Transcribed from the audio by Lindsay Moon
(Music up: Excerpt from "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio.")
Announcer: Joni Mitchell, one of the most influential artists of our times. Morrissey, a singer and songwriter on the cutting edge of today's music. Hello and welcome to a very special edition of Words + Music featuring an interview with the legendary Joni Mitchell in a fascinating, freewheeling conversation with Morrissey.
Joni Mitchell's international fans can be numbered in the millions and her impact on music heard in the works of scores of today's top stars. Among them, acclaimed British vocalist and recording artist Morrissey, who counts Joni as one of his most important and enduring influences. On the occasion of the release of "Hits and Misses," the Reprise Records compilation of the best of Joni Mitchell, Morrissey and the artist got together for a rare, candid, and wide- ranging chat over tea and cigarettes. Ladies and gentlemen, Joni Mitchell and Morrissey.
Morrissey: Do they still refer to you as a female songwriter? Because it's such a ludicrous -- well, it's become such a ludicrous title because to be called a female songwriter --
JM: Implies limitations.
Morrissey: Well, it implies that it's not a real songwriter.
Morrissey: I mean, you couldn't imagine, for instance, saying Paul McCartney's a great male songwriter.
JM: Right. Well, they wouldn't do it that way. But I mean this has always been true of women in the arts. We supposedly made some progress in this century. We got the vote for one thing. But if you take the female impressionists, there were several of them that were very good, and they were not really allowed to belong to the academy. There was an extra "A" in front of their name, associates of the academy. So -- and it was said of them that they were incapable of really tackling the important issues that men could tackle, that, you know, not that the subject matter of the impressionists was particularly important. It was just mostly delightful it seemed to me, people boating, people on beaches, you know, landscapes, so on. But they seemed to think that women could only handle domestic situations. And Mary Cassat painted women and children very beautifully, and that seemed to confirm it, but she had all the chops that they did.
One would think in this time period that I came along -- mind you, there weren't very many women writing and singing. There weren't as many women as there are in the business now definitely. There were only a few of us --
Morrissey: But to use the expression "female songwriter" is to imply that the word songwriter belongs to men.
Morrissey: So do they still in this country call you call you a female songwriter?
JM: Well, they tend to lump me always with groups of women. You know, the women of rock. I've been always lumped in -- I always thought, well, they don't put Dylan with the men of rock. Why do they do that with me, with the women of rock, always within the context of the women that were happening within every decade I would get lumped in in that same manner.
One of my favorite compliments that I ever received was from a Black blind piano player, Henry, I don't know what his last name was. And said to me, "Joni, you know, you make genderless, raceless music." And I thought, well, I hadn't set out, you know, saying "I'm going to make genderless, raceless music," but in some part of the back of my mind, I did want to make music that crossed -- I never really liked lines, class lines, you know, like social structure lines since childhood, and there were a lot of them that they tried to teach me as a child. "Don't go there." "Why not?" "Well, because they're not like us." They try to teach you those lines. They start at about 12. And I ignored them always and proceeded without thinking that I was a male or a female or anything, just that I knew these people that wrote songs and I was one of them.
Morrissey: Are you aware of sexist language? Is it something that you're constantly checking or not particularly?
JM: I'm not a real feminist. I've become a little more so as I've gotten older, but I didn't pay much attention to it. But there were a lot of women trying to conscript me into it. And the way that they did it was so vulgar. They'd go -- because I always preferred men's company from childhood -- I played -- well, not all boys. I had a difficult time being a creative child to play because male games were very role-oriented. If I played cowboys with them, I had to be Dale Evans and stay home and cook. You know, if I played with the girls, we were into 'my dolly wets and yours doesn't, and I have nicer dishes than you have.'
So the best playmates that I had were creative kids, and they grew up to be classical musicians. And both of them were gay, you know, grew up to be gay. And there was no role-playing. 'I'm going to be a great ballerina.' 'I'm going to be a great composer.' There was a lot of boasting, but there was no one saying that we were boasting, you know? So we were free to dream our grand dreams in terms of our play.
(Music up: Excerpt from "Circle Game.")
Morrissey: Don't you find that if your music is confessional and aims towards being intellectual, that you have to explain yourself repeatedly and in much more depth than anybody who makes nonsensical, throw-away, useless music?
