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Joni Mitchell Taught Me How to Feel Print-ready version

by Ann Powers
BBC Radio 4
November 23, 2018

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[Transcription below]

Music writer and broadcaster Ann Powers explores Joni Mitchell's impact on her fans and on songwriting.

"Even the songs of hers I've heard a thousand times can still give me the weird feeling that she knows me personally," she says.

In the month of Joni Mitchell's 75th birthday, Ann Powers considers what it is about her music that speaks to people in this way. And how does this emotional connectedness square with an artist who has constantly shape-shifted, who is full of contradictions? She's a master lyricist who dislikes most poetry. Her words challenged who women were supposed to be, who they could be, and yet she bristled against feminism. And when she's had such a powerful effect on so many listeners, why has she only had one top 20 hit?

Through excerpts from live BBC recordings from the late 1960s and 70s, and the conversations Joni Mitchell recorded in the same period with broadcaster Malka Marom, we travel across a decade of her music. From the familiar territory of songs like Woodstock, we reach the wilder, exploratory sounds of her late 70s work, via some of her most critically acclaimed albums from earlier that decade - Blue, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira.

Writers and critics Linda Grant, Sean O'Hagan, Jessica Hopper and Barney Hoskyns reflect on the rapid evolution of Joni Mitchell's musical and lyrical approach, alongside the memories of some of those who've been closest to her -: songwriter and former lover Graham Nash, bassist and ex-husband Larry Klein, and longstanding friend Malka Marom.

With thanks to Malka Marom and the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto, for sharing clips Joni Mitchell's conversation with Malka Marom.

Producer: Chris Elcombe
A Just Radio production for BBC Radio 4

Transcription by Greg Roensch:

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Joni Mitchell: And it was just this beautiful thing started to happen among people. It ended up with a series of singing escapades, singing in the lobby with strangers, singing in the bar, and even the bartenders were singing. It culminated in going up to a party and I was leaning out the window. We were making a lot of noise. We were howling or something out the window. This fellow stepped up to me and said, "I have a tape of some wolves." I said, "Really? I'm looking for a tape of some wolves. Would you send it to me?" He said, "I have it on me."

The piece started off with the lead wolf, a-roo, space, a-roo, space. Then this choir of wolves begins to come in. It has internal chordal movement to it, but it contains every note in the world. It would be like pressing down all the black keys and all the white keys. It was exactly the same form as my music. (singing) What do you call that? That's magic, isn't it? (singing) Freaky. (singing)

Ann Powers: Joni Mitchell looks like a wolf to me, or maybe a coyote. These are the wild things that she's invoked in her songs, and I've often wondered exactly who she meant for fans like me to recognize in their sharp teeth and glimmering eyes. But, like most listeners, I first heard a very different Joni Mitchell, one whose music invoked softer things. I was just a kid when her first hits became anthems. “Clouds,” with its magical, floating perspective. And “The Circle Game,” a song I could sing in the schoolyard and feel like a wiser, older woman. And then there was “Woodstock.” For a member of Generation X like me, it was a testament to the great psychedelic '60s, which I'd just missed. Joni's then-lover, Graham Nash, remembers coming back from the festival to find her at the piano in their hotel suite.

Graham Nash: When we got back, she said, "Hey, listen to this," and she sat down and she played this song called “Woodstock.” It was kind of purple-ish, meaning it was kind of minor-ish and a little slow. It was kind of purple. (singing) The three of us had our elbows on the piano watching Joni play this brand-new song. She actually absolutely pinned down the essence of what was happening between people at Woodstock, brilliantly. (singing) A lot of people think, well, it must have been you babbling at her about that that caused her to write it. Not at all. She'd already written it by the time we got home. (singing)

Joni Mitchell: That song is so moving to me. The two or three times that I first performed it, I had to stop. I would get so caught up in the emotion. I guess it's because I didn't go to Woodstock, but I watched it on television and it seemed like an amazing thing to me that, under the circumstances, that many people helped each other out. They delivered babies in the mud, they shared their food, and there was so much brotherhood. (singing)

Ann Powers: Now, this is the Joni Mitchell many of us know and love, going in there, deeper than anyone else, excavating emotions others are afraid to encounter, dwelling on moments between people that others barely notice or willfully ignore. At the same time, even the songs of hers I've heard a thousand times can still give me the weird feeling that she knows me personally and pulled those verses from the pages of my life. So many people I know feel this way.

