Q "Harlem in Havana" is the opening song of your first album of new material in four years, which is "Taming the Tiger." Joni, "Harlem in Havana" sounds like -- it sounds like an invitation to a big party.
A It does, yeah, in a certain way. What -- it is an attempt to recreate the sound at the end of a mile-long midway. There was a midway that came up from Florida and played in my hometown every summer. And at the very end of it was the double Ferris wheel, Club Lido was along the side, Dancing Waters, the Caterpillar, the Motorcycle -- Cyclotron or whatever it was -- all of these things with their own generators. So there was a tremendous cacophony. And the one place that we were all forbidden -- any kid that I knew anyway -- we were forbidden to stop in front of Harlem in Havana. Our parents said, "Don't let me catch you there." All it was was black burlesque. And every hour on the hour, the band would come out onto the bandstand, and it had a good horn section. And it was my first exposure to black music live. And it was way back on the beat and swampy and the source of total fascination for me. So whenever I heard the Harlem in Havana review coming out, like, down I would run.
Well, at the age of 13, a girl who lived about a block away from me, who ripened rather early ran off with a trumpet player from Harlem in Havana for the summer and came back a bleached blonde. And I was forbidden to hang out with her. The following year when Harlem in Havana returned, she and I went and we stood out in front and the chorus girls came out with their blue satin capes with these big silver spangles on them and their darned stockings and looking very tired and bored and chewing gum, some of them. And they made a kind of -- the tallest girls was in the middle, so they made a kind of a pyramid. The shorter girls were on the outer edges. And they stood there with their capes. And the barker was barking and every once in a while they would open their capes, flap them open and all they had underneath was a teddy. It wasn't that risquÈ. But somehow or another this was view, at that time, as very shocking. And my girlfriend said to me, "You see the tall guy in the middle?" And I said, "Yeah." "It's a man." "No," I couldn't believe this. You know, the '50s were such an isolated and naive and innocent time.
Anyway, she got us in. We were both under 16. And we watched this show, which was really kind of Redd Foxx comedy and a lot of plumage and high kicking and great music to my ears, anyway. So this is -- the thickness of the arrangement, the density of it, is an attempt to, in an orderly fashion, create the cacophony and the compressed density of the sound as you listen to that band through the whirring of the generators of the Caterpillar, which was adjacent, and the screams of people on the roller coaster, which was -- on the double Ferris wheel, rather, which was to the other side of it.
Q And you mention the horn section. I'm assuming it's Wayne Shorter, right?
A Well, Wayne, and I'm playing horns on the VG8 on the guitar, which has, you know, in its pallet also some horn samples.
Q I mean, I knew it sounded like a party. And the thing is, is sometimes people have an image of Joni Mitchell of being real serious. But there's always been songs like "Shiny Toy," "Ray's Dad's Cadillac," "In France They Kiss on Main Street." Those are all kick-up-your-heels, dance-and-swing songs, you know.
A Oh, I was a dancer in my teens and kind of a party animal, you know. I think it was a shock to my friends when, suddenly, you know, I bought a guitar and introverted and began to think somewhat deeply. After all, I was a blonde.
Q So do people miss that part of your personality? Does it go by them that you like to have a good time and --
A Not my friends. I mean, there's -- I think there's usually quite a mixture of material on an album, especially in the later albums. "Blue" was a sad album, for the most part. "For the Roses" was struggling to understand or to find something in lieu of religion, which seemed pretty corrupt, to hang on to. I discovered Nietzche, which is the Bible for the godless, really. You know, he gives you -- you have to really kind of sink into the pits to understand Nietzche, because he looked at more truth than most people could. I mean, even Carl Jung opened up his writings and said -- and slapped it shut and said, you know, "He'll have no friends."
Q There was scuttlebutt about a year ago that you were going to retire from the music business. What changed your mind?
A The VG8, the guitar, basically. The problems that I had seemed to be many. I seemed to have been blacklisted for about 25 years. Everybody, no matter what I did, nothing seemed to come up to "Court and Spark" for people, including "Hejira," which was kind of trashed at the time and later was listed as a classic. It just seemed that I was in the game and not of it. You know, suited up, but not allowed to run or a man of war in the pasture, as I said in Mojo Magazine. They translated it into manure in the pasture. Let's get that typo straight. And along came this guitar.
The other problem that I had was technical, that I had invented all of these tunings and required a rack of instruments around me in order to play and still never seemed to really get in tune. And I have good pitch and I was frustrated that I spent most of the time in concert in the act of tuning. And along came this instrument, which gave me -- normal guitar player's tuning problems. It had the capacity -- not that it was designed for this, but that you could use it in this way. You could take over some of the color channels and lie to it, basically, because it's all zeros and ones, right? You know, you could file all of my -- I guess it's about 50 different tunings into this instrument so that I could go from one to the other, you know, with the turn of a dial, like a radio station, and I'd be in the next tuning. It even has a button on it that, if you're in the middle of a performance and you're out of tune and you don't want to stop and tune manually, you just hit it and hold it down and it tunes it back up numerically. So it's -- I'm using it in a way that most people aren't. For most people coming to the instrument, it's just a little box that contains a lot of different amps and a lot of different guitar sounds and some horn sounds and some odd sounds, like a computer guitar. But for me, it's the brain that holds all of these tunings and allows me to perform with facility, without this handicap. Yeah, that was the main thing.
