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Lifetime Achievement Award Interview Print-ready version

Willows Golf & Country Club, Saskatoon

Saskatchewan Recording Industry Association
November 14, 1993

Presenter: When you're an artist like Joni Mitchell, you exemplify what you have to do to really make your mark in the entertainment business. There are a million imitators out there. When you can come up with something that is so unique, that a radio announcer doesn't have to say who the record is by, people know it's a Joni Mitchell tune. The way she writes, the way she sings, everything that she does is Joni Mitchell. Nobody else out there does it that way.

I think that's all I've really got to say: something unique. We're so proud that she comes from our province, and we're even prouder that she chose to come back with us this weekend and spend a little time. The award we're about to give her, you spend...(turns to Joni) I don't know how many years you've been in the business, I don't know if you even want to talk about that... at least I don't, I don't.

Actually, before we just carry on with this, we were talking about some of the people that had really made it in the business from Saskatchewan, and, you didn't fool me about the country, guys. Do you realize that Canada's first television star was a guy that came out of Swift Current, Saskatchewan named King Ganam? Wore the rhinestone suits, when he used to dance around on the stage the women would go nuts! It's been a long time since women went nuts over a fiddle player.

But the bottom line is that if you really work hard at it, and if you really go out there and make your mark and become a mega mega superstar, we'll bring ya back to Saskatoon and give you a glass dish.

This of course incorporates the Saskatchewan Recording Industry Association logo, and it's our Lifetime Achievement Award...and I couldn't think of a better person to present it to than Joni Mitchell. (applause)

Joni: It's beautiful.

I'm gonna play you one. So, this is the latest song, this is the last song I've written. I sat out on the land in British Columbia. I've got 9 songs in the can ready for the next album, I needed the 10th one. And, I have a caretaker who looks after my land up there when I'm not there, and he had said to me, sucking on his pipe, that he -- I'm nocturnal you know, I keep vampire's hours -- and he suggested to me that I'm quite cheerful in the daytime but when I sit up and write my music at night it comes out all melancholy and he sucked on his pipe and suggested that I write more in the daylight.

So I sat out on a rock and I... I play in open tunings, and they're raga-ish, in that I tune to the environment. So I tuned to the environment that particular day, to the Canada geese and the duck mating calls, and I came up with a tuning which is the broadest one that I have. It's got a B flat on the bottom for you musicians out here and I think an E flat on the top, so it's fairly wide as guitars go.

That was the tonality of that particular day at that particular place. The chord progression is not too melancholy, it's not exactly major, major, major, major but it's a - I'll play the thing. It sat around for about two weeks with no lyrics on it and I made a terrible mistake one day, when I was buying my groceries at the local market I bought a newspaper. Wrong!

And there was a front page story that came out of Dublin, about a scandal which ended in 1970. It was a kind of a Dickens story. In Ireland, between the beginning of the last century and 1970, women who were considered amoral, or immoral, were sentenced to drudgery in a syndicated laundry chain called the Magdalene Laundries.

The laundries had been closed (in) all of Ireland in 1970, but in just this year the order "Our Sisters of the Lady of Charity" had sold 11-1/2 acres to a real estate developer. And in plowing, in getting ready to develop the land, they unearthed 130 women's bodies in unmarked graves, which raised the scandal level in the country up to a kind of a roar again. And the touching thing about it was, to me, was that unmarried women in some very very moralistic parishes could be sentenced to a life of payless drudgery under Dickens-like conditions for life, simply because they were unmarried and the men were looking at them.

So I took these nice changes, and I put this rather tragic text to it, in the daylight. It could have been quite a cheery song, ya know?

I apologize for my voice, I was up late last night being rowdy.

[Joni performs Magdalene Laundries]

Joni: Oh, the drama!

Interviewer: Well I guess the first thing I’d like to say is, I’d like you to pinch me ‘cause I can’t believe I’m doing this. It’s a real pleasure to have you come home again.

