The Diva’s Last Stand

by James Reginato
W Magazine
December 2002

Joni Mitchell never does anything by the book. Divas are supposed to be late, but she shows up early for an interview. At 7:25 p.m., five minutes before a 7:30 dinner reservation, she is already ensconced in one of the walk-in-closet-size booths in the garden of the Hotel Bel Air. Living in a Spanish-style house not far away, she has become something of a nocturnal creature. After a number of stalking scares, she says she tends to stay up all night, then sleep until early afternoon. Although her blue eyes and flaxen hair are still luminous, she has lost her waiflike leanness. But wearing an understated black dress by Ann Demeulemeester and chain-smoking American Spirits, she cuts a handsome figure for a grandmother about to turn 59.

Mitchell, whose new CD, Travelogue, appears in stores November 19, has already begun to take a rather curious approach to promoting it. In a Rolling Stone interview, she hinted that, because of her disgust with the record business, this may be her last album. And in the opening seconds of tonight’s conversation, she makes it official: “ These are my last two records,” she announces (Travelogue is a double CD), “I’m quitting after this, because the business has made itself so repugnant to me.”

Over the next four hours, before we become the last patrons to leave, Mitchell – articulate, insightful and funny – repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to speak her mind: a rare and refreshing quality in a celebrity. But even as she offers bitter and caustic sentiments about the music business and sometimes the world at large, she maintains a cheerful disposition. “We’re living in the sickest time in centuries – haven’t you noticed?” she rails one minute, then lets out a jolly laugh as she alternates between sips of cappuccino and pineapple juice.

Mitchell continually brings the subject back to her anger with the recording biz, beginning with her own longtime label, Reprise, which at the last minute shuffled Travelogue off to Nonesuch, its artsy (read: noncommercial) sister label at Warner Music Group. First off, she accuses Reprise executives of ignorance. Since they have never heard of, for example, Edgar Allan Poe or Job, they don’t get the references in her lyrics. “And they think if they don’t, nobody else will,” she says.

But their worse sin, in Mitchell’s view, is avarice. The record business if “the most corrupt one of all,” she says. “They try not to pay you whenever possible.” Mitchell declines to give specifics. “Part of me wants to spill the beans, but it doesn’t seem to be effective,” she says. “I’ve been going toe-to-toe with the men directly. Most of it I’ve said to their faces. Most of it, they usually agree with me. Some of them screw you for speaking your mind. I don’t see them so much as bad guys individually. It’s just that it’s become a bean counter’s business, and they go along with it.

“They’re not looking for talent,” she adds. “They’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate. And a woman my age, no matter how well preserved, no longer has the look. And I’ve never had a willingness to cooperate.”

As Mitchell sees it, contemporary musicians are made, not born. “As long as they look good, they can pitch-correct them now – they can interior-decorate their music,” she says. “The artists don’t have to play anything, - they can cheat, buy songs and put their name on them, so they can build the illusions that the are creative. And because [the record companies] made you, they can kiss you off. Me, I don’t sell that many records, but they can’t kiss me off so easily.”

When she’s asked to comment on Madonna, Mitchell at first says, “No! I don’t want to talk about it!” Then she proceeds to talk about it. “She has knocked the importance of talent out of the arena,” she continues. “She’s manufactured. She’s made a lot of money and become the biggest star in the world by hiring the right people.”

Venerated as Mitchell is – she surely ranks with Bob Dylan among the great singer-songwriters of our time – the sad fact is that her records have never sold in huge numbers. She has had only one Top Ten hit: “Help me”, in 1974. Meanwhile, multitudes of artists who have been inspired and influenced by her have made much more money – from Sting and Prince to Renée Fleming. Perhaps as a result, Mitchell is somewhat touchy about other artists covering her songs. She dismisses Judy Collins’ 1971 hit version of her “Both Sides Now” as “pretty lightweight.” But she is forgiving about others, including Sinatra, who covered the same song. “They forced him to do it,” she says. “It wasn’t his bag and the arrangement was just a really bad copy of Judy Collins’ arrangement.”

