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Joni Mitchell Interview Print-ready version

October 25, 1994

This has been transcribed from the audio by the amazing Lindsay Moon.

Merilee Kelly: Merilee Kelly with you in the FM 101.9 Music Hall with Joni Mitchell. The Music Hall today feels a little bit like a French cafe.

Joni Mitchell: (Sound of Joni dragging on a cigarette) It does. I'm smoking and drinking cappuccino here.

MK: You've got this little chapeau on and guitars strewn about. Welcome.

JM: Thank you very much.

MK: It is a big pleasure to have you with us. "Turbulent Indigo," first new album since 1991's "Night Ride Home." "Turbulent Indigo," by the way, is out in the stores today everywhere. So if you like what you hear Joni playing today, you can go buy it. It's on the Reprise record label.

I hear a very natural progression from the last album. Due to production or things that were happening --

JM: Production. We don't use that word. You know, my father was a grocer, and it always reminds me of the vegetable section, you know. It's really composition. So the composition is thinned out some.

MK: There's a sound that you've had, especially in the last few albums, and I don't know how you do it, but the guitars almost sound like cellos. It's very rich and very warm and it compliments your voice and the lyrics. Are you going to be able to get that sound out of your guitars today or is that a studio trick?

JM: Well, if you help me. I don't know what kind of a system you've got. What do you think, sound man, can we get a little Elvis on it? Oh, we should be able to get close. Now, as far as my voice goes, I had to do a meet-and-greet last night, so there's plenty of husk on it from screaming at people over high volume. I don't know if I can duplicate that but I should be able to.

MK: Last night you were meeting people at an art gallery to show some of your paintings. Is that going to be open to the public?

JM: No, no. That was just kind of party decorations for the kick-off party.

MK: So those paintings are --

JM: Disappear into the void again.

MK: Into the attic somewhere.

JM: Yeah, it's like a floating crap game (laughs).

MK: Now, you make art to hang on walls, but it's not being shown, but you do make art --

JM: Well, no, it's being -- I've exhibited internationally and I've sold some work in Tokyo at one point, but I got very good prices for it which made it -- and then the market dropped out, the bottom dropped out of the art market, so they're pricey and I'd kind of like to hold on to them because I've got an exhibition coming up in Italy and another one in Canada in the future, so it's hard to get them off people's walls, you know, when people install pieces in their home, they don't want to part with them for a traveling exhibition.

MK: Well, the nice thing is if you get the new album "Turbulent Indigo," you can see your artwork as we've seen your artwork on your other albums, it's there.

JM: Well, it's fun to use that blank space to have a little mini show.

MK: It's your own little canvas, your own private canvas.

JM: Yeah, my own little gallery there, without all the art world crap (laughs). Eh, Robbie?

MK: I'm wondering, did you do the paintings during the same time you were writing the songs, or did they just by weird coincidence happen to match up?

JM: No, I paint -- I kind of crop-rotate. So I have a place in Canada. When I go up there to write, which is the excuse that I have for going up there because it's rural and it's very peaceful. I go canoeing. There's a lot of wildlife. I generally paint when I'm up there and when I'm painting, I'm thinking in terms of the album cover and the packaging, so some of it gets used.

You know, there's a line -- usually they say, "Okay, Joan, we know you're a fine artist," you know, "stick your face on the cover. People don't really want paintings necessarily on the covers." At least in the past I've heard complaint from the management, you know, like not to get too artsy (laughs).

MK: That's a hard thing to tell an artist.

JM: Mm-hmm. Well ...

MK: That's a difficult boundary.

JM: Well, "Dog Eat Dog," for instance, had a large canvas, 10-foot-by-5, all dogs, God dog, Jesus dog, you know, and racial dogs in conflict and so on. I sold that painting in Tokyo. Geffen told me that, "Okay, Joan, we know you're an artist, but stick your picture on the cover." So I did a kind of a collage being attacked by wild dogs, you know, and that was fun to do. So there were really two album covers for that. But he wanted my kisser on the cover, so I had to give it to him (laughs). The patron, the great patron, spoke.

