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Joni Mitchell Interview - MuchMusic Print-ready version

Interview by Terry David Mulligan.

MuchMuscic
March 1988

MuchMusic Interview

Transcribed by Greg Roensch

Terry David Mulligan: ... the nation's music station, MuchMusic. We are in the Dwight Yoakam Memorial suite. This is where we interviewed Dwight Yoakam. But this time we have Joni Mitchell in tow. I was in San Francisco a couple of weeks back. Stood opposite Winterland and remembered The Last Waltz and your part in The Last Waltz. What can you remember about that magic Thanksgiving Night so many years ago with Robbie Robertson and all of those people?

Joni Mitchell: I felt pleased, and I felt kind of lonely. There were no other women at the event. There were women added to the film afterwards. Because I think they realized after the fact that it was a little spotty in that department. While that was an honored position, I would have liked some feminine comradery.

Neil's a very good friend, and he and I had a trailer. That's why I ended up singing the duet with him. From the wings. We came up with this idea for mutual support. It was amazing that the thing flew. There was very little planning. As far as the participants went, you just kind of went on and did your thing.

There were a lot of people backstage that weren't in the show. Freddie Neal, for instance. So, it was a meeting of people from different parts of your life. I remember thinking at the time in a way while it was a beautiful thing; in a way it was a kind of a sad moment. Almost as if it marked the turning point or the end of the old guard. It was a wrapping up and the signing off. But it definitely was for Robbie, until recently. I didn't feel ready to wrap and sign off.

Terry David Mulligan: Could you have gone away? Robbie went away for 11 years, ostensibly. He wrote soundtracks and filmed. But he didn't tour or anything. Could you have turned your back on music like that?

Joni Mitchell: I've threatened to quit all the way along. I have quit from time to time. But never for that length of time.

Terry David Mulligan: You've said, "You quit" but in your heart of hearts...

Joni Mitchell: I've taken sabbaticals. But I can't stop writing. So, even while I'm away, I end up with a collection of songs and then go back in the studio and then everything follows suit. Then you're back on the road again.

Terry David Mulligan: You have described your songs as, "Your babies." So, one would presume that would be from the seedling to the whole recording finished process.

Joni Mitchell: There's a nurturing. I have no children. So, I guess my maternal instinct... so the energy that would be put into mothering goes into the creation of music. I see the songs more as the different aspects of the personality of the child. It's more the album that is the child. The child is nurtured. You try to put the best of yourself into it. The release of the album is almost like sending your kid into the first grade. You hope all goes well. Sometimes it comes home crying with a bloody nose. You have to give it a pep talk and say, "Don't worry. You're going to grow up to be a nice kid. Ten years down the line they'll recognize that you're a nice kid. You're a little hard to look at sometimes."

Terry David Mulligan: Bruce Springsteen in his introduction to Bob Dylan entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made the comment that "People won't let Dylan forget about 'Like a Rolling Stone,' and those great songs. 'Highway 61 Revisited.' That they tend to ignore some of his recent work. If another younger artist had come along and written that work that they would call them the new Bob Dylan."

Joni Mitchell: Yeah, it's true.

Terry David Mulligan: Yeah. I see the same thing, in some cases, applying to you as well. That some of those people out there will not let you forget your Court and Spark period and let you get on with what you want to do now.

Joni Mitchell: Or Steely Dan.

Terry David Mulligan: Sure.

Joni Mitchell: You take Aja and Gaucho. Aja was loved. Gaucho was recipient to a lot of criticism. Had they been released in reverse order I think the same rule would have applied. I don't think it really had to do that much with the material. It has to do partially with the phenomenon of expectation. If a project is loved... for instance, this record has had wonderful press. Wonderful tailwind. There is a high degree of possibility that no matter what I do on the next one - because of the expectations - it will not be as well received. That seems to be the pattern.

Terry David Mulligan: You have said yourself that you try not to get your hopes up with all of these albums. Fifteen of them now. But there must've been something that stirred in you that told you that this album was particularly good.

Joni Mitchell: Oddly enough with this one we took our fair share of knocks prior to the release. Because the pattern had already been set in certain communities... of close mindedness almost to anything that I might do. So, people began to get the image of the music as difficult and hard to get into. Even prior to release there was this attitude that had to be broken down within certain members of the record company. It's a study in human nature, this job.

Terry David Mulligan: You were asked recently in a wonderful book, does your audience know you as well as we think we do? You made the comment that you put out your songs and if they spark off of those people the way they sparked off of you. Then you have that in common. And, yes, we do know you.

