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Joni Mitchell: The Words Come Spilling Out Print-ready version

Ann Arbor Argus
March 13, 1969
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(This conversation with Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash was recorded in the New York apartment Joni was visiting. Joni's manager, Eliot Roberts, was also present during the interview.)

Argus: (to Graham Nash) Your new group sounds exciting.

Nash: It's the best sound I've ever heard.

Argus: How did you get together with Steven (Stills) and David (Crosby)?

Nash: I've always been friendly with David, because we've always had a mutual respect for the other's ability to sing harmony. And David said, 'I'd like you to meet a friend of mine,' and took me over to Steven's house... You see, none of us wanted to start a group; David had left the Byrds, Steven had left the Springfield, and I'd just left the Hollies - well, I hadn't left the Hollies yet, I was still deciding whether to - and then we were sitting in Joan's (Joni's) living room in Laurel Canyon one night, and they did this song in two part harmony, and I added a third part. It was in Joni's living room that it all started.

Joni: (handing me an antique cigarette case) Isn't this a pretty thing?

(It was)

Nash: The new group that night in Joni's living room was a truly wonderful sound. And, you see, you have to respect the fact that the Byrds and the Springfield and the Hollies were probably three of the finest harmony groups in this whole, entire planet. And it's really fine and it's music I really enjoy playing, you know, and we start recording in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Argus: How long is it going to take before your album is ready?

Nash: Well, an interesting project. You see we do most of the songs acoustic - we have one Martin D-28 - but we also have songs that are done electrically, so we also have an electric band, with three of the finest musicians with us: Harvey Brooks (bass), Paul Harris (organ) and Dallas Taylor (drums). So we're making two albums: one album is purely acoustic with me, David and Steven, and the other album is electric. The name of the group is going to be Crosby, Stills and Nash. What do you think of that doll? (There was a sponge-rubber doll of Graham on the couch...)

Argus: I like it... (to Joni) Did you make it?

Joni: No, it's really spooky - I'm not sure I like it, 'cause it looks so death-like and so yellow.

Argus: I was told to ask you about your house in Los Angeles - did you decorate it yourself?

Joni: Well, it's a very strange house, it was built by a piano player, about 25 years ago. It's all built out of woods and real things like in the bathroom the floor and the walls, instead of being glazed tile, are raw, red tiles like flower post. So he was very organic, the man. And the bedroom where I sleep has a wooden roof that slopes down at the head of the bed; it's pine, but it's stained so that it looks like birchbark and the walls are all black wallpaper. So he was very much into the feel of woods and very textural, and then I brought my stained glass that I've been collecting all over the country; I had small pieces that I'd picked up in Montreal that had never fit anywhere I'd lived before, and they fit exactly in this house. So there's stained glass and wood; no real color scheme, but very bright primary colors - there's one shelf where all the windows are lined with colored bottles and things, colored glass and dried leaves. A lot of oak furniture... I'm looking forward to going home to it.

Argus: To change the subject a bit... you started out in art school - could you talk a bit about how you got into performing folk songs and writing your own compositions?

Joni: Well, I never was actively involved in music, except when I went to school dances - I loved to dance - and then when I got to be about 18 I was interested in jazz, because by that time most of the boys that I knew were in universities and that was the thing. It was also the Kingston Trio time; and a coffee house opened in my home town, and I went there mainly to hear jazz. I was introduced to folk music that way and I became interested in it mainly through the comedy - that was the thing that brought me into it. And then once I liked the comic songs, I began to love those woeful, minor key ballads. Somehow or other, that was the hook that really got me involved in it. In those days, you were invited to sing along in the coffee houses with the artist, because people were performing traditional songs, rather that performing as performers and composers. There's a different thing that happens in a club or a concert now, you know, there's always this attention that is kind of demanded to you as a craftsman - but then it was more audience participation, and so I started singing from the audience. Then the group of us that went up to the lake sang together, and I began to play ukulele; we sang all those art songs, the ones the Kingston Trio were singing. Then I went to art college - I'd been playing about six months, (laughs) ukulele - and I got a job in a coffee house, my first professional job, so I began to take it more seriously and I began to look for songs that nobody else around me was singing, so that I would have something that was mine or a song that people would specifically request, so that I would have some identity within the music. It was hard to get, because nearly everybody knew more folk songs that I did, because I was a latecomer to the music. And I loved it, I loved to perform; and I quit art college at the end of that year and I went to Toronto, where there was a bigger folk music scene - there were about 18 clubs - and I thought that maybe I'd be able to get work there. It was difficult, it was for pittance and you couldn't really survive on it, you couldn't pay your room and board and heat on the money you made singing, so I worked part time in a dress shop and then I gradually began to be more known in that area. I still wasn't writing my own songs - well, I had written one song, but I never sang it...