MK: We would love to hear your voice in tune on the radio with guitars. Could you share a song with us?

JM: I would love to hear that myself. We'll see what we can do.

MK: Joni Mitchell is our guest in the FM 101.9 Music Hall.

JM: Hang on. We don't want dead air space here. I'm putting out my cigarette. Which one do you want to hear? I've got six ready to go here. Let me play you something off the album.

MK: Is this the one that opens the album?

JM: Yeah. This is the opening cut.

MK: "Sunny Sunday."

JM: "Sunny Sunday."

(Plays "Sunny Sunday." (Applause.)

JM: Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much.

MK: Brand new stuff from Joni Mitchell, who is our guest in the Music Hall. There is a word in poetry, and I'm not sure what it is, when you make something animated that doesn't normally have life, like 'the freeway hisses.'

JM: Oh. Oh, oh, oh. Is that onomonopoetic? No, no. I forget all that scholarly stuff.

MK: It seems that your songs could almost stand alone as either poetry or prose, and I'm wondering if that's where the songs begin, with words.

JM: No. They begin with music.

MK: Really?

JM: Generally speaking. There's one song on this album that was the exception and that is "Yvette in English." Crosby faxed me a bunch of snippets of thoughts and asked me to organize it, you know, like he'd get lazy, he was making an album so he wanted me to do all the work for him (laughs). I obliged him.

MK: That song was on his album too.

JM: Yeah.

MK: Um --

JM: When you start with a melody first, you get a more unusual rhyme scheme. You know, the pattern -- there is no rhyme to the music. It would be like what they call an A figure and the A figure repeats. So you know that you've got a rhyme there. But it keeps you from going into iambic pentameter, you know, like (makes some sounds to a cadence). You know it's like the traditional -- the English cadence.

MK: The anti-rap.

JM: Well, yeah. Rap is kind of formulated. I hear some deviant and experimental, interesting stuff too, but it's kind of locked into a meter. That's an old tradition, you know. It's an old pimp's tradition, rap, 'my bitch is better than yours.' They've been doing that for a long time (laughs).

MK: There are a lot of -- speaking of -- there are a lot of violent images in your songs. The first couple of songs on the album, I counted a couple guns, a pistol, a shotgun, a rifle. There's a song about domestic violence, "Not To Blame." I'm wondering if these stories are in your head or have you been touched or has indirectly --

JM: Where do you live? (Laughs).

MK: I mean I suppose we've all in some way been touched by violence --

JM: Oh, yeah.

MK: Have you directly been affected?

JM: Oh, yeah, are you kidding? I mean, you know, we draw stalkers, and I've been under armed guard for half my life. I'm completely nocturnal, you know. I'm the night watchwoman. But I've had a follow-home and -- you don't want to get into the whole thing. It's better not to even talk about it, but yeah, I've had my full taste of L.A.

MK: So you know of what you speak when you write these things; they're not just imagination.

JM: No, no, no. I'm pretty much a realist, I would say.

MK: And that's reflected in your artwork?

JM: Yeah, I guess so.

MK: Because I was actually at your art opening last night, and I got to see more than just the pictures that are on the albums, and I only saw one famous face that I could recognize in a painting and that was Jimi Hendrix and the rest seemed --

JM: And Miles.

MK: Oh, I didn't see him.

JM: You didn't see Miles over by the bar?

MK: No.

JM: He was in the room there with Jimi. Miles and Jimi there (laughs).

MK: And, of course, your face is on some of your artwork, but a lot of outdoor scenes and the "Turbulent Indigo."

JM: Well, this particular batch was like an exercise in color, the landscape, portraiture, kind of gearing up to do the album cover. I went back into the -- my own version of the style of the late van Gogh and Gauguin's era. Different color sense than theirs, of course. I mean they were really vividing-up the canvas in a shocking degree for the time. So my color is more subtle, but most of it was just celebration of the landscape. And since I'm not in the art game, I don't have to, you know, do any conquering, I don't have to conquer any ground for the museums. I'm not shooting for the museums. They're just exercises basically, that batch.

