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'Saturday Live' Interview Print-ready version

BBC Broadcast House, London

by Richard Skinner
BBC Radio 1
April 23, 1983

Transcribed from the audio by Greg Roensch

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[Starts in the middle of "Coyote"]

Richard Skinner: "Coyote." That's Joni Mitchell recorded live a few years ago. Joni Mitchell on Saturday Live today. And Joni, you're saying just now, before we were on the air, that you're doing the song still but in a very different fashion in the new tour?

Joni: Well, not so very different, but different because the personnel has changed and anytime I work with a different combination of players, they bring their own original style to it. I don't require that they play the licks that someone else laid down on tape.

Richard: You're enjoying this tour, because I mean it is world tour isn't it? Which is a pretty daunting prospect.

Joni: It's very lengthy tour but, so far so good, knowing we're all in high spirits.

Richard: I think probably the latest thing that people have seen of you live in this country was on the TV special, that was aired in Britain on the Old Grey Whistle Test. Now, that was about 18 months ago or something ... in America it was put together.

Joni: The tour was over three, almost four years ago, and it was followed ... my girlfriend and I edited a lot of found footage into it, just to give it more character than the pure live concert. The making of that took about seven months and then you got it delayed, so I'm not exactly sure when you saw ...

Richard: We got a delayed and edited as well. I mean it was down to half an hour by the time we saw it, I think.

Joni: Yes, it was 72 minutes when I finished it. But, most places wanted commercial interruptions, so we had to condense it somehow.

Richard: How similar to that show would be the thing that you're going to be doing tonight at Wembley?

Joni: To do a lineup of material, with a few exceptions, maybe three or four songs from that show, remain in this one, doing lots of material from the new album and much more retrospective material. I've tried to do at least one thing from almost every album along. It's a lot of material that go over and put together a show. The last tour, the one that you saw was mostly comprised with the most ... I don't know how to put it, esoteric would you say? Or the most uncommercial, noncommercial material, at that time.

I thought, well, I'll just have to run these songs past to people again to see what they think about them this time, and it was a very successful tour.

Richard: Do you find that when you look back over the old more commercial things that maybe you're doing this round that you do still like your old stuff, that you get off on it still?

Joni: I'm doing "Both Sides Now" again in the show for instance which was ... I had to lay that to rest for some years you know, and it has a lot of vitality, I feel comfortable and into it, when I'm singing now.

Richard: Right, there's a song called "Free Man in Paris," which is one of my favorite songs of all yours and I know that that is in the show still isn't it?

Joni: Yes, that's in.

Richard: Do you change that much from the original?

Joni: That one is probably the least changed, because it has definite structure to it ... you can't deviate to it, even the lyric, there isn't that much room for free phrasing in it.

Richard: "Free Man in Paris."

[Plays "Free Man in Paris"]

Richard: Joni Mitchell, 1973, from the album "Court and Spark," and that's "Free Man in Paris." That's a song that seems to underline your views about the music business that have recurred throughout the sort of 15 years you've been in the business, that you see good and the bad in the business.

Joni: Well, it's a portrait of a company executive really, but it could apply to almost anybody, any facet, any cog in the machine.

Richard: Including yourself I guess?

Joni: Oh yeah, I could relate to it. Anybody in the business, at some point or another, becomes dissatisfied. They say, "Oh you know, God what am I doing this for?" It's just kind of an announcement of needing a vacation.

Richard: You've been announcing vacations or even retirements for the last 10 years, haven't you, really?

Joni: Well, I'm not too fond of timetables. I guess I'm a freedom-freak. I like to be able to follow my own inclinations, and touring, for instance, really puts you in the harness. Like if you come to a place where your soul says, "Oh, I should linger here and explore these feelings that I'm having now; I know there's a song in it" ... you have no luxury ... you're shipping out the next day.

Richard: It's like a road manager saying, "Come on, there's a car waiting, and you've got to get to the airport".

Joni (sings): "You're in the army now!"

Richard: But you haven't regretted staying in that business despite your occasional wonderings or maybe wishing to get out and concentrate on painting or whatever?

Joni: Oh no, I have no regrets. The business has been very good to me.

Richard: Very good?

Joni: I have no deep earth-shattering complaints. I just have momentary fatigue. I get tired every once in a while like anybody in any job, but it's a great job all in all.