During her illness, I asked friends to share their experiences of her music. The stories flowed freely of women who'd entered the music business because her voice gave them permission, of men who'd processed their own love affairs and breakups through her albums, sometimes pilfered from their girlfriends. One friend answered my query for accounts of Mitchell's affect him by simply stating, "I could, but it would involve telling you my whole life."

But, as well as delving in there, she's gone out there, farther than any other singer songwriter. As in The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey, sounds to her are wild things that run fast. And in her songs, she found ways of letting them stay free. Her emotional connectedness to her listeners is her great strength but the payoff is that, when she's moved on, at times she's left confusion, misunderstanding and disappointment in her wake. Why has Joni Mitchell become a kind of Northern Star for so many people? And how does this square with a musician who has sought surprise for herself at every turn, always shape shifting and full of contradictions? To understand this, we're exploring the golden period, bookended by these two songs, “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey,” from 1979, and “Woodstock,” a decade earlier. But first, it's worth going back a little further.

Malka Marom: It happened in November 1966. That's how far back we go, Joni and I. My name is Malka Marom. I am a musician and a writer and a broadcast journalist. I was finishing to tape a television show I had at that time. It was at the lowest part of my life personally. I finished the show very late at night. I didn't feel like going home. It was such a terrible atmosphere, so I drove around in the city, as a matter of fact enjoying my solitude. And then I figured, well, I cannot just drive the whole night, so I stopped at the Riverboat. It's a very famous coffee shop.

It was empty. There was a girl on the stage. I thought she was the server. She was dressed like she bought her clothes in the Salvation Army. I just ordered a cappuccino and she was still tuning the guitar. She kept tuning it, tuning it. I finished the cappuccino and she was still tuning her guitar. But, anyway, then she started to play for real. “Michael from the Mountains,” “The Circle Game.” Then she sang “I Had a King.” (singing) When she sang this, I said, "My God." The keys won't fit the door. (singing) My thoughts don't fit the men. (singing) I shouldn't even go home. I knew that I had to divorce my husband. I didn't know what to do. I was crying, crying. But still I was riveted by the music. And when she finished, I jumped out of the booth, and I went to her and I said, "Who are you?"

Ann Powers: So many people have enjoyed or suffered similar epiphanies encountering Joni Mitchell's music. I never left a lover because of one of her songs, but I did learn how to feel cool in tough situations from songs like “Raised on Robbery” and what to do with romantic disappointment from the first few lines of “A Case of You.” "Just before our love got lost, you said, 'I am as constant as the Northern Star.' And I said, 'Constantly in the darkness? Where's that at? If you want me, I'll be in the bar.'" Oh, to be that wise and free She built the scene. All I had to do as I listened was walk into it.

Unknown Speaker: It's nice to be able to tuck things like that away in your head because nobody can ever really take that away from you. You've even got the LP and you can play it and play it and play it. Joni Mitchell, and this is called “Cactus Tree.”

Ann Powers: Mitchell was born in 1943 in the remote Canadian province of Saskatchewan and grew up thinking she might be a painter. Discovering folk music as a young woman, she eventually moved to Detroit. She got pregnant and had a daughter whom, as she sang later, she could not raise. She found her way first to New York's Greenwich Village and then, in the late '60s, to California. In Laurel Canyon, up in the Hollywood Hills, Mitchell was treated as a genius. But also, in some ways, as a novelty. Here was a woman insisting on making herself the center of things and besting the men around her in musical skill and originality. (singing)

Graham Nash: The very first night that I ever spent with Joan, where she played me maybe 15 of the most beautiful songs I'd ever heard.

Ann Powers: Graham Nash had left England and pop group The Hollies behind when he came to California and met David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Joni, with whom he formed a romantic relationship.

Graham Nash: It was an astounding moment for me as a songwriter. I wasn't very good then. I know that we'd written hit songs, “Carrie Anne,” “On a Carousel,” et cetera, et cetera. But, to me, they don't have much depth. They are instantly recognizable and whistle-able and all those silly things, but they were not very deep. It was only when I spent time with my new partners that I realized that I would have to step up my game here. I'm playing with guys and Joan who are totally, totally serious about expressing their inner feelings and being able to include you in those feelings, and Joni was brilliant at that.