Argus: Do you sing it now?

Joni: No, it was a song I wrote on the train going out to Toronto, and I still don't sing it. Then when I moved to the States, I really began to sing - I moved to Detroit; the Chessmate was really a proving ground for me. Chuck Mitchell, whom I was married to, and I worked there whenever somebody got sick - you know, when Tom Rush or somebody couldn't make it, we were the ones who pinch hit. It was a good experience, and we also worked as second act to a lot of singers, so in that way we kept a little in touch with what was going on. I met Eric Anderson, who taught me some tunings, and it was when I got into the tunings that I really began to get excited; I couldn't take off in the standard tuning. The melodies that were in my head I couldn't put down. You know, it's like in painting, finding your medium and all of a sudden there's something that you can really work with. And then I developed my own tunings, and wrote my own songs, and soon I had ten original songs. Now I have nearly all my own songs.

Argus: When will your next album come out?

Joni: I'm working on it right now; I have about four songs out. And the concert was recorded, too; that will be a separate album, so I'm in the middle of two.

Argus: When did you write "The Urge for Going" - was that one of the early songs?

Joni: Yes, that was one of the first ones; it's one of two songs I play in standard tuning. It was one of the first ten songs I wrote - probably around the sixth or something.

Argus: One thing I'm curious about - since you are Canadian and now live in the States - how do you view the American life style, the American political scent, and so forth, vis a vis Canada?

Joni: Well, American politics are pretty messed up to say the least. I've never been political - I've always avoided watching, 'cause I've found that it was so upsetting to me to read about it. I'm sort of an ostrich, you know, I bury my head to protect myself, and this year I finally faced up to the fact that there was trouble in the world, and it really depressed me. It was too heavy for me to bear. I don't read newspapers, but during that time of public concern - not that I don't have it, I just find that it overwhelms me; I'm not strong enough to take it if I see too much reality. I watched the Democratic convention on television, and I found it was terribly frustrating to watch people - to see it and see it so clearly. I think that my point of view is reality, I think I saw what truly did happen, and yet I saw so few people aside from the youth of the country see it with that same perspective. I mean, it seemed blatantly obvious to me that the police were just crazy with fear, or something. Well, let's see, the basic difference - Canada is very arian. He uses more common sense and it's all right because Canada is a minor power, whereas the States has bigger problems. I don't think a man like Trudeau, even though he's ideal for Canada, I don't know what it would be like to put a man like that into power in America. Idealistically, I'd say Trudeau is fantastic - why doesn't America have someone with that style? But it might be absolutely wrong - the Russians might say ah-hah, he's really weak, and invade or something... you never know - politics just confuses me so much. I think too emotionally, and you can't be emotional in politics: you have to be very icy. Well, I think the American youth, including people from 13 to my own age and into their early 30s, are the most exciting young people in the world.

Argus: Are the Canadian youth hip in this way?

Joni: Well, in certain cities. I think that there are a lot of hip people in Montreal, and in Toronto and in Vancouver, but I don't think that there are a lot of hip people in between, and that's 4,000 miles. But it's much the same in America - you know, what is there between New York and California? You don't have them - though there may be unusual people. I was always a kind of freak in my own society - you know, I stuck out - my mother's very conservative and was always wanting me to blend in, but I never did blend in, and I was a source of agitation to her because I wouldn't blend in. She would say, "Don't call attention to yourself like that" - you know, she was very conservative. I think that the Midwest has always been very conservative; there are a few pockets like Ann Arbor...

Argus: Speaking of Ann Arbor, would you comment on Canterbury House? I know you may be playing there again this spring.

Joni: I love playing there, and I don't know anyone who has played there who hasn't felt exactly the same. David Rea, who's a good friend of mine, just couldn't believe it. And Neil Young - you know, everyone who has played there has just raved about it. It's like a concert situation in a club, and that's very rare. People are kind, and there's a different spirit.

Argus: Is there anything in particular that makes Canterbury House and Ann Arbor different from other clubs and places?

Joni: I don't know what it is that gives different cities different attitudes. For instance, Philadelphia is notoriously reserved. They don't applaud a lot - you can't use applause there as a gauge. If you had just played Ann Arbor, where people are so enthusiastic, and you went to Philadelphia, where... well, maybe people are enjoying you, maybe their enjoyment threshold is at a different level or something; probably, for them, they've enjoyed it just as much, but that's for them. It's a different standard. I don't know what makes cities differ; I guess Philadelphia has that breeding that can serve to... well, they don't show their emotions as much. Where do the kids in Ann Arbor come from?

