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The female point of view… Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell talks about her life, her music, and her inner feelings.

by Jacoba Atlas
Circus
July 1969

Joni Mitchell lives in Laurel Canyon in a wood-hewed house made luminous with velvet chairs and stained-glass windows. The recent Los Angeles rain worked no hardship on her hillside home, but the structure next door burnt to the ground, and at the corner, a hundred-year-old tree suddenly found itself uprooted. Joni's belief that her house is enchanted has been justified.

The house reflects the lady and her view of life. Comfortable, warm and subtle, Joni has created a mood for living as strong as any in her music. Graham Nash, formerly of the Hollies, now one-third of a new group called Crosby (David), Stills (Steven), and Nash, was staying with Joni before his imminent departure for his home in England. Graham busied himself with making a fire before taking off with Seemon of The Fool for parts unknown, while Joni discussed her music and the future.

Over the past year, Joni Mitchell has suddenly become a name known to more than a few connoisseurs of music who read album credits carefully. Her work has been recorded by Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and even Frank Sinatra. "Both Sides Now," "The Circle Game," and "Michael From Mountains" have reached more people than the name of the composer might suggest. A recent concert at Carnegie Hall proved that the lady has finally found her audience...it was sold out and she received ovation after ovation.

One critic once suggested that girls think in a complicated manner and speak in simple terms. This could certainly be said of Joni's material: her simplicity reveals a sensitivity and awareness that few composers possess today. With phrases like "know that I will know you," and "while she's so busy being free," we are given an entire picture of a woman's mind and heart at work.

Joni has been seeing situations and storing them in her memory and in her music since her birth in Alberta, Canada some 25 years ago. She originally wanted to be an artist, a desire she still retains. Interestingly enough, most of her musical adjectives relate directly to a painter's vocabulary: "umbrella's bright on a grey background." Joni describes her home as a "musical one" and her interest in writing "was there since I was nine."

Joni came to America and played in clubs, traveling the folk circuit in the East, and bravely waiting for a change to make her mark. The single folk singer was on the way out - rock was on the way in, and managers figured there was already a Joan Baez and Judy Collins, so who needed a Joni Mitchell? Fortunately, fellow folk singer Tom Rush heard Joni's songs and introduced her material to his following, and the writer to Judy Collins. Judy invited her to the Newport Folk Festival and recorded "Michael From Mountains" (Judy was at that time going with a boy named Michael) and "Both Sides Now."

Her present manager - and the only manager Joni ever trusted - Elliot Roberts, brought her to the attention of Reprise. Company freak Andy Wickham, saw the potential of the lady, and her first album, Song To A Seagull was the product. The swing has been away from groups, and even those groups that are still together see it more as a transitory arrangement rather than the ultimate goal. Joni herself sees working with a group as an impossibility. Even traveling with a backup group seems out of the question.

"I used to be in a duo, and that was the last time I played with anyone else except for my friends. I like to play with Graham and Judy, and we sing together for fun."

"With my music," she explained, "I flat-pick, and I know there are places to be filled in. There could be more texture to it. When I finger-pick, I play the melody line, and in many cases that's the way it stays. So, when I've finished, I've honed it to a point where it's a completed song to me. And anything that is added...might to other people sound better, and more complete, but to me it sound extraneous."

"You know," she added frowning slightly, "there could be a little more bottom to it, maybe a bass. But if I was to hire a good bass player, he would be someone who is creative, and I have such definite opinions on how it should be. I would hate to limit a fine musician like that to justify my ideas," she said laughing, "it would be so simple, only one or two notes."

"I've always been afraid of the social problems involved in asking a really fine bass player to play two notes. It's like the cymbals player with a symphony. They go through this whole beautiful thing and then," she emphasized with a wave of her ring-fingered hand, "he gets to do one thing. Ugh!"

Her own experience with the duo, which she now says was just "two single acts on the stage together" has put her off groups, although she and Graham and Judy and Steven Stills have talked about all performing together ... with David Crosby there somewhere. Does Joni have any qualms about that?

"Well, it's only fun now. I don't know what would happen if we were doing it professionally together. Like the boys in the group, David, Steven, and Graham are all really good friends and admire one another's music, but there's still trouble because they're all such strong, opinionated musicians that they have difficulties as to whose opinion is the best in any given situation. I wouldn't want to be in a position where we would be disputing."

Joni picked up her black cat named Hunter, an eight-year-old Tom, who Graham says has been on the road for seven and a half of those years. "I'm very serious about my music and so I like that seriousness to remain. When I play with other people, I like that to be for fun. It's on another level," she explained, "a looser level where a sense of my own imperfections doesn't enter into it, because it's just for my own pleasure. It would be difficult for me now to learn to play with other people, like teaching an old dog new tricks."

To date, Joni's melodies have emphasized her past association with folk music: simple and straightforward, they encompassed little of what rock has brought to the music scene. Her present association with rock musicians has somewhat liberated Joni from the confines of the folk idiom. She sees this liberation as eventually leading to more expansive arrangements and, of course, more musicians. "I guess there will just come a time when I'm hearing more music than I'm able to play, and then the change will come about naturally. At that time, I will have a group with me."

However, for right now, the present "loner" aspects of her sound and music must remain. Her closeness with other composers has not tempted Joni to co-write. "I don't think I could do that for the same reasons. I can't play now with other people. I know what colors I want to use, I'm too opinionated ... that's not the word I want. I feel too strongly about what the finished thing should be, whether it's music or a painting."

