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Taming Joni Mitchell - Joni's Jazz Print-ready version

by Jody Denberg
Austin Chronicle
October 12, 1998

Joni Mitchell recently read in a book of birthdays that she was born on the day of the discoverer in the week of depth, and her more than 30 years' worth of songs and paintings certainly prove the astrologers right. During an hour-long interview conducted last month at Los Angeles' plush Bel Air Hotel for a promotional compact disc, Mitchell, who turns 55 November 7, seemed eager to not only express her triumphs and frustrations, but also to learn about herself in the process.

Though she smokes one cigarette after another and her voice maintains its native Canadian lilt, Mitchell's glowing face still appears quintessentially Californian as she recounts the endless litigation she endured during the Eighties (related to tax woes and battles with her bank and business manager). The last decade has also found the iconic singer-songwriter's albums critically and commercially under-appreciated. More troubling, perhaps, is Mitchell's faltering health, due in part to five years of "dental hell" coupled with post-polio syndrome -- the fallout from a childhood bout with polio that made it difficult for her to even hold a guitar.

Mercifully, Mitchell's life in the Nineties has moved her to write in a new song that "happiness is the best face lift." Having abandoned Western medicine for a "Chinese mystic acupuncturist," Mitchell now feels fine, and a wafer-thin guitar has made it easier for her to hold the instrument. A slew of accolades came in the wake of her last album of new material, 1994's Turbulent Indigo: induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, two Grammys, Billboard's 1995 Century Award, and the National Academy of Songwriters' 1996 Lifetime Achievement Award. Two career compilations followed (Hits an dMisses), and when Mitchell was finally reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption at birth -- and found out that she was a grandmother to boot -- her physical, emotional, and artistic facelift was complete.

Now comes Mitchell's new album, Taming the Tiger, brimming with the first-person revelations her longtime fans crave and chock-full of the melodies her critics claim are absent from much of her later work. Yet Tiger is not a compromised capitulation; in fact Wayne Shorter's sax playing is in the tradition of his work with Weather Report and Miles Davis, while the disc's opening track echoes Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. "Harlem" starts the album as if it were an invitation to a big bash, and Mitchell agrees.

"Oh, I was a dancer in my teens and kind of a party animal," she explains. "I think it was a shock to my friends when, suddenly, I bought a guitar, introverted, and began thinking somewhat deeply.

"After all," she laughs, "I was a blonde!"

Jody Denberg: It was four years ago that you released your last album of new studio material. It not only won a couple of Grammys, but there were honors coming at you from every direction. Did you anticipate the higher profile and recognition that followed Turbulent Indigo?

Joni Mitchell: No, no. One would never anticipate this. I was fed up and I put a black joke on the cover, a Van Gogh with his ear cut off, because I was that frustrated. So I kind of cut my ear off in effigy. And I don't know whether people got it or whether it was catalyst to change, but things did begin to change. I felt that I had been doing good work for 20 years and that it was not being recognized at all. Of course, it was by my fans. I have a loyal body of people that look forward to the next album in the same way, I suppose, that I look forward to [Carlos] Castaneda's next book.

JD: Did you feel vindicated by the accolades?

JM: Yes and no. I mean, the reviews of this last concert tour, for instance, were very schizophrenic. The laments for the lack of early material in this last performance were accompanied by some strange statements. For 25 years, the public voice -- in particular the white press, let's say -- lamented the lack of four-on-the-floor and major/minor harmony as my work got more progressive and absorbed more black culture, which is inevitable because I love black music, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis.

Not that I set out to be a jazzer or that I am a jazzer. Most of my friends are in the jazz camp. I know more people in that community, and I know the lyrics to Forties and Fifties standards, whereas I don't really know Sixties and Seventies pop music. So I'm drawing from a resource of American music that's very black-influenced with this little pocket of Irish and English ballads, which I learned as I was learning to play the guitar. Basically, it was like trainer wheels for me, that music. But people want to keep me in my trainer wheels, whereas my passion lies in Duke Ellington more so than Gershwin -- with originators like Charlie Parker. I like Patsy Cline. The originals in every camp were always given a hard time.