Argus: From all over - a lot from New York City. But I wonder if it isn't a function of their being kids - you know, if there were kids from Philadelphia in Canterbury House, that they wouldn't enter into this spirit the place has. One of the biggest things that has happened there since your appearance last winter was David Ackles; I don't know if you know him.

Joni: Oh yes, I do.

Argus: It was the same kind of thing as when you were there - the atmosphere was somehow electric. And I hope you'll be coming back this year.

Joni: Well, you know I've been offered a lot of wonderful opportunities this year. I don't know whether I can do some of the things; I was offered to write a movie and incorporate my own music into it. I've been invited to write music for movies before, but I haven't been able to find one where my thinking - you know, where I really genuinely liked the story and the choice of actors and actresses and so on. But this is something where I have complete control - it would be like writing a musical.

Argus: Is that in Los Angeles?

Joni: Yes. So if I accept that, it will take me out of club work quite a bit, and I would probably just go out and do a concert now and then. So it really depends on a few other decisions; I can't really say whether I'd be back... (at Canterbury House)

Argus: (laughs) It's just that we're selfish...

Joni: I loved it there it, - we'll see.

Argus: One other thing - Dave Van Ronk said once that he had been needling you about not reading things. Do you read much?

Joni: I hardly ever read. People lay books on me, and I've read a few things lately, but I really have very bad eyes. I'm a lazy reader and I read things incorrectly. And although I love language myself, I love it when I hear someone else's songs or when someone reads to me. That's the only way that I can seem to absorb literature. I get halfway down a page, and my eyes get lazy, or something, and I find that I'm absorbing the thought and the action but I'm not absorbing the style of the writing. I was always a poor student for the same reasons, and that's why audio - this medium - is so beautiful for me.

Argus: I wanted to poke around at influences in your writing.

Joni: Well, Leonard Cohen is a very strong influence. I like his use of language - like "If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn/They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem" (from "Sisters of Mercy"). I have similar ideas to his ideas about language; I love alliteration. I think he's my strongest influence.

Argus: Certainly your basic attitudes different, though...

Joni: That's where we differ - I'm much more of a... well, not a romantic, because he's a very romantic man, but I'm more of an optimist, whereas he's more Catholic and into dark misery.

Argus: Life is a tragedy...

Joni: Yeah, he's a tragedian and I'm not. Who else - well, I'm influenced in different ways. Like even though I never finished Henderson the Rain King (by Saul Bellow), it was the book and a culmination of things that inspired "Both Sides Now." I was up in a plane and somebody had given me that book, and I got to page 37 of the book and - Henderson, the main character, was up in a plane flying over Africa - there was a beautiful description of this. And I looked down out of the window and the same sort of thing was going on, and he (Henderson) went on to say, "it's very peculiar - as a boy, I remember dreaming up at clouds and now as a man here I am in a plane dreaming down at clouds, and having looked at clouds from both sides, I suppose I really shouldn't be afraid of anything." Somehow or other, the culmination of him being up in a plane and me being up in a plane made a very profound impression on me, and that's where the seed of "Both Sides Now" came from. And every time I read something - it's not an insult to the author - but I will get into that book and then suddenly someone will arrive in town or something will happen, and I'll get all involved with that, and then move on to something else, and the book will just never get finished. I know I would love to finish it... I've started Steppenwolf and I've been reading The Last Temptation of Christ, by...

Argus: Kazantzakis.

Joni: Yes, I can never pronounce that. So I do begin to read but I'm not organized. Since I left school, I'll bet I've read about 12 books, including the four Tolkien books. So in the last seven years, I've probably read about 12 books. (laughs) It isn't very good - I should read more.

Argus: Do you mind talking about moments when you were moved to write other songs - for instance the one you sang in the concert about your cat?