Joni Mitchell: This is a song that isn't really finished. It needs another verse to it still, but when I go home late at night, this is a song that I really like to sing right now so I'll play it for you. It's called “My Old Man.”

Ann Powers: In a 1970 BBC concert, Mitchell sang material from her forthcoming album, Blue, including this fond recollection of her relationship with Nash, which had ended the previous year. (singing) The late-night mood she mentions is one that runs through this early masterpiece like a smoke stream. It's an album meant to be listened to alone. I did that, anyway, over and over again when I was a new mother. Blue would wind me through my sleep-deprived days, helping me navigate the rawness of feeling that continually overwhelmed me. Writing openly about her intimate relationships was not new. She had done so on Ladies of the Canyon the previous year.

But the directness of Blue was a sharp turn from what most people thought pop should be. (singing) Mitchell's brutal honesty about disappointment, grief, and the need for more than love has precedents in soul music, but here was the clear-eyed realism Carole King had brought to the Shirelles' “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” stripped of that song's spangly production. Mitchell herself produced Blue to sound as intimate as a secret shared by someone curled up on the couch next to you. Women went there. They heard their own secrets suddenly.

Linda Grant: The thing about Joni Mitchell is not only have I never met her, I've never actually seen her perform. I have a one-to-one relationship with her. I don't want to be listening to her at the same time as anybody else. My name's Linda Grant. I'm a writer and novelist, non-fiction, as well. She's always seemed to me to be both part of myself, but someone also sort of rather distant, creating, forming my identity over the early part of my life.

But one of the things that really surprised me about her was the discovery that she has this absolutely massive male fan base. And then I realized it's because she was an artist who was writing about sensitivity and feelings in a way that men could respond to. I tend to think that the men who love Joni Mitchell don't really talk about it except when it comes up, as it were.

Sean O'Hagan: I lived in Armagh in the early '70s. I'm Sean O'Hagan. I write about art and photography for The Guardian and The Observer. The Troubles had started. It was a very small record shop that got blown up, so the only place you could go and get records was up to Belfast. And there was, weirdly, a toy shop in Armagh which, on the second floor, had two racks of records. I would go in there every couple of months just in the vague hope that there might be a decent record.

They had Blue for sale, so I bought it and sort of lived with it. It wasn't the kind of music that I was listening to. It was adolescence, it was glam rock. I was into Roxy Music. I was into Bowie. But it sort of crept up on me. It wasn't an album that you'd go and tell your friends. Most of my friends were lads. It was almost like a guilty secret.

Joni Mitchell: At the time that it was recorded I couldn't look at people without weeping. My jive detector, like all drowning people, was set so low and there was almost a psychic thing where I could see through people and I was sure that they could see through me. It felt like we were all cellophane. I was just dripping in earnestness and sincerity. (singing) Kris Kristofferson, I played it for him, and he went, "Joni, save something of yourself." Because it was unprecedented in its vulnerability, in a certain way. But it was all I was capable of. "I'm bad, I'm bad, I'm bad. Look at me. I'm happening." That's how you present yourself making pop. You don't go, "I'm selfish and I'm sad," which is the human condition. (singing)

Barney Hoskyns: The writing is always so rich and poetic that it's never like she's just saying, "I'm hurting. This guy's hurt me and here I am all alone." It's never maudlin. It's never self-piteous.

Ann Powers: Rock critic Barney Hoskyns edited an anthology on Joni Mitchell. (singing)

Barney Hoskyns: I understand how, in bedsits all across the world in 1971, young people would listen to Blue and relate to what they heard was a quite unhappy young woman singing about failed love affairs. I understand and I get it, but I think it's musically and poetically just richer than that.

Sean O'Hagan: “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” I think, is just a song that points towards what she was starting to do, which was kind of record and transform conversations, almost like a short story writer would then put it into a short story. She was doing that in songs. (singing) It's a song about a remembered conversation with someone and he's saying to her, "Don't become drunk and cynical." (singing) And then the second verse shifts to his life and he has become this sort of straight guy. (singing)

And then the third one shifts back to her now and she is drunk and cynical. (singing) I think, because I was sort of having vague intentions to be a writer, I thought this is quite interesting, the shifting points of view. I was reading Truman Capote ... and he was doing that kind of thing. (singing)

Ann Powers: After writing Blue, Mitchell, feeling deeply exposed and tired of the music industry's requirements, took some time off to live what she's called a monastic life on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast. She wanted to stand outside the frame of her own life, as she remembered in a conversation with friend and journalist Malka Marom a few years later.