On the other hand, she was thrilled with two treatments she just happened to catch while watching television. She calls Robert Downey Jr’s rendition of “River” on “Ally McBeal” “superb” and says, “I’d rather have it be emotionally correct than have some great vocal athlete tear it up on it.” Mitchell was also delighted to hear “Woodstock” warbled by Frances Conroy, who plays the Fisher family matriarch, Ruth, on “Six Feet Under.” She and her daughter are kind of estranged, and the song was used magnificently as a bridge between generations,” Mitchell says. “I cried – it was profound.”

Mitchell herself refuses to do anything to try to become more salable. “What would I do?” she says, laughing. “Show my tits? Grab my crotch? Get hair extensions and a choreographer? It’s not my world.” One of the most constantly evolving of contemporary recording artists, she has never fit into any one category, going from folk to rock to jazz and making forays into world music and classical, all while firmly turning her back on the mainstream. Certainly, she has given up on videos, having made three at her own expense that, she says, nobody played. While she didn’t mind doing Leno and Letterman, she may find that, after hearing what she has to say about him, Letterman doesn’t ask her back: “Letterman treats musicians like the armpit of the [entertainment] industry. He tags you on at the end, never talks to you – while he talks to the dimmest actress. (Leno’s lighting and sound are better, she adds.)

It seems to cross Mitchell’s mind that her remarks might be less than helpful in promoting a new release. “How am I doing? I’m dangerously close to the edge,” she says. “Protect me from my bad self. Don’t make me sound too dissy.”

Mitchell isn’t going to have the easiest time selling Travelogue anyway. It does feature some of her greatest hits, but it’s not a greatest hits album. Spanning Mitchell’s career, it consists of 22 songs, which she recorded with the 70-piece London Symphony Orchestra, a 13-voice choir and a backing band that includes Herbie Hancock, Billy Preston and Wayne Shorter.

“It’s not Joni Mitchell with strings,” emphasizes her ex-husband Larry Klein, who produced the album with Mitchell. Indeed, it’s easier to say what Travelogue isn’t. According to the artist: “It’s not jazz, classical, pop or folk. It belongs to no camp, so no radio station is going to play it.” Which probably accounts for why Reprise, as Mitchell says, “dropped it like a hot potato.”

Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz attempts to put the best spin on the album’s move to its new home at his label. “Reprise asked me if we would release Travelogue because they thought we might do a better job” says Hurwitz, who calls the album “great and astonishing.” Recently installed Warner Music creative director Jeff Ayerhoff, meanwhile, also praises Mitchell, calling her “one of the truly great artists,” but adds that “Joni has a lot of residual resentments – old baggage, so to speak – with the music business in general. She needed a music company which operates as an 'art gallery', and the best one of those is Nonesuch. At this time, Joni needs to move forward with more positiveness.”

Mitchell certainly remains positive on the subject of the new album. “I’m working outside the box,” she says. “The participants, like Wayne and Herbie, know it’s a revolutionary album. I’m dissatisfied with a lot about it, but at the same time, it’s a rare treasure.” (“Joni is about as humble as Mussolini,” her former boyfriend David Crosby once said.)

According to Klein, “The attempt here was to reexamine and cast in a whole new light some of Joni’s songs, a lot of which have become icons.” Thirty years after they were first recorded, Klein says, “there is something profoundly beautiful and touching in hearing her sing these songs, with the weight and wisdom of her voice now.” Beyond the emotional gravitas and pathos 30 years will give a girl’s voice, there are technical changes. Like any aging singer, Mitchell’s range has decreased – in her case from the three octaves with which she was originally blessed. Then there are the effects of being, in Klein’s words, “a dedicated smoker” since age nine. Mitchell freely admits, “I don’t take good care of my voice.” In addition to the smoking, she says, “I talk too much.” She is sanguine about losing the clear high tones. She rather end up sounding like a gravel voice Louis Armstrong than pitch-perfect Streisand. ("I’m not a fan,” she notes.) “Win some, lose some,” Mitchell says. “At a certain point it’s all in the phrasing. I’m a better storyteller now.”

