition and emotionally connected, not just intellectual.
JP: But you had to add words.
JM: Like the Harlem Globetrotters. They're just spinning notes on their nose and bouncing them off their ears.
JP: But you had to add words to that architecture.
JM: Yeah, like, what's his name, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Hendricks - John Hendricks. He was a really good bebop lyricist and funny too, the stuff that he wrote.
JP: He recorded "Centrepiece", he recorded "Twisted".
JM: Yeah, I love that album.
JP: And actually, when you did "Goodbye, Porkpie Hat"... Lambert, Hendricks and Ross did vocalese, which is putting words to solos.
JM: "Goodbye, Porkpie Hat" was parqueted to a solo.
JP: Right. You followed through on that.
JM: Yeah. Charles gave me a lot of different versions, different solos, and I picked that one. It was a hard one too. I went around New York, learning it like an aria. I had to walk around humming that thing and it had a section in it with triple tonguing. Dum-blubba-blubbablubba. And I said to Charles, "Oh, yeah, you expect me to parquet to that." And he went, "Yeeeeeaaaahhh." I said, "Well, you better get John Hendricks to do that. I don't know if I can do that." [50:34]
JP: He called you, right? What was that phone call like?
JM: Well, before the phone call, he found out he was dying, he called up a friend of his, an Italian producer called Daniele Sanitore and he said, "Daniele, I want to talk to you about God," and Daniele was a bit of a wild man and he went, "I'm the wrong person". So he went out and he bought him a Quartet by, what's the poet's name?
JP: T.S. Elliot?
JM: T.S. Elliot! And Charles couldn't understand it. It didn't seem to have any meat on it to him. And his wife was very literate, Sue, and she kind of explained it to him, and he still didn't think it had much to say, but he got this idea for his last project. He wrote some music and he wanted to get an Oxford English voice reading T.S. Elliot and then pausing, and he said it's like in the black church, tag-team preaching. One preacher does the thee-thou and the other goes "The little cat with the bent frame?" So, he wanted me to do the vernacular, which I thought, "You want ME to do the ...? You should get Lambert, Hendricks and Ross to to it because they're the stars of this." And he wanted me to play acoustic guitar 'cause he liked my guitar playing. So, I got the Quartet (4) and I called him up, and I said, "I can do it to the Bible. But I can't do it to this. I just can't find enough meat on it." For me, it didn't have that much to warrant paraphrasing to bring out something. I was uninspired by it at that time. I don't know what it would be like if I read it now. [52:28]
So then, nothing was heard from. Then he wrote six melodies and he called me back, and he said, "I wrote six melodies. I call them Joni 1 and Joni 2 and Joni 3..." So he was kind of teasing me, seducing me into this project. So I went out to meet him. And we tried a lot of different bands. But it kept coming out kind of traditional, and Jaco finally said to me, "what are you doing that old tired stuff for? Your work's more progressive." And I went, "Oh, do you really think so?" because they never told me they thought it was progressive, or what they thought. They just came in and played. So, emboldened by that, I came up with a concept, which is kind of what we're doing, which is kind of flying by your fingertips but that the rhythm section would groove on the choruses but float through the verse, that we were all supporting the lyrics, that the lyrics were the leader and that everyone would play off each other. We'd end up with a fabric all woven together, not a track and a singer, so it wouldn't look like something like Bradley's. It wouldn't sound retro because the melodies were in a retro tradition and Charles had told me, "Don't deviate from my melodies. Don't change a note." So, to make them more progressive. And the band I had in mind, of course, was Miles's band, except Jaco instead of Ron Carter "In a silent way." I played with a lot of great musicians. Chick Corea was one. We did a lot of sessions. Mahavishnu. And at the end of it, Mingus would say, "How did it go?" and I'd go, "Weeeellll..." and he'd go, "He plays a little notey don't he?" and I'd say, "Well, yeah." He knew everything that was wrong with it. They're great players, but it just wasn't coming together. Tony Williams was a great drummer. He was not in a good place. He was kind of an introvert. He couldn't come out of his shell. And boy, when he comes out of his shell, he comes out with a vengeance. But you couldn't get him ignited. Years later, he apologized to me. He was just, where he was at in his life. [54:44]
So I ended up going with Wayne and Herbie and Jaco. We did some pretty strange stuff. It was my call to do it that way and they went, "Oh, OK" and they just came in like pros and then, years later they would say, "God! Did you hear that stuff we played?" And it's flawed, but it has its moments that are really quite exciting. "Sweet Sucker Dance" towards the end, it congeals. That's kind of what we're doing on this. We're floaty-floaty. Come into a groove, floaty-floaty, trying it again. [55:23]
JP: Waiting to congeal. I was thinking about "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter". I have this 16-minute orchestral suite about rural Canada. Did anybody say, "Joni, come back to earth" or anything like that?
