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Elton John's Rocket Hour Print-ready version

In conversation with Joni Mitchell

Apple Music
November 12, 2022

Note: This is a slightly edited composite including material from the separate audio and video broadcasts. Recorded on October 28, 2022. Transcription by Sam Stone.


Hi, this is Elton John. This is my Rocket Hour and Apple Music. And I've had some amazing programs since I started about six years ago. But today is the most amazing program yet because my guest for the whole program is Joni Mitchell.

Music: "Chelsea Morning"

Widely regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Joni Mitchell has won ten Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.  

Music: "California"
Music: "Big Yellow Taxi" (1970 version)

Joni began singing in small nightclubs in Canada and she moved to the United States and began touring in 1965. She settled in Southern California, and Joni Mitchell helped define an era and a generation with popular songs like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock".

Music: "Woodstock" (1970 version)

Her 1971 album Blue is often cited as one of the greatest albums of all time. I can verify that!

(Joni laughs)

Music: "A Case of You" (1971 version)

In March 2015, Joni suffered a brain aneurysm rupture which required her to undergo physical therapy and take part in daily rehabilitation, even up to this very day while I'm talking.  

Music: "Come in From the Cold"

Recently, Joni has been hosting monthly music sessions known as Joni Jams at her home in Bel Air. Organized with the help of her friend, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. Musicians who have turned up to play include Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Harry Styles, Chaka Khan, Marcus Mumford, Herbie Hancock, and me!

Music: "In France They Kiss On Main Street"

On July the 24, 2022, just not so long ago, Joni Mitchell appeared unannounced as a special guest at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island -- where she had played in 1969 -- as part of a set billed as Brandi Carlile & Friends. She was given a standing ovation. And, I've had the privilege of listening to some of the songs, and it's mind-blowing and it's spine-chilling

Music: "The Circle Game" (1970 version)

This is a miraculous story. This is one that I've been able to witness. I witnessed Joni coming to my birthday party when I was 70. The difference in this incredible woman from that point onwards to now -- because of her unbelievable stamina, and her determination to get well through exercise, and the care of her amazing loved ones that look after her -- is an astonishing achievement...

(Joni laughs)

...and spine-tingling to watch.

Music: "Both Sides Now" (1969 version)

I absolutely adore her. I never really knew her until the last five or six years, and it's been one of the greatest things in my life to be present and have fun with her, and laugh with her, and tease her...

(Joni laughs)

...because I just absolutely fall in love with her. I was already in love with her, but now I'm totally in love with her!

(Joni laughs)

Okay! We're going to start the program with "Carey".

Voiceover: This is Elton John's Rocket Hour

Music: "Carey" (1971 version)

That's from the album Blue. "Carey". That was written about someone you knew, right?

Yeah, in Matala.  

Who was it written about?

I came to Matala because everywhere I was in Athens we'd be walking down the street -- with the girl that I was traveling with -- and they would say to us, "Sheepy sheepy, Matala, Matala!" Which I found out meant, "Hippie, hippie, go to Matala. That's where the hippies are." So, we went to Matala and we were standing at the ocean's edge looking out towards Turkey. And Penelope, the girl I was traveling with, was talking about her namesake, Penelope in Ulysses, you know? Like, the story of the woman whose husband is away, and she's surrounded by suitors and she's weaving a tapestry. And they keep saying, "When will you tell us who you choose?" And she said, "When I finish my tapestry." And every night she'd tear out everything that she did during the day, right?

So, we're telling this story when suddenly boom! There's this huge explosion. I turned around and I saw this redheaded character all in white -- it's like a white turban with red hair sticking out, and a white, kind of Ghandi-esque kind of costume -- blow out of a restaurant. He was the cook there, he lit the stove and it blew up!  

(Elton laughs)

And that was how I met Carey Raditz. (Joni laughs)

Wow! That's an amazing story. Tell me about Blue. It came out in 1971, but it's recently had the most incredible renaissance. I think it was when it was reissued it went to number one. And, I remember going to a concert at Disney Hall where Brandi Carlile sang the whole album...