Joni Mitchell: I painted for a while and I did a lot of writing at the time. But it was the public thing which I was quitting. That's the wonderful thing about being a successful playwright or an author, you still maintain your anonymity, which is very important in order to be somewhat of a voyeur to collect your observations for your material. And to suddenly be the center of attention, it threatened the writer in me. The performer threatened the writer.

Ann Powers: There's that distance, again. Joni is at least as much voyeur as soul-bearer. As she refined her songwriting, Joni Mitchell continued to push against the confines of the "confessional" writing style that is often attributed to her. It's certainly possible to get an idea of what Joni Mitchell is from listening to her songs, but they're really more about her ongoing conversation with the world than they are about her own inner life.

Malka Marom: Before I came here, we were listening at home to some of your records and my son just stops and says to me, "Mom, how does a person write a song?"

Joni Mitchell: A lot of it is being open, I think, to encounter and, in a way, in touch with the miraculous. I'll tell you about the way one song was written, because I had two verses written to it and I didn't know how it should end. I didn't know what kind of point I was trying to make or anything. And one night I pulled into a gas station at four o’clock in the morning and there was an old man there. There was no one else around. And he said to me, "What are you doing out so late?" And I said, "Well, I've just come from this recording studio down the street."

He said, "Oh, you sing?" So, he asked me to sing him a song and I couldn't. I was tired and I was impatient. I really wanted him to just put the gas in the car and let me go home. He said, "Well, listen, if you're not going to sing a song. I'll sing a song," and he burst into two verses of Merry Christmas, just exactly like Nat King Cole. He said, "You know, you can write a song about anything." He said, "I could make up a song about this car," and he started singing this song about my car having nice tires and white walls and windshield. It was so amazing.

And the thing that came to me and the thing that I used I writing my song was like I suddenly recognized my impatience to get home was spoiling my absorption of how beautiful this incident was that I was in the middle of. So that became the last verse of the song. It went (singing) ... bar and grill being whatever it is you're seeking for.

Ann Powers: Thanks to Malka Marom, to Joni, and to the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto for sharing clips from these conversations with us.

As her perspective kept changing, Mitchell realized that her music had to grow, too. Living in Los Angeles in the mid 1970s, she was surrounded by musicians pushing back boundaries. She loved Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Listening to Miles Davis changed her fundamental ideas about pacing and melody. And she began working with Tom Scott's jazz fusion band, the L.A. Express.

Sean O'Hagan: The musical setting in reductive terms is jazz rock. I would run a mile from that in any other context.

Ann Powers: Sean O'Hagan.

Sean O'Hagan: I was working in a factory three miles outside the City of Armagh in 1975. I got up at a quarter to five in the morning, walk through this town that you wouldn't meet anyone apart from British Army foot patrols, our local guys who were up to no good, the paramilitary. I was working in a lab doing these weird chem things with test tubes and pipettes to prepare cultures in order to make cheese. It was really strange. I was in this very pristine lab. From six o’clock until eight o’clock I was there on my own. And I'd sit doing these experiments with this tiny little cassette recorder.

On one side of the cassette I had On the Beach by Neil Young, and on the other side I had Court and Spark. I listened to those two records all through the summer and into the winter at six in the morning. It's quite strange, isn't it? She was no longer Joni the navel gazer. Yeah, it was quite a dramatic reinvention.

Malka Marom: Do you think the fact that you are singing with a band now, you might lose something by losing that vulnerable image?

Joni Mitchell: Well, I don't want to be vulnerable anymore. (singing) So hopefully it shows a spectrum of a person's feelings as opposed to a locking into one facet. That's it. That's one of the things that I have always struggled within my personal life, as well as in my art form, is that I shouldn't be stereotyped as a magic princess as I got earlier in my career. I didn't like that feeling when it was returning to me. No, I think that the band will only show that there is another side to the music. (singing)

Barney Hoskyns: It was very clear to me that Court and Spark was doing something that she hadn't done before ...

Ann Powers: Barney Hoskyns.