JM: About what?
JP: "Paprika Plains."
JM: Oh. Come back to earth?
JP: Did anybody...?
JM: They have said, "Are you from Mars?" [55:54]
JP: You have sung "Man from Mars". But, that was such an ambitious thing for someone who was in the pop music business to be doing.
JM: Oh! what happened there was I got sick again and I spent a year in bed - a couple of months in hospitals and then in bed. And one day I got up and then I went to my piano and I sat down and I could not hit a wrong chord. I was like a savant. So I called up dear Henry, who was my engineer and I said, "Henry, I don't know what's happening but I'm an idiot savant. I can't hit a wrong chord. We've got to go into the studio." And he said, "Well, I'm sick." I said, "Well, so am I. What's wrong with you?" He said, "I've got bursitis." And I said, "I'm just getting over abscessed ovaries and coming back to life and I'm gimping along. Let's go in."
So, we limped into the studio at the end of January and I did four passes of improvisation. One was 29 minutes, one was 30 minutes, one was 31. They were all basically 30 minutes, and then I'd take a smoke break, which is what I'm about to do. It must have been half an hour since we started. And so, out of it came an hour of, let's see, two hours of improvised music, and we edited it. We didn't have Pro-tools then, which would have been much more efficient. We had to cut tape, and I got to go, "Cut there!" So it was kind of inexact. We'd rock the tape. We'd cut it, and we'd splice it and tape it together. So, we cut together a ten-minute improvisation. There was one place where I just couldn't get the timing. I needed a little more air. So it's crowded in there. And it's changing keys because I was going from all over the place, resolving back to C. No matter where I went, I could always wander my way back to C. And it had a kind of Irish quality.
So that sat in the can, and in August, I wrote a song, and I cut it open in the middle and stuck the instrumental in it. And then, a little while later, I got an idea for a tag and I did that live with John Guerin. We kept the piano and then we cut it onto the end. Then I went to New York with Henry limping and me limping and our second engineer and we put strings on it in a church in New York. And Henry was literally turning to dust. He was dying on the couch. And I had put the second engineer, who was totally incompetent, in charge. And he's going, "He can't cut it. He can't cut it." I said, "I know he can't, so you've got to get well, otherwise this thing is going to be butchered". I'm taking this big gamble that part of his illness is psychosomatic. [58:55]
So, one day I leaned over Henry and I said, "Henry. We've got to go to New York to put on the strings. And Dizzy Gillespie's playing at Birdland." And he went, "Really? " So he literally... cobwebs were coming off this man.
So we limped into New York. We went into this church and we put the strings on, but the strings start in... OK. The song was cut in August. Then it goes to the January part - that was a splice. Then it goes back to August. So the strings are bowing across where January meets August and they go out of tune. So I said to the professor that wrote the score, from Berkley "You've got to cut the arrangement here, open it up. I'll show you on the tape. We're going across the splice, and the strings are pulling away in terms of intonation," and they went "Tsk. Women hear things", kind of. It's like you always have to get rid of those opera singers when they have their period. They start hearing things. No, it's true! It's like water pressure on the brain or something. Intonation becomes really acute but it's real. [1:00:12]
So, we put this thing on, then we went to England to put Jaco and Wayne on the tag which was spectacular. That's the first time I played with Wayne. We overdubbed him onto the tag of "Paprika Plains". So, it was done like a film. It was done on location in different spots.
Well, when I met Mingus, and I went up into his building, and the door opened, his wife said the first thing he said to me was, "You're that skinny-ass folksinger", which is what Dianne von Furstenburg called me. She's the one that started that. But the first thing I remember him saying was, "The strings on "Paprika Plains" are out of tune." And I went, "Yeah. Can you hear that?"
