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Avsminkat Interview Print-ready version

Los Angeles, CA

April 19, 1988

[Video caption] About the song "Cool Water"...

Joni: My neighbors used to sing it sometimes when they would get drunk. [Laughter]. I can remember this one occasion where the Moets (sp?) were sitting on their back porch drunk and singing [mockingly] "Co-o-o-l water". And Milne who was the neighbor on the other side couldn't sleep and he came over and he said to them, "Cool water? You want cool water? I'll give you cool water!" and he turned the garden hose on them. [Laughter]. I know that song for many years.

Interviewer: When journalists these days try to very 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?

Joni: Well..

Interviewer: Very rough.

Joni: Yeh 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 musics, you know, quote unquote, was weird to rock musicians at that time and I couldn't, they couldn't play my music. The- the drums didn't understand the subtleties of rhythm. The guitarist couldn't understand the harmonic voicings. And 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.

[musical interlude]

Joni: In the coffeehouses when I began, there were two camps. Gibson guitar players, and they sang, um, the blues. And Martin guitar players, and they sang British ballads, and I belong to that school because that was a more melodic school.

[Video caption] About her ancestors...

Joni: 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 14 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..a.. a Norwegian from, um you Swedes will love this, from a town called New Norway in Alberta. He was a mean drunk. He w - , 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 14. 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 - 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.

[musical interlude]

[Video caption] About her childhood...

Joni: 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 bird's nests. [Laughter] I had a fascination for bird's nests of all things. And 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 and Roll came along, I loved to dance. So I learned my rhythm and my time in 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 woodshedded. And in a few months I was earning a little bit of money in coffeehouses.

[musical interlude]

Interviewer: But then you find - found a home in California.

Joni: 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. Um, 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. Um, 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 there's this - this is the city of natural disasters, fire and mudslides and the coming earthquake and the smog and...

Interviewer: A lot of your audience, uh, 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...

Joni: To me, 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 im... - the most important. I'm considered in classical circles, to be, in some classical circles, to be a serious classical composer in this culture. Um, they pay very little heed to lyrics at all. It depends on your predilection. Journalists, in this culture anyway, know very little about music. As a result, they tend to emphasize my poetry. But, my harmony is unique, and my musical adventure, the- the schools of music that I'm traveling through, that is also unique and of some fascination to classical scholars.

[Video caption] About Charles Mingus...

Joni: When I worked with Charles Mingus, who's 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 - the roots. I've always been like that though. I have to go from complex to simple rather than from simple to complex.

Interviewer: Was this, uh, this journey through the blues, was that your, the essence...if I ask you what was the major thing you received from, uh, living and playing with Charlie, would that be it?

Joni: Um. That was one thing. The other thing was, you see, he wrote these six melodies for me to, he called them Joni one, Joni two, Joni...he flattered me because he wanted me to do this project. Um. 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, some of them, from his 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 first person, I sing the I, but it's Charlie's soul speaking. It's Charlie 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. So...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 he 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 [hums a melody] See? [hums a melody] I gotta remember his melody...[hums a melody] Right. Blue note on the end. And I sang [hums a melody]. And he said to me, "That's a corny note. You're singing the wrong note and that's a corny note." 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, 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." So he smiled at me and he said...can I swear on..on the air?

Interviewer: It's alright.

Joni: He said, [mocking Mingus] "OK, motherfucker," he said, "You play one note for me, one note for you and put in the grace note for God." [laughter]

[Video caption: When changing musical orientation, the radio stopped playing her music...]

Joni: So you could say it killed my pop career, making that album. My manager, every...and my, everybody begged me not to. But how could I resist? You know.

Interviewer: And everything after that has been a long effort to...

Joni: To regain, yeah, pop validity.

Interviewer: [laughs] Can you foresee yourself as an old woman?

Joni: Yah. Oh yeah. I'm going to have a cane and I'm going to poke people in the butt [laughter] and tell 'em what I really think. [laughter]

Interviewer: You look forward to still be a recording artist?

Joni: In my old age?

Interviewer: Mmhmm.

Joni: 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.

Interviewer: You really consider yourself to be in the pop arena.

Joni: Well, well there... 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, you, there isn't much besides the pop arena. So I'm an odd thing in the pop context, I think.

[Video caption: About USA...]

Joni: This culture, as you know, is in its decline. America as the number one power is in its decline. This is evident. America is the last to be able to admit this but, um...

Interviewer: Then maybe it's positive that America is declining.

Joni: Well, I think one of the problems America has is it's been number one for some time now, and it tends to see things in black and white, in absolutes. Uh. Winners and losers. And no, 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.

Interviewer: No. The myth of success in this country is very simple.

Joni: Exactly. It's simplistic.

Interviewer: Of your early albums, it seems to me as, uh, both in America and in Europe, in Sweden, Blue is a kind of a special album for your audience. Why do you think that it's an album that still has that power?

Joni: Well, I think it's a very pure album, you know. And like the simplicity and the clarity of, of, um, certain pieces of art, holds up. Just some complex things hold up also, but I think it's, 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 [laughing], 'No more. We don't want to hear that anymore. We want to party.' [laughter]

Interviewer: Is it your most autobiographical...

Joni: Um...

Interviewer: ...collection of songs?

Joni: Well, it... all of the work is fiction, and like all fiction, it is based on autobiography.

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