"What do I think of the new Joni Mitchells?" Joni Mitchell grins, sucks appreciatively on another cigarette and thinks hard, as she often does, before speaking. "Well, Dylan spawned his imitators right at the outset. I guess it's just taken 20 years for mine to come along. Remember that there weren't that many women in the business when I started out. There was maybe Laura Nyro and myself. There were plenty of women. But there weren't any women writers. Sure, they came up with a coupla songs now and then, but you couldn't really call Joan Baez or Judy Collins a writer."
It will surprise and discourage many of the young female singer-songwriters of today nearly all of whom cite Mitchell as a key influence to know that she doesn't really call them writers either. At 46, Joni Mitchell may still exude a lot of the dreamy, genial air of a spokesperson for the Woodstock generation, but she is not remotely laid-back on the question of her alleged influence. Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Tanita Tikaram, Michelle Shocked, all have been linked to the legacy now 15 albums strong of Joni Mitchell. But the lady herself isn't having it. "My music is nothing like any of these girls," she almost snorts. "They don't have my chordal sense. Most of them don't have any idea of architecture in their chordal movement.
Tracy Chapman wrote a coupla good songs, but generally speaking she's not that musically gifted. And Suzanne Vega, well..." Mitchell devotes some time to attempting what she calls "a good adjudication" on the evidently thorny and hugely popular subject: neurotic, chilly, heartless and overly influenced by Leonard Cohen while lacking his black humour, is the gist of the lengthy report. Vega, the artful strummer who led the pack, has for the past six years been heaped with comparisons to Joni Mitchell. "And now there are dozens of them. But I don't hear much there, frankly. When it comes to knowing where to put the chords, how to tell a story and how to build to a chorus," she concludes firmly, "most of them can't touch me."
They almost certainly don't have her way with a paintbrush, either. For Joni Mitchell hasn't come to London simply to trash the musical opposition. She's here to exhibit the paintings which have, over the past 10 years, become more than a hobby. From tomorrow until October 7, Mitchell will be showing 20 or so examples of her recent work in the Rotunda gallery at the Broadgate Arena, EC2, as part of a festival of Canadian art and culture. Album-cover designs are what she is best known for over here, but landscapes, abstracts and composite images which she calls "diaries of a day" are what Mitchell really likes to paint. And nowadays these canvases are strong sellers. A recent show in Japan has pushed up the price of an original Mitchell to as high as 35,000 pounds. Her recent albums by contrast such as 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm haven't been nearly as highly sought after as seminal early releases such as Ladies of the Canyon and Blue. So is Joni Mitchell primarily now a visual artist?
"I'm not an anything. I'm a mutt," she explains, then cackles, slapping her blue jeans. "The spirit of eclecticism in my music runs through everything I do. If your ear is good, you don't wanna just be a big ear. I started painting when I was eight years old. I went to art school in Calgary and I always thought I'd be a painter. Back then folk music was easy. Pick up a guitar, and six months later you were on stage and getting invited to lots of parties. But I had no career in mind. It was unheard of. So when I have writer's block now, it doesn't bother me at all. I just paint."
What bothers Mitchell more is the rather undistinguished company of painters that she, as a rock star with commercial artistic pretensions, now finds herself lumped in with. The Rolling Stone Ron Wood, Bob Dylan and, odder still, the disco queen Donna Summer, all sell pictures. ''Donna Summer's painting badly works against my credibility," she admits. "If you have a famous signature, the art world hates you, but you're guaranteed to draw a crowd. I drew more people at the Corcoran than any of the big boys like Jasper Johns. But that's OK, because in the past it's always been difficult for women painters."
Her art and her music, she says, are inspired by the same material. "Aesthetically everything moves along fairly closely. I apply a lot of painting theory to music." While romancing her present husband, the record producer Larry Klein, she painted domestic scenes and made the unusually adolescent-sounding Wild Things Run Fast in 1982. For her new album, Night Rides Home, which is already finished and due to be released in the new year, she has opted for clarity of line rather than the sonic clutter of Chalk Mark. "It's a lot sparser than the last one: just me and a guitar mainly. And I found while I was working on it that I had started drawing again."
And does she plan to exhibit the new music in public as well? Mitchell tosses a headful of pale, straight hair about, giggles and thinks. "Well," she says finally, "I'd like to. I last toured in 1983. But touring is a young person's business. I had polio in my back when I was nine and I've never been supposed to lift anything that weighs over five pounds. If I can get my back strong enough again to hold a guitar for two hours, I'll do it. But I won't be leaping around like old tricky Mick, that's for sure."
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