So, Mingus and I immediately bonded.
JP: You bonded over bad intonation.
JM: Yeah. He could hear it. He had the perception. [1:01:15]
JP: Is there a line of yours or a verse of yours that you're proudest of?
JM: I don't know if it's the best or anything but I'll tell you. The one that excited me when I wrote it... the most excited I ever remember was in "Furry sings the blues", the second verse, the second part, trying to describe this trip I took into this ghost town of the old black music [people?], with wrecking cranes standing all around while the city fathers decided whether to keep it for historic reasons or not. And there were three new businesses on there, all aimed at black exploitation. Two black exploitation films in the New Daisy theatre, and two pawnshops. [1:01:59]
JP: This is Beale Street that you're talking about.
JM: Right. The part that I recall being excited about language more than anything in all my writing, more than anything, was "Pawnshops glitter like gold tooth caps. In the grey decay, they chew the last few dollars off old Beale Street's carcass. Carrion and mercy. Blue and silver sparkling drums, cheap guitars, eyeshades and guns, aimed at the hot blood of being no one. Down and out in Memphis, Tennessee, old Furry sings the blues." Because it poured out almost in blank verse. It just kind of poured out, like, "Oh, girl, the Blarney's with you now". [1:02:53]
JP: It's so visual.
JM: The Blarney is running! Catch it!
JP: It's like with Emily Carr. It's so visual too.
JM: Yeah. I love Emily Car's writing for that reason. It's like, "Do you get the picture?" There's no analysis. There's no psycho-between-the-lines and all that crap that's in modern writing. It's just, "Do you get the picture?" Straight ahead.
JP: Your songs get pretty deep into relationships and the heart, which comes up a lot in your songs since I've been listening.
JM: Do I have one?
JP: You claim you didn't in one song. But you're very conversational. You don't say, "I feel sad." You always seem to tell the story or paint the picture. Is that how you think? [1:03:54]
JM: I think that's the way I think. Emily does it. That's why I like her writing so much. She's even... well, in my poem, I go, "I smacked my dogs for muddy feet." But in her prose, she just goes goes... she's telling everything is going wrong in this little gypsy caravan with a canvass roof. It's raining, it's raining, it's raining, and everything's going wrong. "I smacked my dogs." That's all she says. And you go, "Oh, girl, you're hurting." In her last book, she gets a bit, but never too far into it, and that was the era too. People were very emotionally guarded coming out of Victorian times.
JP: Pop music is supposed to be the opposite. You're supposed to be pouring it out. Did you feel...?
JM: With the blues, you're supposed to be pouring it out. But pop was, "I'm bad, I'm bad!" There was a lot of posturing. It wasn't really pouring it out.
JP: But your three-minute pop song is one emotion expressed over verse, chorus and bridge.
JM: Well, not necessarily. When you're singing them, they're kind of like three-act plays. Sometimes you have to go through three or four emotions. And old standards were one emotion. They're easy. You're either sad, you're happy, you're smitten. But I'm putting together a love ballet, so I'm reviewing all this crap that I wrote over the years and trying to sequence it and the hard thing is you're smitten in the first verse, but there's doubt coming in in the second, and characters are coming in. "Drink up now, it's getting on time to close". It's not really staying necessarily... "River" is, maybe. You're saying it's Christmas and you're sad.
JP: Well, I'm talking about tinkle-pop songs. Yours really break that mould.
JM: They don't hold to one emotion necessarily. They're more like "Fiddler on the Roof" - "On the other hand..." [1:06:05]
JP: That's not the comparison I would make to your songs. But yeah. If you were looking back on them now, do you think, "I was smart then?" or, "I was really naïve then?"
JM: No, they've all captured a speck. My problem is not whether I was smart or stupid. There's even one song, I think it's the only song that I know of, which is how to fall in love wisely. And it's based on counsel with Confucius and Lao Tse on how to navigate through this change. You know, you really have wise counsel.
But, in my ballet, the way I had it, the men get bored in it. I thought, well, this is not a culture that's really interested in wisdom anyway. Maybe the ballet would be better in the middle east or something where they like a little depth. [1:07]
JP: You've been saying for decades that you're writing an autobiography. Are you? Can we read it?