I painted -- in the '80s I painted abstractly for most of that decade. The early work in the early '80s was very autobiographical and pictorial and a different kind of brush style than the work that you saw last night. You know, I'm always painting and it's always changing, but I'm still developing my vocabulary since I have to do this alongside of an already active career, I'm a little behind I think. You know, I would have liked to have arrived at where I am now in my mid-30's because I'm just on the brink of having ideas. It's a matter of getting your chops up so when your ideas arrive, you know, that you're ready for them and you have your symbolic vocabulary, so you can take off like a Chagall or something and paint from your memory.

There was one painting in the show last night that was done from memory of my little house in Canada with the clouds. It was a little more cartoony than the rest. You might have noticed it. And, you know, that's where I hope to go. But first of all you have to do your disciplines.

MK: Are there times when the painting is all you're doing and you're not thinking about songwriting or --

JM: Oh, yeah.

MK: -- or is music always there for you?

JM: Well, even when I'm painting, you know, I'll take a break, if I don't take a smoke break -- well, maybe I'll take a smoke break, then I'll take a guitar break, you know. So I'm always, like, stroking on the guitar, petting it.

MK: Well, I think the guitar is less dangerous than your turpentine and things like that than smoking.

JM: Yeah, although those guys all chain-smoked, you know, like Picasso, and he had a lung infection when he snuffed, but I mean he had a nice long run, didn't he?

MK: And you certainly have too, Joni Mitchell. Could you sing another song for us? And you're more than welcome to play something from "Turbulent Indigo," and we'd love to hear something from the archives as well.

JM: Well, let's get ahead of ourselves. This is a song for the next album. I haven't even recorded this one yet. But this was a collaboration with a fellow singer- songwriter from my hometown, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The writer's name is Donald Freed, and I set his words to music, and this is called "Love's Cries." And Saskatoon where we come from is called the City of Bridges, or the Paris of the North they like to call themselves, you know. But it is a pretty small city. The bridges are all lit up at night. This song takes place on the train bridge in downtown Saskatoon.

(Plays "Love's Cries.") (Applause.)

JM: (Laughs).

MK: FM 101.9 also known as KSCA, Southern California's album alternative and a Southern California treasure, Joni Mitchell, with us in our Music Hall.

You collaborated on that song and I know you were saying you wrote "Yvette in French" [sic] with David Crosby. Do you do a lot of collaborative songwriting?

JM: No. I haven't up until recently.

MK: Is it difficult?

JM: No. It was really easy. Well, David called me up and he wanted me to produce him his record. He was getting different friends to produce a track each night and I don't, I said (in an accent) "I don't produce!" I just don't like the concept of it. But I can't be produced really, so it would be hard for me to try and do that to someone. Okay, he said, well, I've got some words on a piece of paper, you know. Would you help me make it into a song? So he faxed them to me. And I looked at them and there were some good lines there really, but there was no connection. It was a girl meets boy and, you know, a woman walks into a restaurant in France and she offers him a little bit of instant bliss. There's some good descriptions of her. Then there were some cliches like "the moon spilt like wine" and -- which I rewrote --

MK: Got a big red circle around it.

JM: Yeah. I said to him, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to schoolmarm on these things? Yeah. You want me to mark your paper? Yeah, he said. So I started just correcting it, and then it became like a puzzle and I ended up finding some meter and rhythm to the cadence of some of the lines that he used so I fleshed it out. I gave it a little more description. I gave the girl a name and, you know, a little bit more defined walk. And the music came easy. So I had a song in a couple of days. Is that the first time I ever collaborated? As a writer, I haven't done that much.

MK: I think as non-musicians, we have this romantic image that songwriting is this process where two people are in a room together, you know, bouncing ideas off. It's very interesting that you were not even, so to speak, in the same room when you --

JM: Yeah, all by the modern science (laughs).

MK: How do you hook up with some of these interesting collaborations that you've had musically, Willie Nelson, Billy Idol have all sung on your records, and Seal sings on your new record and I think you also sing on his.