"I mean," she added for emphasis, "how many times do you hear about painters working together? The Fool are three painters who paint together, but how many times do you hear of that? I feel very much about my music like I feel about my painting."

"If I were working for a master, and he came up and said to me 'well, if you put a brush stroke of red in that corner, you'll save it' I would have to reject his way of saving it or improving it until I could find a solution of my own which was equally right."

Joni's strong desire to be independent and an entire entity unto herself can seem at the same time, a contradiction of her own gentleness of her music. It somehow isn't. Joni has been criticized by a few unthinking listeners as being too feminine and romantic. Just how a woman can be too feminine isn't really clear to Joni, who sees the lack of womanliness in her contemporaries as one of the worst aspects of progress.

"I think there's a lack of romance in everything today. I went to see Romeo and Juliet which is supposed to be the epitome of romance and I thought it was very unromantic because of Zefferelli (the producer/director). Everything was too perfect."

"I think women are getting a bum deal. I think we are being misguided. The people who are guiding us in fashion are homosexuals, and therefore you get fashions that are extremely masculine for one reason or another, either to make women look foolish or to make it easier for men to look feminine or whatever."

"I think," she added thoughtfully, "that movies and things reflect the times, and I think that women are actually like they are in the movies - sex-starved and so on - but I think we've gotten ourselves into this sort of place because we're not seeing any other way to be. It's just follow the leader. Like, for a long time I couldn't go out without wearing my false eyelashes, because I thought that without my false eyelashes, I was plain. You know, that's really silly isn't it? But that's what I mean. There's one small example of how you're taught to think in certain ways."

She has brought them to her senses
They have laughed inside her laughter
Now she rallies her defenses
For she fears that one will ask her
For eternity . . .
"Cactus Tree"

"There's a fear of the big hurt," she continued, "we're taught to be very cool. And be non-committal. That's the thing I like about places like Italy. Like they're encouraged to say 'oh, I love you my darling,' and then if it doesn't work out, they all say 'poor little Emilio his heart is breaking,' and nobody puts him down. You know, they are all very kind, they shelter him because he's mourning openly for the loss of someone. Whereas in America, you stifle it so much that, well, anything that's repressed and goes underground really gets distorted. You don't know what you want after a while if you repress those sorts of things."

I had a king dressed in drip-dry and paisley
Lately he's taken to saying I'm crazy and blind
He lives in another time,
Ladies in gingham still blush
When he sings them of wars and wine
But I in my leather and lace
I can never become that kind . . .
"I Had A King"

"I don't know what they expect women to be like. I read somewhere . . . it was an ad actually . . . I was criticized . . . well, what it really said was that I didn't have any balls. Since when do women have balls anyway? I'm a very romantic person, at least I like to think of myself as a romantic person. I like fresh flowers and things like that." "I mean romance is being put down in our society. Perhaps it's evolution, perhaps because men and women are beginning to look more and more alike with hair and clothes and things. Fashion has it now so women are very lean, and hipless like men. Instead of the shape they naturally tend to, which is broad and intended for childbearing and all that. Everything's more clinical and practical."

Marcie's faucet needs a plumber
Marcie's sorrow needs a man
Red is autumn green is summer
Greens are turning and the sand . . .
"Marcie"

"Even if I'm writing about myself, I try to stand back and write about myself as if I were writing about another person. From a perspective, I wrote this one song, I can't remember the name of it now, a triangular story where I wrote about myself from the point of view of another woman. It's written about one person and myself, and still another all rolled into one. To give the person in the song more dimension."

"It's really tough because I want to explain to you how I write but I can't. It's just standing back and getting another perspective on it. I step back and carry on a conversation with myself. It's almost schizophrenic. You lay out a case and argue with yourself about it, with no conclusion! But I have to write a long time after something has happened, because when I'm in the middle of something I'm totally emotional and blind. I can't get a perspective on it."

I asked him would he hurry
But he crawled the canyons slowly
Thru the buyers and the sellers
Thru the burglar bells and the wishing wells
"Nathan La Franeer"

Like many poets, Joni insists that her lyrics be worked over until every word is absolutely necessary. She admires both Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but each for their differences.

"Leonard's economical, he never wastes a word. I can go through Leonard's work, and it's just like silk, while Dylan's is coarse and beautiful in a rougher way. I love that in him. I think I'm a belated fan, at least my enthusiasm is growing the more I live in urban places. The last two years I've become a very strong Dylan fan, but before that I couldn't see what he meant. I'd never known what the street meant. I was sheltered. I hadn't seen the injustices. Now I can understand him."

Joni wears long dresses and velvet. She loves cameos and has a grandfather clock that doesn't work but is standing polished and waiting because it's beautiful. She's become a vegetarian, not for any religious reasons, but because she's been turned off to the thought of meat. She is looking forward to England with Graham, but doesn't know when they will be able to leave. It's hard for them both to co-ordinate their careers, but fortunately, their respective managers are friends, and Joni said she and Graham act like spoiled children and say they won't go without one another. The blizzard in England and the rainstorms in California have dampened most people's spirits but Joni said almost apologetically, "I feel so optimistic about everything . . . don't you?"

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Added to Library on February 5, 2022. (882)

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