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Lloyd Whitesell interviewed by Mark Lynch Print-ready version


WICN 90.5 FM
April 10, 2009

Transcribed by Greg Roensch

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Mark Lynch: Good evening. This is Mark Lynch, and this is Inquiry. My guest tonight is Lloyd Whitesell, associate professor of music history at McGill University. And we're talking about his book, The Music of Joni Mitchell. Lloyd, welcome to the show.

Lloyd Whitesell: Glad to be here.

Mark Lynch: This is a very, and I want to emphasize this for the audience, this is a very serious, and I use academic in the best sense of the word, appreciation of Joni Mitchell's music. What brought you to write about Joni Mitchell?

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, I've been a fan of course for many, many years. But even when I was just discovering her music long ago, I was studying music theory at the time. So, I was in my own scholarly training. I was actually studying to be a pianist, but as I was learning the secret codes of music analysis, I realized that the Joni songs were very, very interesting. And so that sort of was going along in my own mind, like, "Wow, this is just as interesting as Beethoven." Or whatever else we were studying.

Mark Lynch: And it is.

Lloyd Whitesell: That stayed with me for a long time until I had the chance to really work on that in a deeper way.

Mark Lynch: Well, what's interesting is reading a book like yours, The Music of Joni Mitchell, when you've realize that, I think there's been that serious analysis lacking. So, we haven't had the tools to be able to talk about Joni Mitchell's music, other than in a fan-based way. Like, "Ooh, I really like that song." But without understanding what's going on in the breadth of her musical career. And this is what this book does. There's a quote from you, that you want to give a set of analytical tools, geared towards understanding her skill as a songwriter. And that's what the purpose of this book is.

Lloyd Whitesell: Mm-hmm. And not everyone might be interested in that. But it seems in interviews, she's been frustrated for a long time about being understood or being evaluated as an artist for her actual artistry. I mean, she's known as a songwriter's songwriter. And so I just wanted to look at, well, what is it about her craft that's so meticulous, so enduring? And that the details that are in there, that if you want to look closely, that you will find.

Mark Lynch: Now there's also, besides being a musical artist, something that's very important to her is being a painter. And it's interesting how that filters into her music. At one point she likens herself to Pablo Picasso.

Lloyd Whitesell: Right. Yeah, well, it is interesting because like you say, it is very important to her identity - she thinks of herself as a visual artist. And, of course she's designed to album cover art, all through the whole career. But then just as she's talking about her life, in some of the songs you'll get little references to this painter or that painter, or just her own painting itself. And also some nice visual color motifs that come through. But also the idea, I mean, I talk in the book at one point, about a painterly aesthetic. That when she goes into what I'm calling her second periods of the seventies, from 1972 on. She starts using the studio, the sounds in the studio, and you could talk about it in a painterly way, with the brush strokes, with added layers of sound. Instead of a more linear approach, more of an outline of melody, it's more like a sound world that you just can feel the space.

Mark Lynch: You bring up at one point in the book, that she had no literacy for musical notation. And when I read about the way she was trying to describe what she wanted the other musicians to do, it took on a very painterly quality.

Lloyd Whitesell: True, that's true. Yeah, she says at one point, "I wanted all the desks to be moved out of their rows." And another point, "Play high heels going down cobblestone."

Mark Lynch: That's extremely visual. It all seems very visual, very painterly. And she's-

Lloyd Whitesell: That's true. And she also talks about how when she's working on her music, then sometimes she'll take a break and go paint for a while. And it's a different part of her, I guess, part of her brain or whatever. So, they help each other out in her creative imagination.

Mark Lynch: She's also been of a tremendous musical influence throughout the decades. Can you talk about some of the other musicians that have been influenced by Joni Mitchell? I know it's a long list.

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, there's many, many people, right. And I'm sure that I don't know the most recent ones. But some of them are quite surprising. But when you see, for instance, in the Tribute album that came out on... Was it last year, a couple years ago, you had Sufjan Stevens in there. Then of course you have Herbie Hancock working with her on some of his own stuff, doing an homage to her. Of course, people like Prince and people within the folk-rock world. But then you have Bjork on the Tribute album. So, it's just kind of all over the place. And like I said before, that these songwriters are always... Whatever her critical ups and downs, the songwriters have always been there, know her value. So, I think anyone who's really doing the craft, that's one of the things that they appreciate, is just how much artistic integrity she's always had.