JM: Well, Willie and Billy -- Willie and Billy! -- I cast for their voices.

MK: You go out and say that you want them?

JM: No. We make a phone call, you know, the power that -- their people connect up -- my people connect up with their people. But Willie, I thought, was perfect for that song because it's an old Sons of the Pioneers song, and his voice was warm and --

MK: That was on "Cool Water," right?

JM: "Cool Water." And Billy played the bully in that song. You know, my songs are like little plays sometimes. They have he-saids and she-saids. And in the he-said of that one, the guy was a bully, "you're a push button window / I can run you up and down / anytime I want to ..." So Billy's voice, of all the characters on the scene at that time, I think, was the most appropriate. People thought it was really strange and not listening to it as a drama. People aren't used to listening that carefully to songs, even songwriters. Because Graham Nash said to me, "What did you put him on there for?" And Prince said, "Who's that guy whooping and hollering all over that record?," you know (laughs). So it took a bit of getting used to. But Billy thought it was strange himself until he came down and I told him the words over the phone and he realized that he was right for it. He liked the text and it was fun.

MK: Well, if the art and music don't work out, you have a future as a voice casting director --

JM: Casting director (laughs).

MK: Add it to your resume. Seal is a very unique performer.

JM: Mm-hmm.

MK: Had you had any sort of relationship with him prior to hooking up, or was this just another cold call?

JM: No, no. And the others weren't cold calls. I mean they were inspired calls I would say. But, no, that was different. Seal kind of sought me out. I mean as he was giving his first interviews, he mentioned my music a lot in his -- after "Crazy" and one song in particular, "Strange Boy." And so we were introduced by -- there was a party held for him and I was invited to be there and we just hit it off. We became good friends. So when our projects came up, we were mutually immediately interested in each other's work. I went over to listen to him work one night when he was just at the beginning of his project, and the collaboration just kind of fell into place as we went along.

MK: It must be a little bit strange that these people are strangers to you, but you're not strangers because you're musicians and that bonds you. I know that there are a lot of musicians particularly young women who grew up in their bedrooms listening to your music and have therefore been influenced by you. Shawn Colvin, was that maybe a little bit creepy the first time you heard her sing? Because she has many similarities to you.

JM: See, I can't hear those things. I think Shawn's very much her own person. I don't hear any similarity. We play guitar very differently and I think we sing very differently. I don't hear these things.

MK: Now what were you listening to or reading in your bedroom in Canada where you grew up?

JM: I was listening to Miles; Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I was a rock and roll dancer, but I listened to -- it's like, you know, I give it an 85, can you dance to it, you know. I listened to that really for the beat, you know. So I liked rock and roll indiscriminately for the rhythm. Chuck Berry. I didn't have a lot of records. People didn't have a lot of records back then. I used to win dance contests and they'd give me all these slough-offs from the radio station (sings) "shufflin' the gravel ..." (laughs). The things that didn't make it.

MK: Now, did that make you somewhat of an outcast being this girl in her bedroom listening to jazz?

JM: Well, I didn't spend that much time in my bedroom as a teenager. No, I was mostly out dancing and over at the Avenue H swimming pool where there was a jukebox. Wherever there was a jukebox I was, and it was mostly on the other side of town where I wasn't supposed to go. And the best dancers were on the other side of town where I wasn't supposed to go. And they danced the Harlem Lindy which was a great dance step. Aaron Neville's sister told me that her mother and father invented --

MK: Oh, wow.

JM: -- which may or may not be true, but it was a great partner-style dance and where I come from they called it Bop. In Manchester, England, they called it the Jive. But basically it's the Harlem Lindy so, you know. I didn't stay in the house much. I didn't spend a lot of time in my boudoir (laughs).

MK: You never know, you know. Joni Mitchell is our guest in the FM 101.9 Music Hall, and if you're ready we'd love to hear another one.

JM: Okay. Let's see. I've got an array of guitars around here because of the tunings. I have to put them into families. It kind of complicates playing, but it makes the guitar more orchestral. Let's play one off the album here.

