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All That Joni Print-ready version

by Ross Porter
February 12, 2000

This television interview aired in Canada on CBC TV's "The National News Magazine" on (or about) February 12, 2000. Joni was interviewed in LA by Ross Porter, music critic and CBC jazz authority.

The interview is interspersed with montages of music, video clips, appearances, still photos, album covers, etc., during which Ross Porter's voiceover (italicized in the interview) touches on various aspects of Joni's life and career. The segment was produced by Sylvene Gilchrist, and edited by Loretta Hicks. Many thanks to Michael O'Malley for the transcription!

VO: Joni Mitchell started out as the Canadian girl from the prairies who played the guitar.

Through her career she's made an enormous contribution to popular music. The twenty one albums Joni's released since 1968 chronicle a woman navigating an emotional and musical journey for which there are no maps.

After a series of successful albums, Joni started to push popular song to new frontiers. She also began to slip from commercial and critical grace, the culmination of which occurred in 1979, when Joni did a complete 180 and recorded Mingus with one of the giants of the jazz world, Charles Mingus.

Since then, she has reluctantly kept recording and promoting her albums.

Averaging a new disc every three or four years, with each release Joni has slowly reclaimed some of her musical and critical appeal, and in 1995, won two Grammys.

Now, Joni Mitchell is back with a new CD called "Both Sides Now." And once again, Joni has done the unpredictable: with a slight nod to her musical past, she's recorded an album of well-known jazz songs.

RP: Let me play the devil's advocate for a moment. What do you say to people who say, you know, with this album you're jumping on the jazz bandwagon, the success that Diana Krall has had?

JM: Oh, that's crazy. This is really ridiculous. Who would think like that?

RP: But I'm just curious, you know, to flesh this out with you a little bit.

JM: A jazz bandwagon?

RP: Yeah.

JM: That's ridiculous. Jazz makes up 1% of sales of music in this country. The jazz bandwagon is like more of a jazz donkey! You know, the idea of like... Look I lost… I did Mingus I mean, this is really absurd to me… Mingus called me from his deathbed to do this last project with him, right? Management begged me "Don't do this," you know, "you're just going to plummet into obscurity." I couldn't refuse it in terms of musical education and opportunity. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. However, for that act, I was excommunicated from pop airwaves and the jazz community – not the great artists – but the lesser greats… you know… "That white chick's an opportunist basically. She's tailgating on Charles. Charles is using me for a bigger funeral." …you know, no, no, no, no, that's ridiculous.

RP: So if you had to do it over again, would you?

JM: Oh yeah. Absolutely, you know?

RP: And if you lost your recording contract?

JM: I been begging 'em to fire me. They were cleaning house over there and I called 'em up and I said Look, why're ya firing everbody? Fire me! "Oh no, we couldn't do that Joni." I been trying to get out of this business ever since I got into it! I'm a painter. I just kinda lost my way along... You know… (laughs)

VO: Joni Mitchell is 56 now, and after 32 years of making albums, she knows how fickle the recording industry can be.

RP: What do you think of the business side of the music business?

JM: Oh don't get me started on that! No, I don't wanna do that, I'll just whine... It won't be a pretty sight! (laughs)

RP: Well, I'm thinking what's been going on, Universal swallowed, like, a quarter of the music business about a year and a half ago, and then the recent merger with Warner Brothers, and EMI....It's changed !

JM: Well, in a nutshell, you know, and this is from an artist's point of view, you know, this is in my opinionated opinion, know, music business has always been… operated by crooks, but it was like, you know, and the artist was always screwed traditionally, because they could. You know, I mean we make so very little of what we generate. Um, but um, but at least the crooks love music! But I think it's become even more extreme where liking it, you know, is not the criterion. It's funnelling into the surveyed formulistic demographic...

RP: Do your albums make money?

JM: Ah, I make almost no money as a recording artist. I only make money as a songwriter. The artist pays for everything. The company loans you money to make the record, and you have to pay back the loan. If they don't promote it – which they don't, after a certain point if you own your publishing – you know, they're not gonna promote it. Like, a person like myself, I just kinda glamorize the stable, they don't care whether I sell records or not, which means I'm constantly in debt to them, because I don't... The outlets that are… are allowed for younger, less talented artists, you know... for the breaking... MTV, VH 1, they don't care if I sell, they can use me as a type. I'm more effective as a tax write-off and a lure.

RP: So if the music part ended, it would be art. It would be painting, full time?

JM: Yeah! If I could kill it, I'd be painting now!

VO: Joni's been interested in the arts since childhood. While recovering from polio, she pursued painting, and as an adult, studied art in college. Since 1968, her work has often been used as the cover for her albums. Painting is an integral part of Joni's life, but she doesn't depend on it for financial gain.

JM: The painting will never be taken seriously. So I don't even take it seriously. I tell 'em look, I painted it to go with my couch! (laughs) You know it's the best way, because I mean, you know, there's no point. No one will ever take me seriously 'cause there's such resentment that you can draw a crowd to a gallery, that people will come and look and buy, whether it's good or not! You know, so even if it was good, you know, and that seems to have to be deemed by so-and-so's fine intellect...

VO: Joni's new CD, `Both Sides Now`` is a collection of songs woven together to reflect the early glow and final ashes of relationships. These are songs from the past, many of which were written in the thirties and forties, and sung by the greats such as Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald.

RP: Is it an album that your parents can relate to?