Mmm-hmm.

...without a teleprompter, and I said she was crazy...

(Joni laughs)

...because I wouldn't have had the courage to do that. It was a magical evening, wasn't it?

Yeah!  

How did that feel to you as someone's singing that whole album? Which is, from start to finish, there's not... it just... it is one of the classic records of all time. And I was sitting next to you and the joy on your face was amazing.  

Yeah! Well, she did such a good job. I mean, you know, there have been a lot of covers of my songs, but she's very true to the original, you know? So, it was kind of like going to my own concert! (Joni laughs)

I mean, there's only one person in the world who could have done that, and that's Brandi, you know?

Yeah!

I mean, your songs are so hard to sing.  

Yeah.

I remember I did a tribute to you at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and you were sitting in the balcony and... I think I sang "Free Man in Paris", I'm not sure, but all of us were quaking in our boots...

(Joni laughs)

...because you were sitting there. You're very intimidating! Because you're such a great artist. And everyone was saying we mustn't fuck this up.

(Joni laughs)

Anyway, Blue is an astonishing album and, as I say, has this resurgence, which must have made you very, very happy.

Oh, God! Marcy came in, you know, and said to me, "Joni! You're number one!"  

(Elton laughs)

I said, "What do you mean I'm number one?" And she told [me]. That's how I learned that Blue -- fifty years after its release -- had gone to number one. That's just crazy! (Joni laughs) It was fun though.

Well, you made Blue, you made Court and Spark, Ladies of the Canyon... And then, it seems to me, as a musician, you wanted to investigate a deeper kind of music, a deeper kind of melody. And you began making wonderful records like Hejira, Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mingus, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. And it was just astonishing music. To me, who's a piano player, and listening to you play the piano and the chords you play and the melodies you made, for me, was like heaven. No one did that -- except you. Do you think that work that you did then, which I think was really groundbreaking, ever got the recognition that it deserved?

At the time, no, it didn't. It took a lot of flak if anything, you know? People thought it was too intimate, you know? I... It was almost like Dylan going electric. I think it upset the male singer-songwriters. They'd go, "Oh!" You know, "Do we have to bear our souls like this now?" You know? I think it made people nervous, you know? More nervous than... It took 'til this generation. They seem to be able to face those emotions more easily than my generation.

Well, we're gonna play "Amelia" from Hejira.  

Uh-huh.

What is this song about?

"Amelia"? Oh!

Amelia Earhart?

Yeah, I was driving across country. I had driven across with a couple of fellas and their car broke down on the way to San Francisco, so I bought a secondhand Mercedes and we continued the journey. So I had to drive it back. I was driving back alone so it was my solo flight. I didn't have a driver's license and so I was staying behind truckers because they signal when cops are ahead, you know? They flick their lights. And on that journey, I wrote most of the songs on that album. And that one...

From Hejira, yeah?

...it was an homage to Amelia and her solo flight. You know, like, I just identified with her solo flight and my solo drive.

When you said you wrote the song on that journey, did you write them with a guitar, or did you remember... How did you remember them?

Oh, well, most of them, like, I would write the words and then I'd stop and have lunch or something and take out a pencil and paper, or a pen, and write [them] down. I wrote some of them in Charleston. I stayed in... "Blue Motel Room," for instance. I was staying in a hotel there and walking on the beach. And I wrote a lot while I stayed there.

Wow. Well, listen, let's hear "Amelia" from the album Hejira.

Music: "Amelia" (1976 version)

"Amelia" from Hejira, 1976.

I wanted to say -- "The hexagram of the heavens". A lot of people don't know what that means, but it's from the I Ching, you know? Like, it's six straight lines.

Right.

So the six straight lines, the strings of my guitar, and the hexagram of the heavens. I thought a lot of people didn't know what that meant. (Joni laughs)

Well, we're going to move on to one of Joni's choices, because I always ask my guest to choose something that they like, and there's three choices here that are so different and so fabulous. I'm going to start with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. 

Mmm-hmm.