Barney Hoskyns: ... which was harder to pin down and more troubling, complex, and really beautiful. (singing) It speaks of scales falling from the eyes. It speaks of a woman who's really coming to terms with her life as a famous musician, her life in the context of Southern California and the whole world of LA glamor and the movies and her relationships with unreliable men. She really gets the detail of subjective experience. She locates you right in the heart of her experience as a human being. It's probably why she hasn't had that many hit records.

Ann Powers: In fact, only one top-20 single in the U.S. and the UK. And even if we measure her work as she conceived it, as entire albums, rather than songs in isolation, only two hit the top 10. Why didn't Joni Mitchell sell more records? Partly, I think it is because of the music. Other artists were having bigger hits with similar explorations because what they did was easier to absorb. Linda Ronstadt's exquisite country soul and Steely Dan's frat boy meets lounge lizard take on jazz rock communicated in ways that fans could grasp without too much work. Meanwhile, here was Mitchell sampling Burundi drums in “The Jungle Line,” a song about white people's ideas of the primitives on 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns. (singing)

Jessica Hopper: She was writing these songs that very much keenly observed other people's lives. (singing)

Ann Powers: Author and music journalist, Jessica Hopper. (singing)

Jessica Hopper: What she shows us a lot is women whose only power is their value to men ... women being given status by their proximity to men. And I think it becomes harder for her audience to see themselves in these songs. And maybe they don't want to see themselves in these songs, in part because the work here is really incisive. It's really dark. It's about people leading deluded, unhappy lives. (singing)

Joni Mitchell: Women suddenly didn't like me very much. Prior to that, most of the songs had been sung in first-person and they were a description of my own personal struggle. So that if they could relate to that struggle, they would relate to it, but they also had a way of keeping it at arm's length. Some women didn't like the mirror that it held up. (singing) A lot of it was a description of the trapped housewife, The Hissing of Summer Lawns meaning late in the afternoon in the summer when everybody on nice, neat streets has their sprinklers going. (singing)

Jessica Hopper: Most of the reviews say that she is cold in turning away from her audience. Leonore Fleischer writes this short fan book about Joni Mitchell at the time and uses the word "abandoned" about how she feels at that time and that some of Joni Mitchell's audience felt really left by the side of the road, that they saw so much of themselves in Joni's first-person narratives and really seemed to not just expect that from her but demand that from her. That's really the only way they wanted her to be. (singing)

Ann Powers: I understand why some Joni fans felt betrayed by what seemed like a turn away from the intimate revelations of Blue and For the Roses. It's not as easy to have a good cry to the cool open-ended songs of The Hissing of Summer Lawns but, for me, that album was an entry point. I was only 11 in 1975. I discovered Joni a few years later when I was a freshman in college.

When I picked up a copy of Hissing at my local library, I was immediately plunged into a musical novel, with its pointed satire and almost surreal visions of life in glamorous California, a place where I dreamed I'd live one day. And this novel felt like a feminist story, like the ones I was devouring those days. Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, Marilyn French's The Women's Room, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Like those books, this was a story by a woman who wasn't going to take it anymore, whatever it was.

Jessica Hopper: “Harry's House” is really kind of the quiet thesis of the album. We see a suburban marriage seemingly that's rotting from the inside out.

Sean O'Hagan: It's cinematic. It's panning in and out. It's closeups, it's a wider frame. (singing)

Jessica Hopper: There's almost a sense of everyone being trapped in their roles. It's kind of a portrait of the toxic but probably very typical marriage of the time. The man is working, the man is powerful, and that there's a woman sort of holding down the fort. Her bearings in the marriage are very much in what this man can give her in the things and furniture and the surfaces of their marriage. (singing)

Sean O'Hagan: And then she goes from that detail and that sort of panning to suddenly shifting to this glimpsed memory. (singing) And suddenly it's him that's lost in the reverie and sometimes shifted. You've shifted back in. You've shifted gender, you've shifted point of view.

Jessica Hopper: Then it dovetails into this version of “Centerpiece.” (singing) This song of a woman singing, "You're my everything." But the way that Joni Mitchell sings it here, her voice, there's an ironic distance, there's sort of Stepford Wife flatness.

Sean O'Hagan: And there's anxiety still here but it's not the anxiety of the crippled-with-shyness songwriter trying to express her broken heart. It's an anxiety about the time and the place that she finds helpful. (singing) It really is cinematic and the stuff of short stories. (singing)

Ann Powers: Now in her mid-30s, Mitchell could no longer be mistaken for an ingenue. And while some people found her lyrics problematic, for others it was her musical evolution that was baffling. The review of Hissing in Rolling Stone Magazine reads ...

