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Dissecting The Music of Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

Interview with Lloyd Whitesell

WNYC Soundcheck
July 30, 2008

Transcribed by Greg Roensch

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(Joni Mitchell singing)

John Schaefer: Joni Mitchell's music from pop art to high art. This is Soundcheck. I'm John Schaefer. In the next hour, we'll speak with a musicologist who spent over five years analyzing the music of Joni Mitchell. Also Soundcheck's picks of the week for you to download and Bon Iver, the project fronted by soulful folk songwriter Justin Vernon will join us to play live.

But first, Joni Mitchell is widely considered to be among the most important and inventive singer-songwriters of the 20th century. In the 40 years since she burst onto the folk scene, she's recorded 22 albums, has worked in styles ranging from folk to jazz to world music, won seven Grammy awards, and yet there has never been a detailed appraisal of her musical achievements until now.

Lloyd Whitesell teaches music history at McGill University, and he is the author of "The Music of Joni Mitchell." He joins us from the studios in Montreal Public Radio.

Lloyd, welcome to Soundcheck.

Lloyd Whitesell: Thanks so much for inviting me.

JS: So, you approach, you take a scholarly approach to the music of Joni Mitchell. What makes her music appropriate for that sort of tack?

LW: Well, let me tell you, I've been a longtime fan of her music, so of course, going back to when I was growing up. And as I was growing up, I was taking music theory classes, learning how to analyze classical music. But I just gradually realized that her music was every bit as complex as some of the classical music we were studying. So when I eventually became a musicologist there, it seemed like I was able to bring together my love as a fan of her music with wanting to share with people the complexities that I found. And she has this huge repertory of amazing songs. And of course she's recognized in the press and her popular fans, but no one had really looked at her from an analytical point of view. And so I felt like it was this beach with no footprints that I was able to step out onto.

JS: Well, as a fan of her music. Were you afraid that five years of taking it apart and seeing how it's put together would somehow ruin the magic and the mystery?

LW: Well, that's a valid question about analysis, but it's always a ... that's the challenge when you want to intellectually approach something without losing the love for it. Hopefully, you do learn that, that you can spend some time in an intellectual way, but then you want to get away from it. You don't want to, you want to balance that out. You always want that to add to your experience, not take away.

JS: All right. So you spent five years analyzing the music that you already knew you loved. So what was your takeaway from this?

LW: Well, I have to say, the more I looked at her songs, the more I found. So, the more I was admiring and impressed by the amount of artistic detail that she put into every aspect of her craft. The lyrics, the sort of poetic vision that she had over her career, the musical harmony and melodic detail, phrase structure, it just kept blowing me away. I would have a general idea of what I had already heard, but the more I listened, the more I found.

JS: Joni Mitchell is notoriously reclusive. Was she at all involved in or even aware of this project?

LW: We did manage to invite the artist to come to McGill to receive an honorary doctorate degree. And so, at that point, when we were talking with her, we said, "Well, you know, there is a scholar here who's working on your music," so she was aware. And I think she has read some of my stuff, but she doesn't read music and a lot of my analysis depends on music notation. So I don't know how much she appreciates it, but I hope that I do her justice. But I did get to meet her when she came to McGill in 2004.

JS: All right. So she does not read or write music, at least not in the conventional sense.

LW: That's right.

JS: Do you see her, I mean, you talked about being trained to analyze classical music. Do you see her on that plane? Is she a high art figure?

LW: Well, I do, and she has talked about her music, that she conceives of it as art song. And she's very aware, she's influenced, she's talked about her influences from classical music as well as from standard American pop genres. But she says, "You know, they came up with these new terms like singer-songwriter when I was getting started and then later they called it art song. I like art song the best," for how she thinks of her music. And I just think that her actual way of composition and thinking of the music bears that out.

JS: We're speaking with the Lloyd Whitesell. His book is called "The Music of Joni Mitchell." And let's hear a little bit of that music and then, although the book is called The Music Of, you do spend a fair amount of time analyzing her lyrics. I want to ask you about this song called "All I Want."

(Joni singing)

JS: That's Joni Mitchell from the album Blue back in 1971, the song is "All I Want." The book is called "The Music of Joni Mitchell" by Lloyd Whitesell. And Lloyd, you do analyze a lot of her songs from the angle of the lyric as poem. When the music comes first, can you really kind of divorce the lyrics from it and look at it that way, as poetry?

LW: Well, I try not to divorce it totally. It does seem like they're very integral. But you know, I just wanted to take a look at the words as poetry before I put it back together and get a sense of what she was doing.