Believe me, I get my strokes on the street, but I don't generally in the press. The press has a tendency to listen to it, not like it, and then it appears at the end of the year in their top ten list. But they kill it for sales somehow or another with their expectation for it to be something else.

JD: What about your latest batch of songs on Taming the Tiger? Did these songs come from a specific period or were they written following the last album?

JM: Well, I've been struggling to write since the last record came out. And it's four years, but I turned this in quite a while ago. And I did Hits and Misses, which took a lot of research; I had to listen to everything I ever did in the middle. There was a lot of thought that went into that, also.

And then all these honors came. Well, the honors kind of fell short. It seemed like it was kind of a copycat crime, that once one was given to me, the others felt the necessity to do it, but they didn't really know why. And once the honors had kind of passed, we went back into this thing, "Your later work isn't as good as your older work," which isn't true. There's been a tremendous amount of growth.

Besides, an actress is not expected to continue to play her ingenue roles. I've written roles for myself to grow into gracefully, but there is no growing gracefully in the pop world, unfortunately, because of the airwaves -- everybody is in the same bind. You know this. We're all in this same bind. Since the record business went public and the men at the top want the graph to go up and nothing else, everybody's getting the squash, including the record company executives. From the top of the business down, we're all in the same boat, so I'm not just a whiny artist. The business is sick.

And for the genuinely gifted, such as myself, being shunned from the airwaves in favor of tits-and-ass bubble gum kind of junk food is a tragedy. And there is no other arena for me to make music in. So I feel constantly in a position of injustice. There's a civil liberties thing here. Is it my chronological age? That should never be held against an artist. We're all going to grow middle-aged. We need middle-aged songs. I'm an unusual thing. I'm a viable voice. For some reason, even though I want to quit all the time, you know, I still have a driving wheel to do this thing.

JD: Sometimes, in interviews, you seem a little put out by those female singer-songwriters who claim you as an influence. Do you feel like you compete with them in the pop arena?

JM: Well, no. I'm forced to compete by the interview system. I have no problem. I'm honored to be an influence. I think art should beget art and spark it. And I'm always looking for something to spark me. But I'm less likely to be influenced by a tributary of myself. I mean, you can learn from students from time to time, but what I resent, in a nutshell -- and this has been done to me -- is to be pitted against them intentionally and be told I'm not as good.

Like, there was a radio show, for instance, that was done a while ago that somebody gave me thinking I'd be honored. It was a lot of the new women coming up. And the interviewer began by saying, "There are a lot of women coming onto the scene these days, all of them claiming Joni Mitchell as an influence. You can even tell what albums they've been listening to. Take this one." And they would play it. "She's been listening to Court and Spark." And they'd play the record. The harmony the girl was using was very primary colors. I thought, "How can you say she's been listening to Court and Spark? It's an insult to Court and Spark, because this is so rudimentary."

One thing that I do get tired of is all the "Women of Rock" articles, you know, always lumping me in with the women, which the white press does and the black press doesn't. The black press recently, in Vibe Magazine, had an article where they singled out Miles Davis, Santana, and myself, and said, "All you kids with your tight little abs and your two hits, take a look at these guys." I feel that that is a more accurate museum grouping for me. And genderization is a form of bigotry and (a result of journalists) not really hearing what I'm doing.

JD: There's a line in the title track from your new album wherein you describe some popular music as "genuine junk food for juveniles." Hasn't pop music like that always existed?