MK: "Turbulent Indigo" is the new album, and, as we mentioned before, it is out today. First day in the stores for Joni Mitchell's new album on Reprise Records. This is FM 101.9.

JM: This is a song called "Sex Kills." A cheery little ditty.

(Plays "Sex Kills.") (Applause.)

MK: Special edition of the FM 101.9 Music Hall this afternoon with our guest Joni Mitchell. That one also on the new album "Turbulent Indigo," "Sex Kills." Sex sells.

JM: Sex sells.

MK: There was an article in a recent Rolling Stone Magazine where they talked to a lot of women musicians, the kind of musicians who aren't really consciously using sex to sell, people like Chrissy Hynde, and they were all talking about you. And I'm surprised that you weren't approached for this article. Everybody was saying, you know, Joni Mitchell is an underrated guitarist and influence, and I don't want to misquote her, but I think Chrissy said something like, "Joni, put down the paint brush, we need you, come back!"

JM: That was very sweet. That really was nice of her.

MK: So it's nice to have you back.

JM: Thank you.

MK: New album. Are there any plans to play live in front of more than this little intimate setting we have here today?

JM: I would love to. Like my health is iffy. I'm a polio survivor, and that is a kind of mysterious phenomenon, like it does strange things to your nervous system. You don't adapt to temperature changes. You become allergic to air conditioning. It makes for a lot of touring hassles. A lot of flying is really, really hard on your organism as a result. It's kind of like multiple sclerosis. Very similar, the symptoms to it. So if it was a more impromptu thing, I mean if you could just drop in and play. I've been doing some of that like this. I enjoy very much playing for people. But getting locked into a schedule and having to cancel which could happen at a certain point is kind of scary to me. I mean you hate to let people down, and you don't like your life planned that far forward in a certain way. It makes it tricky.

MK: Well, I think we're pretty lucky to be here in L.A. where you live so that if you should decide at some point to impromptu do something, you know, you could give us a call and we could mention it on the radio --

JM: (Laughs).

MK: -- and we could all have a chance to see this.

JM: Well, I like little clubs better than the big stage too. There's a lot of big pressure on the big stage. They're always laying for your clams, you know. Glenn Gould finally said it was just too much of a blood arena for him, he finally quit. There's something about the pressure of the perfection, you know, the 10 performance, the bigger the stage gets. Also, I can't -- I would have no desire nor would I be suitable as an arena artist. You know, it's too intimate an art form for such a big scale. So I don't know. It's hard to -- it's like I'm too big for the little clubs unless I just kind of sneak in on 'em, you know. I want to play. I'll figure out a way how.

MK: Good. Any plans for a video to promote the album?

JM: Yeah. We cut -- in the process of cutting a video together for -- what's the one we released (laughs)?

MK: "How Do You Stop?"

JM: "How Do You Stop?" Right, right. (Laughs).

MK: And that is on the album "Turbulent Indigo." Would you like to do another one?

JM: Yeah. Let's see. What else is in this tuning? This is kind of an older one. This is called "Moon at the Window" from "Wild Things ..."

(Plays "Moon at the Window.") (Applause.)

MK: This is KSCA-Glendale, Los Angeles, the new FM 101.9. In our Music Hall with us is Joni Mitchell. We're going to check and see if we have any commercials that we need to run, and that might give you a needed break. Oh, we don't. Well, look at that.

JM: I don't need a break.

MK: It's the Joni Mitchell Show. Fine, just come in here and take over!

JM: Thank you. (Laughs).

MK: And you could because you have such a deep, deep body of work. What is it that draws you to certain songs that you feel are still worthy of playing?

JM: Oh, I remember them. (Laughs). No --

MK: Another fine answer.

