Transcribed by Steve Barney
[Plays “Cool Water,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm” album (1988), fading from background to foreground.]
Host: [speaking in Swedish]
[Host stops speaking, and “Cool Water” moves to foreground]
JM: My neighbors used to sing it, sometimes, when they would get drunk. [laugh] I can remember this one occasion where the Mowat’s [sp?] were sitting on their back porch, drunk, and singing “cooorl waater.” And Milton [sp?], who was the neighbor on the other side, couldn’t sleep any. He came over and he said to them: “Cool water? You want water? I’ll give you water.” And he turned the garden hose on them. [laughs] I’ve known that song for many years.
Host: When journalists, these days, try to—roughly—sum up your career they say about Joni Mitchell that, “Well, she started playing folk music, then she turned into jazz, and now she’s playing pop music.” How do you like that?
JM: Well …
Host: Very rough.
JM: Yeah, I never turned into jazz. That’s ridiculous. You know, I did one jazz project, with Charles Mingus. That’s the only pure jazz I did. I played with jazz musicians, because the harmony of my “folk music”—you know, quote unquote—was weird to rock musicians at that time, and they couldn’t play my music. The drums didn’t understand the subtleties of rhythm. The guitarists couldn’t understand the harmonic voicings. Finally, they said to me: “Joni, you’ve got to play with jazz musicians.” But even jazz musicians, when they would write my chords out, they would … They would, because they were inversions, because of the tunings, they were an unusual chordal system to that idiom, too. My music is almost its own idiom. It’s not any of these things.
[Plays “Little Green,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album (1971).]
JM: In the coffeehouses, when I began, there were two camps. Gibson guitar players, and they sang the blues. And Martin guitar players, and they sang British ballads—and I belonged to that school, because that was a more melodic school.
JM: They say of my paternal grandmother, who comes from Norway, that in Norway … She … And, I come from farming people on both sides of my family. In Norway, she went out behind the barn—she was fourteen—and she cried her eyes out, because she wanted so badly to play the piano. She then said to herself:
“You silly girl. You’re never going to play the piano. You’re never going to have a piano, so just dry your eyes and forget about it.”
They say that’s the last day in her life that she cried. She married a Norwegian from—you Swedes will love this—from a town called New Norway, in Alberta. He was a mean drunk. Everything in his face was sour. Everything in her face went up. Her children, and she had a lot of them, said that she was a saint. She never complained, she just gave. So, when you think of that, the last time in the woman’s life she cried she was fourteen. She cried for a piano, and she went on to be a giving maternal type.
Now, my maternal grandmother, the other … Sadie, came from a musical family in the east. And she came to Saskatchewan, which, people said, “This is man’s country.” It was tough land. It was pioneering, out there. You know, “Go home!” She married a farmer. She had an organ in the farmhouse. She played for local affairs, and wrote poetry. And she kicked the kitchen door practically off the hinges. She was a real spitfire. Scottish … Irish. No, she was Irish. Kicked the door off out of frustration, because she was a musician stuck on a farm. So, I think I had to do it for them.
[Plays part of “Lucky Girl”, from Joni Mitchell’s “Dog Eat Dog” album (1985).]
JM: I spent a lot of time in the country by myself, as a child. And, as a child, I rode my bike into the country, often sat out there by myself, went looking for pretty places. I was very involved with nature. Loved birds’ nests. I had a fascination for birds’ nest, of all things. Now, in my early childhood, the small towns in Saskatchewan had a pretension to European classicism. So, I was exposed to classical music in this manner. And when rock ‘n’ roll came along … I love to dance, so I learned my rhythm, and my time, and the spirit of that music from partner dancing. And then, when the folk movement came along, because it was so simple and so easy to learn, I got a guitar, I wood shedded, and, in a few months was earning a little bit of money in coffeehouses.
[Plays part of a Judy Collins’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s song, “Both Sides Now”.]
[Plays part of “Woodstock”, from Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies in the Canyon” album (1970).]
Host: But then you find a home in California.