JM: Yeah, it has. But the difference has been radio. In Toronto -- or rather when I lived in New York -- I was on the road most of the time playing little clubs. And when I had time off and came back to New York, I would run into the house and I would turn on the radio and disc jockeys back then were creative. If it was raining, and the disc jockey was an audiophile who had been hired for his talent and his scope, he could play a rain piece by Charlie Parker. If his scope embraced some bubble gum, he could follow it up with that so that you could have an afternoon of rain montage all over the place. I just don't like the segregation that has occurred for the sake of commerce in music. I don't like being told that this album doesn't fit any format, that music of this caliber doesn't fit into a format. I will not pander to a format. Does that mean I never get on the airwaves? If music of this caliber is being made, don't you think it's kind of a crime that it has no outlet that will accept it?

JD: You painted a beautiful self-portrait for the cover of Taming the Tiger. And on this new album there's a couple of songs that share qualities with your artwork: "Harlem in Havana" and "Love Puts on a New Face," in particular. Sometimes they're austere, other times they're bright and bursting with color and imagery. Does painting offer you similar rewards as making music?

JM: Well, I'm a painter first and a musician second, as it turns out. I had impulses to create classical music when I was seven or eight, but I had my love of it taken away by raps on the knuckles from my piano teacher saying, "Why would you want to play by ear when you could have the masters under your fingertips?" So the impulse to compose in the community that I grew up in was thwarted and it didn't come out for quite a while later. I switched to the guitar with no ambition to be in show business. As a matter of fact, as a teenager, I felt sorry for the stars for their loss of privacy and I wrote a poem about it in high school. So I'm an odd candidate for celebrity in that I didn't practice in front of the mirror and I'm not addicted to applause. But I have a painter's ego and I get a thrill of juxtaposing one color against another. I get like a private rush. I'm an only child. It's a form of solitary play. If I put that color next to that color and add another color, you know, I get a buzz.

It's the same with music. I don't have any of the musician's languages. I read as a child, but I let the reading ability go. I don't use it in the recording process, because I fiddle around with the guitar so much that I'm not playing it normally anyway; the numerical language that some musicians have doesn't mean anything within my system, nor does the alphabetical system. I don't know what key I'm playing in. So I'm a sophisticated ignorant is basically what I am. But there are people who can come in, listen to what I play, write it out, and follow it. My harmony is selected by my own interest in the same way that I would select to put that color next to that color. I think of myself as a painter who writes music.

JD: You use color in your paintings in a unique way, and you play unusual guitar tunings in your songs. How did your tunings develop? Were you just looking for different ways to do things, rather than just playing the standard major chords?

JM: Well, I wrote my first song, "Urge for Going," in standard tuning, and I guess it's because of the stars; in the folk houses, the chords that everybody played sounded the same, while the chords that I heard in my head you couldn't get off the neck, even with tremendous facility. The chords that I play, if you don't twiddle the strings, you don't get them. I've made the guitar kind of orchestral. It's down into the territory of the bass in some cases. And the chords are very, very wide relative to what guitar chords usually are. You couldn't get that without the tunings.

And there are traditions of tunings. The Hawaiians, for instance, played in slack key and they were usually major chords. The old blues guys tuned in banjo tuning, which is open G tuning, which is what Keith Richards plays in. He doesn't even play the sixth string on the guitar. He plays the guitar like a five-string banjo. So, most of the old blues men, coming from banjo to guitar, not knowing anything about Spanish tuning, tuned the guitar into open G, D modal, which is just a dropped D. These tunings were kicking around the coffeehouses. There were about three of them. It was Eric Andersen that turned me onto them one night in Detroit. Well, soon they seemed to be explored and I didn't seem to be able to get any fresh colors out of them. So then I started tuning the guitar to chords that I heard in my head. And that's the way it went.

JD: You've said, "My chords reflect my complex life, which is why my simple, old songs don't suit me." When you hear one of your older songs, do you ever feel like rediscovering them?

