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An interview with Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Dave Wilson
February 14, 1968
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BROADSIDE: Let's find out where you came from and how you got here. Why don't you give us, in 200 words or less, the entire story of your life.

JONI MITCHELL: Well, I was born in Fort McCloud, Alberta. I moved from there to a small town in Saskatchewan called Maidstone, then on to North Battleford on to Saskatoon. I was always pressured by my mother to be involved in music; my father was involved in music with bands when I was small. You know, marching bands and things like that. He played the trumpet and I always was more interested in painting than anything else. And the summer I went to art college, my cronies and I used to go up to the lake every summer and sing around a campfire. We always sang unaccompanied songs. One summer I decided...Oh! I remember. I went to a coffeehouse to hear some jazz, because my friends were interested in jazz and I was kind of curious to find out what it was all about. I still was a rock and roller, teeny-bop go-to-dances-on-Saturday-night type.That night there was no jazz, there was this terrible folk singer. I didn't enjoy it at all, but I kept on going down there. And I found out there were some things I liked, and I liked a group that was very Kingston Trioish; they were local, and they were very amusing. It was really funny to hear comedy in music. And I wanted the leader of the group to teach me how to play the guitar, and he wouldn't. So I went out and bought myself a ukulele, because my mother thought that guitar...she sort of associated guitar music with country and western, which was sort of hillbillyish there. (It's like in the south. If you ask, people are afraid to admit to you that they like country music. It's sort of, not really country people, not earthy people, but some of the people who are really hillbillies think it's unhip. You know, my mother was a real hillbilly, so she thought it was unhip, so she said no guitar, and banned the guitar.) I bought myself a ukulele and I plunked my way through most of the summer. Then I went off to art college and started playing in a club there with Peter Albling, who was the headliner. He and I became the house acts; he's Mycroft of the Times Square Two now. For both of us it was our first professional gig in Calgary, Alberta. Then, at the end of the year, during that year, Michelle Andrei came through. They went West and I went East to the Mariposa folk festival, just as someone in the audience that year. I sort of struggled over to Y clubs , and church clubs, and did a part time job in Toronto, too. Until I met my husband, Chuck. Chuck and I moved to Detroit and we worked as a duo for a while. We stayed mostly in Michigan until Tom Rush came there and Tom sort of encouraged us to get out of Michigan. We came to New York and went to Gaslight; we didn't do all that well. We drew a few interesting people, but nothing really startling.

So we got out of Michigan and went down to the Carolinas, and found out that South Carolina was too far south. I refused to work there any more. North Carolina was very nice; we met a lot of interesting people--very nice service people--which gave me a whole new point of view on the war. I know a lot of really nice, a lot of really tragic, and a lot of really gung-ho soldiers. A captain who owned my guitar before me wanted to give it to me because he thought I was better than Peter, Paul and Mary. He used to come in every night and get drunk and say, "Oh, you are better than Peter, Paul and Mary." So I bought the guitar from him at a very, very, very good price. Love it dearly.

B: How long have you been working solo?

Joni: I've been working for about a year now. Chuck and I worked a long time as a double bill, where I did individual sets. But I've been working a year totally on my own.

B: When did you start writing your own songs?

Joni: Well, I wrote one song in Calgary. I don't remember what it was about. I wrote it for Peter. I don't remember how it went and I am sure he doesn't either. The next one I wrote was Day After Day. I wrote it going out to the Mariposa folk festival. That was in August, 1964. I wrote my first real song in August, 1964. And my second one, called What Will He Give Me? in November of 1964. I didn't write anything until the following April when I wrote a song called Here Today And Gone Tomorrow. And about three or four more; I had one called The Student Song. I guess I had written about five songs when I met Chuck; that was in May of 1965.

B: Is there any common theme?