JS: Now what is she doing in this song, in "All I Want?"

LW: This one, of course, is, people think of Blue as a great confessional album so that she's dealing with that sort of common diction and just spilling out these emotions. But what's amazing to me is how that doesn't just mean sort of a mess. She plans the poetic and musical structure very carefully, but at the same time is still able to unlock this very moving kind of emotional outpouring. So, of course, this is full of ... it's just like we're listening in on a conversation that she's having. And yet, she very carefully plans the high points of the music, including how the words build and get breathless like, "Do you want, do you want, do you want," it's like she's packing in that sense of losing your breath and getting excited.

JS: You use the word confessional. I mean, she's actually said she hates that term, that she doesn't actually feel that there was all that much confessional about what she was doing back in those days, but there certainly-

LW: This is more, has been imposed on her from outside.

JS: Well, here's an interesting comment on the Soundcheck page of our website from Paul in Manhattan. "I was exposed to 'Help Me' as a child," he writes. "I've never heard a soothing quality that also contains a fearful sorrow, emotionally complex to the utmost. It makes me think of my mother calmly explaining some huge scary fact of life that she couldn't protect me from." You talk a lot about the complex layering of modes and rhythms. What about that layering of emotion that Paul is writing about?

LW: Oh, yeah. And that's a really fun thing to listen for, but it's hard to analyze is how she uses her voice to get that across. Like it's in the words, it's in the music, but then she adds yet another layer in how she performs it. So that there are times when she'll just be sort of shrewd and sly and sexy and yet sorrowful and somehow she does it all, packs it all in there at the same time. So it's in the performance as well.

JS: Here's the song "Help Me" by Joni Mitchell.

(Joni singing)

JS: Joni Mitchell "Help Me" is the song. We're speaking with Lloyd Whitesell. His book is called "The Music of Joni Mitchell," a thorough analysis from a musicological point of view of Joni Mitchell's art. You mentioned before, Lloyd, that she was not trained. She was, and is, musically illiterate, doesn't read or write music. And yet, you find all of these unusual approaches to key shifts, and arrangements, and things like that. It's, again, a tough thing to describe, but maybe if we hear a song like "Amelia," tell us what to listen for here, that kind of makes that point.

LW: Okay, well, one thing you could listen for is a harmonic shift that happens. It's going along in one key and at the very end of the refrain where she starts talking to Amelia Earhart herself, the whole level of the music shifts down into another key. And this goes along with the fact that she's talking about disillusionment. She's talking about hopes for her art, for her spiritual vision, and just like Amelia, it didn't happen. And then the music sort of has this depressive shift.

JS: Now for someone who is ... an interesting question is raised here, which is how much of this was she aware of? Let's hear the song and then we'll continue our conversation.

(Joni singing)

JS: The song is "Amelia" from Joni Mitchell's 1976 record Hejira. And we're speaking with Lloyd Whitesell, author of "The Music of Joni Mitchell." You spend a couple of pages unpacking this song, Lloyd, you know, the imagery of the vapor trails in the lyrics. But musically, how much of these unexpected modulations, these shifts of key, how aware would Joni Mitchell herself have been of the technical stuff that you're finding in her songs?

LW: Well, the technical stuff she was not aware of, but she was very aware of what she wanted, what sound she wanted and, by ear, the effect that she wanted. So she always talked about she wanted complexity, she wanted her harmonies to put a question mark on things. So she was very dissatisfied with just your standard triads that you learn, just the simple major, minor chords.

And so she experimented with alternate guitar tunings, some of which came from folk, and was able to expand that to her so that she could treat the guitar as a whole pallet, a harmonic palette. But then later on, people would come to her and say, "Oh, did you know that you changed key," and she goes, "Oh, no, I didn't." So she says, "People tell me that that song changes key." And then there's this one interview where she gets all excited because someone told her that she used a tritone, which is the devil in music. And she said, "Well that's exactly what I wanted." But it was news to her, you know.

JS: The tritone being, for example, C to F-sharp, the beginning of Jimmy Hendrix's "Purple Haze" is a tritone. Guitarists, Lloyd, guitarists love to talk about Joni Mitchell's tunings. Here's another comment from our website wnyc.org. N-Book here in New York writes, "I'm a big Joni fan and have always been astounded by her system of alternate tunings, a true wonder of nature over 80 unique guitar tunings and contra rhythmical picking patterns. Can you comment on her technique and the harmonic underpinnings of those various tunings?"