JM: First of all, my voice has changed. Secondly, the way I played guitar back then is completely foreign to me. I have no idea how I did it. It's how I did it then. It's like, as a painter, if you ask Piccaso to go back and paint in an early period of his, I doubt that he could. You're moving forward and it's always evolving. Basically, the reason I'm so unruly in this business is because I think like a painter, not like a musician. And I never wanted to be a human jukebox. I think more like a film or a dramatic actress and a playwright. These plays are more suitable to me. I feel miscast in my early songs. They're ingenue roles.

JD: Maybe Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Neil Young don't think like painters, because they seem to have no problem playing their earlier songs ...

JM: But their styles didn't change as radically as mine over time, either. It's not that difficult for them to go back. They haven't changed as much.

JD: You had a chance recently to reassess your work when you issued the Hits and Misses compilations. Did you feel like Misses was a way for folks to catch up with you if they hadn't been around for the whole ride or to expose people to your more difficult pieces?

JM: It's hard to say what my reasoning was in the selection there, because most of my work was technically misses. I mean, the Hits is padded. I didn't really have enough hits to make a real "Hits" album, really, by the Hit Parade measure. But like "Circle Game," which was never on the Hit Parade, was distributed through summer camps all across the North American continent and was a hit. It was like "Old MacDonald." The same with "Big Yellow Taxi."

I turned on the TV one day and I saw a woman holding an alligator. So I stopped. And there were a lot of New York inner-city kids around her. Turned out it was coming from the Bronx Zoo. And she said, "This is Harvey, do you want to pet him?" And all these little grade-three kids got up. And then she held up a skin, you know. And she said, "And this is Harvey's brother, look what they did to him." And they went, "Oh." And then she said, "Let's sing a song." She picked up a guitar and she sang "Big Yellow Taxi." And this little rainbow of kids, little yellow kids and white kids and black kids and brown kids started singing my song, in grade three. And they knew all of the words. And I wept.

JD: On your most recent tour, you did play "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock." Did you feel that those were older songs of yours that still held something for you?

JM: "Woodstock," oddly enough, because it should be kind of a curio about an event, still has a life for me. And "Big Yellow Taxi" is just kind of cute. It's a ditty.

JD: I wanted to ask you about some of the recent projects that you've been doing. The tour you did with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, was it a good experience?

JM: Yeah, well, I think it was a great triple bill. And I took it on that account. I hadn't performed in a long time and I thought, oh, that's a good show. But I had a little bad luck. Right out of the chute, I got a virus. Then, we bussed out of Vancouver to the Gorge, and the bus had new carpet with glue, and the glue was really stinky. We burnt Patchouli like old hippies to kind of mask it. Also, I'm allergic to air conditioning. To make a long story short, by the time I got to the Gorge, I was really sick and the roof of my mouth was red and my throat was like hamburger. And they sent me a doctor who gave me really extraordinarily violent medicine. And, I played the two Gorge dates very ill, like delirious, but happy. I was enjoying it, but I was delirious, literally.

So I did the whole tour really from behind the wheel in terms of stamina. The San Jose show, in particular, I was afraid to hit a high note. It takes a lot more air to hit a high note. And every time I went to hit a high note, I'd go all pins and needles and start to black out. So I had to kind of jockey things around. And I apologized, I believe, although I don't even remember that show. I said something, but I don't know what it was. The press picked up on it and assumed it was that I was rusty from not having been out for a long time. But I was just really ill.

JD: I was surprised that there was no collaboration between the three artists on the bill.

JM: Well, Bobby keeps to himself. Van came to me at one point and said, "Have you spoken to Bobby yet?" And I said, "Yeah, I saw him after the Vancouver show." "Well, he hasn't spoken to me," he said. And I said, "Well, come on, let's crash his set." So there was a song in Japan that closed the show Bob and I were in in Tokyo, and he kind of short-sheeted me on stage. He pulled a number on me. So I said, "Well, we'll go out on this song of his and we'll get him." So we went out and kind of crashed the set the one night. And Bob got a big kick out of it. It was really rough and I blew the words on it and blew the rhyme and had to make one up. And Bobby was looking at me grinning, "What is she going to rhyme with it," because I got the first rhyming line wrong.