Joni: It’s been so fun. Really. Thank you everybody, really. We had a good time last night. We discovered where the dart boards are, and the pinball machines.

Q: Well, what we’re gonna’ do here is have a conversation like we would around the kitchen table, I guess, you know?

Joni: That’s good, yeah.

Q: I guess where I’d like to start is places like Creelman and Maidstone, Saskatchewan, and North Battleford. Back then in those days of great interest to a lot of people in Saskatchewan and around the world, kind of what influence, of that influence, do you…?

Joni: Oh yeah, the prairie is, ah… Well, the sky! Maureen and I talked about it. She’s an English immigrant, and coming from northwestern England, she felt exposed here initially. She’d come from the enclosure of the water and the embrace of the mountains to this terrifically flat place. But, having come up here and knowing this first, other places seem initially enclosing. It’s like the reversal, you know? And, I think of how the sky here influenced us. I remember playing in Regina, I was in a duo then with my first husband – like Elizabeth Taylor of rock, here! – Chuck Mitchell. And we were playing a concert there when it began to rain really heavily, and it was a one story building, and…we were playing quite nicely I do believe. But the whole audience got out and went to look at the rain, so how could we compete with that? Everybody was looking at the sky and saying “Oh gee, It’s not a good time of the year for the crops…” and, you know!

Q: Was that - the sky and the landscape and that - was that part of the inspiration that pulled you to art? To interpret it? Or…

Joni: Actually it was Walt Disney, I think. It was Bambi. Yeah. I went to see Bambi and I don’t know how old I was, but it horrified me that his mother died. And I came home and I painted forest fires for days. Just, it traumatized me, and I had to paint these fires, it was like, horrific. That was, I think, the beginning, wouldn’t you say mom? Like, of compulsive drawing? Yeah.

Q: Were you nocturnal then, also?

Joni: Yeah. It just got worse. But I guess I was pretty much born that way. I missed a lot of morning school. By the time I got to art school, I missed nearly every morning. And then it just got worse and worse. Or better and better.

But then I’d just get for thinking, and I was under siege. In Los Angeles, we’d all draw down lunatics on ourselves and I had one, particularly. One or two at the same time, but one particularly aggressive one. So I became the night watchman. Even though I lived under armed guard for several years, he lived in the bushes next to the place. And when the guard changed, because there were no protection laws at that time – this was prior to, there wasn’t stalking laws. So I pretty much listened for every twig snap for a long time, and that accelerated my nocturnalness.

Q: So raccoons must have haunted you then, eh?

Joni: Well the worst was, one night, my bedroom at that time was on the ground floor. And you know, LA being the natural disaster capital of the world, something is always falling. You know, trees are falling and floods are coming, mud is sliding and fires are raging. This was the year of a great flood and part of my yard had exploded and dumped itself on my neighbor’s roof below. And, so there was a gap in the wall around the house, and there’s a lot of wildlife up in the hills. Because these small towns have grown together and there are cougars and coyotes and deer in there. And, I was lying in bed and I heard a rustling in the bushes outside the window, and I laid real alert for a long time until I was kind of fight or flight, you know, and I thought that’s it, I’ve had it with this guy! And I lunged towards the window and threw back the curtains and there stood three deer eating my rose bushes!

Q: When you were painting back then were you always working with watercolor, or did you…?

Joni: No, I don’t really work in watercolor, I worked in oils. People think - the only watercolor was the Court and Spark cover - that’s watercolor and ink. But everything else is gouache, or oils, or acrylics sometimes too. When I started to work abstract there I worked with acrylic because it was a thicker material for the texture, I needed it.

Q: Have you ever sculpted at all, or…?

Joni: I’m so into color. Not that you couldn’t apply color to sculpture, but no, I haven’t really ventured into that.

Q: Okay. I guess the thing that I would like to focus on a little bit is, maybe the pursuit of…of truth through art. Do you believe that really good art has hidden truths in it that maybe become self-evident, through the exhibition of it?