JM: I started. I'm just doing vignettes, trying to get down... Well, they were going to make this movie about me, which I squelched. Thank God I squelched it. And I called the producer out and I said, "If you're going to make this movie, it's going to be a piece of shit."
JP: Not that you weren't being diplomatic or anything.
JM: "And, if you want to do this, you can annex me. Show me the dailies and I'll tell you while it's going down, why it's a piece of shit." Because you don't have any of the great scenes. You've got, I had a child out of wedlock. You don't know that I lived in a Chinese white-slavers and I was going to have the banister rails renewed. You don't have the details. You can't possibly make an interesting movie out of that book that you bought, which I haven't even read, but I know, is kind of People magazine kind of gossipy, I'm assuming. And they don't have the great scenes. So, anyway, there was a great scene coming up, so I said to my business manager, "There's a great scene coming up this weekend. Grab her and I'll show you why you can't make the movie."
Well, it was a great scene. It was like this beautiful place in B.C. called Ruby Lake run by some Italian friends of mine, and they hadn't made their money for the winter to go to Costa Rica, because they have SAD and cancer, the older ones, and they've got to get out, and they didn't make enough money. So, they have this beautiful amphitheatre in the forest and we've used it twice: the ballet in the bush. I've shown it there. The neighbours closed it down for sound pollution. It's this Italian amphitheatre in the middle of the B.C. bush. [1:08:56]
So, we ran an old TV show of mine and they charged admission and people flew from all over the world. It was a small audience and the neighbours brought in blue [labours?] and it looked like the stars fell into the trees and Giorgio put big barrels of fire up and candles in paper bags with cutouts and strange Balinesian demons everywhere and yellow and brass umbrellas and things from his trip to the south Pacific. And we showed this old TV and it wasn't even a silver screen. It was like a couple of sheets or something in the middle of the forest. People flew from Italy and Rome and France and North Carolina and Miami and everybody. It was great. And my childhood sweetheart came with his wife, who died two weeks later, who was also a dear friend of mine. They had had a long and checkered marriage but they were so close at the end. And the producer sat next to me and I said, "Look, this is a great scene in the movie, all of this. You don't have anything like that, do you? You've got a girl with blonde hair and high cheekbones. That's all you've got. [1:10:10]
So, ask Brian some questions! [ 1:10:20]
JP: I was going to ask you about translating her songs for people who don't have fifty different tunings in their fingers. Do you learn from her songs? I mean, different ways of making music?
BB: Absolutely. Joni's story-telling and, as the poetry meets the harmony and that perfection of the centre. It's touched me ever since the first cassettes that I received at 16, and it sticks with me. I'm so thankful. I wanted to tell that, actually, because my father taught me how to drive in my '73 Super Beetle when I was 16 and I got my driver's license. Another dear friend gave me "Hejira" and "Mingus" on cassette. So, going to high school every day and how it struck across my life at that time. Still. This "Refuge of the Roads" and I realized I'd come in at the first third or early, so I had to go back to 1968 because there was still more. I'd got this record in 1987 so I was all like, "Oh, there's all these records out there". But this thread of "I met a friend of spirit," this "I came upon a child of God, walking along the road," and travelling. It just put a deep hook in me.
JM: Life is a journey.
BB: Yeah, the journey of it. So it's always been there and she ... Life is unfolding, so trying to find beyond, the true emotional potency in the sounds. Thank God the musicians that have assembled here are my dear friends. [1:12:52]
JP: You've got an amazing band. Bill Frizell on guitar...
BB: And Marvin Sewell and John Cowherd, Chris Thomas, Jeff Haynes, Ambrose [Akinmusire], Melvin [Butler]. But Marvin has dedicated himself to learning those tunings, as I have tried to do when I'm learning the songs, because that's the key to the door.
JM: Yeah. It's like a raga, isn't it? It's a pain in the butt, but I'll just twiddle around and all of a sudden, "Boom!" That harmony, which is going to be your root harmony. The tuning is the right mood for where you're at, and then the text goes into it. It is! It's kind of like ragas, really. [1:13:44]
JM: In a way.
JP: Yeah. Where the modality goes with the emotion.
BB: Yeah. As challenging as it is, once you do get that sense, and then she's such a...