Sean O'Hagan: Let me just see if I can find it. "It offers substantial literature set to insubstantial music. The honest jazz rock style completely opposes Mitchell's romantic style. A collection of great songs with a distracting soundtrack." He says, "Read it first, then play it." To me that's bonkers.

Ann Powers: Today we can hear what Joni was getting at. She did not want to write rhymes for posters on dorm room walls. She wanted to make adult music as she heard it, full of shifting perspectives. But as soon as we try to pin her down as sophisticated and writerly, she resists.

Joni Mitchell: I don't like poetry, for the most part. I'm with Nietzsche. "They muddy their waters that they might appear deep." I don't want to play the poet. I don't want to be the poet. I find it a lot of nauseating ho-hum wordplay and not much meat on it. I'm there with Nietzsche. "I looked among them for an honest man and all I dredged up are old god's heads. Old god's heads." Basically, I guess I'm a frustrated filmmaker. This girl came up to me in the green room. She was a black girl working on the makeup department and she came bursting through the doors and she said to me, "Girl, you make me see pictures in my head." And I thought, okay, if I can make people see pictures in their head, to me that's better than poetry.

Ann Powers: Mitchell found the right frame for her new vision on the eighth album, Hejira. It is a travelogue and a testimony to both loving the road and feeling trapped by it. It's Jack Kerouac's On the Road for women who keep a stun gun in their glove compartments. Linda Grant ...

Linda Grant: I, in 1975, hitchhiked across America and back, in my 20s. It was absolutely about that sense of being beholden to nobody, of being unattached, of the lack of attachment, of possibility, that she held out in the way that nobody else did. There was this sense of self possession that she gave me so that I was able to look out. I remember just looking out at this vast landscape and thinking how small I was in that vast landscape but how you could breathe in it. (singing)

She's always looking for love. She's always looking for the love that sticks around, the permanence of relationships, and there's always a tension between that and what she calls the refuge of the roads or being on a train which is shaking into the town with the tracks complaining. So, part of her wants to be free and part of her wants to love and be loved. "We're only particles of change I know, I know ... orbiting around the sun, but how can I have that point of view when I'm always bound and tied to someone." And that, I think, is the atomic essence of what Joni Mitchell has to say. (singing)

Ann Powers: Hejira reflected Mitchell's questioning at the doorway to midlife, of her own stubborn illusions. She was also getting deeper into fundamental questions about women's autonomy. One of my favorite feminist essays by the great Ellen Willis asks a seemingly simple question. "Is a woman a person?" The more I listened to Joni's music, the more I realized that question is at the center of all she's done. How is a woman a person when the world keeps asking her to be a dream, a doll, a mother, a wife, a feminist?

Joni Mitchell: I don't think I ever was careful about it. I just don't think I wrote for women. I wrote for relationships. I wrote to both men and women. I was never a feminist because it was too apartheid. Any feminists that I ever met were man-haters. They saw it all as them and us, where I was constantly in the company of men. I was much more comfortable in the company of men because I was used to it, than in the company of women who seemed kind of foreign to me, up until recently, actually.

A Sikh came up to me in a booth in New York one day and insisted on telling me about my past lives. He said they were sticking out all over me and he had to tell me. I said, "I don't want to know." "No, no," he said, "It's your first incarnation as a woman." He said in my last life I was a bird. In the life before that I was an English gent, of all things. And in the life before that, and he said this with considerable distaste, I was an Arab rug merchant. And that's the one I thought, "That's true." Because I have this affinity for textiles, and I could sit all day with a samovar of coffee just wheeling and dealing and feeling fabric.

Ann Powers: "I see something of myself in everyone just at this moment of the world." Mitchell sings on Hejira's title track. Her musical partner was the melodic and virtuosic jazz bass player Jaco Pastorius. (singing) And as much as it's the story of one woman's travels, Hejira is a musical dialogue between Jaco and Joni. Though her words still spun out as a poetics of motion, the music was now the map she followed most closely. And perhaps it always had been.

Joni Mitchell: I seldom write the lyrics first, because I find then I end up in iambic pentameter ... and it all goes white bread. So, by creating the music first, the music then provides your rhyme scheme, and every one is different.