Joni: Truth and beauty is kind of the essence of the pursuit, I think. Although, falsehood and ugliness is giving it a good run right now.

Q: I was going to say, don’t look at me when you say that. Joni: Oh no! Nothing personal! If the shoe fits…

Q: Well, who were your musical inspirations, did you listen to the radio at night, while you were painting?

Joni: Yeah, as a kid I used to take it under the covers, and turn it down. The Saskatoon stations would shut down about 12 or something. There was one really strong Texas station that would wave in and out, and you know, between 1 and 3 in the morning. That’s why I was always, like, kind of dopey in Mr. Hinitt’s class, forgive me Bob! But you know, there would be, you could hear the hit parade 4 months in advance and things, so it’d give you an air of a clairvoyant.

Q: A musical visionary. So were there favorites at all, Joni, that uh…?

Joni: Yeah. The first record that I had to have, absolutely had to have, was a classical piece of music. At that time we were living in North Battleford, and my best friend was a musical protégé, Frankie McKitrick. He…his feet could barely reach the pedals of the church organ but he could play the thing. And we had gone to a movie. Kirk Douglas was in it. I remember very little about the movie. It was called “The Story of Three Loves” and the theme was Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme” by Paganini. Beautiful melody. I had to have that record. And at that time, you could go down and you could go into a listening booth and play. I used to go down and listen to it in the booth, and finally acquired it. So that was my first piece of inspirational music.

The second thing I heard, I was at a birthday party for a little girl named Helen Lafreniere, who lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of town. Her mother was a single parent and not well, there was something, I don’t know what she had but she had red around the rims of her eyes. And that birthday party was the first cake-mix cake I had ever had. I came back raving. My mother was horrified, with her make-it-from-scratch methods, you know. It was pink icing, it was all pink! And, while we were sitting around in this little shanty having this birthday party - Lafreniere was her name - the French station was on in the kitchen, and I heard Edith Piaf for the first time: “Trois Cloches.” Correct me, Bob, how do you say that?

Bob: Trois Cloches

Joni: Ah, not bad! And, oh, all the hair on my arms stood up. When she, her voice comes boiling up from the bottom of this men’s choir. That was the second piece of influential music I would say.

Then, rock and roll was born, and Chuck Berry. And, at that point, I was about twelve I think…Karen, we were 7th grade when that hit? 7th or 8th? And, rock and roll dancing became an obsession. And, so I went from listening and musical raptures and melody to really active rhythm, for most of my teens.

Q: When you started out, I think you started on, was it bass ukulele?

Joni: Baritone ukulele.

Q: Baritone ukulele.

Joni: 36 dollars. I couldn’t afford a guitar.

Q: Did you buy it?

Joni: Mm-hmm.

Q: Oh great! Did you get it at the army and navy, or?

Joni: No. No, I got it at – oh, what was his name, the jazz musician?

From Audience: Gordie Brandt.

Joni: Gordie Brandt’s. Yeah, I got it at Gordie’s.

Q: Ah. Fine tradition in this community with that name there.

Joni: Mm-hmm.

Q: A lot of musical inspiration. Did you teach yourself, or did you get a book, or…?

Joni: I got Pete Seeger “How to Play Folk Style Guitar,” and I tried to teach myself from that “cotton-picking.” I couldn’t get my thumb to go like that. It always had a mind of its own, and I developed kind of a version of that, but…

Also in high school, I got introduced to Miles Davis. Brian Anderson had me paint - he and some of the boys that I danced with went to New York and came back all dressed up like beatniks, you know, sandals and berets and striped t-shirts - and he wanted a mural of a jazz trio on his bedroom wall. And he paid me in jazz records. So that began to leak in. And Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, somebody gave me that I think for doing the Unicef Christmas card. So, I was bartering art for jazz, in my teens.

Q: Well, when you were doing that, did you ever tell Pete Seeger thanks for teaching me how to play…

Joni: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve met Pete, and yeah.