JM: Well, yeah, they come after you definitely, but first of all, I don't think of myself as confessional. I would call myself a penitent of spirit, not a confessor. The point is not to confess and the things where I have revealed my own foibles or frailty were generally within the context of the work to -- in order to create first a very human character and therefore a rich character full of human experience -- okay, you have to work with the fodder that you have.
I've also used the songwriting process as an investigation of self, self-analysis of sorts, but not just for the sake of spilling my guts or taking off my clothes, so to speak, in public. It had to have something accompanying it in order for me to think of it as a work of art and therefore something I'm proud to present because I'm not necessarily showing myself in a particularly flattering light, not in the pop arena.
Like "Blue" album, people were kind of shocked at the intimacy and the revelation of that. And it was peculiar in the pop arena at that time because you were supposed to be bigger than life and portraying yourself bigger than life. I almost, I think, did it partially -- I remember having this thought: Well, if they're going to worship me -- because it had sort of begun -- they should know who they're worshipping. It was some kind of -- I didn't want a deception and I also didn't want the inequity of being on a pedestal. So I wanted to create a persona that was actual, that was really who I was, you know, so that if I had any insight -- because I took this job very responsibly -- to pass on since I had a public voice I felt I better be presenting something nourishing and useful. But if I do it with a certain kind of voice, I will be mistaken for some kind of guru, you know, and I'm no guru. I'm muddling around here with everybody else.
Therefore, the character must deliver the light as it emerges from darkness. It's got to be a balanced portrait. I never wanted to act the part of a poet, so all these pearls of language, wisdom were falling from my lips. Like the first time I met Prince, you know, I put together two very unruly sentences in the course of the night and he corrected me. He said "a poet like you." I said, oh, God, like I have to -- I think I said I'm tireder -- he said are you tired or are you hungry? I think I said I'm tireder than I am hungry. It was some grammatical error. That still sounds right to me. But Prince corrected me, you know, like, and I said, "Oh, God, do I have to play the poet?"
(Music up: Excerpt from "River.")
Morrissey: Joni Myth No. 72 -- well, no, not really, but a small, marginal footnote in British pop history is the fact that the Sex Pistols sacked their original bass player, Glen Matlock, reportedly because he listened to your music.
Morrissey: Were you aware of this?
Morrissey: This was a press statement that did the rounds at the time, which is very amusing to me because I saw the Sex Pistols a few times before they made records and I thought they were great. And also it was the time when you were most influencing me. And so I found it very interesting that the Sex Pistols and Joni Mitchell were supposed to -- and in between there was supposed to be this massive divide --
JM: There wasn't -- when I met Johnny Rotten -- I met him in Jamaica, and again I looked at him and I thought -- I liked him immediately. He was a lot like I was -- he was younger -- but he was a lot like I was in high school. Fashion conscious. There he sat, you know, in his red suede shoes and his black woolly, '50's revival, you know, and his Andersen plaid or turquoise with red in it plaid jacket in the Jamaican heat all kind of pale and pimply, you know, like avoiding the sun. Any they had come to -- he had a friend who was London Rasta, you know, he had a dred friend who was his photographer or something and they had come to meet the Rasta contingency.
So we went somewhere and played back music. And I played "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" which I'd just completed, and Johnny had some comments to make, which I don't quite recall now, but he took a couple of stabs at it. But his friend said (in a Cockney accent) "Oh, it makes me want to eat white people" (laughs) because of all of the drummings and everything on it.
But I really -- I'm a punk. I've always been, you know -- that irreverence. I've always been on the outside. I've never really been in the mainstream. Not that to be a punk is a good thing necessarily (laughs) --
Morrissey: It can be.
JM: -- but I am one.
Morrissey: But there seemed to me to be three very definite shades to your career or very defined periods. The late '60's/early '70's were very different from the trio of albums, "Hissing of Summer Lawns," "Hejira," and "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," and then what followed after "Mingus," I think, was very different also. There seems to be three different people somewhere along the line. That's my view. Maybe I'm wrong but that's how I see it.
JM: No, I agree.
Morrissey: And is "Mingus" your ugly duckling?