JD: What song was it?

JM: "I Shall Be Released."

JD: You did the Walden Woods benefit in April. You sang "Stormy Weather" backed by an orchestra. Would you ever do an album of cover songs?

JM: That's what I want to do. Rather than tour this album, because I'm so far behind, because they're taking so long to release it, I want to go straight into the studio and record in that genre. As a singer, if you separate all these things, just forget Joni the writer, because I write these kind of soliloquies which take more dramatic skills than vocal skills. There's no room to put a trill in. You've so many syllables to deal with. And you have to enact them, like an actress, as opposed to just singing a mood piece. So I need a break from my own music. And to disappear into standards would be a treat. I did two standards with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] and Stevie Wonder on Herbie Hancock's album, which is coming out; "The Man I Love" and "Summertime." And my band and I now, since Woodstock, have an arrangement of "Summertime" that I think is really fresh. And I saw four chins quivering in the audience at Woodstock to that old chestnut. So I know it has a power.

JD: You didn't play the original festival. Was this summer's "A Day in the Garden" concert in Woodstock a good experience for you?

JM: Oh, it was beautiful. It was beautiful. It was a beautiful audience. They loved my band. After some of the prejudice against [my music for being] too jazzy -- all that the West Coast press tends to levy against me -- the East Coast doesn't so much. And there was a banner in the audience about eight-foot long that said, "Joni's Jazz" and all these smiling heads above it. When I hit the stage, I thought, "Oh, good." And they applauded my band genuinely and enthusiastically every time a color entered and left, because, I mean, we took a big leap in growth, I think. It felt like the band was that much more solid. Well, I was well, for one thing. And we added [Mark] Isham and the addition of muted trumpet, which is a color that I love. It seemed to flesh everything out. And the audience was wonderful.

JD: Recently you put out a beautiful book of your lyrics. And I had read at that time that you might do a short story book or an autobiography.

JM: I'm contracted for an autobiography. But you can't get my life to go into one book. So I want to start, actually, kind of in the middle -- the "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" period, which is a very mystical period of my life and colorful. If I was a novelist, I would like that to be my first novel. And it begins with the line, "I was the only black man at the party." So I've got my opening line.

JD: Finally, Joni, there's a poignant song on your new album called "Stay in Touch." Last year you reunited with your daughter who you gave up for adoption after she was born. Was that song written about your daughter?

JM: When the kids came [to visit], Kilauren's boyfriend heard the song and said, "Kilauren, this is about you." And it is. It's about the beginnings of love, conducting yourself through it wisely. I don't think there's another song like it in existence. How foolish we all are when we're smitten. It applies. It wasn't the catalyst for it. Kilauren came in the middle of the project, and one of the reasons why there was a delay in finishing it was because, well, we just had to spend a lot of time with each other. So we'd spend three weeks and then I'd go back in the studio and then I'd go up there and we'd spend some more time and then I'd go back in the studio. And it definitely applies. But it applies to any new, terrific attraction. It's basically how to steer yourself through that smitten period.

JD: When you met your daughter after so many years, did you see any of your qualities in her?

JM: Oh, well, when we first met, we walked into the kitchen. They arrived and I was upstairs and I was glazing the cover painting. I was varnishing it. So I walked out on the balcony of the house with brushes in my hand and I saw her kind of in the dark. And I ran downstairs. We went into the kitchen and we looked at each other and we said [giggles], "Hmm, hmm," exactly at the same time and in the same tone. And our speaking voices are almost identical. And in the first few weeks, well, even now, we say exactly the same thing with the same inflection, like at the same time, which people do sometimes when they're in the beginning of relationships -- there's a lot of kind of psychic things. It's terrific. And we've had a couple of little skirmishes. And we're getting to know each other and it's just terrific [laughs]. And I love my grandson, and [she lets out the last word like a sigh] yeah ...

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