BB: You know, it's a process of, OK, you have this sound, a 6-string song, but then you have to figure out... then there's a method to how she plays a song, because, with every tuning, those shapes of one tuning don't, they don't all rune... You have to find out what she's doing with this... So, it's amazing that...
JM: It's hard. You know what it's like? You take your typewriter and you type a letter and, in the night, fairies come and they mess all the letters up and then you go, "Oh, where's the T?" And you have to figure it all out, and you just get the fingering down, and then you can actually type a letter on that, and you go to sleep, and the fairies come again. [1:14:59]
BB: They keep coming back.
JP: They're messing around again!
JM: But, as a composer, what that does is it makes always the neck an exploration. And I'm born the day of the discoverer, (5) so the stars did this to me. The emanations where I was born gave me this need to discover. To make it interesting for me, I have to be able to discover it for myself. I can't learn by rote. I'm just a dope that way. Don't show me how to knit. I have to learn how to do it. And then I learn, when you drop a stitch, you can make a triangle. I have to understand it. That's why technology just overwhelms me, because it's too much to learn. I don't even want to know from it. It's just a pain in the butt. It seems like a bad idea. [1:16:00]
JP: Are you still writing now? On "Shine", you said you went ten years without touching the piano.
JM: I've been pretty sick since after the ballet. We did the ballet, and that had a lot of creative energy put into it - set design and I was pretty involved in it. Did a film, and then I dropped down in 2008, 2009. I was kind of fighting for my life, and it took a while to find help for my illness and I found a really good medical partner now and we've been working. So, during that time, thank God for Ted Turner! I just went into art student mode and went back to sociologically exploring the modes of how characters were in the 30s and then, with the coming of the new code
JP: You mean classic movies?
JM: And women characters got squashed again, all the way up, but they were so broad and deep and interesting in the 30s before the laws set in, and written by women, a lot of them, so they really knew how to draw a female character. It's mostly been that, but I've written this one poem for Emily Carr, which is heavily borrowed from her own writing, but you can look it up. It's in "Klee Wyck"(6). I left out really good parts too, that aren't in there. The way it ends. It's a different ending. But I just suddenly thought of that poem as I was sitting in B.C. with the rain coming down and down and down. And, from memory, it's more paraphrased than I thought. It thought I was just taking it literally from memory but there's one, "I wish I had a real good pal, someone I could stand to listen to". That's pretty much verbatim from her writing. But it's a composite. It's kind of what we have in common. And some of the things that I say with the "I" thing are really her thoughts, not mine, like, she tried to capture the souls of trees in paint and felt that she was unsuccessful, and it's because of her totemic experience, and I don't know if it's because I have Sami blood or what, but my B.C. landscapes are populated with critters. I don't have that problem. There's plenty of souls peeping through the grass and the leaves in those things! So, our problems as painters were different, but... She gets a radio at one point and she just hates the intrusion of technology into her home.
JP: Radio is pretty high-tech.
JM: It was too high-tech and all the consequences of what it was going to cost. This was before TV was invented or anything, the things that would come later. I just felt that she had an interesting sense of humour, an interesting sense of adventure. She's a great writer and a great painter, and was viewed as a very strange creature by her family and her neighbours.
JP: Sounds familiar.
JM: Well, I have a lot of friends. I'm not as much of a misfit and an outcast, or a recluse. Those are things I had to fight in the last interview.They're not accurate. They're misleading. But I can back them up. Yeah, you're a misfit if you're an individual. You can't completely swallow any orthodoxy without debate, if you're fully individuated. Even Nietzsche, who I adore, who was an individual, would say, "If you agree with me more than 60%, I don't want to know you." [1:19:57]
JP: You've been living in California for a long time, but it seems like you always go back to Canada as your imaginative landscape.
JM: Well, I own some property there and I've gone up, since... More and more, I spend half the year there but, when I was young and on the road a lot, I always got up there. It's where I write, it's where I restore my soul. When I was a kid in Battleford, and I was having problems one way or another relating, I would get on my bike, grab my smokes and go sit in the bush and watch birds fly in and out and that's always been a part of my need, is to be alone in the wild, or seemingly the wild.
JP: So, it was an early Hejira.
JM: Yeah. That's my shrink. That and gardening.
JM: Yeah. Pulling weeds.
JP: Arrrh! Just like editing a song. We're coming close to time, I think.