Ann Powers: Mitchell continued to work with Jaco Pastorius on 1977's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. She incorporated Latin musicians, too, and her musical leaps were mirrored by risky thematic choices. On the album's cover, she infamously presented herself as a black man in full pimp regalia. She also adopted voices she could only claim imaginatively from the Caribbean inflections of the “Tenth World” to the indigenous fantasia of “Paprika Plains.”

Years before Paul Simon dared a collaboration some called “Colonizing” on Graceland, Mitchell was enacting her own explorations, which could fairly be labeled conquests. The pop world simply didn't know what to make of this woman who wouldn't conform to song structure, to the rules of political correctness, or to her fans' desire that she offer them more of what they'd loved on Blue. Mitchell sometimes responded defensively.

Joni Mitchell: They always say it's self-indulgent when they can't get into it. I was participating in it though. I was the crow and the owl. Hoo-hoo hoo-hoo, that's me. And caw, that's me on there.

Malka Marom: Now your songs seem to be too difficult to listen and to sing. Do you miss the fact that people cannot whistle your songs, Joni?

Joni Mitchell: Well, for me to go on creating whistle songs, I would bore myself to death. I am exploring something else now. I'm trying to find something fresh. I think America is a great country because it has such a rich ethnic heritage to be synthesized and I would like to explore some of that contribution to American music.

Ann Powers: Joni Mitchell once famously sang, "A woman must have everything." It's a powerful phrase, juxtaposing the quest for equality with the lingering idea that to be female is to be insatiable. She has had many lovers in her life and told us about them. This fed her image because a woman wanting everything in that way, is exciting, if she's pretty and witty, as Joni is. But she's also had many contradictory selves to express. The singer songwriter for whom music comes ahead of words, a torchbearer for women who embraces androgyny, who has sometimes crossed the line into deep political incorrectness in her relationship to black music, yet was admired by some of the great black musicians of the 20th century, like Charles Mingus, with whom she collaborated at the end of that '70s.

These many, often paradoxical, selves are problematic, a puzzle. They confuse people. But they also make sense for an artist who always represents herself as a whole human being. What really matters most to Mitchell is process. It's why after the '70s she transformed herself again. At the start of the '80s, she turned her ear toward the new wave of bands like The Police and Talking Heads. Her new bassist, Larry Klein, got where she was coming from. Soon they were staying up all night talking. Then they became lovers. (singing)

Larry Klein: We agreed very early on that nothing was out of bounds as far as writing goes. So, I knew that our personal life was fair game for song material. When she wrote those songs, I guess I was in the middle of living the material that she was talking about, so I don't think I was thinking as critically as I might have been had I been older. When she wrote that I was probably 25 or so and I just thought, wow, this is a great song. This is cool. I probably would have thought it through and been more reticent or circumspect has I been older, perhaps. But I felt the same way. I was really so taken with her and so in love with her. We were having a wonderful time. That song in particular felt like a celebration of that. (singing)

Ann Powers: The pair married in 1982 and continued to collaborate even after their marriage ended 12 years later. It's delightful to revisit the early albums Mitchell made with Klein. Their giddiness at new romance and revitalized creativity. But pop is cruel to its stars as they age, and Mitchell did not respond well to no longer being the center of its universe. She was also a woman in her 40s. And an unexpected pregnancy with Klein resulted in miscarriage.

Larry Klein: I think that that period initiated a period of bitterness for her. I think that certain specific things happened in our life that really added to that. I think that she was assessed some sort of crazy tax by the State of California at that time. Then when the miscarriage happened with us, it was a big tragedy of sorts. And then it just kind of began to snowball with a lot of things. I think she was frustrated that people weren't commercially accepting her on the same level that she was accepted before.

Ann Powers: It's interesting, though, that for some of my younger friends, Joni fans in their 20s, her '80s and early '90s albums are favorites. She was experimenting with synthesizers and her lyrics had grown more expansive, focusing on cultural issues, from the HIV AIDS epidemic to the abuses wrought by the Catholic Church. Newsweek condemned this work as "Blunt topical commentary." Now, it seems prescient. (singing)

Larry Klein: I really tried at that time to sort of assuage a little bit of the pretty big storm of bitterness that was overtaking her and I think that that continued to build on itself and she did become quite bitter and angry and that really was to the detriment of all sorts of things in her life. (singing)

Ann Powers: Joni Mitchell has crafted her life as a grand adventure. At the same time, she's a woman, like any other, with a history marked by struggle and some things that even she, the deft over-sharer, wouldn't easily reveal.