JM: I’ve been here for a long time. I guess that constitutes a home. The sixties were very different. LA in the sixties, and LA in the eighties, are two different animals. California, in the sixties, was a hotbed of a certain optimism. It’s always been an experimental state. The experiment, at that time, was higher consciousness and brotherly love. And, whether or not people could do it, at least they attempted. I’ve been here longer than I’ve been anyplace in my life. I have old friends here. There’s much to complain about, here, but, you know … And it’s hard to set down roots in sand that’s shifting, and threatening to erupt at any day, you know. I mean this is the city of natural disasters. Fire and mudslides, and the coming earthquake, and the smog, and …
[Plays the song, “Good Friends”, from Joni Mitchell’s “Dog Eat Dog” album (1985).]
Host: I think that a lot of your audience think that a song, for you, has to have a content. I mean, you don’t do music just from a musical point of view. Is that true? I mean, that …
JM: A song is the marriage of words and music. The English, since that’s the language that I write in, must be married to the melody with the correct inflections. I mean, there are a lot of fine points to my craft, at this point, after 15 albums. If you’re word oriented, the words become the most important. I’m considered, in classical circles, to be—in some classical circles—to be a serious classical composer, in this culture. They pay very little heed to the lyrics, at all. It depends on your predilection. Journalists, in this culture, anyway, know very little about music. As a result, they tend to emphasis my poetry, but my harmony is unique. And my musical adventure, the schools of music that I’m traveling through, that is also unique, and of some fascination to classical scholars.
[Plays “A Chair in the Sky,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Mingus” album (1979), in the background, as the host continues to speak in Swedish.]
JM: When I worked with Charles Mingus, whose music is based in the blues, he took me on a very sophisticated journey through the blues. It was really quite a job. After going through the complexity of that, the simple blues opened up to me, and, now, could I appreciate the beauty of the roots. I’ve always been like that, though. I have to go from complex to simple, rather than from simple to complex.
[JM stops talking, and the song is brought up from the background to the foreground]
Host: Was this—this journey through the blues—was that your “the essence”? If I ask you what was the major thing you received from living and playing with Charley, would that be it?
JM: That was one thing. The other thing was … See, he wrote these 6 melodies for me to—he called them Joni 1, Joni 2, Joni … He flattered me, because he wanted me to do this project. And they had to be … He was dying, and basically, they were to be his epitaph, or his requiem. You know? And they had to be written from some other point of view. The one that I liked the melody to the most, the one that I would start to work on first, I said “What should I write this about?” He said to me, very wryly, “I want you to write this about the things I’m going to miss.” So, I wrote “A Chair in the Sky,” which is sung in the first person. I sing “I”, but it’s Charley’s soul speaking. It’s Charley speaking. Now, that’s a delicate position. To be a white woman singing a black, a dying black man’s soul, in the first person.
And, also, I had never really sung jazz, even though they had said, “Oh, Joni’s jazz, now.” You know. No, I’d never really sung in the jazz idiom, and some of it, frankly, to me, sounded corny. As a matter of fact, Charles and I had a kind of a fight over one note. He said, you know, he wanted me to strictly adhere to his melodies, and there was a phrase, at the end, that went Badabudeebaba. See, baba … Now to remember his melody his melody: Badabudeebadubau. Right, blue note on the end. And I sang Badabudeebubeh! And he said to me, “That’s a corny note. You’re singing the wrong note, and that’s a corny note.” [The host chuckles] I said, “Well, Charles, with the lyric that I had there, the blue note didn’t seem to work. It left it unresolved,” and I needed it to go up. I said, “Well, Charles, I need it to go up.” I told him that, and he said “No, no, no, no, no. That’s a corny note.” I said, “Well, look at it this way, Charles. That note has been hip so long, your note has been hip so long, that it’s corny again. And that corny note has been dead so long that it’s hip again. [Host chuckles] He smiled at me, and he said—can I swear on the air?
Host: That’s alright.
[Plays “The Cleaner from Des Moines,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Mingus” album (1979), fading up from the background to the foreground.]
JM: He said, “Ok, motherfucker.” He said, “You play one note for me, one note for you, and put in a grace note for God.” [laughs loudly]
JM: So, you could say, it killed my pop career—making that album. My manager, my … Everybody begged me not to, but how could I resist. You know.
Host: And everything after that has been a long effort to …
JM: To regain, yeah, pop validity.
Host: Can you foresee yourself as an old woman?