Richard: The songs that you've written have always appealed to people on the most basic level in terms of real people and real situations. Does that ever worry you, that in terms of success, success grows greater and greater, that you can lose touch a little with that reality of life, that you end up in a much more rarefied area of people wheeling around the world on Concord, with lots of money in their pockets and things like that?

Joni: There is that danger, except the things that I've always written about up until now anyway - 'cause I don't know what I'll write about next - they've spun from the realm of spirit, which is beyond class or race or it didn't really have that much to do with it. The backgrounds of course, the landscapes that I've put behind them sometimes were middle class, sometimes were aristocratic, sometimes were street.

I still have the ability to walk through the streets, although celebrity certainly does change the way life comes at you. It's better to be anonymous to be a writer than to be somewhat notorious, because people act differently, like that song of Dylan's, "People Come Around Me." How does he put it, "They don't know how to act." So, they change up their behavior, so it's difficult than to read the world in the same way.

Richard: I've just been reminded of a very bizarre thing when the Prince Charles and Lady Diana married a radio station in Australia had a competition to give them the best possible wedding present, and the winners who sent in an amazing entry to the competition, they sent in twin gorilla suits, to allow Prince Charles and Lady Diana to go out shopping anonymously.

There must be a degree of that in life now for you, that you can't actually go out without being Joni Mitchell.

Joni: Well, I don't take it for granted, and there are pockets of course, deliciously where you are unknown until some clerk steps up and whispers to the person who you are and then of course they're all flustered, embarrassed because they didn't give you preferential treatment, which is peculiar. But, for the most part, I'd say in New York, I insist on wandering around often my myself with a camera or just out snooping window shopping or ... I'm sort of a shopaholic. I like to poke around in stores and people approach me on the street, but they call out my name very familiarly and pass on often, so I don't feel seriously impaired in my movement.

Richard: Sorry, it sounds like a disability when you say that. Let's play a bit of music from "Blue," which was the first Joni Mitchell LP that I went out and put money over the country for back in 1971. This is a track that you're still doing yeah? This is "Case of You."

Joni: Right.

[Plays "Case of You"]

Richard: "Case of You," Joni Mitchell, 1971 vintage. We're sort of dotting around the years with Joni this afternoon on Saturday Live. How do you feel about that so called folk singer-songwriter era, you know the sort of Woodstock generation?

Joni: Well, the term applied initially as a distinction between the folk singer, now folk rock-singer, who sang other people's songs and those who wrote their own and originally there were only handful who were writing their own, now everybody writes their own songs right now. You wouldn't call it Adam Ant a singer-songwriter, so I think the term should be laid to rest.

Richard: What about the period, do you look back at it with affection? Or is it a sort of innocent youth, so to speak you know, when you look back?

Joni: Oh, I've got good memories from every time pocket, and even remember some of the difficult things, political climate in the States, was strange ...

Richard: Pretty horrific actually ...

Joni: Yeah, it was strange and horrifying gauntlet that we had to walk at that time ... and beautiful at the same time, a lot of idealism and a lot of ugly realism, but through it all there were good times.

Richard: Do you feel that idealism actually did help out in the end? I mean, because there have been quite dramatic changes in America, in the intervening 10 years or more.

Joni: Oh, I think idealism is here to stay. I mean, imagine what the world would be like without it. In myself, any political idealism that I might've had soon showed itself to be an arena where I could affect very little real influence of change and so whereas in the realm of spirit, there are things learned along the way that are applicable on a day-to-day basis. In that area, I think my idealism is intact. I just, regarding organized charity and political organizations, I guess anything, any idealism that required a committee I'm pretty disenchanted with.

Richard: So, you're doing your own thing, musically doing your own thing ... this is an awful link, I wish I didn't start it, but I'll have to carry on now. Jazz. Just thinking of jazz musicians who for years have gone out on their own sort of thing, and you were very attracted to that music suddenly weren't you? I mean, you moved over from folk to jazz, and I'm wondering how that happened, I mean on what basis did you see that?

Joni: You see, going back again to the folk rock thing, the lamination of a band to a standup narrative poet, self-accompanied poet, mine was delayed, all of my friends already had found their bands and were playing merrily along, and I was still searching for a band that could play my music to my satisfaction. Harmonically and rhythmically, my music was eccentric and as it turned out it was only musicians who had a jazz background that could comprehend the voicings of the music, which weren't just majors, minors, or seventh chords but they were, what would you say, they were eccentric I guess that's it.