Q And also, is it your health, because I had read that --
A Yeah, too.
Q -- I know you had polio when you were younger. Did that keep you off the road?
A Yeah, that -- yeah, the '80s were very kind of hard on me. I was butchered by dentists. That's a story we don't really want to get into, but I was -- you know, I spent about five years in dental hell and simultaneously in litigation, several court cases. Everybody that could rob me in the greedy '80s, the Government of California, my bank, my business manager, everyone around me that could. So the '80s were a rough decade for me. And on top of it, I was diagnosed as having post-polio syndrome, which they said was inevitable -- I'm a polio survivor -- that 40 years after you had the disease, which is a disease of the nervous system, the wires that animate certain muscles are taken out by the disease and the body, in its ingenious way, the filaments of the adjacent muscles, send out branches and try to animate that muscle so that it's kind of like the Eveready Bunny, the muscles all around, the muscles that are gone, begin to go also, because they've been trying to drive this muscle for so long. And so things -- that's the nature of what was happening. So I had it mostly in my back. So you don't see it as much as you would in a withered leg or an arm. But the weight of the guitar became unbearable.
Also, the acoustic guitar requires that you extend your shoulder out in an abnormal way. And coincidentally, some of the damage to my back, in combination with that position, was very painful. So there was a merchant in Los Angeles who knew of my difficulties and knew this machine was coming along that would solve my tuning problems. And he made, on spec, a strata caster for me out of yellow cedar that was very light and thin as a wafer. So an electric guitar is a more comfortable design for my handicap.
Then, a genius lothier built me this two-and-a-half pound guitar, which is not only beautiful to look at, but kind of contours to my body. It fits my hip and, you know, even kind of cups up like a bra. And, you know, its just beautifully designed. So -- and then, also, I abandoned regular medicine and fell into the hands, first of a kahona and then kind of a Chinese mystic acupuncturist, who put down his pins and just points at you. I know this sounds real quacky, but they did some mysterious good to the problem and I feel fine.
Q So the '90s so far have been a better decade than the '80s?
A Oh, yeah. The '80s were just awful.
Q Because the last album you did of new studio material, "Turbulent Indigo" was in '94. It won a couple of Grammys. There were honors coming from every direction. Did you anticipate the higher profile and recognition that followed "Turbulent Indigo?"
A No, no. One would never anticipate this.
Q I mean, it was a great piece of work, though. I mean, when you put it out, did you think, "I'm going to cast this stone into the water and see what ripples come back?" And then these waves sort of came back.
A Well, I was fed up and, you know, I put a black joke on the cover, a Van Gogh with his ear cut off, because I was that frustrated. So I kind of cut my ear off in effigy. And I don't know whether people got it or whether it was catalyst to change, but things did begin to change, because -- you know, I felt that I had been doing good work for 20 some years and that it was not being recognized at all. Of course, it was by my fans, you know. You know, I have a loyal body of people that look forward to the next album in the same way, I suppose, that I look forward to Castaneda's next book. You know, I would -- you know, keep going, keep going.
Q Well, did you feel a sense of vindication? I mean, when "Hissing of Summer Lawns" and "Hejira" first came out, they got slammed by some people. And now, of course, they're heralded. Do you feel vindicated?
A Yes and no. I mean, the reviews, for instance, of this last concert tour were very schizophrenic. I mean, the laments for the lack of early material in this last performance were also accompanied by some strange statements like -- let me rephrase this.
For 25 years, the public voice, let's say, in particular the white press, lamented the lack of four-on-the-floor and major/minor harmony. As my work got more progressive and absorbed more Black culture, which is inevitable because, you know, I love Black music, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis. Not that I set out to be a jazzer or that I am a jazzer, most of my friends are in the jazz camp. I know more people in that community and I know the lyrics to '40s and '50s standards, whereas, I don't really know '60s and '70s pop music. So I'm drawing from a resource of American music that's very Black influenced with this little pocket of Irish and English ballads, which I learned as I was learning to play the guitar. You know, basically, it was like trainer wheels for me, that music. But people want to keep me in my trainer wheels, whereas my passion, you know, lies in Duke Ellington more so than Gershwin. The originators, Charlie Parker. You know, I like Patsy Cline. The originals in every camp, you know, were always given a hard time.
Q But you felt like as your music absorbed more of these Black influences and was based less on simple harmony and melody there was a real resistance and that years later --
A Yeah, in the press.
A Not the people who -- you know, believe me, I get my strokes on the street, but I don't generally in the press. The press has a tendency to listen to it, not like it and then it appears at the end of the year in their top ten list. You know, but they kill it for sales somehow or another with their whatever it is, their expectation for it to be something else. And this tendency, especially from white reviewers, to say that there's no melody there, you know, because white rockers are scared of anything more complex than a seventh chord. And I like wide harmony, like Debussy. It's modern. I like modern classical music. To me, those things are somewhat quaint and charming, but they're no longer an influence. And so I can't go back there. So I feel like for 25 years the criticism levied against me has been unjust. It's asking me to go in a direction that I outgrew.
