Joni Mitchell smiles as she holds up a cardboard human ear, which she's just pulled out of a copy of her new CD, Turbulent Indigo. "Isn't this great?" she says, looking as happy as a kid who has just found a swell toy in a box of Cap'n Crunch.
"I wanted to put one in every copy of the album, but the record company told me it would cost too much money. So I had to settle for just a few thousand promotional copies."
A symbolic reference to her favorite artist, Van Gogh, who sliced off his own ear in a mad moment, the cardboard ear is Mitchell's way of poking fun at herself.
She does this often, although it is easy to take her self-deprecation - and her tart remarks about her Canadian homeland - as evidence of bitterness or career burnout.
"You think it's self-effacing," she corrects her interviewer, during a recent Toronto visit. "That's a Canadian's interpretation of what it is. It's black humor, it's Irish, it's irony what I'm saying to you."
The humor is black, indeed, if one is to find mirth in the frustration the 50-year-old songwriter, painter and poet feels these days about being a Canadian. Returning to the pop spotlight after 11 years away from touring and several years without an album, she's perceived by many to be living the life of an L.A. hotshot, even though she still spends several months each year in the B.C. coast home she's owned since 1970.
"I'm mad at the Canadian populace," she says, in a tone that seems more angry in print than it does in person.
"I'm a good singer and a good writer, and I'm hurt. It's not me being self-effacing, it's just true emotions."
Mitchell explains her remarks with an anecdote of how she and fellow Canuck Neil Young once dropped into Toronto's annual Mariposa Festival in the early 1970s. They hadn't come to perform, but they were quickly asked to, and once Young got up on stage, they both felt "all this negativity," from old-time Mariposa folkies, who acted as if the two were lording their status as stars in the U.S.
"It hurt us a lot, and Neil became an American over it - that was it," Mitchell says.
"We'd been rejected on both ends: rejected at the beginning because we weren't good enough, because we were Canadian, and now we'd gotten too big. The Canadian attitude is, 'Oh, you want to stick your head above the crowd? We'll be glad to lop it off for you.' "
She frequently returns to her feelings about this country - which, as from any Canadian family member, are a mixture of love and hate, even her moaning about high taxes here - but it's not just this country and its foibles that gets her going.
The songs on Turbulent Indigo, her 17th album (out Oct. 25), are sequenced like paintings at an art exhibition, and both the title track and Mitchell's self portrait on the cover allude to Van Gogh.
Too bad most CD buyers won't get their own cardboard ear, so they can be let in on the secret of Joni's wicked sense of humor.
Her new songs touch on a world of bleak themes, both past and present: "Sex Kills" bemoans a crazy society ("Everyone hates everyone!" she cries) where sex sells products while AIDS kills people; "Not To Blame" sadly asks why men who beat women seem to get away with it; "The Magdelaine [sic] Laundries" is the true horror story of long-ago Irish home for wayward girls, who once inside were never allowed to leave.
Then there's the album's title track, born out of Mitchell's hurt and anger after she was asked several years ago to speak about art at a government-sponsored conference in her hometown, Saskatoon.
Titled "We're Going To Make Van Goghs," the conference featured Mitchell as closing speaker. She made an impassioned speech about the importance of art, and railed against the conference's title and its affirmative action mandate, offended by its cookie-cutter approach to creating artists.
"They said, 'We're going to make Van Goghs out of women, native Canadians and other ethnic groups,' " Mitchell recounts, as she chain-smokes another cigarette and sips cranberry juice.
"That shows the pursestrings are going to open up to all of Canada's 'useless people' - women, new immigrants and Indians, right?"
In her speech, she argued artists can't be created by government fiat. Her comments offended some bushy-bearded artisans in the room ("They looked like the Smith Brothers," Mitchell says), who walked out as she was speaking. They later told reporters they weren't going to listen to "some rich rock star" tell them about art.
"You wanna make Van Goghs / Raise 'em up like sheep ..." Mitchell sings in "Turbulent Indigo," but her feelings about Canadian culture and attitudes are barely touched on in the song.
Another new song, "Borderline," and its lines "You snipe so steady / You snub so snide..." could well describe her annoyance at being questioned about her allegiance to Canada.
"Pride has a bitterness to it, a downside," she says. "I mean, I don't know how many Canadians have come up to me and said, 'I like such-and-such a song - what side of the border did you write it on?"
"And I say, 'What difference does it make?'...I think Canadians carry their patriotism to the ridiculous. Supposing that the Dutch were to look at Van Gogh's paintings and say, 'You know, we can't have this painting hanging here, he painted this in Arles (France).' "
Tough words. But anyone who labors to put a joke prize inside her CDs can't be all that hard-hearted, and Mitchell isn't.
She was thrilled by the ecstatic audience response she received in August when she headlined the Edmonton Folk Festival, making a rare appearance on stage. And the day after this interview, she performed solo on MuchMusic's live Intimate & Interactive show, clearly enjoying the love being sent to her via telephone and electronic messages from Montreal and Moose Jaw, and in person from fans who squeezed into the Queen St. W. TV studio.
On MuchMusic, she promised her fans she will come back for more shows. But the reasons behind her disappearance from the public eye suggest it won't be easy putting a tour together.
Although she looks wonderful and says she feels great - she does a dozen yoga exercises daily - Mitchell describes herself as a "fragile traveller," because she's deathly allergic to airplane air conditioning.
She recently had to contend with post-polio syndrome, a milder recurrence of the polio that nearly killed her at age 9.
But she's successfully fought the disease again, and laughs at how she was told in an American post-polio clinic to stop doing her yoga exercises - which she immediately started doing more of, just to prove them wrong.
"I've had a lot of brushes with death," she says. "I've had four brushes with death in my lifetime. And these things prepare you for certain things...I feel great. I'm a tough cookie."
Not so tough, though, that she would ever turn her back on Canada, her hurt feelings and "ironic" comments notwithstanding.
And not self-important, either, despite the fact she's the single most influential female pop artist.
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