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Joni Mitchell Interview Print-ready version

by Penny Valentine
Sounds Magazine
June 3, 1972

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The lady who walks on eggs is sitting in her hotel suite overlooking St. James' Park with her legs tucked up, her chin resting on her knees. She is wearing a pair of jeans, a tiny printed shirt and a plain sweater over the top. Her feet are bare where she's kicked her clogs off, and her fine fair hair trails across her shoulders almost hiding the silver hoops she wears in her ears. There is a tidy casualness about her appearance, a cleanliness and un-rumpled freshness. And after the perfunctory look at you there's an acceptance that's surprisingly warm when you consider the image that has been built up around her over the years.

It was Richie Havens that called Joni Mitchell "the lady that walks on eggs" some years back when we were discussing star signs and environmental characteristics. And not knowing her it seemed from her music she was careful, delicate, going through life frightened of breaking it. It was quite a capsuled insight then - rightly capturing the fragility of a girl whose relentless pursuit of happiness appeared destined to fail. And yet here and now Joni Mitchell is a contradiction in terms that shows almost before you speak to her.

The star syndrome though produces contradictions in itself. The biggest with Joni is that metamorphosis on stage and off. At the Festival Hall she was like a Hans Christian Anderson snow queen, a throwback to her Scandinavian/Canadian origins, the vocal pitched to hang like icicles on the night air.

This Saturday in a rainswept London she is a comfortable encounter, and for all the outward initial purity the bright red painted toenails she wiggles while she talks make you smile - simply because they are in themselves a contradiction to the image. After the Festival Hall she went to Europe for some concerts and then came back to London on Thursday. That night she took herself off to see Kurt Weil's "Threepenny Opera", found it had moved, tried to see "Day In The Death Of Joe Egg", found it had started.

Undismayed, and she laughs now telling it, she had gone back to the hotel, stuck her hair up in a beret and prowled midnight Piccadilly alone with her notebook of half finished poems so that she could sketch people in bars. On Friday she had taped an "In Concert" for Stanley Dorfman and afterwards, at dinner, we'd talked about her newly completed house in Canada, - and the plan in her own mind that had never materialised: "I thought I'd lead a kind of "Heidi" like existence, you know - with goats and an orchard."

The interview she has promised on Saturday is her first for two years. She made a lot of decisions, back in '70, one of which was to give up working and travel around, the other to not give any more interviews. She'd had a rough time of it mentally and physically, a whole wrong outlook on her life and work. And to her, interviews were beginning to hurt: "All people seemed interested in was the music and the gossip - I felt then that the music spoke for itself and the gossip was unimportant.

"I have in my time," and she grins at the pseudo dramatic air in her voice, "been very misunderstood." But you can feel that the constant intrusion into her private life got too much to bear.

A lot of new songs have emerged from the two-year hiatus and in themselves are interesting insights into the change in Joni's outlook. The loving humour of "You Turn Me On - I'm A Radio", the pain in "Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire", retrospective bitterness in "Lesson In Survival" but then there is that feeling - haven't all her songs been directly autobiographical, total personal emotions?

"Well, some of them are, yes, directly personal and others may seem to be because they're conglomerate feelings. Like remember we were talking about before about that song for Beethoven and I was telling you that's written from the point of view of his Muse talking to him. But that comes from an understanding that I thought I perceived. By reading books about Beethoven I got a feeling which I felt was familiar, as I had felt about people that are friends of mine. So that's from my own experience because it's my feeling for other people."

And yet one had stuck particularly in my mind - "The Cactus Tree" - the song about a girl who everyone loved and yet who was "too busy being free" to concentrate on returning that feeling properly ...

"I feel that's song of modern woman. Yes, it has to do with my experiences, but I know a lot of girls like that. Who find that the world is full of lovely men but they're driven by something else other than settling down to frau-duties."

But then, I say, there is this impression she gives out - someone on the move all the time, someone intent on having freedom even if it's a deceptive kind of freedom.