In the early ones, love lost, I met a wandering Australian who really did me in. As a matter of fact he continued to be the theme for a lot of songs that I wrote. It's really difficult to write love found songs, I only have one and a half. I only have one really true love found song, and that's The Dawn Treader. They are very difficult; they really take a lot of confidence, not only that you are in love, but that the other person is in love with you. Otherwise you are afraid to say all the things that you want to say, for fear of being made. It's a standard thing. You don't want to look foolish and commit yourself to all those things. So I didn't really, at that time, have very much. The way my head was working I didn't have very much to write about. I was sort of relatively contented.

I wrote Circle Game about a friend of mine named Neil Young, who was lamenting lost youth at 21. He decided all the groovy things to do were behind him now, he was too old to do them; suddenly he was an adult with all the responsibilities. He had been told all his life that all the things he wanted to do, they said, "Wait 'till you are older." Now he was older and he didn't want to do those things any more. So that was the idea for one song.

The Urge For Going I wrote after the second Mariposa I ever went to, the first one I ever participated in. That was the first year I was married and that was a very bad year. I suppose Newport had a bad year; one where it was full of drunks and people where there looking for action rather music. So I was pretty unprepared. I wanted to do all my own material; I didn't have much variety. I wasn't very good, but had a lot of trouble with the audience booing and hissing and saying "Take your clothes off, sweetheart." Things like that really shook me up because I didn't know how to counter or how to act. I thought I'd bombed; I wanted to quit and I was really desperate. On the way back in the car I wrote a line that said "It's like running for a train that left the station hours ago/I've got the urge for going but there's no place left to go." What I really meant was that the folk movement had died at that point and that the music I loved had no audience left. And so it was futile and it was silly, and I may as well quit.

So then I forgot about the line and I was cleaning out my guitar case, which is full of scrap songs, lyrics that I've started. Every once in a while I clean it out and read them over, and suddenly I find something. I can't even remember what the original thought was, but there's a line lying there and it will stir up a whole fresh idea, completely new. That's what happening with Urge For Going. I wrote that in August, and the next thing I new it was September, and then October. It was really cold, and I was saying "I hate Winter and I really have the urge for going someplace warm," and I remembered that line. So I wrote Urge For Going as it now stands, from that.

B: The song became your introduction to a lot of..not only people who first heard about Joni Mitchell from The Urge For Going, but into the music industry as well.

Joni: Well, that was the beginning of it, because that was the one Tom picked up and Dave Van Ronk was the really first one to pick up on that, too. I met Dave and Patrick Sky in Winnipeg in September or October. I had just written it, and it must have been October. They were doing a Canadian television show called "Sing Out" which is like American "Hootenanny." I thought that once again, it was sort of following Mariposa, I was shaky and I thought I was awful and amateurish and I wasn't growing fast enough. And I could feel how good my peers were; I could feel how amateurish I was, and I really needed encouragement. They didn't give me any as far as I could see. Van Ronk was saying things like "Joni, you've really got groovy taste in clothes, why don't you become a fashion model?" And Patrick Sky was saying "It sucks." Here you are, a hopeless romantic, and doing all sorts of crude Patrick Sky things, that I now think are really dear, because I know him. But Dave did like Urge For Going and he asked me for it, I remember. I wondered what ulterior motive he had in mind after saying all those dreadful things to me. "He must just want to laugh at it or something; " I was that insecure about my writing. I really thought it was awful. And then when Tommy took it; he took it with Judy Collins in mind at that time. He took it to her and she apparently didn't like it, it just didn't excite her enough to do. So he didn't know what to do, and he learned it in the meantime. And I got a letter from him one day saying I'm going to do The Urge For Going I don't think it's my kind of song, but I'm going to try it anyway. And he had beautiful success with it. So then, Tommy really started it. He opened doors. The Philadelphia circuit, I probably never would have... I was running out of clubs to play and there wasn't much money where I was playing and everything. And the only way I did work was through Tom. He'd go to a club and he'd stand up there and sing my song and build me up and people would get curious, you see. So he really opened up a whole circuit for me. That's where I grew and through experience got some other ideas, lived some other things.

B: Urge For Going has been recorded by some other people as well.