Joni Mitchell: It's always my optimism that if there is a revelation in regard to my own nature that finds its way into the material. Perhaps it's too revealing in the context of the pop climate. For instance, a line like, "I don't like to lie, but I sure can be phony when I get scared." You think to yourself as you're writing this down, "Well gee, God, Joan, do you really want to put a line like this out into the world? Do you want to be responsible for that kind of frankness?" Actually, the first live performance of that song was in San Francisco at Mimi Farina's festival, Bread and Roses.

Terry David Mulligan: Bread and Roses, yes.

Joni Mitchell: After I sang it, there was a murmur that went out. As that line struck the audience, well, it was more than a murmur, was like a gasp. It was like, "Ah!" But there were hundreds of voices that went, "Ah!" like that. It was kind of a treat. Because I said to myself, "Oh good. Hopefully it's not that they're shocked at me, but that's the sound of kindred experience expressing itself."

Terry David Mulligan: Didn't you have the opposite reaction at Amnesty International, when you were singing the song "Number One?" And people were throwing things at you.

Joni Mitchell: What happened was it was a New Jersey audience. New Jersey audiences get drunk as the day rolls on and like to throw things. They'd been throwing things at Bryan Adams who went on before me. This I realized after I reviewed the tape and looked at it. This had been going on for some time uncontested. I walked out; I put my glass of water down between microphones. One of these guys that were throwing things was a dead shot. It hit the glass and the water rooster-tailed up to eye level. You can see it on the film. There's this shiny stripe of material. Well, I thought it was breaking glass. So, on national television, I went to the lip of the stage and told them off.

Terry David Mulligan: Yes.

Joni Mitchell: For which I received "Worst Performance of the Year," Rolling Stone Magazine. My annual "Worst Of" reward. The next song though was the song "Number One." I thought as I was singing the song in the middle of it... it occurred to me that it was the perfect soliloquy for persecution. That they could throw all they wanted to, it would just... It was like Shakespearean. How do the words go? It goes um, "Shall they shower you with flowers or shall they shun you when your race is done?" I thought, throw it now! Throw it now!

Terry David Mulligan: Do you know that there are still people out there who believe that, in fact, that you fled to the United States of America and left Canada behind?

Joni Mitchell: Oh, I didn't flee.

Terry David Mulligan: No.

Joni Mitchell: See that's something we should maybe clear up.

Terry David Mulligan: Good.

Joni Mitchell: I know it is perceived in some circles that I am an expatriate. I said in one of the interviews it was like, "Well, couldn't you perceive me as an ambassador? I still have my passport. Why is it that I'm a traitor for having gone to the States when I can barely get any work up here?" It wasn't even for the sake of... it wasn't for conquering... it wasn't ambition that took me across the border. It was bread and butter. I met a folk singer from Detroit, Chuck Mitchell. Who I later married, actually. He drew me across the border on the pretenses that he could get me work in some small towns in the outlying Detroit area. While down there... convinced me that I should marry him.

Terry David Mulligan: You must've got an example of what Canadians feel for you. For example, Tears Are Not Enough. Here are artists who are singers and songwriters in the room. They have their own audiences coming up to you and letting you know how important you are to them. What comfort it is to know that they have a leader in you.

Joni Mitchell: Well, you never really know what you mean to other people.

Terry David Mulligan: Until they tell you.

Joni Mitchell: That helps. Yeah. I guess if people tell you then there's an attempt to clarify it. It's not even good to know. It's better not to know. Don't you think?

Terry David Mulligan: Don't you get people coming up to you saying, "Listening to such and such an album was an experience that changed my life."

Joni Mitchell: Oh yeah. But this is different though. This is the connection that I enjoy. What I enjoy is when the song goes into a life. I'll give you an example. There was a dancer in New York City. Black, gay, estranged from his father because of his lifestyle. He did a ballet... all different kinds of dance expression. He did an evening of dance using my music and King Sunny Ade's music.

Terry David Mulligan: Wow!

Joni Mitchell: His father attended it. At the end of the performance, his father came up very excited and he wanted to talk to him. Especially about the song "Ethiopia." So, the dance and that song created a dialogue between the father and son who hadn't spoken for many years. Two weeks later, the man died. Not the dancer, but the father. So, this song was catalyst to the dialogue. One of the last opportunities. These are the kinds of things.

Terry David Mulligan: Oh yeah.

Joni Mitchell: That I think are beautiful. That's the optimism that I have for my music. That it would enrich your life.