A You know, that was easy to assimilate. And it didn't really depict my emotionality, you know. Blacks and women have a lot in common. You know, we're entering into -- we've been repressed, right. And we're entering into a world and trying to find our place. So if a chord depicts an emotionality, our emotionality is going to be more complex. You know, so wider voicings. I mean, I don't suffer in a pure minor. You know what I mean. I just don't. I'm not happy in a pure major. I -- there's always some -- ever since the bomb dropped, there's always been a second note running through everybody's lives, whether they're sensitive to it or not. But, you know, where that second lies or that 11th or whatever it is, there's a lot of prejudice levied against that particular kind of harmony in the rock press.
Q Well, what about the latest batch of songs on "Taming the Tiger"? You spent a couple of years making it. Did these songs come from a specific period or were they written ever since the last record came out?
A Well, I've been struggling to write since the last record came out. And it's four years, like you say, but you have to understand that the record company -- I turned this in quite a while a go. And I did "Hits" and "Misses," which took a lot of research. I had to listen to everything I ever did in the middle. There was a project in the middle. You know, it wasn't just a complete throw out there. There was a lot of thought that went into that, also.
The thing that I found was that, like, my experience in the '80s was I got a radical hit of the '80s. The worst part of the '80s fell on me. I had unguarded marbles. So he who has unguarded marbles in a period which is permissive and it's fashionable to be greedy, suffers. And I did. And so I had the problems -- I had rich people's problems, basically. You know, it wasn't that I was taken down to starvation, but this tiny percentage that I'm able to glean, you know, from this business, because everybody strips off your profits, then you have like, 30 percent comes off of that. You know, you manage to get this tiny distillate. You generate a lot of money, but you manage to get this tiny distillate. And then the Government of California levied an unjust tax against me. Twelve people in the country received this tax and it was retroactive. It was 15 percent of that tiny little bit that we managed to glean from the record company who took beyond the lion share, then the manager, the agent. And then what's left of that, you know, the government. And then they levied a 15 percent tax against the gross. So, you know, I had financial difficulties. You can't really write about that, it's unattractive. Oh, yeah, the business has been good to you. Nobody wants to know. So as a writer, I suddenly found that my problems with those lacked a universality. They just sounded like kind of a whining. There was nothing really -- and at the same time, my work was being tremendously undervalued. And nobody was being sent to adjudicate it with the intelligence, really, to comprehend it. And so the public statements against it, to me, were just flat out ignorant, you know. And it was a hard -- and then I had health problems, you know, on top of all of this. So what am I going to write about? I just got madder and madder and madder at the business.
And the first song I attempted to write -- and then all these honors came, well, the honors kind of fell short. It seemed like it was a kind of a copycat crime, that once one was given to me, that the others felt the necessity to do it, but they didn't really know why. And once the honors had kind of passed, we went back into this thing, "Your later work isn't as good as your older work," which isn't true. There's been a tremendous amount of growth. Besides, you know, an actress is not expected to continue to play her ingenue roles. You know, I've written roles for myself to grow into gracefully. But there is no growing into gracefully in the Pop world, unfortunately, because the airwaves -- everybody is in the same bind. You know this. We're all in this same bind. Since the record business went public and the men at the top want the graph to go up and nothing else, everybody's getting the squash, including the record company executives. So, you know, from the top of the business down, we're all now in the same boat, so I'm not just a whiny artist. It used to be that you could pin it -- the business is sick. And music and the genuinely gifted, such as myself -- and there aren't a lot in any generation, you know -- being shunned from the airwaves in favor of, you know, tits and ass bubble gum kind of junk food, you know, is a tragedy. And there is no other arena for me to make music in. So I feel constantly in a position of injustice. There's a civil liberties thing here. Is it my chronological age? That should never be held against an artist. You know, we're all going to grow middle-aged. We need middle-aged songs, you know. I'm an unusual thing. I'm a viable voice. For some reason, even though I want to quit all the time, you know, I still have a driving wheel to do this thing.
Q And you mentioned that some of your life experiences at the time wouldn't be universal in songs. And one of the songs on the new album actually has the lyrics written by someone else, "The Crazy Cries of Love." I'm not familiar with the gentleman whose lyrics you put to music there.
A He's a songwriter from my hometown. And he had these words set to an entirely different kind of music. And I just loved it, because -- well, I've written a lot about the bridges of Saskatoon. It's called The City of Bridges. "Cherokee Louise," you know, is a story that takes place of an Indian girlfriend of mine in the Broadway Bridge. This takes place on another bridge in Saskatoon one stormy night.
Yeah, one by one, I'm kind of setting stories on the bridges of Saskatoon, I guess. And it appealed to me on that level. Also, I like the flirty quality of it. And in the mood that I was in, I really wanted to be singing flirty songs, but was incapable of writing them. So I wrote the choruses, he wrote the versus and I set it to music. And I set to a kind of a Hank Williams kind of old country swing feel.
Q The song "The Crazy Cries of Love" was a collaboration between you and Don Freed. And I was wondering how you feel -- you sort of did this unwitting collaboration with Janet Jackson when she sampled one of your songs lately. And then, of course, people cover your songs. How do you feel about that?