Travelogue serves as a reminder of Mitchell’s precociousness as a songwriter. How could a girl of 21 have written “Both Sides Now”? “Oh, you’d be surprised,” she says. “Some of these songs I wrote using empathy and projection,” she adds. “When I did experience those things, I was right, so I seemed to know what I was talking about.” Somewhat unexpectedly – considering some of her diatribes tonight – Mitchell says that she had a hard time finding her voice for the darker songs on the album, because, for most of the last year, “I was in a really good mood.”

In any case, by the age of 21, Mitchell had already lived a full life. After a hardscrabble childhood in Saskatoon, Canada – rendered an invalid for long stretches by polio – she escaped to Calgary, where she enrolled in art school. In 1965, at 21, she had a daughter out of wedlock after a fling with a classmate. Broke and with no prospects, Mitchell made the agonizing decision to put the baby up for adoption, and she kept the child a secret from everyone, including her parents, for 30 years. Over the decades, Mitchell’s yearning to be reunited with her daughter expressed itself in veiled ways. (In the 1982 release “Chinese Café,” which she re-recorded for Travelogue, she sings, “My child’s a stranger/ I bore her but I could not raise her.”) Rumors eventually popped up on the Internet, some of which reached a girl in Toronto, Kilauren Gibb, who was searching for her birth mother. In 1995, Gibb, a former model who now has two children of her own, ages nine and three, flew to Los Angeles to meet her.

Since then, Mitchell has made a few guarded comments in the press about the reunion, and it supposedly has remained a touchy subject. (Mitchell’s publicist warned, “I’ve seen Joni leave interviews when it’s brought up.”) Now however, Mitchell brings it up herself. “I have a wonderful relationship with my daughter and my grandchildren,” she says, beaming with happiness before pulling out of her purse photographs from a recent visit they made to Los Angeles. After the euphoria of the reunion, she admits that “for a year or two, it was difficult,” but adds, “Now we’re hummin’. We’re more like sisters. Our relationship is beautiful – since I didn’t raise her, we don’t’ have the scar tissue that’s frequently built up between mother and daughter.”

According to Mitchell, she and her daughter have had only one “tussle”, after she gave Gibb a piece of parenting advice that wasn’t taken kindly. “I’d never do it again,” she says. “I’ll be more delicate. You want my opinion, ask.”

With the discovery of her daughter, Mitchell says she has come “full circle.” She observes, “Up until then, I didn’t have my feet on the ground. There was a big hole in me. You can’t believe the emotional complexity of what I went through.”

Mitchell now makes regular visits to see her offspring in Toronto, making it her third Canadian home – she visits her parents, too, in Saskatoon, and keeps a rustic retreat for herself in British Columbia, where she disappears most summers to “ripple-watch” and paint, which she says is now her real source of satisfaction.

For the moment, although Mitchell has always had a busy love life, she seems to be enjoying her independence. (In addition to her first marriage to musician Chuck Mitchell from 1965 to 1967 and then the decade-long union with Klein, she has had numerous boyfriends, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Warren Beatty and Jackson Browne.) But she seems fulfilled by a relationship with a group she calls “my Sunday boys.” Mitchell pulls out more photo snapshots of a fun-looking bunch of boys with whom she meets every Sunday to play pool. This is not a celebrity group. One is a plumber who is studying to be a pastry chef, another was formerly her hairdresser and now takes care of her house – “the best husband I ever had,” she says.

“There is nothing duller to me than a room full of stars,” Mitchell says. “There is too much effort, straining, and they’re all exhibitionists. I need a climate of affection. You’re not going to find a pocket of affection in a room full of stars.” Nevertheless, she makes some exceptions. At a recent Vanity Fair Oscar party, she got “rip-roaring Irish drunk, and had a fabulous time.”

In the coming months, Mitchell’s personal and professional lives stand to be exposed more than ever before. Director Allison Anders spent almost a year filming the making of Travelogue as it was recorded in London and plans to submit the movie to the Sundance Festival. Meanwhile, the first full-scale documentary of Mitchell’s life, Penitent of the Spirit, is being made by director Susan Lacy, for broadcast in March on PBS’ “American Masters.”