Joni: It was a country hit last year. George Hamilton IV recorded it and I think it was in the top 20 Country Songs of the year. Saw that in Cash Box and Billboard, I guess.

B: Has anyone picked up on any of your other songs?

Joni: Buffy did Circle Game and Song To A Seagull and Ian and Sylvia did Circle Game and Judy did Michael From Mountains and Both Sides Now. She also does Chelsea Morning in her live performance. Dave van Ronk does Both Sides Now and Chelsea Morning. The songs are also being done in England. And there, you see, I don't know exactly what's happening. But I've heard that there have been eight or nine recordings made, some of them by rock and roll groups. And Julie Felix is doing quite a few of my songs; not very common ones, she's picked peculiar ones that I've forgotten. She is doing them from lead sheets and old tapes. So that's good. That means that some of the old ones will... I get very nervous, you see, because I've written 60 songs now. And of course I'm only going to get twelve of them down on my new album. By the time I do a second album I'll have twelve new songs. So there are going to be about 40 songs that I'll never get down. Because I'm so prolific.

B: What, to you, is the trademark of your growth? What is the change in your writing that indicates to you that you're writing better songs now then you were before?

Joni: Now, better is a point of view. My mother and a lot of my relatives will think I'm more ambiguous. I think I'm a better poet now, and my melodies are much more complex. The music is, and this is a dirty word to use, much more intellectual. It's more complicated; it has more meat to it. So things like Carnival In Kenora which is just a pretty little courtship song that people really loved--I'm not writing any more like that. I get halfway through them and I realize they're not saying anything and I throw them aside. I have more philosophy in my songs; it's not really protest, it's more contemporary. If a historian read into it he would see more of our time in music now. Before it could have been anything. While I was married to Chuck, what topics did I have to write about? I was limited in writing short stories, character sketches, of people in love for fear that people would say "Listen to that song, there must be something wrong between them." You know what I mean. You have to be very careful not to give the opinion that you're running around. At least I always did and now I have no one to answer to no one to be afraid of offending. My songs are very honest, they are very personal, extremely personal. Sometimes they really hurt to sing. Some nights, you really get into them, and they really take a lot out of me, which is something music never did before.

B: You seem to make heavy use of "symbolism" in your music. I've noticed that every once and a while a symbol will recur.

Joni: What?

B: Dreams, for instance.

Joni: Are you talking about early stuff or later stuff?

B: Earlier stuff and wasn't there a bird symbol that recurs?

Joni: Seagull. My new album will be called SONG TO A SEAGULL and I've used that as continuity. I found that SONG TO A SEAGULL is a summary of all the songs I've ever written.

B: Do you work consciously with symbols or do you become aware of them afterwards?

Joni: I think you do afterwards, I think it is subconscious. Just as a song-writer steals from his own melody. Life if you want to get technical, Kurt Weill's stuff, you can pull Mac,The knife out of almost any melody of his. It repeats itself. The same with images. Like, Donovan got hung up and used a really strange thing. It wasn't really a symbol, just a word, he used silver bicycles in two songs. That's a very strange image to use in two songs and I think when you put it in you're not really aware, maybe he was. There's a friend of mine who uses doves a lot, Mark Spoelstra, he uses doves and gun images a lot, negative gun images. I use dreams a lot, I thought I could say certain things in dream images that I couldn't say in factual things. So now I'm writing more as a narrator, I'm writing more matter of factly. Like I told a very true story from my own life in the form of a fairy tale but instead of telling it completely as a fairy tale, I told it part in modern day and part in fairy tale. It's called I Had A King In A Tenement Castle.

B: That's what I'd hoped to get to, because Both Sides Now is totally lacking in symbolism.