"Freedom is deceptive, though. It's like that line of Kristofferson's "Freedom's just another way of nothing left to lose." Freedom implies lot of loneliness you know, a lot of unfulfillment. It implies always the search for fulfillment, which sometimes is more exciting than the fulfillment itself. I mean, so many times I've talked to friends of mine who are just searching for something and one day they come to you and they've FOUND IT! Then two weeks later you talk to them and they aren't satisfied. They won't allow themselves to think they've found it - because they've come to enjoy the quest so much. They've found it - then what?

"I think that there's a new thing to discover in the development of fulfillment. I don't think it necessarily means trading the search, which is more exciting than the actual fulfillment. I still have this dream that you can come to a place where there's a different kind of medium - a more subtle kind of exploration to do of one thing or one place or one person. Like drifting through lives quickly and cities quickly you know, you never really get to understand a person or a place very deeply. Like you can be in a place until you feel completely familiar with it, or stay with a person until you may feel very bored. You feel you've explored it all. Then all of a sudden, if you're there long enough, it'll just open up and flash you all over again. But so many people who are searching and travelling come to that point where it's stealing out on them and they just can't handle that and have to move on."

We talk about the time she spent travelling and how - although songs came out of it and so it was a productive experience - there was an innate disappointment. A sense - and this came out in her spoken intros at the Festival Hall - of disillusionment that what she had believed would be magical somehow never turned out that way. She was affected by that too, she admits, and yet after a thought she smiles at her own naiveté in expecting places to be untouched in expecting to be totally absorbed into them and accepted.

"You tailor make your dreams to "it'll be this way" and when it isn't ... like if you have a pre-conceived idea of anything, then inevitably it can't live up to your hopes. Hawaii had so many really beautiful parts to it and the island of Kuwaii is still agricultural.

I guess I had thought of it from all those "Occa Occa" movies I had seen - sacrificing the maidens to the volcano, rivers running with blood and lava, guava trees and," she laughs, "Esther Williams, you know, swimming through the lagoon. And you get there and have to sort through the stucco and the pink hotels. Crete was for the most part pretty virgin and if you walked to the market you'd find farmers with burros and oranges on the side, it was wonderful. Matela was full of kids from all over the world who were seeking the same kind of thing I was but they couldn't get away from ummm - I mean they may as well have been in an apartment in Berkeley as in a cave there because the lifestyle continued the same wherever they were. And the odd thing to me was that after my initial plans to be accepted into the home of a Greek family fell apart we came to this very scene - the very scene we were trying to escape from - and it seemed very attractive to us.

There were so many contradictions, so much I noticed about life generally on those trips. Like the kids couldn't get used to seeing all the slaughtered meat hanging in the shops - they'd only ever seen bits of meat wrapped in cellophane, and to see it there on it's frame turned their stomachs. Most people have that reaction - look at last night over dinner when we started to complain because people were talking about eating birds. We got so upset and yet at the same time we were eating chicken by the mouthful without even thinking. I go on vegetarian things every so often - well, fruitarian really. In California it's easy because it's warm most of the time. I think you need meat in winter. I have this friend who's a vegetarian and helped me build my house in Canada. We lived on fruit all summer and he was a fanatical vegetarian - sneering at me when I looked at sirloin - but as winter approached he got colder and colder and I said "Look you've got to eat some meat if we're going to finish this house". I had visions of him collapsing. He actually did break down finally and have a steak and I felt really terrible corrupting, breaking down a man's principles like that."

I wonder if the house in Canada is a permanent move, whether she's had enough of the California scene and is moving back to her roots?

"Not really - moving back is like burning your bridges behind you. For one thing I don't want to lose my alien registration card because that enables me to work in the States. So I have a house in California - not the one in Laurel Canyon I used to have - for an address. The house in Canada is just a solitary station. I mean it's by the sea and it has enough physical beauty and change of mood so that I can spend two or three weeks there alone.