A Specifically, the Janet Jackson piece, I love that. As a matter of fact, at that time, I was trying to break down my prejudice to contemporary radio and I was listening to a station. You know, I'd leave it set there and I'd listen to it for a couple of days to give it a fair shake. And at that particular time, that song sailed out of everything else, I thought. You know, I love the contouring between her voice and my voice. And "Why you want to go and do that?" And I loved the video. You know, the video, to me, was one of my favorite videos ever. The dignity and the liveliness. Piccaso would have loved that video. You know, there were 100 paintings in that video. The spirit of it. You know, I guess it was all taken from a book of photographs taken in South Africa at a certain point. And they, as I understand, re-shot it in L.A., although I don't know where they found those squat toilets in L.A. You know, I didn't think that they existed on this continent. But, you know, it had a humanity and a quiet dignity. No, I was very honored to be a part of that.
Q And then, of course, other people cover your works. Sarah McLachlan did a version of "Blue." Sometimes in interviews you seem a little put out by those female singer/songwriters who claim you as an influence. They really can't touch you artistically, but they sell a lot of records. Do you feel like you compete with them in the Pop arena?
A Well, no, I'm forced to compete by the interview system. I have no problem. You know, I'm honored to be an influence. I think art should beget art and spark it. And I'm always looking for something to spark me. But I'm less likely to be influenced by a tributary of myself, you know. I mean, you can learn from students from time to time. But what I resent, in a nutshell, is being -- and this has been done to me -- is to be pitted against them intentionally and be told I'm not as good, you know. Like, there was a radio show, for instance, that was done a while ago that somebody gave me thinking I'd be honored. And it was a lot of the new women coming up. And the interview began by saying, "There are a lot of women coming onto the scene these days, all of them claiming Joni Mitchell as an influence. You can even tell what albums they've been listening to. Take this one." And they would play it. She's been listening to "Court and Spark." And they'd play the record. I started playing in tunings because I couldn't get at the chords that were in my head on the guitar. They didn't exist on the guitar, really. So now, this girl -- so harmonically, by the time I got to "Court and Spark," was very, very deviant from the -- in other words, the harmony the girl was using was very primary colors. The content of the lyric. I mean, I thought, how can you say she's been listening to "Court and Spark." It doesn't -- it's an insult to "Court and Spark," because this is so rudimentary.
Then this one's been listening to this and this one's been listening to that. Then the final insult at the end of it was that he said -- and this is what gets levied against me a lot, you know, all these girls are beating her at her own game. She has no sense of melody. And he played a choral piece, "The Reoccurring Dream" as an example of my loss of perspective. That's a beautiful piece of music. But melody is not the point of it. It's textural and there are snippets of melody -- this is one of the hardest things for me to bear is to be told again and again that I have no melodic sense or that there's no melody here. My argument is: Does Marvin Gaye have melody? I mean, I try to sing the words and give them their proper inflection. Every time I sing it, I sing it different.
Q But why would you feel like you have to measure you -- you know, the success of one of your pieces by what someone says in the press or by the sales of it?
A Well, I don't, you know. I don't. But the press -- the press has pitted me against the women coming up. You know, it's not a battle of my choosing.
A You know.
Q Yeah, because I don't feel like you have to compete in that arena, because it's apples and oranges.
A I don't either, but one thing, too -- one thing that I do get tired of all the way along, they'll do articles, The Women of Rock. They used to be smaller groups. You know, always The Women of Rock. My favorite compliments have come from the Black community. A blind, Black piano player said to me, "Joni, you make genderless, raceless music." Now, that's my optimism. And I think that limiting me -- let me put it this way: The painters -- the women who painted, the women impressionists, you don't really hear about them. And they all attended the same academy. There was an extra letter added to their name. Associates of the academy. They were never allowed, really, to be academy members, always associates of the academy. But continuously lumping me in with the women, which the white press does and the Black press doesn't. The Black press recently, in Vibe Magazine, had an article where they singled out Miles Davis and Santana and myself and said, "All you kids with your tight little abs and your two hits, take a look at these guys." You know, I feel that that is a more accurate museum grouping for me, you know. And the genderization is a form of bigotry and not really hearing what I'm doing.
Q Well, I mean, the music business, as we've already discussed, is geared to the lowest common denominator and to younger demographics. If it wasn't that way, your work would probably be heard by more people, do you agree?
Q It always seems that you're more interested in innovating, anyway, than being influenced by others. How do you do your work without -- as you said earlier, it's possible to learn from your students, but it does seem that your work is apart. It's not influenced by the contemporary music.
A Well, it's influenced -- my process of learning has been particular. You know, I never-- I don't have the right kind of brain for an academic. I learn most intensely by admiration. If I admire something or am interested in something, I become very alert and I take in a lot all at once and it stores. And then it mulches and it sits down. You know, like when I went and sang in this revue. I sang "Stormy Weather." When I heard the tape back, it was a Ray Charles lick in there. I swear to God. You know, I wasn't even aware I was influenced by Ray Charles. But for the better part of a bar, his presence is on me. There's a lot of Cab Calloway in "Harlem in Havana," certainly a lot of Duke Ellington. These admirations were Cab Calloway I absorbed as a pre-teen or pre-rock-and-roll because there were a few clips of his that used to run as shorts in home television station, because they hadn't filled up with commercials yet. So the TV coming up from the states which had this gap for commercials, we didn't have that many commercials up there yet, you know, so they'd fill it in with shorts. And Cab Calloway was one of them. So, you know, it surprises me every once in a while, like I'll hear, listen to that, that -- I know where I got that from, because all the time I'm trying to be uninfluenced by anything, including myself, not just do it for myself. That's one reason why I invented the tunings, because every time I twist and twiddle the strings into a new tuning, pain in the butt as it got to be in terms of performance, I am back to square one. The neck is completely foreign again and I have to discover. I have to find the chords in the tuning. So it keeps -- astrologically, I just found out -- there's a book of birthdays. I'm born in the week of depth and the day of the discoverer. So I have a need to discover because of astrological influence.