JM: Well, initially my father wanted participation in selecting repertoire, which was interesting for him because he used to play trumpet in small-town swing bands and he taught trumpet. But he's a light-hearted man, you know, like, and um, things conspired anyway and he didn't get his input on it. So when the record was completed I said, "Oh pop, it's like, it's got a life of its own, you know, people hear it and weep." "Oh I'm not going to like it," he said, "it's too sad." So when he finally heard it, the song that he liked was Sometimes I'm Happy, you know, which was closer to his taste in music, I guess. But I think as… and my mother really went for the saddest ones, which, she said after Pop would leave the house she'd turn it up really loud. You know, like, and ... That's the way to listen to this record really, like, concert-loud, `cause then the strings can really affect you, you can feel the vibration of them. They get up under your rib cage. And the orchestra played with such passion. They didn't just, they weren't just hired guns. They really got emotionally involved. And at a louder volume that's perceptible. So anyway, she was saying she has a new favourite every day. Last time I talked to my father he had conceded that the project was beautiful, but I think initially, you know, he was disappointed in the selection, you know, 'cause he would have picked things of a lighter nature.

RP: That need to satisfy our parents. Does that ever leave?

JM: No! No it doesn't! And the parental guidance.., my mother's still, like, trying to shape me! (Laughs) You know, all these many years...

VO: In 1996, Joni embarked on her most personal quest yet: the search for a daughter she gave up for adoption when she was a struggling student. After Joni met her daughter and grandson, the media had a feeding frenzy. In spite of the attention they received, Joni feels some public good came of it.

JM: It was a healing for a lot of women. It made it... it enabled women to be able to say, 'I had a child.' You know, there were millions of women that were like, holding on to this terrible, painful secret. I mean, my mother received all kinds of calls. The neighbour woman leaned over the fence and said, 'I had a child out of wedlock.' The teacher called her, 'Can you imagine?' she said, 'the teacher called me! Why is she telling me all this?' You know, because my mother is a very private person, and umm, I got letters, women sent me flowers, you know, it was really kind of a beautiful and cathartic experience.

VO: Over the years, Joni's experiences have provided the inspiration for countless songs. Besides quality, it's been one of the constants in her writing. Musically, she's been completely unpredictable.

JM: My music is not for everyone. First of all, it's a very shallow culture and you know, my music, my texts are deep. You know, I think that, ah, I have a large black audience, and a large gay male audience, and a large female audience, but I have a small, white male audience. The white males that, that like it, umm, generally are sensitive men, or men who have been screwed by something. White males and the white male press present me always in groups of women. You know, like, always in groups of… they always wanna keep me in groups of women, whereas the black press lumps me in with Santana and Miles. You know, like they're not afraid of my… they don't have to keep genderising me.

RP: There's a style of music, though, that I think Canadians have excelled at, and you think of Leonard Cohen, Ian and Sylvia, you…

JM: But my music is nothing like any of theirs.

RP: No, but I… OK, maybe, maybe not, but I think they share rooms in the same house.

JM: Cause they're Canadians?

RP: No, but I think that in terms of, some of the music was, I think initially when you started, some of it was derived from folk. I think that was a common element.

JM: I wouldn't put myself in that group. It would be, "What's wrong with this picture?" If anything, I have a relationship to Leonard, you know.

RP: Gordon Lightfoot is another person...

JM: No relationship to Gordon Lightfoot. I'm much more related to Miles Davis and Edith Piaf. Um, if you wanna put me in a group, I'll tell ya, nobody puts me in the right group. You wanna know the group I should go in? The black press gets it. You know, I'm not a folk musician. You know, I'm a girl who plays acoustic guitar, but so does every other rock-an-roller, it's just, ya don't always have to have a cord hanging out of it to write on it. You know, but you see a girl with a guitar. I was a folk musician from (1964), 1963 to 1965. At the moment that I began to write my own music, even though I wrote it on acoustic guitar, I was no longer a folk musician. You know, melodically, folk musicians were playing three-chord changes. I'm steeped in Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Edith Piaf. To put the desire to write with more content, with a desire for a more complex melody, was my creative… objective. Um, that is not folk music.

VO: As the girl with the guitar, Joni was a radio favourite. As her sound changed, airplay waned. The irony is some of the most popular women in music today cite her as a major influence.

JM: I don't think an artist as good as me should be banned from the airwaves for the last twenty years, you know, I think there is something sick about an industry that could… Every time I make a record it's new product, but the industry does not address it as new product, because Joni Mitchell, you know, has been around too long. So what they do instead… This penchant for raising up new Joni Mitchells. That's capitalism. That's the same as... you go to a supermarket and you look at Vel, or any soap product, and after a while it's the "new," you know, it's got "new" on it, and then it's got "new, improved" on it, right? And this is the way merchandising keeps going with an old product in this country. Well with me they keep raising up new Joni Mitchells all the time! You know, and like, they have nothing to do with Joni Mitchell! The only similarity is that they're a girl with a guitar, or a girl with a piano, you know, they're a girl! Don't confuse the artist with the art. Yeah, I'm uncomfortable with being a role model, but as a standard-setter in my art, I'm not uncomfortable with that. You know, I'm aware of what my contribution was; I'm aware of how original it is.

VO: In the almost four decades Joni has been creating music, she's been uncompromising and fiercely independent. When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may be remembered as one of the most important and influential recording artists of the 20th century. For The Magazine, I'm Ross Porter.

Transcript typed with love, by Michael O'Malley, in Quebec City, for Joni fans everywhere!

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Added to Library on January 11, 2006. (3259)


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