JM: Oh, not at all. I got to play with, you know, that band that was my favorite band of Miles's with the exception -- Ron Carter was replaced by Jaco Pastorius. So I got to play, you know, it's all live. I got to play with a band -- my favorite band in the world, right? It's the only jazz -- everyone accuses me -- my music is not jazz. But it is -- jazz is one of the tributaries that makes up my music and I borrowed some things from it, but any jazzer will tell you, no, I'm not in the idiom. My chord, harmonic sense is different. A lot is different. But there are elements that wouldn't be there if I hadn't loved certain pockets of Miles's playing for instance and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross for another. They leaked into it. But I've taken folk structure from Dylan, you know -- so you got a new thing going, and it's -- it doesn't belong to any camp really, but it's got a little bit of classical music in it, it's got, you know, it's got a lot of tributaries.
(Music up: Excerpt of "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey.")
Morrissey: You have an extraordinary balance, a beautiful balance with words. You never have lines jutting out or anything awkward. It's all very sandpapered very finely and that's the thing I most enjoy about your work. Are you a word snob? Are there any words that you would never use?
JM: Well, I don't think I'm prejudiced against words per se except the ones that come up through psychology, you know, because they've ruined the English language -- "neurotic," "ego." I don't like those words. All of the psychological words. You know, I see them bandied around and think that damn word has killed a lot of words that -- because they've taken the heart out of life in a certain way. Like neurotic. Doctors love to levy that at just about every woman that crosses their threshold, right? Did you ever stop to think, she's anxious? You know, like there are other things that have more compassion and more understanding to them.
So most of the psychological words I don't like. I went and had trouble with God for a little while. As a matter of fact, I cornered Bob Dylan at a party in Austin one time and said, you know, "You're always throwing that word "God" in. What does God mean to you?" you know, and he said, "It's just a word that people use." I said, "Yeah, but you're using it. What does it mean to you?" He couldn't answer it. Then he went through his born-again thing, and about three years later he came up to me and he said (in a husky voice,) "Joni, remember the time you asked me about God and the devil? Well, I'll tell you now." And he launched into some real Christian rhetoric. And I said, "No, no, no, I didn't ask about the devil, that's, you know, it's God that I was having a problem with, the word." Not that I was an atheist, but I couldn't tell in the Old Testament God from the devil. They were both vain and violent. I couldn't get a grasp on that concept. That's a word that went dead for a while. Words go dead and then they come back.
(Music up: Excerpts from "Sex Kills" and "Come in From the Cold.")
Morrissey: You mentioned somewhere that Prince had been introduced to you at the time of the "Hissing of Summer Lawns."
JM: Well, I saw him in an audience at that time. He was in Minneapolis. I believe it was him. Front row to the left. Quite conspicuous because he's got those eyes like a puffin, those Egyptian eyes, those big, exotic eyes.
Morrissey: In truth I must say it was the first album that completely captivated me, and it's never actually left me to this day which is a long time -- 21 years to live with a record.
JM: Was that the first one that you came in on?
Morrissey: No, no, no. The first one that I came in on was "Blue," for me an extraordinary record and I just imagined as I listened to music I would listen to that record and the two which followed it which I found quite daunting really, especially, I think, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" which still mesmerizes me. Everything about that record completely mesmerizes me. And when I first saw the lyric sheet and the vastness of these words, I actually had to close the record and thought I have to leave this for another day. This is just a monster.
Do you feel that way about those albums? Are they dear to you?
JM: Well, I was very -- you know, after "Court and Spark" which was my sixth album -- see, I had five without really like a band. There was no real chance of air play without the bottom end on it, and it took me that long to get my band. So I get my band, the record has some commercial success, some nominations, and it's viewed as a kind of a peak. And after that -- okay, because I was so long to develop, six albums, that's as much of a run as people get in the public eye without -- your name is boring. It doesn't matter what you do after that. But I was still in a state of growth, right?
So then I thought, okay -- "Hissing of Summer Lawns," I thought, was still going forward. I recognized that it was a little experimental, it hadn't quite leveled out yet and there were things that I was craving. I was craving the bottom end to do certain things and I couldn't find the right players until Jaco came along to agree with my idea of what that part of the music should do. They wouldn't take the chances that I asked.