And you chose the track called "Charleston Alley" from 1959. Annie Ross was Scottish...

Oh yeah.

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were a vocal group that were quite extraordinary. And it's from the album The Hottest New Group In Jazz.

Yeah.

And the title... This is a quote from Down Beat Magazine: "They were an American trio formed in 1957 by jazz vocalist Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross, who I said is Scottish! So there's a little British element in here. Why did you choose this?

Because when I was in high school, my friends were a little older than me, and they all went off to college and I used to go to college parties and it was at somebody's house and they played The Hottest New Sound In Jazz [sic -- The Hottest New Group In Jazz]. They played that album and it was one of those musical epiphanies for me -- there were only three or four in my life -- I had to have that album and it was out of print. So I finally found somebody that would sell it to me for 25 dollars.  

Wow, that's a lot of money.

In the fifties it was. I bought that album for... and I learned every song on it. And I've covered a couple of them on my albums -- "Centerpiece" and "My Analyst Told Me..." [sic -- "Twisted"]  

Well, let's hear it. You're an amazing woman. I mean, the influences you have and the fact that you can sing Lambert, Hendricks and Ross is astonishing to me. Here's "Charleston Alley".

Music: Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, "Charleston Alley"

(Joni sings along to the end of the recording) "To Charleston Al...ley!" (Joni laughs)  That's great!

That is so adorable!

(Joni laughs) Isn't that great?

Yeah, it's amazing.

I love that song.

You should do that onstage!

Well, you know, at the Grammys and everything... Sauchuen and I sing that when I'm climbing the mountain and doing my therapy.

Yeah.

And when I was walking out onstage at the Grammys and at Washington, too, at the Kennedy Center, all the time I'm singing that song inside and I'm walking to that groove.  

(Elton laughs)

It's the greatest walk-in groove, you know? (Joni laughs)

It's so great, and it's from 1959 and it sounds so amazing. So joyous.

Yeah.

We're going to go back to you now, and that's song called "Sex Kills"...

Mmm-hmm.

...which is from the album Turbulent Indigo from 1994. So, we're moving up, away from the '70s and the '80s, into the latter part of your recordings. According to Rolling Stone, Joni Mitchell surveyed every '90s America and painted a picture that now seems un-depressingly prophetic. She said at the time, "I've never been a feminist, but we haven't had pop songs up until recently that were so aggressively dangerous to women." What did you mean by that?

"Aggressively dangerous to women"? Oh, well, you know...

People saying... rap music with "My hoes" and stuff like that?

Yeah, "hoes and booty," you know? (Joni laughs)

Yeah, women were kind of ornaments in those days.

Yeah, even the way... Look at the way women dress at the Grammys now.  

Yeah.

I mean, I remember when it was kind of starting, when Norman [Seeff] took some pictures of Linda Ronstadt in her underwear and Carly Simon, you know? And, I thought, "Oh, God! Do we gotta do this?" So I just decided to just be naked on my record. (Joni laughs) Get it over with.

It's a wonderful song. Let's hear it.

Music: "Sex Kills" (1994 version)

That's "Sex Kills", 1994, from Turbulent Indigo. I'm with Joni Mitchell, my guest on my Rocket Hour on Apple Music. This is a historic occasion, and I'm so thrilled to be with you. I've been in this room a few times. It's got the most amazing ambience...

Mmm-hmm.

...walls covered with your beautiful paintings, the piano behind me -- which I've played, there's your chair -- I call it the throne.    

(Joni laughs)

When I first came up here, you know, and we had the Joni Jam, I remember you just played the bongos.

Yeah.

And you sang "Love Potion #9", "Summertime", and what was the other one? "Poison Ivy".

Yeah.

Those three songs. But, Joni, that was maybe four years ago? And now, at the Newport Folk Festival, you played guitar!

Mmm-hmm.

And you sang! And it's extraordinary to see how music has brought you back to life.

Yeah!

It's the most beautiful feeling...

Yeah...

...because I always knew music was so... It's been my life for my whole life. It's been with me [at] every part; when I've been miserable, when I've been sad...

