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CBC-TV Midday Interview Print-ready version

by Kevin Newman
October 17, 1994

[see video here]

Kevin Newman: And it's a real pleasure to speak with Joni Mitchell. The song we just heard, Magdalene Laundries, how did that story come to you?

Joni Mitchell: Well, a comment was made on my writing habits by my hired man. He said that, he said "You know" (while sucking on his pipe) he said "you're a cheerful person Joni," he said "but you write all these melancholy songs. I think it's because you write them at night." He said "why don't you try writing a song in the daylight?" So I sat out on a rock and I tuned my guitar to the sounds of the birds around, which were mostly squawky birds, you know, but there is a tonality to it. And I waited for an idea for the lyric to come. A couple of days went by, I went to the market. And in the checkout lane, I purchased a newspaper and dragged it home. And on the front page there was a story about the Magdalene Laundries. And it said that the church, the Magdalene Laundries outside of Dublin, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity had sold 11.5 acres to a realtor for development. And that in plowing the ground in preparation they unearthed, I think, it was over a hundred bodies of women. Not in exactly unmarked graves but marked 'Magdalene of the tears', 'Magdalene of the sorrows', 'Magdalene of the this and the that'. And, the story was this: That between 1800 and 1970, women who were considered indecent. Fallen women- prostitutes, unmarried mothers, and even unmarried women who were attractive, I guess, and the men looked at them. The parish could deem them a jezabelle, and they could be incarcerated. This was described as Dickensian conditions. The women were obviously overworked and underpaid, if they were paid at all, and no one seemed to retrieve them. So it seemed like such a poignant story and the song came of that.

KN: But not quite in tune with your intention, early, happy little lick that you had worked out.

JM: No. Well, it turns out that the kind of chords I like, are not, you know, sunny majors necessarily.

KN: Well people have made that point that this song, Sex Kills- another song on your new album, reflect sort of a look by Joni Mitchell at some of the uglier parts of our society. Are you seeing, when you experience things, are you seeing more ugliness? Or are you just more in tune with it do you think?

JM: No. I think there is more ugliness. I think it's on the increase. Especially towards women. I've never been a feminist, but we haven't had pop songs up until recently that were so aggressively dangerous to women. It's hard for women, and men, to walk around at night. It's a dangerous world that we live in, but- We were having dinner in the hotel the other night and turned on the television, primetime, and a man is coming through the door with black leather gloves on, begins to batter a woman on a bed. A man comes in behind him filming it. This is not, you know, primetime television of a few years ago, so there definitely is something going on. In Canada, a statistic that I read said 50% of women polled in Canada were battered. 59% in British Columbia, where perhaps there is more unemployment and greater alcoholism.

KN: You've said many times in your life about how artists aren't really created, they're born. They are compelled to create. And I think

JM: I think you can develop a talent, but a real artist is by nature an outsider. They have almost an alien perspective. Maybe an artist can be made by childhood disease which gives a deepening of perspective that otherwise would not occur. Maybe an artist can be trained, or exposed to techniques or encouraged. But I think the artistic nature is a birthright.

KN: Do you go through periods where you can't create?

JM: No. The reason I have never had a writer's block is because I paint. So, I crop rotate. You know, if I don't have anything to- I never run out of music. I can pick up the guitar. All I have to do is find a new tuning and there is an exploration there. And in the process of the exploration, a chordal pattern would be revealed. So there is no way I could dry out musically. Lyrically, I don't understand why people, if they are living at all. The only reason it could dry up is because they are afraid to state what they are feeling at the current time. You're always living and you're always feeling, and you're always seeing and you're always hearing. So there is no reason, really, that I can see. I saw Dylan when I played in Japan in early summer. He told me he couldn't write anymore and said to write a song about the criminal press and launched into, like, this long soliloquy about the criminal press. And I said, why don't you write it, you've got all you need. All you have to do is rhyme it and set it to music. He said, oh no, I can't write. So I don't know why he can't write. Why can't he write if he knows what he wants to say.

KN: You talked just a bit there about the painting, and I think you have said previously that when you're creating, you're almost creating palettes of colour and chords come from that. How did Indigo come about?

JM: Turbulent Indigo. It's a very general term the way it's used there. Indigo is a colour, it's like kind of a blue, greenish blue. Kind of an old blue jean blue. Van Gogh used it a lot in his paintings. Turbulent Indigo, among the many things that it refers to, are the turbulent blue strokes of some of Van Gogh's canvases. It also refers to, in the context of that song, the emotional disturbances that are associated with the production of those strokes. Whether that is true or not.

KN: Whether that was madness or not because some people thought it was at the time.

JM: The comment and the consensus is that he painted that way because he was mad. But, having seen the reasons for my work interpreted many times, like so far off base, I give that the benefit of the doubt. It seemed like a natural fluid progression from where he started his strokes started

KN: On the cover of this CD is your version of, very much a Van Gogh style. What comparisons are you inviting us to make between yourself and Van Gogh?

JM: It's a self portrait in the style of Van Gogh. A very specific Van Gogh self portrait. He did two or three portraits. Two that I have seen, with his ear cut off. Both in the same costume. He's wearing a white scarf and a furry hat and it looks like a thick wide wail corduroy coat, with a big button at the throat. And the colours in the background vary. One has a red background, one has a yellow, the one that I did has a swirley turbulent indigo background. It's just a black joke, black humour you know.

KN: Nothing more?

JM: Well the first 10,000 copies, a little tin ear is going to fall out.

KN: Come on. When your last album came out, I guess it was in '91, was it? I think. So you at that point you said that time would tell whether or not people enjoy the sound of a middle age woman singing. Have you been able to reach any conclusions about that?

JM: Well, it has nothing to do with the sound. I don't sound middle aged. You know, it has to do with the concept. You know, it has to do with the idea of being 50 in pop music. It hasn't to do with the sound, I know I'm writing as well as singing as well or better. Playing as well or better. You know, like, but it is a matter of whether the public, since this is a very youth oriented business, will play my videos; will play me on the radio. You know I lost my slot on the radio for many years as the stations went more towards orthodoxies. And I've been kicked out of every school of music that there is. So, I was mistaken for a classical musician at one point, and classical virtuosos still have to defend playing me in their sets. They thought I was country for awhile until I brought a jazz band into the Grand Ole Opry. When I collaborated with Mingus, I was excommunicated from the Rock stations and they thought I was a jazzer. The only Jazz station in New York collapsed, went country and western, two weeks after the release of Mingus. So then, I've been basically a person without a country. A lot of my people that I was influenced by went likewise radio orphans. The same route, they tried to enter through the doors of country music

KN: So have they come back to you, do you think?

JM: In Los Angeles, there are stations now that, yes, play a lot of the kind of music, more lyric oriented music that fell through the crack for many years.

KN: Do you ever get worried that someday you might wake up and the muse will have left you in your sleep?

JM: No. I don't care.

KN: You'll keep creating.

JM: Yeah, in one form or another. It's not all going to go at once. Am I gonna go deaf dumb and blind? You know. Well then I'll see mandalas on the inside or something. I don't know.

KN: Wouldn't that be good. Thanks for meeting with us Joni.

JM: You're very welcome.

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Added to Library on May 28, 2017. (9442)


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