LW: Yeah. Well, the exact number of her tunings varies whether you count transpositions and if you sort of ... there's at least 40 and then if you're doing ... that she's done different songs, the same tuning, but often in a different key, then it gets up to even larger than that. But 40 is quite a ton already.

JS: That's a lot of tunings.

LW: And some of which, she's only used for one song. So that's just amazing that she wants that kind of a range. She wants that kind of diversity in just the sounds she can get just by laying her finger down, just straight across the fret. She wants to get a really interesting sound. And then, she also, it's almost like she's exploded the guitar. So the guitar is not a set thing that's been handed down, but it's something that she can bend and make flexible just to fit with whatever comes across that she wants to say.

JS: So, let's take a song from 1974 the classic album Court and Spark, the song "Just Like This Train." It's a guitar, but only in the sense that there are six strings on a wooden body. The tuning, the approach to the instrument, would this be, I mean, you say she didn't want to accept it as something that had been handed down. Would you say this is more of an orchestral kind of approach?

LW: Yeah, she's talked about her guitar ... her approach to the guitar, she says that, "My top three strings are like my horn section and then the bottom are the bass and some other strings." And you can hear it in the song how there's a very distinct low baseline and then a middle register and then some licks on top.

JS: This is the song "Just Like This Train" from Joni Mitchell.

(Joni singing)

JS: Joni Mitchell, "Just Like This Train" from the 1974 album Court and Spark. We're talking about the music of Joni Mitchell. That's actually the title of Lloyd Whitesell's new book from Oxford University Press. And number of comments coming in on the Soundcheck page of our website, wnyc.org. Lloyd, I want you to respond specifically to one here from Jeffrey in East Elmhurst who writes, "Joni Mitchell is a genius and, let's face it, society and its historians, especially the male ones are intimidated by women geniuses."

LW: That's an interesting point because you can really talk about how, obviously, there's been a kind of male domination in the music industry that Joni's had to go up against. But she's never that interested in talking about that herself or in pleading special cases. At the same time though, she really does always talk from a woman's point of view. I mean, she has her characters, male characters, that she dramatizes. But centrally, it's like her ideas, the struggles of a woman at the time that she's going through. And I agree that might be intimidating to face up to a woman's contribution as a creative artist rather than necessarily as a performing artist alone.

JS: Well, in very early on, I mean, I think on the second page of your book in talking about how there hasn't been up until now a real thorough analysis of her music. You mention the fact that as a female songwriter, she's at I think you used the word disadvantaged group. So is that changing?

LW: In terms of reputation, right, in terms how many historians are willing to look at that. Yeah, I think that's changing, but sometimes it's hard that if patterns are set in a certain way, then you have to just try and fight.

JS: All right. And here's another really great comment. Lani in Brooklyn writes, "I grew up hard of hearing. So words in a song were always little more than la la la sounds. What I responded to in Joni's songs was the musical language. Even though I did not know what the actual lyrics were, the songs always conveyed the wordless story she was telling. This makes her songs stand out above everyone else. Music is a language and Joni speaks it naturally and eloquently."

LW: Yeah, that's a wonderful comment. Just the sense of a universal, you know, even without the specific words, this universal ... and how she's able to shape things just through the structure itself.

JS: Now she's still going strong. She released a new album in 2007. The arc of her career has gone from the kind of folk singer-songwriter stuff to the jazz works of the late seventies, the more recent recordings. Is she still essentially the same artist? I mean, is there something constant about Joni Mitchell?

LW: Well, obviously, there's the sense of individuality that she has a strong voice, that she has a strong vision, but at the same time, she's just always been a dynamic artist. She's wanted to go out where she hasn't ever tread before, no matter if it's a risk or not. So even on this new one, you can hear some familiar sounds in some of the songs, but it's also a new stepping out to a new place, even though it's a bit quieter album. So it's a mix of both. It's like a new letter from a very familiar friend.

JS: And the album Shine which was released last year, revisiting one of her best known songs, "Big Yellow Taxi."

We've been speaking with Lloyd Whitesell. His book is called "The Music of Joni Mitchell." He's joined us from the studio's Montreal Public Radio. Lloyd, a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks very much.

LW: My pleasure as well. Thanks.

(Joni singing)

JS: That's Joni Mitchell covering Joni Mitchell, the 2007 edition of her song, "Big Yellow Taxi."

Up next on Soundcheck, 16th-century vocal music and a Nelson Riddle rarity are among Soundchecks CD picks of the week. And coming up later, folk singer-songwriter Justin Vernon joins us with his band, Bon Iver, and they will play live for us.

Stay with us. This is Soundcheck.

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