Mmm-hmm.

...when I've been happy, and addictioned, tearing my hair out -- what was left of it -- but you...

(Joni laughs)

I've seen you through music and, of course, your incredible rehabilitation. But music has helped you so much.

Mmm-hmm.

And it's beautiful to watch you evolve. And, people out there: you haven't heard things from the Newport Jazz... um... Folk Festival yet, but I think there's gonna be an album coming out of that, right?

Yeah, we're trying to put that out.

It's extraordinary how good it is. And you didn't have much rehearsal, did you?

Didn't have any. [sic -- informal rehearsals were held the day before the show and filmed for CBS coverage]

No?

No, we just winged it.  

You just stood up and played guitar?

Yeah, that I had to figure out what I did, you know? And I couldn't sing the key. I've become an alto, I'm not a soprano anymore.

Yeah.

So, I couldn't sing the song. And I thought people might feel lighted then if I just played the guitar part, but I like the guitar part to that song.  

Yeah.

So, anyway, it was very well-received, much to my delight! (Joni laughs)

Yeah, but your voice now is... [it] reminds me -- and I hope this doesn't offend you -- of Nina Simone.

Oh, yeah! Yeah, she's an alto.

She was one of my favorite artists. Billie Holiday, too.

Yeah, Billie Holiday.

Yeah, those great singers from that era.

Mmm-hmm.

You, in your latter part of your life, have got a new voice. And it must be fantastic to sing differently than what you did before.

Yeah.

It's so beautiful. I mean, for example, on the show [at Newport in 2022] she did "Both Sides Now" and... What a beautiful song that is, and how it's resonated now when it was written so many years ago. But it's just more relevant now, I think, than it was when you wrote it.

Yeah! It's not an ingenue role. I wrote it when I was in my early twenties and I took a lot of ridicule for it. You know, from...

Oh, it's the most beautiful....

"What do you know about life? You're only 21." You know? Like, so... And then I saw Mabel Mercer perform it in New York.

Yeah?

I went uptown to... I forget what the venue was, but she had on a black dress with silver lace and a red banner that went across her chest. And she sang "Both Sides Now" and it was the best I ever heard it and I...

Who was this, say?

Mabel Mercer.

Oh, Mabel Mercer! Yeah.

So, I went backstage to tell her, you know, that I loved the performance of it, but I didn't tell her that I was the author. So, I said, you know, "I've heard various recordings of that song, but you bring something to it, you know, that other people haven't been able to do. You know, it's not a song for an ingenue. You have to bring some age to it." Well, she took offense!  

Really?

Yeah, so I'd insulted her. I called her an old lady, as far as she was concerned.

(Elton laughs)

So, I got out of there in a hell of a hurry! (Joni laughs) But, I think I finally became an old lady myself and could sing the song. (Joni laughs)

I hate it when that happens. That happened to me with Eartha Kitt. Oh, but we won't go into that right now.

(Joni laughs)

"Both Sides Now" on the Newport Folk Festival... When it's actually released, you will go nuts, because the quality of your voice and the resonance of your voice, and the way you phrase is so much different to how you did originally. We're gonna play this, but it's the... You like the version with the... the orchestral version [from 2000]. Why did you like the orchestral version more than the original?

Because when I performed it, the orchestra gathered around me. And I've played with classical musicians before, and they're always reading The Wall Street Journal behind their sheet music.

Yeah! (Elton laughs)

And they always treat you like it's a condescension to be playing with you. But everybody -- the men -- Englishmen were weeping! They were playing and weeping.

Oh...

And it was so emotional, you know? And that is on the record. I mean, it's amazing, like, how... It can make you weep, that track, because people were weeping as they played it. You know, I think it's just very powerful.

Well, let's have a good old weep, shall we? Let's weep. Joni Mitchell... 

Music: "Both Sides Now" (2000 version)

Wow. "Both Sides Now", Joni Mitchell. Recorded in the big room at AIR London Studios in Hampstead. I know the room well. It's a magical room.

Mmm-hmm. It is!