Joni: Oh, that's the one about Hunter. Well, that's the two temptations of this crazy cat that came to my door. I had been sick for a long time, and it was the first day I was well, and I said to myself, 'Now then I'm really going to take good care of myself'; that afternoon I had gone to the dentist - first day I was out of bed I said, 'Now I'm going to get my teeth worked on. I'm going to get myself really together, all prepared, all patched up.' After I came home from the dentist, it was such a drag having that drill in my mouth all day, that I said, 'OK, now I'm going to cool myself out. I'm going to treat myself to something.' And I went into a store and bought a pair of black leather shoes from Greece that were beautifully crafted; they had thick heels, and they looked like witch's shoes - they had big bows on the front. So I took them home and tried them on; I was all dressed in black. I had on the black shoes and black stockings and a black dress and it was very late at night and I got very superstitious. I was staying all alone in my house, so I said, 'Well, enough of this, I'll just go to bed.' So I walked down the dark hallway into my bedroom - there was no light on. And as I went to the window to pull the blind down - and the rollers on the blind were rolling a bit (makes noise) - there was this blood-curdling yell right outside the window. It was this cat, and I knew it was the cat. But even though I knew it was the cat, because of the black and all of the symbolic things that had gone down, it really scared me. And I used to talk to the cat - he'd go by in the hills when I was up in my studio - he had a really loud meow, he'd go RRRRRRRRRow, like that, and I'd copy his sound back to him. And I thought, 'oh dear, I'm really a witch, now I'm into black magic; all of my good, bright powers have gone and I'm conjuring up terrible things.' So I didn't know what to do, so I called him from the back door. He came around and just looked terrible - he was starving and feverish; all his fur was stuck together. So I said, 'You wait there' - the top half of the Dutch door was open - and I went to the frig and brought down some milk and a blanket, but when I was coming back he had leapt over the Dutch door with his last strength and he was stalking up the hall he was dribbling and he was dribbling and it was just repulsive. And I said, 'God, I just don't want this animal in my house, he'll bring fleas and all sorts of things,' and I was thinking of my own preservation. So I fed him and put him outside, but somehow or other I felt that was cruel, and so my guilty conscience bothered me all that night, and I kept hearing him breaking into the house - which was all in my imagination, but I couldn't sleep. So it was like some sort of temptation, and the song that I wrote from it - I wrote a good Samaritan verse, which was the first thought to feed him and give him a blanket; and then an innkeeper verse where I hurried him away in spite of my first good intentions, because of myself. But then he came back three days later, and I was so relieved to see him 'cause I'd been feeling like a monster, wondering if I'd really failed some test. So I took him in, and he's my cat; and he's really strange - he has a hare lip and a cleft palate... it's amazing that he's even alive. He's an eight year old cat. I took him to a vet and found that out...

Argus: How did you happen to write "Chelsea Morning?"

Joni: Well, I lived on 16th Street here in New York, which is in the Chelsea area, and I just wrote it about morning in my apartment.

Argus: "The light poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses" - that's such a great line. It was hard to get some of the words from the one recording of it (Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters) - I was madly writing as you sang it - such as "Owls by night."

Joni: Yes, "incense owls" - I had an owl that burned incense, that's how I got that line.

Argus: Would you talk a little about Mr. Kratzman?

Joni: Well, Kratzman was my Grade 7 teacher. In the sixth grade I was pinning up some drawings - Kratzman was a really handsome Australian man with graying temples and a gold cap on his front tooth, and he always reminded me of Gregory Peck or Stewart Granger or that type of man. And he walked up to me in the hallway - he had really beautiful eyes - and he said, "Like to paint, eh?"

Nash: (entering room) Oh, always talking about men - don't you women ever talk about recipes?

Joni: (laughs) But he said, "Well, if you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words. See you next year," and he walked away. I've talked to him on the phone since the album came out, and he told me that he hand picked that particular grade - there were two Grade 7 teachers - and he chose all the people that he thought were creative. Actually, most of us were sort of rebels and outcasts as ordinary students went, but he loved to teach English, and he knew at the Grade 7 age who the arty people in the school were. And they were all kind of tending toward greasers - they were like rock 'n roll punks; at that time they were like early blackboard jungle types. Nobody really wanted us, but he took every one of us and he had fantastic control over us. The next year, he loosed us on an unsuspecting Grade 8 teacher and they couldn't control us, we were just completely wild. So they thought that Kratzman was a terrible teacher because we had gone wild in that year. But it seemed as if we never really studied anything or there was never any work - there was a fantastic rapport; you know we threw chalk brushes and did all of those things we thought were really cool at the time. And he let us do that kind of thing, until he wanted us to simmer down and then he just said, 'Cool it,' and if we didn't, boy, he was something to see - he went charging around...

Nash: (Joni asked Graham to write a note to the person who had been his host, and he replied) "Why do you saddle me with a problem like this when we're leaving? I've got to get my artistic brain to function or I can't think of a sentence."

Joni: That's why I can't write letters - I get all hung up in my image of myself now: I say, 'I'm a writer; therefore when I send somebody a letter, it has to be a literary work of art.' And I can't communicate then - I can't even spell. So I don't even write anybody.

Argus: You know it comes out much better when you forget that you're a writer...

Joni: I know, that's how you do when you're writing songs but when I go to write a letter, I feel a certain responsibility...

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