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Joni with an 'I' Print-ready version

by Neil Strauss
New York Times
October 18, 1998

You couldn't overstate the depth and breadth of Joni Mitchell's achievements. Well, not while she's around to do it herself...

SLICES OF AFTERNOON SUN cut through the blinds of a dark second-floor room in the Hollywood Athletic Club as Joni Mitchell, cigarette hanging from her thick lips, bends over a pool table and meticulously lines up a shot to sink the yellow ball.

'You're stripes,' one of her pool partners explains.

'Oh,' she exclaims and switches angles. She is distracted. There is too much going on. Present in the room are a mixture of friends and family, including her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, whom she met for the first time a year and a half ago after giving her up for adoption in 1965. Kilauren is a model (as her mother once was) whose real wish is to be on the other side of the camera (like her biological father, a Toronto photographer). Now, she takes pictures of her five year-old son Marlon, who seems like a model and actor in the making.

'Pretend like you're excited,' Paul Starr, Mitchell's friend and make-up artist, tells Marlon, who widens his mouth and eyes adorably. Paul mimes snapping a photo. 'Now pretend Joni's going away,' he says. Marlon pauses for a moment, and then pulls a forlorn face. 'That was hard,' he says. 'I couldn't imagine Joni going away.'

Suddenly, at 54, Mitchell has settled down. In the last two years, she has become a mother and grandmother simultaneously. Seeing the family together, one would never think that she, her daughter and grandson had ever been apart.

'The coming of the kids hasn't come out in my art yet,' she says, referring to her latest projects - a new album, Taming the Tiger, a US television special and a book of poetry. But she has recorded music with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and 'they're convinced', she says. 'They can hear my family in my tone. It has more full-bodied femininity.'

That's just the beginning of the new complete Joni, one of the most influential and immodest songwriters of the last 30 years. Since inheriting her new family, Mitchell has suddenly become acquainted with pop culture. She watches Taxi repeats, reads kids' books to her grandson, and has rediscovered Disney films.

'I used to be monastic, almost,' she explains with a touch of wistfulness. 'Now I'm like a Tibetan who has discovered hamburgers and television. I'm catching up on Americana.'

Between pool shots, Mitchell speaks words that fans of her more complex albums such as Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter might be surprised to hear: 'I do want to make some light songs now,' she says. 'I think that comes from watching a lot of comedy. People will probably not enjoy it as much as the deep suffering that I've done in the past. And I don't even know if I can do it.'

Talking about her music, Mitchell compares herself to Mozart, Blake and Picasso; she says that her songs 'have a lot of symbolic depth, like the Bible' and describes her music as so new it needs its own genre name. In discussing her forthcoming autobiography, she explains that there is no way to fit her life into one volume; it needs four. (She already knows the first line; 'I was the only black man at the party'; musical colleagues later explain she sometimes feels 'like a black man in a white woman's body'.)

Yet even as she lives up to the stereo-type of the difficult artist, Mitchell is 'a good-time charlie', as she puts it, in her private life. Although her most famous work is her most melancholy (particularly her introspective Blue album), she insists her music is also filled with joy. 'I'm not a pitiable creature,' she says. 'It's just that I suffer very eloquently.'

ALTHOUGH MITCHELL is credited as the godmother of current female singer-songwriters she has always held such sisterhood somewhat in contempt. ('Girlie guile/Genuine junk food for juveniles,' she sings on Taming the Tiger.) 'One guy came up to me and said, "You're the best female singer-songwriter in the world,"' she remembers. 'I was thinking: "What do you mean female?" That's like saying you're the best Negro. Don't put a lid on it: it transcends boundaries.'

At lunch at the Daily Grill in Brentwood, her home away from home, we talk over tuna sandwiches. After 19 albums, many of which have been heavily criticised upon their release only to be hailed as classics later, Mitchell is upset by her new album's mixed reviews. There is a frustration that even though she believes she has done better work, she still can't compete with the popularity of her earliest music.

Why does she still worry what the world thinks? For years, she rightly complained of a lack of recognition and appreciation compared with male musicians of her ear. But now she's acknowledged to be a giant: in the past four years, she has won a Grammy award for best pop album, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and been honoured with a Century award from America's Billboard magazine. Still - as insecure as she is immodest - she categorises the awards as dubious. 'It's like that line of Dylan's "You know something is happening here but you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones?" That's what most of my honours felt like. They knew they had to do it but they weren't quite sure what to illuminate in the work.'

Mitchell has always defined herself as not being who others have expected her to be. She came down with polio when she was nine. Five years later, having recovered, she wasn't just walking, she was dancing. When she dropped out of art school due to her pregnancy with Kilauren and joined the folk circuit, she denied that she was ever a folk singer.

'I came into the game playing classical art songs,' she says. 'But I looked like a folk singer, like the girl with the guitar. So folk music was easy and I needed money for art school. It wasn't until I was 21 that the desire to compose and create came back.'

Mitchell traces her feeling of being misunderstood back tot he age of seven. 'I had music killed by my piano teacher,' she says. 'She rapped my knuckles with a ruler and said, "Why would you want to play by ear" - that's what they called composing - "when you could have masters under your fingertips?" At art school innovation is everything, but in music, you're just a weird loner. So I have a painter's ego or approach, which is to make fresh, individuated stuff that has my blood in it and on the tracks.'

The musician's life, however, is not one she relishes. She regards touring as a violation of her muse and says record labels treat musicians like dumb prize-fighters built to earn them purse money. 'I feel pregnant with creativity, and all that touring represents to me is a delay until I can be creative,' she complains. 'I should go on strike right now and get into my pajamas. Most of my career, right after I made an album, I wouldn't tour, I'd run away to Europe. While I was running away from the last the last record, I'd be writing the new one because I'd be having a life. Right now, I'm already out of what this record is about.' She pauses, lights yet another cigarette and exhales. 'I'm involved with family and the socialising process, which is something very exciting and different.'

The night after our interview, I run into Mitchell at Dominick's, a new Los Angeles restaurant so trendy that it fills up every night despite its awful food. She is sitting in the middle of a table surrounded by her daughter, grandson and friends, celebrating Paul Starr's birthday. When I see her, she loops her arm around my elbow and spirits me into the foyer. She then proceeds to clarify comments she made the previous day, trying to pinpoint where she may have got herself into trouble.

WE TALKED ABOUT astrology and about her relationship with Kilauren. According to a book she has been reading, her daughter's birth date and her own interact in a way best suited to siblings. She remarks that in fact, they have a sisterly relationship. And, though not by design, they have the same handbags and shoes, wear similar clothes and share what she describes as a 'crazy bravado that comes from the Irish blood'.

Throughout her career, Mitchell says, she dropped hints in her songs for her only child to find. Although Kilauren knew that her birth mother was a Canadian singer she never dreamed that she was Mitchell's child. Then, in 1996, The New York Times described Mitchell's search for her daughter. Kilauren decided to investigate. Eventually, she and Mitchell were united. As for the adoptive parents, Mitchell says: 'We worked through all of that. I'm totally grateful to them, and Kilauren hasn't forgotten about them.'

There is a lyric on her album that complains: 'I'm up to my neck in alligator jaws gnashing at me.' As I leave, Mitchell is still trying to figure out if I am one of them. 'I used to be too much of an illuminated scribe locked in my attic with a responsibility to my gifts,' she says, laughing for once at herself. She stubs out a cigarette. Now, she says: 'I long to live in a Chekov play with relatives and aunties and the long white tables with green bottles on them, under the apple tree. That's really where I should be.'

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