And it's a magical recording. Well, we're going to go from that, which was sublime, to -- not the ridiculous, but we're going to go Chuck Berry.

Oh!

One of your choices. This is, of course, from 1958 and "Johnny B. Goode"! I actually did a version of this, which was horrible, on an album. But was Chuck Berry one of the first people you loved in rock and roll? He wrote so many great songs, right?

Yeah! Well, I used to go to the Avenue H swimming pool in Saskatoon. It had a jukebox and a patio, and I would go. I didn't swim much, but I...

(Elton laughs)

...not at that pool, but I danced on the patio to "Johnny B. Goode" for... [it] was one of the main, most-played records there.

I mean, how many times has this been recorded by people and played by people?

Well, he was the best rock and roller.

The greatest rock and roll guitarist...

Ever!

Forever.

Yeah, he was a GOAT! (Joni laughs)

Alright, let's hear it. "Johnny B. Goode". Chuck Berry, 1958.

Music: Chuck Berry, "Johnny B. Goode" 

(Joni laughs)

It doesn't get any better than that!

No!

From a rock and roll point of view.

That's rock and roll!

Chuck Berry. "Johnny B. Goode".

The King of Rock and Roll! (Joni laughs)

Yeah. I asked Joni if she could play guitar like that and she said no.

No way!  

Probably not many people could play that. Keith Richards could do it. 

Yeah, I suppose he could.

We're going to go now to a later part of your work, and to the album Shine.

Mmm-hmm.

Which is 2007. And you love this album because you said, "It's as serious work as I've ever done" and you were inspired by the war in Iraq. And, did that enrage you, the war in Iraq?  

All wars kind of outrage me, you know? I... I'm a war baby, I mean, I was born in the middle of World War II, but it just seems to me that... I guess it's an old hippie thought, you know? Like, "Make love, not war" kind of? But you'd think we'd wise up and take care of the ecology situation instead of starting wars.

War means big business. I remember the Iraq War enraged both David and myself. David went on a march in London with a million people, and the next day, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair said, "People who march have blood on their hands." And it's, like, the most outrageous thing. And that was kind of the end of Tony Blair, wasn't it?

"Blood on your hands" why?  

Yeah, I mean, the people-- There's nothing more powerful than people marching.

Mmm-hmm.

And the power of the people. And you have in Iran now, the women are doing it and they're getting the hardest time. But, this album, Shine... Is your voice different on this album, is that why you like it? Or are the songs a little bit deeper?  

Well, it's the first album that I composed mostly in the studio, which is the way a lot of people do it.  

Yeah.

I mean, there was a keyboard there that had every sound you could imagine in it. And the sounds inspired the songs.  

It was a synth? A synthesizer, yeah?

It was a synthesizer full of all kinds of sounds. Great Miles Davis muted trumpet called Legend.

Wow.

And, "Hana"... Like, I laid down the bass part first and built off of that. It was a different way of making albums.

Did you play mostly everything on the keyboard on this album?

Yeah, everything.

Music: "Shine" (with profanity edited)

Joni Mitchell and "Shine" from the album from 2007. Now, you announced a show next year at The Gorge with Brandi. What do you think about it? Are you excited about it?

Oh, it's too far away to be excited about it. (Joni laughs)

I get it totally. I don't think about a thing. And people say, "You're playing Dodger Stadium soon. What do you think?" And I said, "I don't think about it 'til I get there."

Yeah, exactly.

Isn't that great?  Yeah, there's no point. But it would be something I would love to be at, but I can't be there 'cause I'm touring.  

Oh...

I know, I would give my right arm to be there. Well, you've chosen another brilliant artist -- Edith Piaf, who I've always loved...

Mmm-hmm!

...'cause I've always loved French singers like George... Charles Trenet and people like that.  There's just something about the French.

Mmm-hmm.

And it's "Les trois cloches", "The Three Bells".

Mmm-hmm.

And it's Edith Piaf and Les Compagnons de la Chanson. And she was totally an amazing artist. Very tiny. There've been shows about her. She just had so much inside of her as a small person.