Joni: Right, Both Sides Now was the first song of a new bag. And when I go into stories, it's just like... I wrote a song called The Gift Of The Magi, which is just O'Henry's short story done in a poem and set to music. And I wrote another called The Pirate Of Penance they're just my stories, and are not symbolic. My stories are just for story sake, and my songs in the first person are, for the most part, very personal. Like I have a new song called Nathan LaFinire. Nathan LaFinire is a New York cab driver who really exists, who drove me to the airport one day. After I got on the plane, I wrote most of the song. It relates my feelings that day as I left and exactly what he did; just exactly my trip from the door to the airport. The way my album is going to run... the song Song To A Seagull is divided into two parts. And the first part "I came to the city and I lived like old Crusoe in a cobblestone sea, and the beaches where concrete." And then it goes out of the city and down to the seaside, so I want the album to be divided into two parts, one called "I came to the city" and the other called "Out of the city and down to the seaside." New York has left a big impression on me: good and bad. It's made me very paranoid which is a thing I never was. I've always been sort of naive and completely trusting. No one would ever do me dirt. And I'm beginning to learn that people, even nice people, would do me dirt. Because they have their own selfish things in mind. I'm learning that, and it comes into my songs, it's just my eyes are opened up. It's not disillusionment, I always cop out in all my songs no matter how bleak they get, they have something at the end that said, "Well, there's something lost be something gained in living every day." Like even in Both Sides Now there is something at the end of each verse that sort of lifts it out of where it's going. So I still have some optimism left.

B: You mentioned Kurt Weill earlier, influence?

Joni: In a couple of my songs I think it is. It's more Chuck Mitchell influence. It's sort of like... Chuck always talked about wryness, he has a very wry streak. He loves irony, and since I've been away from him, that's come to me. It's like everyone that I've met; I've been influenced by all sorts of people who aren't musicians. You spend any time with a person you soak up some of them, but generally it doesn't come out until you have left them. It's like since I've been away from Chuck I have become aware that he's given me a lot. He's given me my music, different things. And a friend of mine, Michael, who is Michael From Mountains, it's the same thing. Every once in a while I find myself, he's also an artist and lately I found myself doing drawings that were much more him than me. It's been a long time since I've seen him, so his influence is coming out in me now. It's like everyone I meet does that to me, it's just sort of delayed reaction. I don't feel their presence or what they've given me until a long while later. Until all the confusion of leaving them is gone. I'm a late Dylan fan. I was almost anti-Dylan, and I made a lot of enemies going around saying... I thought he was putting me on. I couldn't accept him. It's a trait of mine, I used to be more outspoken, now I'm more concommital until I really figure out what they are saying. The thing was I shared no experience with Dylan at that time, so the thing was, I thought that a lot of his stuff...the things I thought were ambiguous and were not written honestly I find out now were just things I had no idea of at that time. So as I experience some of his experiences, or being some of my experiences to his music... it's like I always thought Shakespeare was really worthy and weird, right until I went to Stratford and saw a man who recited Shakespeare like it was really 20th century. It lost all that super drama stuff that really turned me off and flowed like 20th century English and I understood it. So it's the same thing with Dylan, now when I listen to him the things that I thought were just words for word's sake make sense to me. Every single line even if it's not the same thing that he's experiencing, at least I'm experiencing something from what I'm hearing. Like, "Yeah, I know what that means to me, maybe it's not what it means to him." So now, this late in the game, I think I'm Dylan influenced. I wrote a song called Cactus Tree which is Dylan influenced in its melody, even in its style. I even lengthen my "A's" when I sing it, because it sings better. It's all sort of in monotone. I wrote that after I saw "Don't Look Back," which I think left a big impression on me. My other favorite writer, or one of my others, is a Canadian named Murray McLaughlin, who is an offshoot of Dylan and Donovan; he writes in long verse lines. He is a great character painter, he writes wonderful character sketches of people in song. He's young, only about 19 or 20 now, and he's really together, he's really happy, and he brings a certain amount of cheerful wisdom to his songs. I'm influenced by him, too. I think I'm rather Cohen influenced. I wrote a song called Marcy which I don't think would have happened if it hadn't been for Susan, which is another character sketch song. The total character sketch of a person, many people have done it. Dylan wrote Hattie Carol and all sorts of...I'm not a political person, it's only lately that I'm being moved by troubles, but I'm still not very political. Susan, of course, is going to be more the kind of song that is going to influence me, because it's more romantic, a romantic character sketch rather than something done for dramatic purposes. I'm very Judy Collins influenced because for the first year and a half of my career I memorized her albums. And that's what I sang, my sets were her sets.