Q There's a line in the song "Taming the Tiger" you sing, "Every disc a poker chip, every song just a one-night stand," you describe some popular music as "genuine junk food for juveniles." But pop music like that has always existed, hasn't it?
A Yeah, it has. But the difference has been -- radio, for instance. Let's take your field. In Toronto -- or rather when I lived in New York, I was on the road most of the time playing little clubs. And when I had time off and came back to New York, I would run into the house and I would turn on the radio and disc jockeys back then were creative. If it was raining, the disc jockey was an audiophile and he was hired for his talent and his scope. And he could play a rain piece by Charlie Parker. If his scope embraced some bubble gum, he could follow it up with that so that, you know, you can have an afternoon of rain montage all over the place. I'm -- I just don't like the segregation that has occurred for the sake of commerce to music -- I don't like being told, you know, that this album doesn't fit any format, that music of this caliber doesn't fit into a format. I'm not trying -- I will not pander to a format. Does that mean I never get on the airwaves? If music of this caliber is being made, don't you think it's kind of a crime that no one -- that it has no outlet that will accept it?
Q Well, I mean --
A I think it is.
Q What can the music industry do to foster its true visionaries? That's not, unfortunately, the business of the music industry or the radio industry. I mean, they don't seem to be motivated to do that.
A No, they're motivated to sell jeans and junk. (Pause.)
Q Joni, there's a beautiful self-portrait on the cover of "Taming the Tiger." You're holding a kitty cat. And I know it's a pretty easy observation to make, but it seems, especially on the new album, there's a couple of songs - "Harlem in Havana" and "Love Puts on a New Face," they seem to share qualities with your artwork. Sometimes they're austere, other times they're kind of bright and bursting with color and imagery. Does painting offer you similar rewards as making music?
A Well, I'm a painter first and a musician second, as it turns out. You know, I had impulses to create classical music when I was seven and eight, but I had my love of it taken away by raps on the knuckles from my piano teacher saying, "Why would you want to play by ear when you could have the masters under your fingertips?" So the impulse to compose in the community that I grew up in was thwarted and it didn't come out for quite a while later. I switched to the guitar, mainly -- with no ambition to be in show business. As a matter of fact, as a teenager, I felt sorry for the stars for their loss of privacy and I wrote a poem about it in high school. So I'm an odd candidate for celebrity in that I didn't practice in front of the mirror and I never really, you know, wanted the grand -- I'm not addicted to applause. And I have a painter's ego and a love -- I get a thrill of just opposing one color against another. I get like a private rush. I'm an only child. It's a form of solitary play. If I put that color next to that color and add another color, you know, I get a buzz.
It's the same with music. I think I paint -- I don't have any of the musician's languages. I read as a child, but I let the reading ability go. I don't use it in the recording process. I don't -- because I fiddle around with the guitar so much that I'm not playing it normally anyway, the numerical language that some musicians have, doesn't mean anything within my system, nor does the alphabetical system. I don't know what key I'm playing in. But with -- so I'm a sophisticated ignorant is basically what I am. But there are people who can come in, listen to what I play, write it out and follow it. My harmony is selected by my own interest in the same way that I would select to put that color next to that color. You know, I've produced most of my albums, except during my marriage to Chuck and we did more collaboration. You know, just so that we could see each other, because, you know, albums are kind of consuming. And, yeah, I think of myself as a painter who writes music.
Q And you do both on an instinctual basis. Does the art world view you as a dilettante because of your notoriety as a musician?
A Always. I mean, because, you know, the Western world -- because of Socrates, we are a society of specialists. You know, Whitey basically went the way of the specialist, with the exception of the Italians. I think the Italians, perhaps, could recognize a renaissance person. But for -- you know, in Socrates' Utopia, you couldn't be a poet and a painter and a musician. You had to be one or the other and it was actually against the law to -- in his utopian-just society.
And I think that that spills over so that, yeah, you're not really taken seriously as a painter, which is fine by me because, you know, I've managed to keep the music pure anyway, even in the Pop arena. And the art world is -- well, they want you to do series and -- they have the same problem. I'm trying to assimilate too many periods. I'm glad I didn't make a career of painting, but I am driving to paint. And they work as a farmer's trick. They summer follow one another. You know, so like when the soil gets sick, if I -- I keep the creative juices going by switching from one to the other. So that when the music or the writing dries up, I paint. So you rest the ear a while and you rest the inner mind, because poetry takes a lot of plumbing the depths. I mean, the way I write anyway, it takes a lot of meditation. And sometimes, you know, you bang into boogie men on the descent into some of these themes, you know.
So psychologically, I think, that the switching from poetry to painting and back to music, there are three different psychologies, really. When you paint, you shut down the inner dialogue completely. You come down to synapses, you know, and occasionally an voice, like Robbie the Robot, goes "Red in the upper right-hand corner." You know, it comes down to impulses. Poetry is almost insane. You have to stir up overlapping thoughts, chaos in your mind and then pluck from it. Without the painting to clear the head, I don't think I could do it. And the music has always been -- you know, the music, I think, is a true gift and has always been kind of soothing to me and not a problem. You know, the poetry is psychologically dangerous and the painting kind of balances it out.