Mmm-hmm.

Is that what attracted you to her? The passion about her voice?

Well, I went to a birthday party [at] Helen LaFraneer's house. And she lived in a shanty a couple of blocks away from our house on the outskirts of town. And it was all covered in metal billboards, you know? It was a real, genuine shanty. You know, my mother didn't want me to go because I was a sickly child and she thought that I would pick up some infection going there, you know? But I went and the mother, Mrs. LaFraneer, was a frail, little woman with a sweater held together with a safety pin and pink around her eyes. It was something wrong with her. And there was a long table that was made of a door lying on saw horses and I got the seat where the doorknob was...

(Elton laughs)

...because I put my elbow on the table and it went through the hole. And in the kitchen, I heard this men's choir and then I heard this voice come bubbling up from the bottom of it, like... And I never heard anything so amazing. I said to Mrs. LaFraneer, "Who was that?" And she said, "Oh, that's the Little Sparrow." And I remember thinking, "You look like a little sparrow yourself." You know? She was a tiny, little French woman. That's how I first heard Edith Piaf and this song, which amazed me as an eight-year-old.

Let's hear it.

Music:  Edith Piaf and Les Compagnons de la Chanson, "Les trois cloches"

That is so beautiful.

That is so beautiful.

It was recorded in 1946, but Edith Piaf first met the French vocal group Les Compagnons de la Chanson in 1944 and they performed together in German-occupied Paris and they sang this song.

Hmm.

Could you imagine how moving must have been to see them sing this song in 1944? And they recorded it after the ware was finished. But, that is just so beautiful. It's very moving. I've got goosebumps.

Yeah!

Oh, the choir!  

Gorgeous.

And her voice just...

Yeah, and the arrangement!

That's when people could make a difference with their voice. It's just... ooh! This is the longest Rocket Hour I've ever done and it's going to stay there...

(Joni laughs)

...because I'm having the best time. And I want to thank you for your time.

Oh!

Because, you know, to get you to do this... You don't do anything usually. And I just adore you so much, as you know, and I love you.

(Joni laughs)

And it's been my privilege, as I say, to get to know you over the last few years. And hopefully we'll have many more years together.

Yeah!

We're going to end on a song, like we did... We started with something from Blue...

Mmm-hmm.

...and we're going to finish with something [from] Blue because "A Case of You" is probably one of your most famous songs, without question, right?

I guess so, yeah. It's been recorded a few times...

No, it's been very good to you, that song.

Yeah, and "River".

It's had so many cover versions and you never get fed up with hearing this song. Every time I hear this song, I hear something different. And the version that is on -- I keep mentioning it! -- the Newport Folk Festival is quite amazing.  

One day, I want you to sit in this room like we're doing now...

Mmm-hmm.

...but with some recording equipment. I want you to make an album in this room.  

Mmm-hmm...

Like Johnny Cash did with "Hurt"... 

Mmm-hmm...

...and he was on his deathbed -- you're not going to be on your deathbed.

(Joni laughs)

But I think you should make an album in this room because it's so magical.

Yeah!

It's... Every corner of this room is Joni.

Yeah.

Everything about it is Joni. It's got the ambience of... You know, I've been to a lot of places in my life but this room is one of the most special rooms I've ever been to in my whole life 

Mmmm....

And I really want you to consider making a record... Maybe new songs, you know? The rate you're going, you're tearing up the world at the moment.

We did some background vocals up in the balcony once.

Yeah?

That's the only time we've recorded in this room.

Well, that is my big ambition for you.  

I would like to thank you again for being my guest. You've been absolutely amazing. Your choice of music has been astonishing.  

Mmm-hmm.

"A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell on the Elton John Rocket Hour on Apple Music closes the show with one of the greatest artists of all time...

Oh!  

...and one of the greatest writers.

(Joni laughs)

Thank you.

Thank you!

Come here. Mmmwah. I love you so.

Mmmwahh. (Joni laughs)

Music: "A Case of You" (1971 version)

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Added to Library on December 6, 2022. (780)

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