Then "Hejira" was a kind of a cleansing process. Most of it was written on a solo -- you know, I drove cross- country with a couple of friends. Then I drove back, took my time. Very pensive driving across America. That's when most of that was written. So it has -- it's a good driving across America album. A lot of people that have driven across, like, young musicians coming from Detroit to L.A. that took it with them and drove. They really got the full-bodied feeling of that piece because you're coming through those deserts -- it comes more to life if you take the same journey, you know?
(Music up: Excerpt from "Hejira.")
Morrissey: A lot of your songs are very filmic in the sense that you begin by describing the weather or the scenery and then you get stuck into the story or whatever it is you have to relate.
JM: Yeah. Well, see, the music too is like scoring for a film. Like I usually get the music first. And there'll be a pocket of it, like the A section, you'll say, okay, the A section will hold descriptive -- just the way the music is, it will hold descriptive language. But when we get to the B, look how the melody is here. The language must be direct. You know, no poetry, just clean in, like "you got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend." Like theatrical monologue, you know. Now the music here, the way the chords are drifting and everything will allow for descriptive passage again. Here again the music will not, it's angular and requires -- so there's that part to the art too, and the music dictates a lot of that.
Morrissey: I know you don't like to talk about the plethora of "Junior Joni's," but I must be allowed to at least make one comment about it because it has become so incredibly prevalent, your influence. Do you ever listen to the radio or -- and think -- hear yourself -- and think --
JM: Not as much as others do.
Morrissey: -- and think, "Oh, come on, that's a direct lift from something I've done."
JM: People tell me all the time that that is, but I don't really -- I don't really hear it. I mean, I'll hear a thing here and there -- even Prince, you know, like who's an interesting hybrid who's taken some things from me or so he claims but his influences are me and Sly. Now you take me and Sly and hybrid that, you're going to get something unique because he played back I think it was "Paisley Park," I went to a playback here. And there was a harmonic passage in one of the songs that really interested me, and I said to him, "Oh, you know, where's that coming from?" Because it sounded fresh to me, you know, and he said, "You," you know, and I couldn't hear it. But time went by and I heard something and it was -- the reason I couldn't hear it was because it was something that Larry Carlton played against my architecture which I'm very familiar with and I'm familiar with what I added also, but -- yeah, he'd taken something between those two things. You know what I'm saying?
But a lot of -- there was a radio show that was given to me, assuming that I would be flattered by it, that I found greatly insulting where this guy had rounded up a lot of young women, only one of them who I could tell you who it was, and I can see a little of my influence on her, not to name names, but a lot of Joan Baez and a lot of Bonnie Raitt also and maybe more so.
Anyway, what the radio show claimed, and it was, I think it was -- I think it was an hour long -- was all these young women had been listening to me and you could even tell which album they'd gotten hung up on. And this one was hung up on "Court and Spark" and then he played something. To me it bore no resemblance to "Court and Spark." This one was hung up on this and to me it was -- I found it insulting that they would, you know -- because harmonically it was very standard tuning. It was the very thing that I left to get away from. You know, in standard tuning it seemed to me that it had been mined out so no matter what colors you put together, you'd heard it. It was like it had all been laid out. So by twiddling the strings and going off into this adventure into the unknown, you coughed up fresh chordal progressions and so on to get away from that. So to hear these girls being likened to the thing that I had before I had begun my recording career abandoned, you know.
And then to add insult to injury, at the end he said, "These women are all beating her at her own game and check this out she doesn't know what a melody is anymore," and he played "The Reoccurring Dream" which is a choral piece and also full of montage and satire and, you know, and I thought, God, that's no illustration of loss of perspective, that's growth. It's a choral piece. It's counter melodies."
(Music up: Excerpt from "The Reoccurring Dream.")
Morrissey: Well, there's a great toughness within you which I think is overlooked, you know, this very old image of you, you know, the daughter who never left home, the daughter who's upstairs in her bedroom playing her guitar I think is just so annoying and such a dated concept --
Morrissey: -- and repeatedly writers would regurgitate it and so forth, and I'd just think, are you really listening to these records? Do you not really hear the strong woman --
JM: It's a saga, isn't it? I mean, if you look at it -- because there is a lot of autobiography and really deep changes in terms of psychological -- like a good short story should have. Like the premise of a good short story is your central character goes through a change.