Mark Lynch: Now you've broken down her long career into four periods. And I want to talk about each one in turn. And let's talk about the first period, which is 1966 to '72. And that was when I was first introduced to Joni Mitchell. What are we talking about? What are the archetypal songs that you would say, from her first period? And what are the albums?

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, this is probably for some people, some of the most beloved, including Blue, which is one of the people's favorites. But before Blue, you have Song to a Seagull, which is the first one, which is much closer to acoustic folk. Once you start getting into Blue, then it's into what people call the confessional period, where you have a lot more piano songs. Where she starts experimenting with a very reckless, emotionally volatile voice, just sort of whaling sometimes, really laying it all out there for you. But some of the earlier songs are quite pristine, very carefully constructed. And almost used hyper-poetic language like folk ballads, which she had been performing before she started recording. But, of course, you have Ladies of the Canyon, which is another really favorite album. So, the songs on there, the title song, like "For Free," like "Conversation," like "Rainy Night House," and of course "Woodstock."

Mark Lynch: You bring up a really interesting section of your book, about the evolution of her conception of "Woodstock" as a song, the way she's played it over the years, really tracks her changes and development as an artist. Can you talk about that?

Lloyd Whitesell: Yeah, some songs... Well, what's interesting to me is how little she's liked to return to her older songs as she's moving through her stylistic evolution. Since she goes through such major changes, dramatic changes, from folk influenced to jazz, to synthesized pop. And so a lot of things she's just is not interested in returning to. But then some signature songs, she does return to. Some of which she leaves, pretty much as she can see them originally. Like for instance, when she'll do "Raised on Robbery," she'll just go right back into that whole honky-tonk sound. But when she did revisit "Woodstock," she did change it several times. And when she got to about 1979, then it seemed to crystallize in a certain way. And in taking out some of the emotion, in a strange kind of way, as if it's sort of being classicized or being much more distant. And looking at the whole generational ideals of the Woodstock era from a different perspective, from a more icy perspective. And I love that version. It's a beautiful, beautiful version.

Mark Lynch: You mentioned about how that she hates to redo work. At one point, and it's quoted in your book, she talks about, again, a painting analogy. You wouldn't ask Picasso, or I forget what artist she used to, to paint again, one of his paintings. It would seem absurd to do that. So then for people's hanging out there going like, "Play 'Woodstock' again." That she has that same kind of reaction, like, "No I'm working on other things, in different ways now, why should I go back and redo that?"

Lloyd Whitesell: Right, right.

Mark Lynch: Let's talk about the second period, '73 to '80. When I think about that period, that's Court And Spark, right?

Lloyd Whitesell: That's right. That's what I think of as the beginning of the second period. Although the album before that, For the Roses, is starting to have some transitions into what she's doing with Court And Spark. But with Court And Spark, she of course has really strong jazz stylings. She has a band that she's working with. So not just pick up instruments for different songs, but actually a whole band throughout the album. So, she has a different concept of what sound she wants and her melodies start being more elastic, more working... Like each first will change, will have a sense of fitting to different lines as she goes.

Then she'll have jazz solos in there. And she also starts working with form, in a very innovative way. So, having these ambitious ideas of how songs on an album can link with each other, can move forward or can have an overarching concept. As well as just these wild interludes that just go on and on, and just take you through a whole journey before you get back to the verse. So, all these things are, she's really in a quite a creative ferment in that period. And of course, Court And Spark was so popular, so that was really at her critical peak as well, her commercial peak.

Mark Lynch: Now, I think it's at the end of what you call her second period that she works with Mingus?

Lloyd Whitesell: That's right. Yeah, that's-

Mark Lynch: Talk about that album because to a lot of people, that's one of her lesser known works, although it's a very important and artistically critical work in her whole oeuvre there. Talk to me about that came about.

Lloyd Whitesell: And also she's talked about how, as far as her reception, as far as her airplay, that that really... She's talked about it in a melodramatic way, like it really tanked her. Because people on both camps on the jazz side and on the pop side didn't understand what she was doing or didn't want to go there. Here she was invited by Mingus to write some words for his music. So, a lot of the songs are actually her lyrics and his music. And then she has some of her own songs on there, too. But when she comes to do the album then, she doesn't really, it's not totally jazz, so much as sort of her idea or a stylized take on jazz. So, it's a very risky thing.