Q Is there a physical place where you like to paint or write, special place, like where you live and certain rooms where you do most of your work or are you just always traveling with a pen and an easel or something?
A Yeah, I'm influenced by environment, but not to that degree to where I have to have some kind of la-la setting, you know.
Q I was thinking about your guitar tunings, because we were talking about that earlier. And it's just easy to draw this analogy between the colors of the paints and the different tunings that you use. And how did these tunings develop? You were just looking for different ways to do things, rather than just playing the standard major chords?
A Well, I wrote my first song in standard tuning, "Urge for Going," but I guess it's because of the stars. The guitar -- in the folk houses, the chords that everybody played sort of just sounded the same and the chords that I heard in my head you couldn't get off the neck, even with tremendous facility and they just don't exist. The chords that I play, if you don't twiddle the strings, you don't get them. You know, I've made the guitar kind of orchestral. It's much wider than -- it's down into the territory of the bass in some cases. And the chords are very, very wide relative to what guitar chords usually are. You couldn't get that without the tunings. But there were traditions of tunings, the Hawaiians, for instance, played in slack key and I don't think they had very -- they were usually major chords. The old blues guys tuned in banjo tuning, which is open G tuning, which is what Keith Richards plays in. He doesn't even play the sixth string on the guitar. He plays the guitar like a five-string banjo. So most of the old blues men, coming from banjo to guitar, not knowing anything about Spanish tuning, tuned the guitar into open G, D modal, which is just a dropped D.
These tunings were kicking around the coffeehouses. There were about three of them. So it was Eric Andersen that turned me on to them one night in Detroit because we used to bill at musicians passing through that time when I was married to Chuck Mitchell. We had extra bedrooms and everyone was poor so they usually stayed at our house. And we played music and if there were songwriters, we shared the songs that had been written since we saw each other last and so on. So in that way, I got into the tunings.
Well, soon they seemed to be explored and I didn't seem to be able to get any fresh colors out of them. So then I started tuning the guitar to chords that I heard in my head. And that's the way it went.
Q You said, and this might have been in the Mojo (magazine) piece, that, "My chords reflect my complex life, which is why my simple, old songs don't suit me." And I also read that you saw John Kelley doing some of your older songs. When you happen to hear one, do you ever feel like rediscovering them? I know you get this from your fans who've been with you from the beginning, but why couldn't you ever sing, say, "A Little Green"?
A First of all, my voice has changed. Secondly, the way I played guitar back then is completely foreign to me. You know, I have no idea how I did it. It's how I did it then. It's like, as a painter, if you ask Piccaso to go back and paint, like, in an early period of his, I doubt that he could. You're moving forward and it's always evolving. Basically, the reason I'm so unruly in this business is because I think like a painter, not like a musician. And I never wanted to be a human jukebox. You know, like I keep -- I think more like film or dramatic actress and a playwright. You know, these plays are more suitable to me. Those are-- I feel miscast in the early songs. You know, they're ingenue roles.
Q Well, I mean, it's interesting because maybe Bob Dylan or Van Morrison and Neil Young, they don't think like painters because they seem to have no problem playing those earlier songs or putting those old clothes on that maybe fit in a different way.
A But their styles didn't change as radically as mine over time, either. You know, it's not that difficult for them to go back and, you know, overall -- I mean, yeah, they haven't changed as much.
Q And you had a chance recently to reassess your work when you issued the "Hits" album and then the "Misses" compilation. Did you feel like "Misses" was a way for folks to catch up with you if they hadn't been around for the whole ride or to expose people to your more difficult pieces?
A It's hard to say what my reasoning was in the selection there, because of my work was technically misses, you know. I mean, the "Hits" is padded. I didn't really have enough hits to make a real hits album, really. I mean, unless you -- by the Hit Parade measure. But like "Circle Game," which was never on the Hit Parade, was distributed through summer camps all across the North American continent and, you know, was a hit. It was like "Old MacDonald." It became -- the same with "Big Yellow Taxi." I turned on the TV one day. I was like dialing around and I saw a woman holding an alligator. So I stopped. And there were a lot of New York inner-city kids around her. Turned out it was coming from the Bronx Zoo. And she said, "This is Harvey, do you want to pet him?" And all these little Grade 3 kids got up. And then she held up a skin, you know. And she said, "And this is Harvey's brother, look what they did to him." And they went, "Oh." And then she said, "Let's sing a song." She picked up a guitar and she sang "Big Yellow Taxi." And all these little rainbow of kids, little yellow kids and white kids and black kids and brown kids, you know, started singing my song, in Grade 3. And they knew all of the words. And I wept. So that was never a hit either on the Hit Parade, you know, because back in the early days, hits were on AM and I was an FM artist or an album-oriented artist. And you have to understand that there was -- to go on to AM you had to have a band. I couldn't find a band that could play my music until my sixth album. And when I did, it was a jazz band. You know, the L.A. Express. And so I entered into that world, because white -- some of the reviews from this last tour said that my music was not rhythmic and that there was no melody. The problem is that there's more rhythm there than they can cope with. And a lot of times, we're not dealing with the four major beats, because we know where they are. All right, we know where they are. So where they're saying there's no, in fact, there's too much. There's too much melody.