Q: Oh that’s great.

Joni: For trying to teach me!

Q: So the next step then brought you into kind of a folk genre, I guess.

Joni: Yeah. I started off as a folk singer. It was easy, you know, within six months I was a professional, well… And in art school there was a folk campus organization just for fun, and I ended up traveling to Edmonton there, and picking up a little pin money on the weekends. It wasn’t ‘til I crossed the border that my own music began to come in, and it was no longer folk music, but it was steeped in all different kinds of music, kind of funneling out classical and jazz, and then it began to change.

Q: When was it that you discovered that basically your unique tunings, or was it your ear that brought you to those tunings, or did somebody else tutor you, or…?

Joni: Well there were certain tunings that were kicked around, you know. The Wyans had the slot key tradition. That was mainly major chords. And the old black blues, Robert Johnson, playing those cheap apple crates that they had. To make them musical, they developed certain…Open G, which Keith Richards plays in pretty much exclusively. Open C was known. There was a D Modal. Buffy St. Marie had a couple of tunings of her own. Eric Anderson showed me - well D Modal - that was just kicking around everywhere - but Eric showed me Open G tuning. And then I began to tune to the chords that I heard in my head, which were more like my favorite pocket of Miles. It began…it was my interpretation once again of a pocket of music, but it really wasn’t the same harmony. It had elements of country harmony, hybrid with jazz harmony, hybrid with classical architecture; and you know, it was different. Didn’t belong to a tradition, really.

Q: I’m gonna’ ask a long question so you can light that.

Joni: Oh okay!

Q: Okay so we find you now down in maybe the north, northeastern states, I guess it would be mid-sixties or so. Did you run into Buffy St. Marie at that time?

Joni: Yes.

Q: And was she very actively aware of her Saskatchewan roots at that time?

Joni: No. Not at that time. She used to play at the Chessmate in Detroit and that was kind of like – Chuck Mitchell and I were the resident artists there, so we played there quite regularly. And whenever Buffy played I went down. She and Tom Rush were the first artists to begin to sing my songs, and carry them around, which enabled…it opened up my club circuit. It was hard to get in there without a record deal, and being an unknown. But where they went, my songs went. Initially it was “Circle Game” and I think Buffy did “Song to a Seagull” and, so the songs began to travel and they paved the way for club work on the eastern seaboard, primarily.

Q: So, when a song, some of the songs started to get a life of their own, go out there, and you would go out to perform, and people would start singing along with you and stuff like that…Did that really give you a perspective on what good music and poetry could do to kind of enhance the human spirit?

Joni: Ah. I don’t know exactly when I began to take it seriously. It was kind of just a lark, initially. I think it was when… I think it… Well, a lot I owe to Kratzmann. I think he made me take it seriously in the 7th grade in a certain way, but then I forgot about that. But once you began to record and then the work really began to travel internationally, you realize that you had a public voice, or I did. And I felt a responsibility to that.

And I’m a double Scorpio; we are very secretive by nature. It was a peculiar transition to become a kind of a public confessor. But something that Kratzmann said - which I later discovered to be an idea “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” the German philosopher Nietzsche - he told me in the 7th grade to “write in my own blood.”

Which is basically what Zarathustra says, having completely slandered the poets, rips them to shreds, you know. Like, in the last statement he says, I see a new type of poet and he’s a penitent of spirit. And he writes in his own blood. So basically Nietzsche’s feeling at the turn of the century was that poetry was basically adulterated with chimeras, and a lot of… “They muddy their waters that they might appear deep,” was one of the things he said. Some pretty funny stuff! I’ve looked among them for an honest man and all I’ve dredged up are old god’s heads.

So it’s pretty scathing and the poets at the time really objected to it, but I’ve found it rang incredibly true. And that the duty of the poet in this latter part of the century was the illumination of the spirit. And although it was the antithesis of the pop posture, I was going to have to do it in the pop arena.

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