"The land has a rich melancholy about it. Not in the summer because it's usually very clear, but in the spring and winter it's very brooding and it's conducive to a certain kind of thinking. But I can't spend a lot of time up there. Socially I have old school friends around Vancouver, Victoria and some of the islands, but I need the stimulation of the scene in Los Angeles. So I really find myself down there almost as much now as when I lived there - because then I was on the road most of the time anyway.

"I'm so transient now that even though I have the house in Canada I really don't feel like I have a home - well it's home when I'm there, you know, but then so is the Holiday Inn in its own weird way."

We get on to the two-year break and I wonder how she'll take the intrusion into her reasons and her personal kick-back. But she's relaxed and forthright and somehow you feel it's a question she feels right in answering now that it's in the past and she hasn't spoken of it before publicly.

"The first year I traveled, the second year I built my house and - in the process of building it and being alone up there when it was completed - I had written a lot of new songs. And it seemed to me that it didn't seem like a completed art until they were tried in front of a live audience. Well, not "tried", but there's a need to share them. I kept calling people in the bar of this lodge and saying, "Listen, want to hear a song?", and they say "That's really nice - know any Gordon Lightfoot?". No, that's not really true - but I really did want to play in front of people, which was a strange feeling for me to get because two years ago when I retired I felt I never really wanted to do it again - ever.

"Like I gained a strange perspective of performing. I had a bad attitude about it, you know. I felt like what I was writing was too personal to be applauded for. I even thought that maybe the thing to do was to present the songs some different way - like a play or a classical performance where you play everything and then run off stage and let them do whatever they want, applaud or walk out.

"I was too close to my own work. Now I've gained a perspective, a distance on most of my songs. So that now I can feel them when I perform them, but I do have a certain detachment from the reality of the story."

Did it help her in that troubled time to get her feelings out on paper? "Yes, it does, you know, it translates your mood. You can be in a really melancholic depressive mood, you're feeling downright bad and you want to know why. So you sit down and think "why?". You ask yourself a lot of questions. I find if I just sit around and meditate and mope about it all then there's no release at all, I just get deeper and deeper into it. Whereas in the act of creating - when the song is born and you've made something beautiful - it's a release valve. And I always try and look for some optimism you know, no matter how cynical my mood may be. I always try to find that little crevice of light peeking through. Whatever I've made - whether it's a painting, a song, or even a sweater - it changes my mood. I'm pleased with myself that I've made something."


Part Two - June 10, 1972

Last week Joni Mitchell spoke for the first time in over two years about why she virtually "retired" from the music scene during a period of searching and self-exploration. How her writing had become a therapy for her to overcome something of a real crisis in her career and in her outlook.

In her London hotel, happily chain smoking her way through the afternoon, she continues our discussion of her life and attitudes ...

For Joni then, the emotional release to her problems came through her artistic involvement, her sense of achievement. But the subject brings up theories on psychiatrists and whether the ordinary person, who perhaps does not have the artistic satisfaction of creating, is ever helped through times of stress by them.

Surprisingly, it turns out, that despite her own forms of release, Joni did once visit a psychiatrist herself just before she made the decision to come off the road.

"A couple of years ago I got very depressed - to the point where I thought it was no longer a problem for burdening my friends with. But I needed to talk to someone who was very indifferent, so I thought I'd pay this guy to listen to me. I had done a lot of thinking beforehand as to what was eating me, so there wasn't a great deal of uncovering to do. I went to see him and said "okay blah blah blah" and just started to rap from the time I came in through the door - which turned out to be 40 minutes of everything I thought was bothering me. Which included a description of myself as being a person who never spoke, which naturally he found hard to understand! But it was true that in day to day life I was practically catatonic. There were moments when I thought I had nothing pertinent to say, but there I was, blabbing my mouth off to him.

"So in the end he looked at me and said "Well do you ever feel suicidal?" and I said "Sometimes I feel very bad but I have to make another record..." telling him I had all this things to live for. So he just handed me his card and said, "Listen - call me again sometime when you feel suicidal". And I went out into the street - I'd come in completely dead pan, my face immobile even when I talked - and I just felt this grin breaking over my face at the irony of it all. At the thought that this man was going to help me at all. I don't see that they really do much good. The idea that you disclose all these things to a person who remains totally anonymous seems not very helpful."