Lacy has shot interviews with numerous key people in the music world who have had their ups and downs with Mitchell – including David Geffen, her early manager and champion, former best friend and onetime housemate. After recording her first four albums with Reprise, Mitchell signed up with Geffen’s fledgling Asylum Records in 1971, then followed him to the eponymous label he founded in 1982. Somewhere along the way, it all went wrong. After some epic screaming matches in Geffen’s office, Mitchell bolted back to Reprise in 1994. The two traded accusations for a while – she claimed he withheld royalties, while he countered that she never sold enough records to earn out her advances – but more recently they have maintained a chilly silence. For his biography of Geffen, The Operator, Wall Street Journal reporter Tom King valiantly pursued Mitchell for comment, but she refused. Geffen told King, “If I didn’t talk to her for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t miss her for a minute.”

The news that Lacy has talked to Geffen, presumably with Mitchell’s blessing, implies that there has been a defrost. When his name comes up, Mitchell hesitates before finally saying, “David is almost like my mother. With her, I’ll always be a little girl. Geffen once said to me, ‘I know you better than anyone.’ That was several lives ago – I’ve changed a lot. I’ve been several people. David seems to have an inability to see me fresh.

“I’m fond of David,” she continues. “Though I don’t know why. Yeah, he’s business and I’m an artist. It’s a strong combative relationship. He was money motivated, I was art motivated. He took advantage, but he took advantage of everybody – that’s the nature of the business. I have no grudges against him. Any grudges I’ve had with him, I’ve gone to-to-toe with him about, and he knows what they are.” Geffen declined to comment.

Penitent of the Spirit also promises, of course, to be of interest because of Mitchell’s observations of the music world. “I got pegged as a folk musician, but I passed through folk pretty quickly,” she observes. “I did it because it was easy, and I could make 15 bucks a night so I could smoke.” Of being labeled a rock singer, she says, “I was never really rock’n’roll in spirit. I didn’t fit in well. I was never much of a druggie. Rock’n’roll men were always very combative with me in person – though they’d say nice things about me behind my back.” Nowadays, she doesn’t hang out much with her old friends from the rock scene, although she says that she and Graham Nash have “an abiding affection” for each other. She’s “fond” of Dylan, but admits her conversations with him are “a bit cryptic.”

As for what she listens to today, the list is short and undeniably eclectic: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Stravinsky and Roy Rogers, primarily. She does like some contemporary stuff, notably Norah Jones: “I like her because I don’t hear ambition in her voice. I haven’t heard a girl singer who wasn’t trying way too hard in 20 years.” She also enjoys Bjõrk, although more as a personality than as an artist. “She has genuine sexual abandon,” Mitchell notes. “Whereas a lot of sex symbols are actually frigid.”

On the subject of critical assessments, of course, Mitchell is soon to be in the hot seat again herself. Will critics praise Travelogue for its innovation? Or will they dismiss it as a rehash? The sad fact is that Mitchell has not written new music or lyrics in several years – thanks, she says to her “repugnance” for the business. Is this really the end?

Perhaps not absolutely, she hints. She brings up the case of her late, great friend Miles Davis. “At a certain point he pulled up the drawbridge and said [Mitchell imitates his raspy whisper], ‘I’m not coming out until they pay me a million dollars,’ which they finally did.” Nobody, in other words, likes to be undervalued, and Mitchell feels she has been.

But first she has to rouse the muse inside. “Maybe if I get away from [the business], the thing will wake up,” she says. “I am not fully developed as an artist.” Even more hopefully, she adds that the most unexpected things can be restored – even innocence, which, she says, is the real subject of “Chelsea Morning.” “Innocence is renewable, through joy and wonder,” she says.

It’s now close to 11:30 p.m. Mitchell isn’t flagging, but the restaurant is closing. The valet brings around her black Lexus sports car. “Don’t make me sound too dissy,” she repeats, and after a goodbye kiss, she drives off into the dark Bel Air night.

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