And she's said, "Well, I really lost a lot of my audience with that album." But Mingus, he had heard her previous album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and was very, very interested in working with her. And it sort of is the climax of dabbling her toes in jazz. Which she says on the Mingus, on the program notes to the album, she says, "America's classical music." So, she's thinking of jazz as high art. And so she saw it as just like everything she was doing before, leading up to that.

Mark Lynch: You're listening to WISN 90.5 FM. This is Inquiry. My name is Mark Lynch. My guest tonight is Lloyd Whitesell, associate professor of music history at McGill University. And we're talking about his book, which is a wonderful, serious, but sort of joyful appreciation of the music of Joni Mitchell. And that's the title, The Music of Joni Mitchell. Lloyd, that brings us to the third period of Joni Mitchell, 1981, 1988. And I think for a lot of people who tuned in, in the sixties, I think they turned out. They turned off in that eighties period. What do you think?

Lloyd Whitesell: You're exactly right? Yeah, she really-

Mark Lynch: It's like her least known albums.

Lloyd Whitesell: Yeah. It starts with Wild Things Run Fast, which should not be forgotten because it is so upbeat. It is full of love songs. And she's doing the closest thing to her riff on just standard pop, like top 40 hits. But of course, adding her sophisticated innovations and her little twists. But it's just a lovely, lovely album. But it's getting into a different... a lot of synthesized sounds. Then when she goes in 1985, when she does Dog Eat Dog, that's completely different. And I can see, just because of how different it was, why people were not willing to go where she's going. Also, she's getting indignant in some way, she's getting politicized or she's ranting. So instead of maybe more intimate, emotional scenes that she'd had before, then some of the tableaus of high society that she did in the seventies. Now she's doing some very angry songs. So, it's a very, very different feel, but there are some wonderful gems on that album. But you're right, it's sort of the dark period of her reception.

Mark Lynch: Was she at all influenced by new wave music that was going on at the time?

Lloyd Whitesell: She definitely was. And she had talked about being influenced by The Police, a couple of times, just about their rhythm they used for their guitar. You can definitely hear their guitar sounds in what she's doing. And then I'm sure that she was soaking up some of the things like U2. But she doesn't talk a lot about... Some things you just have to speculate on what you hear, if you hear a reggae beat, you think, "Oh, there's a little Police." And I think it's interesting, that she was doing a lot electronically, in the studio. So, she's sort of free retreating in a way and doing her own creative stuff, but not as... In a less of a public way as she was doing before, when she was more externally directed with her crossover jazz stuff. This was sort of retreating, at least as far as how she did her work in the studio.

Mark Lynch: And that brings us up to the fourth period, which is 1989 to 1998. And as you mention in your book, it's like she's now marketed as a classic. Now, what does that do for the audience? And what does that do for her music? Does that mean that she's expected to go back and play all the old songs all over again?

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, she has never done what she has been expected to do.

Mark Lynch: And that's why she's a brilliant musician.

Lloyd Whitesell: Yes. And so I mean, nowadays, she actually visited McGill in 2004. We asked her if she would be willing to... We wanted to give her an honorary doctoral degree. And so she did-

Mark Lynch: You just wanted to meet Joni Mitchell, didn't you?

Lloyd Whitesell: That's right.

Mark Lynch: What a weasel.

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, it was actually my Dean, Don McLean, who really was... He had to convince her that it would be fun for her, or else why would she come to... She has no reason to be excited by academia. But actually really, it looked like she had fun talking to the students. There was one in the afternoon where we were able to get about 125, 150 students, and she just talked... she just answered their questions. But they said, "Well, what advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the business?" And she said, "Don't."

Mark Lynch: Wow.

Lloyd Whitesell: She has just been turned off by it... And so I think that there was something really fortunate about when she entered the industry, that you were able to do albums, you had a certain kind of leeway to do... less pressure, in certain ways. And so she looks at all these pressures now, and she's not willing to go there. She just feels too battered by it all. But in any case, she was still creating, she was still moving forward, but the marketers were able to say, "She's a classic." And so some of the people that just had been with her all along, were able to say, "Yes, here she's been doing this all the way through." And in some ways she did come back to just her and acoustic guitar and song forms that she had done in her early period. So, it's nice to see how she was able to relax from the stridency of the third period and go back.