Joni Mitchell: Every bit of trouble I went through, I'm grateful for. Really, Malka.

Malka Marom: What kind of trouble were you referring to?

Joni Mitchell: Just woe-is-me trouble on me. A broken heart, a broken body, little tricks of fate, bummers. The bummers. In retrospect, a lot of them changed the course of my destiny. I wouldn't have even pursued this job. I wouldn't have pursued music, but for trouble. I wouldn't have been as good a painter. I probably would have been a commercial artist and just been doing layouts for newspapers or God knows what, menus. Bad fortune changed the course of my destiny. I became a musician.

Malka Marom: What bad fortune?

Joni Mitchell: Well, this is very personal, Malka. I don't know. Ann Powers: It would be almost 20 years after this 1979 interview that Joni's biggest personal secret would be made public. (singing) Knowledge that she had a daughter was not widely known until the late 1990s when they found each other again. But, with hindsight, you can hear it in songs like “Little Green.” (singing) And the story of the child she had entrusted, at 21, to another family, keeps surfacing in cloud-like streaks across big sky of her songs.

I'm an adoptive mother myself and for me Joni Mitchell's experience as a birth mother is not simply poignant, it's a key to understanding the dominant quality of her songs. She has said that her will to be a songwriter truly formed after she gave up Kelly Dale. She closed a door and stepped into a labyrinth of feeling, of relationships, of shifting musical language, and of the human experience. Tracing its contours, she has showed us how to navigate the mazes of our own lives.

[Dialogue from the film Love Actually]

Male: What's this we're listening to?

Female: Joni Mitchell.

Male: I can't believe you still listen to Joni Mitchell.

Female: I love her, and true love lasts a lifetime. Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.

Male: Did she? Oh, well, that's good. I must to write to her sometime and say, "Thanks." (singing)

Malka Marom: Well, like all great artists, she's a thing and its opposite. She's vulnerable and strong. She shows her vulnerability right there on the table in front of you. "Take it. Here it is." (singing) And her vulnerabilities are all our vulnerabilities. Then, when you heard her, you knew that whatever you thought and you felt before about the world, about yourself, about existing, about living, you have to change it.

Joni Mitchell: I'm really in the mood to sing. Unfortunately, my pipes are kind of going now or I'd stay here for another hour.

Linda Grant: The idea that she was ill and that she might die felt like a death of part of myself. I don't think there's any other artist I can think of whose work feels so personal, so intimate, so part of me.

Sean O'Hagan: You see, there's certain things with Joni that are ... You see, that's quite modern. I'm calling her Joni. I don't even like doing that. But it shows you how sort of intimate we have become through the years. (singing)

Graham Nash: Maybe in a hundred years you're going to hear about The Beatles and Bob Dylan and move Jimi Hendrix and Joan. And that's how important I think she is as a songwriter. (singing)

Barney Hoskyns: She was never just a rock chick. (singing) She wanted to be taken as seriously as the men. She sees herself very much as the equal of, if not the superior to, the likes of Bob Dylan, and with good reason. (singing)

Sean O'Hagan: I kind of like the fact that she's bowed out. It's much more important to us, her music, maybe, than it is to her. I don't know. But I like that she's on her 44th album of not very good songs on it. But I wish she would come back and do one more. If anyone can do it, she can, even if her voice has changed. (singing) Yeah. She's a legend, isn't she? (singing)

Malka Marom: You know, she's fearless, Joni. Fearless. (singing) Totally fearless. I've never seen anything like it. Fearless. (singing)

Rhianna Dhillon: That was another Seriously interesting story brought to you by BBC Radio 4. Join me, Rhianna Dhillon, for another story told a little sideways in a few days' time.

Tina Daheley: Hello. I'm Tina Daheley and, alongside Mathew Price, we host the Beyond Today podcast from the BBC. Each weekday we will tackle some of the biggest news stories with help from some of the best and most informed journalists in the BBC. This is the news podcast that jumps right in to give you that little bit more. So make sure you head over to the BBC Sounds app and search for Beyond Today and subscribe. If you'd like to join in the chat, make sure you use our hashtag, BBCBeyond.

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Added to Library on December 1, 2018. (6490)


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