And jazz musicians could pick up on this, so it was jazz players, that I laminated my music with and in the process I became, I fell into a circle of those players and I began to spend more and more time in jazz clubs. It was the beginning of a jazz education, which started back in my teens and it progressed and followed and led along to Mingus' request that I work with him on that project. Which by the time I had finished that, it became apparent to me that the jazz world and the coffee house world of folk music were very similar in that they were divided into two strong camps and one was the acoustic purists and those more experimental types.

And I always had leaned more to the experimental, even with Charles I found myself often in disagreement with him because he only liked acoustic music. He didn't like electric bass or electric keyboards and he was very vocal about why. And I would say, "Well, listen to this," so at the end of that project, I took the music on the road and then did that film and then kind of retired away from music in a certain way and in the process of doing that I began to listen to rock and roll again, which in the meantime had started to revitalize and was getting more harmonically sophisticated and more rhythmically sophisticated in fact. So, a new desire to rock and roll rose up.

Richard: Before we get back to the rock and roll, let's have a bit of that "Mingus" LP, which was critically a little bit panned at the time, wasn't it?

Joni: Hmm, oh yeah.

Richard: Talk about that in a minute. This is "God Must Be a Boogie Man," 1979. Joni Mitchell.

[Plays "God Must Be a Boogie Man"]

Joni Mitchell from the now classic album "Mingus," although at the time it was not received well by the critics and that was "God Must Be a Boogie Man". Did it actually bother you, Joni, when the critics almost universally went out and said it was a total waste of time and not a successful album?

Joni: The only thing that bothered me about was there was a reoccurring word that would come up ...it's the only thing I can remember negative about the press on that ... and that was that it was pretentious, and that really bothered me because I thought the use of that particular word was for anybody else who wanted to stretch out, for anybody coming up alongside or behind me, I thought, that's a very bad attitude for experimentation. And then I thought well, Americans don't have a very good command of English, perhaps they meant apprenticeship.

Richard: But, actually, they were putting you in a box. They wanted you to remain their jolly old singer-songwriter, didn't they? From 1970 or something.

Joni: It's the same even with friends. Change in an individual is not heralded by those around them. The other thing was that there were many critics who I thought were ill informed and missed the point of what I was trying to do in that they wanted me to be like Ella or they wanted me to be ... they would compare me unfavorably to existing masters. And I thought, "Well, I don't ... they've done what they've done. If I'm going come into this new arena, I should bring in some fusion. My roots are different; therefore, I should be dragging some of my background behind me."

Richard: Through it all, you're still Joni Mitchell, you have to retain that, yes.

Joni: Right, and the coming together of Charles and I, whatever music we made ... there's a bridge between the two of us ... was bound to have a little of each of us, but in the final product not be like either one of us.

Richard: You've always been very experimental, I mean, I'm thinking in terms of everything that you've done. I mean, you've dallied, initially dallied it seemed but, now even more seriously you got into painting and things like that. It's almost like a parallel career in fact, isn't it? Your artistic thing on the canvas or on paper.

Joni: Yeah, they run side by side and they go through similar problems at the same time, craving for bolder rhythms and the music is accompanied by bolder lines in the painting and the appetites for shape, form, color are pretty similar.

Richard: Yes, who's your favorite artist, I mean is there somebody who does inspire the way you're moving at the moment, is there anyone person?

Joni: Oh, I have a lot of painters who I like for various reasons, but the all stars I guess would be Van Gogh, who just moves me ... like I stood in front of his paintings in l'Orangerie and a lump came up into my throat. Also, I saw a lot of drawings that he had done when he was first starting out that were very bad, before he had any style. All he had was will, he didn't have ... he was just going at it, and at it, and at it and then all of a sudden one day, these rhythms began to occur in his line drawing. So, that gave me a lot of hope. I thought, "Oh, here's a man who was a powerful master, who started from nothing." I mean anything you see on Picasso, he always had great talent, you don't see any of his struggles ...

Richard: Yes, even his early stuff, very realistic, straightforward pictures, yes.

Joni: Yes, he's so virtuosic. Picasso is my patriot saint. He's my Saint Christopher or Saint Patty or whatever, just for longevity and for his curiosity and his constant ... almost adolescent enthusiasm which he carried all through his life. So, he's ... I'm a monumental fan of him for that among other reasons.

Richard: And looking on the middle of "Wild Things Run Fast," when you open up the gate fold sleeve, it appears that Gauguin must mean something to you as well?

Joni: Gauguin I liked the way he smooshes one color over another. I like certain aspects of his technique as to paint application.