JM: Ask Brian some more stuff.
BB: It's interesting that you brought up "Paprika Plains", 'cause that's always been one of my favourite pieces of music.
JP: It's a wild ride, that song!
BB: It's a masterpiece. It's on my say-so, in front of her and the thing is, it's so connected to this poem that she's written from Emily Carr and from herself. "It fell from midnight skies. It drummed on the galvanized." You know, it's so connected to what she's going to be reciting and hopefully people have that record or the CD, and not just the information downloaded, because there's all this text that can be read as the orchestral body of the song unfolds. So she never... We should talk about that, actually.
JP: Writing the text for the...
BB: All the poetry in that. Unless people read, or got the gatefold, they wouldn't know about it.
JM: Right. Well, I had a dream. i was out on Rolling Thunder, and I had this dream. And, in the dream, I was in a helicopter, and I was flying over a landscape that was like paprika silt. You know, like Arizona or something. Red soil but very powdery and not a lot of foliage. And there was a red cliff. And at the bottom there was a red sandbar in the silt, and there was a little band of Indian men, young Indian men, in plaid jackets and sleeping bags. One was blue, one was green with a red lining. And the older indians with the grey hair had their braids still, and they had chiefs' blankets on. And, as the helicopter went over, they all looked up with no expression on their faces, and the wind flapped their braids. And we flew over them, and one of them was in a squatting position with a grey chief's blanket on, and he suddenly jumped up and put his hand in the air like Liberty, like this, and away on the horizon, an atomic bomb went off, but so small. Oh, no, no, first it was like an atomic bomb, but then it morphed into a golf tee with a big balloon that i had as a child, which was like plasticene colours. It was muddy rubber. We used to have to patch it all the time at the gas station. We'd have to go and get a patch put on it. It morphed into that, and that got bigger and bigger and bigger, and then it morphed into an earthlike planet, which came rolling towards the helicopter until it obscured all the glass of the helicopter and I got sucked into the frame as an adult, but naked, and it was almost like an early mammary memory, like Mother Earth, banged against this ball, globe, earth. That was the dream.[1:24:32]
And so, when I was playing the instrumental music, that's what I was thinking about. It was kind of the visuals that were going on inside my head. And, when I wrote the song, it takes place in a dance hall with a galvanized roof, and the rain is coming down, and this is very Saskatchewan. I played in a club once, it was the night I met Neil Young - he was still living at home - on the Pembina Highway in Winnipeg and during our set, Chuck Mitchell and I, it began to rain. And the whole audience got up and went outside to watch it come down, and we went with them. And I thought, this is so prairie. It's gonna flatten the crops. That means it's going to be bad, if there's hail in it, everybody's business is going to suffer. Everything was tied to the sky out there from my childhood on. "They're such sky-oriented people", it talks about that. And it walks about how I was a dancing fool from about twelve 'til I left home at 19, and it turned into all those dumb fruggy, frog, monkey dances. But, when it was the Lindy Hop or the Harlem Lindy, partner-dances, I was active. And it was always in dance halls that I wasn't supposed to be in, public dance halls. And there was a smell in there of cheap perfumes and beer, and girls threw up. They had too much. And so that's all kind of in the song as well. [1:26:07]
And the natives congregating on Railway Avenue as they did in most cities, drinking if they could, or licking shoe polish if they couldn't get alcohol. Anything that they could get the alcohol out of. And I remember, as a child in Maidstone, redskin Indians, mahogany people, coming to town in their beaded leathers to trade, and they would trade their leathers for flour and stuff like that. They were not Métis, they were full-blooded Cree, and all of those things kind of come together and make up that text. [1:26:49]
JP: Good dreams.
JM: Yeah! I had interesting dreams in the 70s.
JP: Did you ever think about making hits? Did you ever have that as an impetus, or was it always sort of following the song?
JM: Geffen came to me one time and he said, "Come on, Joni. You can write us a hit. You know how to do it."
So, I wrote, "You turn me on, I'm a radio", which was kind of facetious. It was like sucking up to the DJ. That was the only time that I ever attempted it.
JP: It worked.