But isn't that why people go - that they are anonymous beings?

"Oh sure - that is why people talk to stranger on trains and buses, for a release. But I wanted more than a release. I wanted some wisdom, some kind of council and direction. He didn't know. He only knew the way to his office in the morning and the way to the bar afterwards".

Well some people use them like a priest - almost as a confessional...

"True, but ... did you read Herman Hess' book "Narcissus and Goldman"? In reading that book - and I have never had any catholic experience - but at the end when Narcissus the priest gives Goldman a mantra to repeat over and over again, not reproaching him for his life, but just giving him a focus because he's so spaced out. Kind of "you're out of focus - get yourself in focus". I thought that was so brilliant, so many priests and psychiatrists miss the whole point of getting right to the heart of the person. Giving him rehabilitation and setting up a solution. Hess is certainly my favourite author - although that I must admit that I hardly ever read. As a result I find difficulty in expressing myself - suddenly I find how limited my vocabulary is. I never was a reader, I always was a doer. To me, reading was a vicarious experience. But I have a hunger now, there are times when I am among my friends and I feel like an illiterate.

"It's like I came through the school systems completely unscathed in a way, and completely unlearned in another way. Which makes me feel terribly ignorant. I find now that the most common phrase in my vocabulary is", she lowers her voice sternly, "I DON'T KNOW, I just don't know".

Sadly it's a common link between us - something we have to laugh at but knowing it's only a cover up in exactly the same way as an excuse for scholarly learning is that "living is more important".

"Oh well, I think that both those sides are true. I think that a lot of people that glued into books can only learn from books. Like one thing I love is the exploration of learning. I love teaching myself things. In a way that handicaps me because when someone tries to instruct me I can't be instructed. This is particularly painful to me in my music, because someone will say "Oh I like the way you play piano, will you play these key changes C to E"? And I can't do it. The only way I could is if they play the tapes and let me wander around and choose my own chords.

"I was constantly rapped on the knuckles at piano classes because I'd listen to what the teacher played and I'd remember it. So I never learned to sight read properly and she'd bust me on it. I'd fake it - like I'd read the music and it wouldn't be quite right, there was a certain amount of improvisation in it. And she'd say "those notes aren't in there". That kind of killed my interest in piano for a good 15 years or so. From the beginning I really wanted to mess around and create, find the colours the piano had buried in it. You know, I always feel like such an irresponsible creature."

We move back to the songs. At the Festival Hall she debuted "Lesson In Survival" which now, having discussed the two years away from the business, seems even more pertinent than it did that evening. She apologised for it on stage saying she didn't necessarily feel that way now, but obviously it was a very bitter time.

"Yes that was when I came off the road. I had a friend at that time I was very close to, and who was on the verge of tremendous success. I was watching his career and I was thinking that as his woman at that time I should be able to support him. And yet it seemed to me that I could see the change in his future would remove things from his life. I felt like having come through, having had a small taste of success, and having seen the consequences of what it gives you and what it takes away in terms of what you THINK it's going to give you - well, I just felt I was in no position to help. I knew what he needed was someone to support him and say it was all wonderful. But everything I saw him going through I thought was ludicrous, because I'd thought it was ludicrous when I'd done it.

"It was a very difficult time, and the song was actually written for that person: "In the office sits a poet and he trembles as he sings and he asks some guy to circulate his soul ... okay on your mark red ribbon runner". Like go after it, but remember the days when you sat and made up tunes for yourself and played in small clubs where there was still some contact and when people came up and said they loved a song you were really glad that they loved it. After a while when people come up it begins to sound hollow and you meet so many people that misunderstood what you said - maybe they did before, but you didn't care you know? Ummm, well I've got to clarify that - it is appreciated when someone says it and genuinely means it and you can see it's moved them, maybe changed them a little. Like I've been really moved by some performances and I've been unable to tell them from my side of it because I know what it's like to receive praise. It's a very difficult thing to give sincerely and communicate that sincerity.