Morrissey: But are you allowed to change within music?
JM: No, you're not allowed to change within show business. You get typecast. So I was a young, vulnerable, young, very feminine creature. And I couldn't survive that way. And I broke down in a certain way and when I came back, I came back with some tooth. It's like Marilyn Monroe turned into Barbara Stanwyck. So nobody could really get used to this padded-shoulder female that emerged and they rejected her and it was quite a different persona and it wasn't a contrived persona either.
Morrissey: It was natural growth.
JM: It was indigenous growth, you know. And I've gone through a lot of -- so maybe that's a little too edgy and you've got to temper that, you know, balancing my male- female. It's a man's business. Rather than complain about that you have to hold your own. You have to develop some strength. You can't just go fluttering through it like Madame Butterfly.
Morrissey: No, no. Who are you favorite poets?
JM: I don't like poetry. I never liked it. I always smelled a rat. I could always, like, see the poetic stance in a lot of it. I like some Yeats. I like sonically a lot of Yeats and I like his craft. I set one Yeats poem to music but I disagreed with a couple of ideas in them and I put in some qualifications and I rewrote a part that I thought he hadn't really finished. I think he just -- it's my assumption --
Morrissey: That's very kind of you (laughs).
JM: -- that he got caught up in the Moderne and left his first draft kind of sloppy because it was hip to leave the petticoat -- this is my assumption. So I rewrote it in the style that he started his first stanza with, like, did what I thought he would do if he finished it.
Morrissey: Do films inspire songs within you?
JM: I'm trying to think if I've written from a film. Maybe a line here or there. I know Dylan said to me at one point that he, you know, he couldn't write anymore, and I said, "Oh, what about this and what about that?" And he said, "Oh, the box wrote it." I said, "What do you mean 'the box'?" He said, "I write down things from movies and things I've heard people say and I throw them in the box." I said, "I don't care where you got your bits and pieces; you still put them all together."
I'm sure I've taken -- like "Clouds" was inspired by a moment in a book where this guy's up in a plane looking down at clouds and I was reading the book up in a plane looking down at clouds. Put the book down -- "Henderson the Rain King" -- that song came from some little bit of "Henderson the Rain King." I'm sure I've got little bits of movies in there, but I can't think of one right now.
(Music up: Excerpt from "Clouds.")
Morrissey: If you sing sad songs and very strong songs and very powerful, meaningful songs, do you think your audience feel -- feel all the better if you -- if they get the sense that you walk off the stage and you take the sadness with you, rather than perhaps you walk off the stage, jump on a Harley, and fly down the highway -- the freeway? Sorry.
JM: Well, it depends on the individual. Like a case in point, this girl came up to me and said, "Hi, Joni" -- I was sitting in a sidewalk cafe smoking somewhere, and I'm kind of open to public encounter when I do that, especially alone, you know, -- "I'm a fan of your music, I love your music. I'm a manic depressive. I like your music but I hate pictures of you. Everytime I see you, you're smiling and it makes me so mad."
So there's a person who thinks, you know, like I'm suffering, she's suffering. If they see evidence otherwise, you know, then they feel that I'm unauthentic. Whereas I feel more ambidextrous, you know. I do -- I suffer, I enjoy; I suffer, I enjoy.
Morrissey: So you think there's a certain section of your audience who might feel cheated if they see you happy?
JM: I think there is that possibility. That's a shame but I think there are those out there, yeah.
Morrissey: Although your songs have never, to me, been depressing --
JM: No, I hope not.
Morrissey: -- because songs can't really be depressing because the actual act of writing a song is so positive, so how could it ever really be depressing -- but you have such an openness of heart that it can be construed as being sad --
JM: And what's wrong with being sad?
Morrissey: Nothing at all.
JM: That's what's wrong, I think, that's what we have to learn like that the Hungarians know and the Czechoslovakians know, people who live long under siege. The Irish, I suspect, know. They should know if they don't that the world is not a smile button and great art and literature has to embrace all kinds of things.
(Music up: Excerpt from "Magdalene Laundries.")
Announcer: You've been listening to a special edition of Words + Music featuring Joni Mitchell in an exclusive interview with Morrissey, highlights from Joni Mitchell's new Reprise Records release "Hits and Misses."
(End of show.)