JM: Well, I don't even think that one got airplay. "Help me." What were the ones that got airplay? Most of the time, I think the boss was just going, "Well, I don't know, Fred, do you hear anything here?" "Well, I don't know, maybe. Maybe there's one." And they would always take the upbeat one, because there would be a lot of ballads and the one that jumped out to the bosses... They never knew what to do with me, which was kind of fine by me because I was under the antenna. They kind of left me alone. If I had had hits... No, I didn't want to have a hit, because, when you think about what the hit parade is, basically, the mafia owned slot machines, then they owned juke boxes. They got into music kind of via collecting the coins and they didn't want to have anything to do with anything that they couldn't make book and fix. So, what was the hit parade but a fixed racehorse? It's a fixed race. So, did I want to get into the dog race of it all? As much as I enjoyed the hit parade as a teenage dancer, once I started to write, some other things kicked in. Partially the light-hearted teenage dancer, but also the deeper, more serious thing of Debussy and the Nocturnes. So, in that way, there was a kind of schitz between elevating great classical composition and enjoying pop but thinking it's just kind of a ditty. Fun, but to balance it between the high art and the fun. I tried to make a few lighthearted things. Like Falstaff. Send in the clowns. It's getting too Bergman, Joan. The Nordic thing is coming.
JP: Too Bergman. Bring in the Frank Capra.
JM: Yeah, the Nordic blood is taking over. Let's have a little Irish. [1:29:40]
JP: Did you think about providing consolation for people, providing solace, because so many people have drawn so much from your songs?
JM: I did think of it in terms of, since I'm going to bare myself there, that the thing that would make me more than just an exhibitionist, would be that there would be something of value or nutrition to others. I didn't realize until this woman wrote an article in the New York Times.(7) She hated my music. Hated it! "Take that off!" And suddenly, near a church in Wales, she finds herself humming one of these things, much to her horror. And then she discovers "Blue" but she can only listen to it alone, because it's an unmasking for her. It's painful. She can't do it around anybody or anything.
That was the first I realized that, if it did what I wanted to for people to see themselves in it, that I thought it would be a short-cut, because the things I was revealing were not available in books, and they were not available in psychiatry. They were not available anywhere, because I combed those things myself, looking for help, and threw them all against the wall. Analysis is no way to self-knowledge, that it would be nourishing and utilitarian and a short-cut in that I'd kind of done some of the legwork. But no, it's still gonna be a painful unmasking when you see yourself in it. I didn't realize until I read that woman's... But, she was grateful for it! That's the good news. She hated it, then she loved it, but it was painful and then she was grateful for it. So, it all worked out.
JP: That's a lot of responsibility, though, for you.
JM: Well, I remember at the time of "Blue" taking responsibility in this manner, saying, "OK, people are starting to listen to me. I've got all these people," and they were even starting to do these canonizing pieces, like I was healing the lame and things. It was getting... they better know who I am. So, there was a tendency, like in a relationship. When my husband was going to marry me, he had some problems with his mother, and I said to him, "You do know that I have some of your mother's traits, don't you?" It was like, "In all fairness, before you enter into this, have you noticed?"
So there's an element of that. It's like "I'm selfish and I'm sad. Do you still like me?" But then, everybody's selfish and they're sad. I'm not really risking anything that great, but I did think about it, but I didn't let that sense of audience affect what I wrote. I just wrote what I wrote to the satisfactory completion of the object. I didn't let other people's opinions get in the way there. It's got to come from the Muse. But hopefully, it's something that can be shared and enjoyed. Like a dinner, you know?
JP: It seems you've never let anything but the truth guide you. We're out of time. I'm so grateful to both of you. Brian, thank you. Joni, thank you so much. Thank you guys for being such wonderful listeners.
(1) Grobman's Department Store, in History of North Battleford, 2nd image (www.downtownnb.ca) :
(2) Kitty Wells: Three Ways to Love You.
(3) "Women and escorts". In most Canadian provinces, from the 1920s up until the early 1970s, laws were enacted to discourage drinking and rowdiness. These laws included separate rooms for men only and for "ladies with escorts".
(4) T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets
(5) The Day of the Discoverer. Joni's birthday, November 7, 1943.
(6) It is from "Hundreds and Thousands", rather than "Klee Wyck", as Joni mentioned earlier.
(7) Zadie Smith, "Notes on attunement: a voyage around Joni Mitchell", The New Yorker, December 17, 2012
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