Q Well, how could any -- I mean, I didn't mean to interrupt you, but I saw the show--one of the shows at the Pauley Pavilion. With Blades on drums, how could they say there's no rhythm? I mean, he's like -- he's out of control rhythmically.
On the most recent tour that you did, you did play "Big Yellow Taxi" and you did play "Woodstock." Did you feel like those were older songs of yours that still held something for you?
A Woodstock, oddly enough, because it should be kind of a curio about an event, still has a life for me, you know. And "Big Yellow Taxi" is just kind of cute, you know. It's a ditty.
Q And you say that people tell you that, "Oh, Joni doesn't have the same melody that she used to." And something I used to hear was, "Well, she doesn't write about herself anymore. She's always writing about other people." Well, on "Taming the Tiger," there's a great deal of music that's on a first-person basis. One of the songs "Face Lift" tells of your relationship with your mother. Was it easy to write such a seemingly naked song at this stage of the game?
A Well, I had no choice because of the fight that I had with my mother was so disturbing that I dwelt on it obsessively. I mean, it was a major family squabble. It -- we rocked, you know. And it seemed odd, you know, that a woman in her 50s -- I was 50 at the time -- you know,
would be having this fight with her mother. And even though it's written as a middle-aged story, I had a girlfriend who went home for Christmas and came back and said, "That's exactly what happened to me." And she's like 30. So wherever, you know, unmarried sex takes place in this country with parental disapproval, it doesn't matter how old you are, the irony is that my mother is still worried about these things. You know, in these times when everything like that is so broken down in terms of television. They're not sleeping in twin beds anymore on TV. You know, I mean.
Q Has your mom heard "Face Lift?"
A Yeah, she dislikes it. But -- finds it humiliating, you know, but you should never get too close to a writer, I guess. (Pause.)
Q Joni, as you say, "happiness is the best face lift." It seems like you've been having a lot of fun lately. I wanted to ask you about some of these recent projects that you've been doing. The tour that you did with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, was it a good experience for you?
A Yeah, well, I think it was a great triple bill. And I took it on that account. You know, I hadn't performed in a long time and it seemed -- I was very -- you know, I thought, oh, that's a good show. But I had a little bad luck. Right out of the shoot, I got a virus coming out of -- we bussed out of Vancouver to the Gorge. And the bus had new carpet with glue. And the glue was really stinky. We burnt Patchouli like old hippies, you know, like to kind of mask it. Also, I'm allergic to air conditioning. To make a long story short, by the time I got to the Gorge, I was really sick and I had like my throat -- the roof of my mouth was red and my throat was like hamburger. And they sent me a doctor who gave me really extraordinarily violent medicine. And, you know, I played the two Gorge dates very ill, like delirious, but happy. I mean, I was enjoying it, but I was delirious, literally. And when we got to the eve of the San Jose gig, I couldn't get out of bed. My motor functions -- I had to tell myself to walk and tell myself to chew. So the medicine really worked some violence on me. And they sent for another doctor, Chinese doctor, who recognized it as, you know -- "doctor's pills give you brand new ills." Yeah, I had a violent reaction to it.
So I did the whole tour really from behind the wheel in terms of stamina. The San Jose, in particular, I was afraid to hit a high note. It takes a lot more air to hit a high note. And every time I went to hit a high note, I'd go all pins and needles and start to black out. So I had to kind of jockey things around. And I apologized, I believe, although I don't even remember that show. I said something, but I don't know what it was. And the press picked up on it and kind of, you know -- they assumed it was that I was rusty from, you know, not having been out of the shoot for a long time. But I was just really ill.
Q Well, what was it like playing with your ex-husband in the band, Larry Klein?
A Oh, we're really good friends. He called me up. I wasn't going to take a bass player because the guitar has so much bottom on it. And he said, "Joni, Joni, you've got to let me come." So we're the best of friends.
Q I was surprised that there was no collaboration between the three artists on the bill.
A Well, Bobby keeps much to himself. Van came to me at one point and said, "Have you spoken to Bobby yet?" And I said, "Yeah, I saw him after the Vancouver show." "Well, he hasn't spoken to me," he said. And I said, "Well, come on, let's crash his set." So there was a song in Japan that closed the show Bob and I were in in Tokyo of his. And he kind of short-sheeted me on stage. He pulled a number on me. So I said, "Well, we'll go out on this song of his and we'll get him." And, anyway, we went out and kind of crashed the set the one night. And Bob got a big kick out of it. It was really rough and like kind of -- I blew the words on it and blew the rhyme and had to make one up. And Bobby was looking at me grinning, what is she going to rhyme with it, because I got the first rhyming line wrong.
Q What song was it?
A "I Shall Be Released."
Q Also, recently, you did the Walden Woods benefit in April. You sang "Stormy Weather" backed by an orchestra. Would you ever do an album of cover songs?