Richard: There's a fabulous parody the Gauguin self-portrait, it looks like, in the middle of the album. Is that a letter or a picture of you Larry Klein, your husband? I'm not sure which, on the righthand side. Perhaps you can set my mind at rest.

Joni: It's a ... I painted it from, you know those machines that you get at bus depots or at fairs that you put a dollar ... and I guess it used to be a quarter ... you put a dollar in and it spits out four pictures of you and your beloved in black and white? And you have to squish together in the booth to get it?

Richard: Sort of passport photograph type?

Joni: Like that yeah. So, I painted that from that, which was a good way to paint because not only did I like the composition of that little photo but with no color as a guide ... then you got very imaginative, like it's delaying the colors on the face, so the faces are like ... It reads quite realistically, but if you look at them in blues and yellows and quite impressionistic or post impressionistic, like Gauguin or Van Gogh in a way.

Richard: But definitely a picture of you and Larry, and no Gauguin in there. Because, it really has ... I thought it was Gauguin to start with and then I thought, "No, hang on, I saw a picture of Larry and it's Larry." I got very confused.

Joni: Oh, you thought that was actually Gauguin and me cheek to cheek?

Richard: Certainly, perhaps it was some sort of deep statement about art. Oh, back to the bus station, here's a bit of music from 1975. "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." And this is way ahead of Adam and the Ants. This is the "Jungle Line."

[Plays "Jungle Line"]

The "Jungle Line" from the "Hissing of Summer Lawns," 1975 LP. And the Burundi drummers there, Joni, way ahead as I say of either Bow Wow Wow or Adam and the Ants, and things like that. You were well into that sort of African music. What actually got you into that?

Joni: Well, I don't remember now, where or when or why I purchased that album, but somehow it mysteriously appeared in my collection and it was one of the best grooving tracks that I ever heard, that Burundi piece. Anyway, the more I listened to it, the more I heard the roots, the origins in this African warring drum possession of Bo Diddley, like my version, what I did was I took just the Bo Diddley lick, I would then loop it and repeat it. I didn't use the whole passage ... just kind of pulled out one figure, but there are many classic rock and roll patterns in this thing, if you listen to it. It's a great piece of music.

Richard: All of the tribal music of North Africa, it is astounding isn't it? To see it coming through in modern music still?

Joni: Yeah.

Richard: Do you think that, that sort of whole African thing really was just part of the imagery that you're getting into in "Hissing of Summer Lawns" because, the whole feel of that album is very much sort of like the wild man, in modern civilization? It was like the album almost turned with jaws full of teeth back on to the Californian thing that you've promoted in the early days?

Joni: Did you ever see "Walkabout?"

Richard: Yes, what the Australian thing?

Joni: Right.

Richard: Yes.

Joni: In a way, do you remember the last scene after she comes through this incredible savage and beautiful and poetic journey, and she's chopping liver or something in the kitchen and her husband is there and there's a sense that they have very little relationship ... he's going off to work and he says to her, "Why didn't you stay out there?"

In a way, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is that kind of an album. I mean in the movie it's unspoken ... it's just ... is that all there is?

Richard: There's a line in "Chinese Cafe," where you say, "We looked like our mothers did now, when we were those kid's age". Do you actually feel very much like you're sort of heading into Mom's Ville, so to speak?

Joni: Well, the subject of this song, when she was a child, she was like Shirley Temple of our town, she had very white curly hair and she was the lead majorette and seeing her now as an adult woman, she looks very like her mother, who I never thought looked anything like her as a child. She was a toe head; her mother was dark. So, the last visit that I went it was uncanny to see her standing in the doorway looking like her mother. So, I assumed it must go both ways.

Richard: Well, before the play the song ... happily married now with Larry Klein, who not only is husband but also bass player and standing in the other room, so better watch out. But, would you say that perhaps you're happier now than you have been before? Or I mean, how do you relate? Are you really pleased with life today?

Joni: Oh yeah. Everything ... it's good to have a partner, it's the best. It makes road traveling a lot better.

Richard: It seems really odd to think of Joni Mitchell settling down, you know, after all these years of searching.

Joni: Well, settling down, I don't know ... it's very hard for me to think of settling down this year. We've been on the road, roaming as much as ever. I don't think I would be settling down in any kind of traditional way. It just means that a lot of unnecessary struggles are out of the way. It should free me up for other things.

Richard: Joni, thank you.

[Plays "Chinese Café"]

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