And there's a lot of nostalgic songs, where she thinks back to her childhood in Canada. And she makes these beautiful little gems of her youth. But pulling some universal significance out of them. And some of their fun rock and roll songs, some of them are more wistful and painful. And so it's harder to describe what's happening in the fourth period because she's fusing with a really broad horizon from her career. She's fusing a lot of things together. But it's not like... Like I said, she's still moving the way she wants to. It doesn't feel like she's being pressured into being a certain kind of musician in any way.

Mark Lynch: But it sounds like she's sick of the music industry.

Lloyd Whitesell: That's right. And she's always been just because of the kind of creative artist she is. I mean, she's working with pop sounds and styles and forms, but she thinks of herself as an artist, as an actual high artist. And so she's always had this conflict there that comes out in songs, like "For Free." Where she is on her way to a concert, but she sees it, someone who's just playing on the street and she's like, "I could have gone that way, but I took a different turn. I actually became a industry celebrity." And so she's wistful about what it might've been like if she would have maintained her innocence.

Mark Lynch: But nobody would know her.

Lloyd Whitesell: That's right.

Mark Lynch: And that would have been probably just as well for her. One of the great things that you do in your book is that you go through really a thorough and serious analysis of things like her voice, looking at the poetry of her songs, the representation, syntax, and performance. I want to talk about some of the thematic threads... looking at all of her work that you've teased out, which I really found fascinating. Because when you read them, they really do point to an archetypal Joni Mitchell song. Traps, you talk about one of the thematic threads or traps, what are you talking about?

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, I'm talking about the sense of being stuck, being restricted. And this can be in a particular role, like the domestic wife, the lady, and she puts it in early songs in terms of this medieval romance that you're confined to the grove. And meanwhile, the man is going on his journey, but you're stuck. So sometimes in certain terms of gender roles. Other times she talks about the industry that way.

Mark Lynch: I was going to say.

Lloyd Whitesell: But even when she talked... getting crucified. This whole thing, like being put through the mill of publicity. And having your art marketed is like being crucified. But I like thinking in terms of restriction and liberation, because you can point to both verbal and musical expressions of that. You can talk about very confining sounds, where she'll just stick on one note that just pulses through the whole piece. And how is she going to get away. Or a different cycle that you can't escape in the music. So, you can really hear it in a subconscious way, even if you don't necessarily know the technical terms for what's happening. But yeah, I love doing this with her poetry because if people haven't analyzed her music, they haven't really analyzed her poetry either. And some of the themes stretch all the way over-

Mark Lynch: That's right.

Lloyd Whitesell: She comes back and back to these.

Mark Lynch: We were talking about traps, other songs that you mentioned, "I Had a King," "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," all of those would sort of fit into that trap category. And it isn't until, again, I want to emphasize this for the audience. It's not until I read your analysis of this that I was able to see these patterns in her music. Bohemia is another one. There's a really funny quote that you have in the book by her, about when everybody thought she was the queen of the hippies. And I have to admit being a child of that time period, having been in college in the sixties, people really thought she was the mother of all hippies.

Lloyd Whitesell: Right.

Mark Lynch: And she didn't. In this quote, she says that she thought it was all sort of very, very weird and strange. And she didn't really buy into that. She said she sort of understood it, but she didn't really buy into it.

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, of course, when you see photos of her during the period, when she was-

Mark Lynch: Oh my God, you can't get more hippy.

Lloyd Whitesell: Yeah, with Graham Nash. And they're living in their funky house. And she just has all these baubles and hippie outfits. But she was still pretty young then and she still grew. And obviously when she talks about it, there was a lot going on, just in her brain. That she defined herself as an outsider, even in this outsider enclave. She was like, "I don't want to belong to this either."

Mark Lynch: That's like the Groucho Marx quote, "I don't want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member." I mean, we were talking about songs that represent. I mean, there's a number of songs. But probably one of the most important was the "Boho Dance," really is her commenting on this whole constructed Bohemia.