Terry David Mulligan: ...Bryan Adams, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Cockburn, and yourself, all of you Canadian. You all know each other. Of course, you and Bruce Cockburn go back so many years. Why is that you all struck on the same chord?

Joni Mitchell: Well, I've always written about Indians in my music. They appear in my dreams from time to time. So, to me, the Indian problem is not an isolated problem over there. It's not like empathy for those poor people. We were all in this together.

Terry David Mulligan: Yeah.

Joni Mitchell: That's the main thrust behind the writing of my song. I'm not really familiar with Robbie's or Bruce's. I don't know what points they're emphasizing.

Terry David Mulligan: The points that you all make are that this earth is... that we live here... and it is a combination of myth and spirituality. Even Midnight Oil in Australia are saying exactly the same thing that you all say. That is, respect the land rights of the North American Indian and the Aborigines. Give them back the land that we stole from them.

Joni Mitchell: Well, I think that they may be, "The meek shall inherit the Earth." Although tribally many of them have lost their Earth lore, also. With the reservation difficulties... which the White man has imposed upon them.

Terry David Mulligan: Sure.

Joni Mitchell: What with the robbing of their culture. The bringing of Christianity, which does not apply to their way of thinking. The black coats and the booze. Although on many reservations there is reform afoot. A rediscovering of old values. I'm very optimistic and frankly a little romantic about Indian and Inuit people. I get an alien kind of vision from time to time where I think I see things like an old primitive. I look upon the Frankenstein of White progress as complete insanity.

Terry David Mulligan: I simply find it ironic that all four of you are Canadians. I really do. Have you been comfortable with the small legacy that you've left us behind in terms of videos? Will you be applying those same techniques to your new videos for the new album?

Joni Mitchell: The only really finished looking video that I've done I think was the one that I did with Blashfield for "Good Friends, You and Me."

Terry David Mulligan: Yeah.

Joni Mitchell: The two little black-and-white Super 8s that I did "Shiny Toys." Those were just kind of a lark. We did two of them for five grand. One of them has never been seen, the one on Fiction. I think that's the stronger of the two. But it's very dramatic. I've only done really two video videos. The rest of them have been kind of like homemade projects.

Terry David Mulligan: Okay. I suppose that this speaking tour that you're doing is our concert tour for the year. Because if you wait for all of those artists, those musicians to free themselves up, we might not see you for another three years. They're very important people.

Joni Mitchell: Manu and my husband play really well together. We've been in contact all this summer. There was some talk originally of going out this summer. But to go from a talking tour to a playing tour is a lot of energy expended.

Terry David Mulligan: Yeah.

Joni Mitchell: So, now leaving a gap to kind of fuel up again. I haven't checked in to see who's going out when. Because I know that there were three of us that want Manu... can't live without him. Hey Manu, we can't live without you.

Terry David Mulligan: You had made a comment to the effect that you didn't fit on the radio these past couple of years. Do you think this album will change all of that?

Joni Mitchell: Well, no, it wasn't a matter of feeling. It was just that my music had gone in a direction... developed in such a way that it didn't belong to any orthodoxy.

Terry David Mulligan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joni Mitchell: Radio got so pigeonholed.

Terry David Mulligan: But you're not prepared to go to them. All things will come full circle.

Joni Mitchell: Well, with the success of Peter and Sting and Paul Simon's project the airwaves then opened up.

Terry David Mulligan: Yeah.

Joni Mitchell: Because we know... I think the four of us have kind of a kindred direction. You can play those four artists interchangeably.

Terry David Mulligan: It's not really rock-and-roll as we know it.

Joni Mitchell: It's a more international kind of music.

Terry David Mulligan: What would Charles Mingus think of this album? Would he like it?

Joni Mitchell: I don't know. If he had lived this long there's a possibility that he would have changed. At the time that I worked with him he liked acoustic music. He didn't really like the way jazz was going. He didn't like much of the music that I adored. Like Weather Report who were the vanguard to me of progressive jazz.

Terry David Mulligan: Yeah.

Joni Mitchell: Heading to that same cusp. Heading to the type of walk between rock-and-roll and heavy metal and pop and jazz.

Terry David Mulligan: Right.

Joni Mitchell: Maintaining virtuosity, experimenting with keyboards, looking for new sounds. They were one of the first punk groups as far as I'm concerned. He was not a fan of that direction. You got to ward off fogey-dom. Miles will never be a fogey. Miles is like... he's a youth forever.

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