A That's what I want to do. Rather than tour this album, because I'm so far behind because they're taking so long to release it, I want to go straight into the studio and record in that genre. That's really where my -- as a singer, if you separate all these things, just forget Joni the writer, because I write these kind of soliloquies which take more dramatic skills than vocal skills. There's no room to put a trill in. You've so many syllables to deal with. And you have to enact them, like an actress, as opposed to just singing a mood piece. So I need a break from my own music. And to disappear into standards would be a treat. I did two standards with Herbie and Wayne and Stevie Wonder on Herbie Hancock's album, which is coming out. "The Man I Love" and "Summertime." And my band and I now, since Woodstock, have an arrangement of "Summertime" that I think is really fresh. And I saw four chins quivering in the audience at Woodstock to that old chestnut. So I know it has a power.
Q And was going to Woodstock -- you didn't play the original festival. Was this a good experience when you played the --
A Oh, it was beautiful. It was beautiful. It was a beautiful audience. They loved my band. After, you know, some of the prejudice against too jazzy -- Joni's jazzy, all that, you know, the West Coast press tends to levy against me. The East Coast doesn't so much. And there was a banner in the audience about eight-foot long that said, "Joni's Jazz" and all these smiling heads above it. When I hit the stage, I thought, oh, good. And they applauded my band genuinely and enthusiastically every time a color entered and left, because, I mean, we took a big leap in growth, I think. It felt like that the band was that much more solid. Well, I was well, for one thing. And we added Isham and the addition of muted trumpet, which is a color that I love. It seemed to flesh everything out. And the audience was wonderful.
Q And there's a TV show that you have in the can that, I think, was done before the Woodstock show. And I guess that's going to come out this fall?
A It's -- I've got to go up in a couple of weeks and finish editing it. It's not -- the editing isn't completed yet.
Q And recently, there was a beautiful book of your lyrics. And I had read at that time that you might do a short story book or an autobiography?
A I'm contracted for an autobiography. But you can't get my life to go into one book. So, you know, I want to -- I want to start, actually, kind of in the middle and-- kind of the "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" period, which is very mystical period of my life and colorful. Not mystical on bended knee, but just, you know. If I was a novelist, I would like that to be my first novel. And it begins with the line, "I was the only Black man at the party." So I've got my opening line.
Q Do you have a lot of songs that have been left off of your various projects? I'm sure you're asked the question if you're going to compile a box set. And do you have some things that haven't been released along the way?
A Well, in terms of a box set, you know, my stock was so low that "Hits" and "Misses" is basically my box set. I don't know what will happen now. But there was -- you know, they wouldn't even put out a complete box set. It was to be a two record -- so I got rid of that part of the contract in "Hits" and "Misses." You know, I never wanted to put out a hits, because, like I say, I felt that legitimately I didn't really have that many hits and that my -- what were the most popular things in my repertoire were not my best work, really. So "Hits" and "Misses" kind of fulfills what contractually, at that point in my career, they would spring for.
Q But is there stuff that didn't make it out that you're holding onto?
A Oh, yeah, but like there are "Mingus" outtakes. I cut that with four or five different bands, all-star bands. You know, like the cream of the jazz world. But the "Mingus" project itself was so poorly received that, you know, it's archival. It's -- I think it would be interesting to people that like music. But the record business, which currently doesn't really care about music, doesn't care about the box set.
Q Finally, Joni, there's a poignant song on your new album, it's called "Stay In Touch." Last year, you reunited with your daughter, who you gave up for adoption after she was born. I don't want to assume that this was written about your daughter, but I can ask you if it was.
A When the kids came, Kilauren's boyfriend heard the song and said, "Kilauren, this is about you." And it is. It's about the beginnings of love, conducting yourself through it wisely. I don't think there's another song like it in existence. How foolish we all are when we're smitten. It applies. It wasn't the catalyst for it. Kilauren came in the middle of the project, you know. And one of the reasons why there was a delay in finishing it was because, you know, well, we just had to spend a lot of time with each other. So we'd spend three weeks and then I'd go back in the studio and then I'd go up there and we'd spend some more time and then I'd go back in the studio. And it definitely applies. But it applies to any new, terrific attraction. You know, it's basically how to steer yourself through that smitten period.
Q You had said before that you would send her messages in some of your earlier songs. When I heard you say that, I thought maybe "Chinese CafÈ."
A But she said, "Joni, it's so vague, I would have never picked up on that." But the irony is that I sat in flight with my hand on an Evian spritzer bottle on one whole tour spraying my -- misting my face because we were traveling a lot, to prevent dehydration, with my fingers over my daughter's face, because she was on the Evian spritzer bottle for a long time. So she probably heard the songs, but didn't recognize herself. And I covered up her face, you know, like with my fingers. So, yeah, we were passing each other all over the place.
Q When you met your daughter after so many years, did you see any of your qualities in her?
A Oh, well, when we first met, we, you know --we walked into the kitchen. They arrived and I was upstairs and I was glazing the cover painting. You know, I was varnishing it. So I walked out on the balcony of the house with brushes in my hand and I saw her kind of in the dark. And I ran downstairs. We went into the kitchen and we looked at each other and we said, "Huhh," exactly at the same time and in the same tone. And our speaking voices are almost identical. And in the first few weeks -- well, even now, we say exactly the same thing with the same inflection, you know, like at the same time, which people do sometimes when they're -- you know, in the beginning of relationships, there's a lot of kind of psychic things. But no, there's -- it's terrific. And we've had a couple of little skirmishes. And we're getting to know each other and it's just terrific. And I love my grandson.
(End of interview.)
© 2000 LBJS Broadcasting Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
Email KGSR | (512)832-4000