Lloyd Whitesell: And she's taking her text directly from Tom Wolfe, when he's describing how Bohemian artists will sell out or will self-righteously stay poor and stay unknown. So, she's actually, having read Tom Wolfe. She turns it into her version and it's a very difficult text... it's very philosophical and she packs a lot in there. But before that, I mean, also Bohemian where she's just freely expressing would be, with a period when she was in Crete. And hanging out with the hippie crowd there, and this on the Blue album. So, "Carrie," when she's just talking about her adventures on the island and the red, red rogue and all that. And Let's Go Down to the Mermaid Cafe, that's exactly Bohemian.

Mark Lynch: Flight is another one of the thematic threads that you've teased out. Talk to me about what you mean by Flight?

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, I was specifically interested... a lot of these that you're mentioning are about freedom. So that they're all really, you could see that as a guiding theme, a very, very deep river that has different branches of how important freedom is to her. But also the tension between freedom and being restricted or being stuck or just bonding, connecting with people. So, the tension between the two. In the Flight section, I was really interested in spirituality and the idea of a visionary artist, looking and trying to figure out what more beyond the world is there. So, kind of new age religion or hippie religion, whatever. An unconventional search that she was following. So, some of her searches were personal, some were creative and then some were spiritual. And, of course, they blend in anyone's life.

But so I was interested in her looking, for instance, in the mid to late seventies, getting into shamanism with the Castaneda book. But then she just has these images of birds flying and they're often are a symbol to her of spiritual liberation. And also then there's that beautiful song dedicated to Amelia Earhart. To another sort of, someone who really was trying to escape but failed in some way. So, she takes that as a spiritual symbol.

Mark Lynch: Now, do you believe that she's still creating new music that is worthy of analysis?

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, that's very interesting because, of course, when I was writing the book, conveniently was, she had stopped writing for 10 years. And says, "Oh, good. Well, now that I can just say... these are all of her songs." But then it's like, "Oh, there's a new album." So, I was totally torn. I want to hear the new stuff, but on the other hand, oh, my book is out of date already.

Mark Lynch: Well, talk to me about her new stuff. I mean, does it fit in, do you see some of the same patterns that you divined in this book?

Lloyd Whitesell: Yeah. So, we're talking about the album Shine, from 2007. And I was just struck by how quiet, in some ways, that album is. Even going more into the personal, intimate world. And some of it is just her doodling at the piano. I mean, it's close to its genesis, of her just improvising in her cabin. But then some of it, it has a range. So, some of it, are much feel like very polished art songs, like some of the ones I've analyzed. I liked the sense, I like her sound, the unusual instruments she puts on there. So, I actually haven't gone through and done close analysis of any of the songs. It feels to me more in general like a letter from someone you haven't heard from in a long time. And that's the way I've interacted with it. I haven't gone and tried to pull it apart. But the last song "If" I find just brilliant. Just as amazed and impressed by that one, as any other song she's ever written. That's based on a Rudyard Kipling poem.

Mark Lynch: Is she an easy person to talk to about her work? Some artists are rather cryptic or don't like to talk about their work, they say the work speaks for them.

Lloyd Whitesell: Well, I can't talk from firsthand because I've never talked with her about her work. But she has given so many, many, many interviews. And she loves to talk. I think, it seems like sometimes she gets tired of talking biographical things, since that has been covered. But she would be happy to talk more about what the work means, how she puts things together, the craft side of things. There is difficulty there, since, as you mentioned, she doesn't have the technical vocabulary. So, she just has to use her own personalized metaphorical language. But no, I think, there's been interviews with Elvis Costello, where they're obviously two songwriters talking and she's going on. And she's happy to talk about that. Sometimes when it's framed in a way that they're trying to compare her to more recent songwriters, you can tell she bristles a little bit. It's part of her feeling unappreciated, she just wants to be in a class all her own, I guess.

Mark Lynch: Fascinating. Were completely out of time. My guest tonight has been Lloyd Whitesell, associate professor of music history at McGill University. We were talking about his wonderful book, The Music of Joni Mitchell. Lloyd, it's been a pleasure.

Lloyd Whitesell: My pleasure as well.

Mark Lynch: You've been listening WICN 90.5 FM. This is Inquiry. My name is Mark Lynch, goodnight.

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