JM: Yeah. Oh yeah. I’m going to have a cane, and I’m gonna poke people in the butt. [laughs] And tell them what I really think. [laughs]
Host: You look forward to still be a recording artist?
JM: In my old age? That depends on the support. You know. We’ll have to see what the results are like, won’t we. I mean, my talent is far from shriveling up. That’s for sure. But I am in the pop arena. How … Can a woman grow old in the pop arena? It remains to be seen. You know, you can as a painter, certainly. You know.
Host: You really consider yourself to be in the pop arena?
Joni: Well, there is only the pop arena, really—now. I mean, there is no line between pop and classicism, like there used to be. Neither in painting, nor in music. It’s all there is. You know, in order to make records you have to sell records, or the company won’t take you. In order to sell records, they have to be played on the radio. Otherwise, people don’t know they came out. If people don’t know they came out, they don’t sell, and the record company doesn’t hire you. So, because of that, there isn’t much besides the pop arena. So, I’m an odd thing, in the pop context, I think.
[Plays “My Secret Place,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm” album (1988).]
JM: This culture, as you know, is in its decline. America as the number 1 power is in its decline. This is evident. America is the last to be able to admit this, but …
Host: But maybe it’s positive—that America is declining.
JM: Well, I think, one on the problems America has is it’s been number 1 for some time, now, and it tends to see things in black and white, in absolutes, winners and losers, and none of the richness that lies in between. This culture says, “Ah, he’s a winner. Ah, he’s a loser.” You know. Nothing is that concrete.
Host: No. The myth of success, in this country, is very simple.
JM: Exactly, it’s simplistic.
Host: Of your early albums, it seems to me, both in America and in Europe, and Sweden, “Blue” is a kind of a special album for your audience. Why do you think that is an album that still has that power.
JM: Well, I think it’s a very pure album. You know. And like the simplicity and the clarity of certain pieces of art holds up. Just as some complex things hold up, also. But I think it’s the purest of the albums. Emotionally, it was shocking, in its release, in that that much intimacy had never entered into the pop arena. There were people working that way. They were called the confessional poets. We were called the confessional singers, because, after me, there came a group of people who worked in that manner, until people couldn’t stand us confessing anymore, and they said, “No more!” [laughs] We don’t want to hear that anymore. We want to party.
[“Blue” begins to fade in.]
Host: Is it about your most autobiographical collection of songs?
JM: Well, all of the work is fiction, and, like all fiction, it is based on autobiography.
[Plays “Blue”, from Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album (1971), fading up from the background to the foreground.]
JM: “Blue” is very intimate. It’s one person speaking in your ear. And I think that, for certain moods, people like that record for that reason.
Host: I can’t leave Los Angeles and this interview without asking this. Last year, you lost another of your close musical friends and companions …
Host: Jaco Pastorius. Can you, in a few words, try to explain or describe what he was to you?
JM: Jaco, um, he claimed he was the man in the moon—Jaco. He had a funny face. A very strong face. Very intense, and good natured, when I knew him. The time that I knew him, he was just getting established in this town. He was a new kid in town, and he came in like a storm—boastful. And a lot people were offended by it. It didn’t offend me. I don’t mind a big bushy ego, and, like he said: “Ha ha. I’m not bragging. I’m just telling the truth.” And, in fact, he was. He was what I was waiting for, because, for years, I had been fighting with “the style”. Style takes over, and people will not go against style. And the style was dead string basses, and pillows in the kick drum. And the deadness of the bottom end of music was driving me crazy. Now, I wanted them to take the pillow out. I wanted round full sounds. Like “Police” later came up with that sound. It was very innovative, but it took a long time in coming. With a third world flap to the kick, you know. So, I mean I …
[44:36. Plays “God Must be a Boogie Man,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Mingus” album (1979), from the background to foreground to background.]
Host: And a singing bass.
JM: And a singing bass. And so, when Jaco came along, he did … We were on the same beam. Because Jaco would be up there sailing around, you know, and dropping in all these, like, little bits of “Rites of Spring,” you know. Fantastic.
Host: Not what a bass player is supposed to do.
JM: No, he was as fresh as … He was everything I dreamed of. If I could have played the bass, I would have played like Jaco.
Host: Thank you very much, Joni Mitchell.
JM: You’re very welcome.
Host: And good night.
JM: Good night.
Ends at 45:51
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