B: How about the artistic climate around Canada? Is it any different working here and working there?

Joni: I can't see a difference from country to country. I see a difference from city to city. Toronto: I always get good reviews there, and I guess I'm somewhat of a local hero, because I'm Canadian and they really want to identify with Canadians.

B: When is your album going to be released?

Joni: I'm going out in two weeks. There's a lot of problems with studio time out there right now, everybody wants studio time. I've decided that the studio that's best for me is Sunset Sound; it's monopolized. The room I want and the engineer I want--the Buffalo Springfield have it booked up solid until March. So it's whenever they say, "Hey, we don't need it today." It's like, stand by for a fight. I have to do that and try to get it done as quickly as possible.

The reason I waited so long: I could have recorded a year ago, but I waited until I was in a bargaining position. And Judy Collins' album was the thing that really put me in a position where I could get the things I really want. They weren't really outrageous, but I wanted complete and total artistic control over everything concerning the album, which eliminates the liner man and the artist; I did my own album cover. They accepted that, which was good. It's a combination of...well, I did the drawing, and then I left spaces.

B: What kind of arrangements are you doing? I know at one point you were considering trying to develop a group being you.

Joni: Well, I think everybody sort of thought that. I've already told you about my feeling of being part of a dead movement. I think a lot of people thought (that) with the growing of rock and roll. For a while it was unhip to be a folk singer. We very apologetically sort of mumbled, "Well, I'm a folk singer," and a lot of times I said, "I'm not a folk singer," and I tried to think what I was, a better word so I wouldn't sound so old hat. In the last six months I've just been observing people. I've observed at the Cafe Au Go Go after a long string of rock and roll bands had been there. And I came in after Richie Havens had been playing there for two nights; everybody's faces were relaxed. You used to walk in there and everybody would say, "Hi," and they'd start a sentence, and they'd snap at you, and they snapped and they were busy, and they were rushing around. I think the music was making people snap at you. I noticed I went into a recording session on the album I was working on on the coast, and the engineer who'd been working with nothing but rock and roll bands for two years, he said, "I really want to stay on this session." He's groovy with it because it's clean. And rock and roll, sort of, not all of it, but a lot of it, has gotten so complex that it's back where music was, in a different form, but it's the same thing. It's overcomplicated. Just before the Kingston Trio came out, and they were so fresh because they were so unique. I think we've come around to that again, and I'm now very confident in leaving my acoustical out. We're doing some fun things, I want to do some things that I can't do on a stage, but they'll be ever so subtle; they'll hardly even notice them. I'm doing some vocal over-dubbing. But not a lot. The first thing i found out when I went into the studio, I went crazy and thought of all sorts of harmonies; but between David and me, we managed to laugh and sort of realize that we were ruining it. Cut back and take maybe one little three-note passage that really did enhance it, and scrape all that other gunk that we'd put in. I'm working with just vocal dubbing mixed a way back for the most part.

I might play an electric guitar, you can get different effects. I'm going to try and play exactly the same notes and passages that I play on my acoustical with an electric, maybe with a little fuzz on it. But it will be all in control of myself. I won't have an arranger enforcing his own personality on my music, because I'll be, for the most part, alone with David Crosby, who is the most into my music of any outsider I've ever met. He has very good judgment. He also gets very good sound out of me in the studio. He has taught me a lot of things about recording. Nobody would notice it. I could reproduce what I'm doing on stage. But there is something that goes down in a live performance, there's a certain presence, because you're really there, he's trying to get that on the album--to try to compensate for the fact that I'm not really there. It's really kind of exciting.

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Added to Library on September 20, 2006. (19599)


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