Having gone through all those feelings didn't she find it hard to come back to concerts and get involved in it all again - knowing what she knew and how she'd reacted to knowing it?

"Well that part of the song I apologised for the most was the bitterness, I had felt so pressurised. I don't feel pressurised by it now, mainly because I intend to express myself in more than one medium so if I go dry in one I'll move into something else.

"You come to dry periods as an artist and you get real panicky. I've known people that haven't written for maybe a year and they're chewing their fingernails right down to the wrist. And I've known people who maybe haven't put out such a good fourth record and they feel they're on some sort of decline. Either they feel it personally or they're led to believe it. Their record company are beginning to withdraw from them, the spark is going out. Or maybe it's the fact that at 17 they were so pretty and all of a sudden in the morning they have bags under their eyes.

"But now I feel personally unaffected by all that, in that I feel my creativity in one form or another is very strong and will continue. I may of course just dry up all round - hey, I may become the whole Gobi desert next year! You know I always say to Elliot (Roberts, her manager) "Oh I haven't written anything for three weeks", and he's always laughing at me because I'm very prolific. But I'm also very lonely - which is one of the dues you pay. I don't have a large circle of friends. I have a few very close friends and then there's a whole lot of people I'm sort of indifferent to. And I sometimes think that maybe that's not so good., that maybe I should go out of my way and be nice to everyone, you know?"

But it must be difficult for her - the star system is a trap where it's hard to work out who is a friend for simply what you represent and who for the person you really are.

"I used to see that as a problem, but there was also this thing where I'd be nice to anyone who was nice to me - that I had this obligation to nice back. But that's a discrimination I've learned. I'm older and wiser now".

The rain has stopped outside and the last rays of a 7 p.m. sun are filtering across the trees in the park. Joni plays a little piano, eats a little butterscotch and we move on to the new album - her first for Asylum, the label that her co-managers Elliot and David Geffen started and which she joined as a friend to lend her support to.

"Well I've started on it. I've been into the studio to cut a publisher's dub, when the songs were very new. I just cut most of them by myself. For "Cold Blue Steel" I got in James Burton who's really a great guitarist. Like that song is a real paranoid city song - stalking the streets looking for a dealer. I originally thought it needed a sliding steel but we tried that and it didn't work. Finally I ended up with James playing really great wah wah - furtive kind of sound. It's a nice track, but in the meantime the bass line and drums didn't work solidly, so I have to recut that. I have a take of "Lesson In Survival" which is really magical., the feeling is there and I don't think I'll do it again - so I have that cut and finished.

"Then I tried to do "You Turn Me On - I'm A Radio". I've never had a hit record in America so I got together with some friends and we decided we were going to make this hit - conjure up this bit of magic for AM radio, destined to appeal to DJs. Graham and David came and Neil lent me his band and he came and played some guitar and somehow it didn't work. There were too many chefs you know. We had a terrific evening, a lot of fun, and the track is nice, but it's just ... it's like when you do a movie with a cast of thousands. Somehow I prefer movies with unknowns. So I'm going to start looking for people who are untried, who have a different kind of enthusiasm that comes from wanting to support the artist.

Like Miles Davis always has a band that are really great, but are cushions for him you know. That sounds very egotistical that I should want that, but this time I really want to do something different. Like the music is already a growth, a progression from "Blue", the approach is stronger and melodically it's stronger, I think that will be noticeable whether I make a sparse record as I did with "Blue" or not. But I feel I want to go in all directions right now, like a mad thing right! I'd think "this is really rock and roll, this song isn't it?" and I see it with french horns and everything and I really have to hold myself back, or I'll just have a monstrosity on my hands. No, I don't feel trapped in this held back careful image. I could sing much stronger than I do you know, especially on the low register. I've got a voice I haven't used yet and haven't developed, which is very deep and strong and could carry over a loud band. And I'm very tempted to go in that direction experimentally.

"But rushing ahead of ideas is bad. An idea must grow at its own pace. If you push it and it's not ready, it'll just fall apart".

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