JM: Well, I have 50 different tunings for the guitar so I have three guitars here. I have them in tuning families. Obviously, if I'm going to do more material I need a lot more guitars or otherwise I have to expose you to a tremendous amount of (makes tuning sounds) on the airwaves. So that limits what I can play. I find most of the songs hold up. Even the ones that I think of as ingenue roles, like the writing of a young woman, like "Circle Game." I wouldn't choose to put that in my repertoire, although people kind of coax me. They have sentimental memories from summer camp or something. But I sang it with a bunch of middle-aged women up at the Edmonton Folk Festival, and it was really nice. It really was. So it's hard to say. There are some songs that you're more into at one time than another, but a lot of them hold up pretty good.

MK: Is there anything back there that just makes you cringe and you're like what was I thinking when I wrote that? Who was I?

JM: Huh. No, I see some changes in craft from like the first album. In the first album I had a lot of grace notes. It's very tricky to play it. Like to get my fingers to go back, my stroke has become bolder, it's more rock influenced as I go along, more jazz influenced as I go along than that very early work. It's very intricate. It's almost like oud playing. It's hard to remember what I did exactly. Some of it's pretty eccentric stuff. So that's harder to work up. And one day you'll just kind of stumble on it. All of a sudden the fingers will remember and they'll start going over those things. Oh, that's how I did it!

I've got most of the tunings documented, but there are a few songs that I haven't got a clue how I played 'em. Joel Bernstein knows, though. Thank God he can show me. He's kind of like my annex brain. He holds on to data better than I do. But, no, I think a lot of them are pretty human and universal and they -- I still like to sing them.

MK: Well, the nice thing about music and the difference I guess maybe between music and a painting is you can go back and change it and it can continue to grow.

JM: Mm-hmm.

MK: Change a line, change a phrasing. Well, I think we have time for some more music.

JM: Okay. Let's see.

MK: Again, it's Joni Mitchell with us in the FM 101.9 Music Hall plugging in.

JM: I'll play you a brand new song. This is a song called "Face Lift." Actually, the full title of it is "Happiness is the Best Facelift." I played just for the fun of it at Milton Berle's 86th birthday not that long ago, and it was really great because it was a round-up of all the old comics, Steve Allen, old Ann Young, you know. And I looked out at that audience and, you know, in Hollywood here if you hit middle age, it's pretty much time to go for the old nip and tuck, but these were like -- Robbie's stroking his beard -- we've got kind of a private joke on that one. I mean I saw faces there that had been lifted one too many times, you know what I mean? It's like (laughs)...

But this really doesn't have much to do with that. Have you ever seen with the tattooed eyebrows, the eyebrows are like long gone, they've gone up into the scalp somewhere. (Laughs). And the navel is appearing in the chin. Here we go.

(Plays "Happiness is the Best Face Lift" --)

JM: Here we don't go. I've got to get this tuning just a little better. When I'm playing this thing, I think of the three bottom strings as cellos. You mentioned that earlier. And the treble as a brass section. So viola is toward the fourth and the fifth in the middle, celli is on the bass, and muted trumpets I always think of as the top three strings. (Tunes.) Almost. Sorry out there in radio land. Forgive me, forgive me!

(Continues with song.)

MK: Joni Mitchell with us in our FM 101.9 Music Hall. And that one didn't make it on the album?

JM: No, it came later.

MK: You know, with 10 songs, you couldn't just go one more to 11?

JM: No, because then the company robs you, you know (laughs). It's true. You gotta get savvy, you know.

MK: Joni Mitchell is our guest this afternoon, and I don't know, you've done about five or six songs. Could we get one more out of you?

JM: Yeah. I'll play you -- let's see, I have to change the tuning slightly here.

(Plays "Just Like This Train.") (Applause.)

MK: Very nice to hear that one again. Joni Mitchell has been our guest for a good part of the last hour in our FM 101.9 Music Hall, and, wow, it's really been a pleasure. I wish you could stay all day.

JM: Thanks.

MK: You have a new album out called "Turbulent Indigo." It comes out today. We wish you the best of luck with it.

JM: Thank you very much.

MK: And if anybody has just caught the last portion of this, we will be rebroadcasting the Music Hall performance at 9:00 tonight. So that's the deal on that. Joni Mitchell, our guest in the FM 101.9 Music Hall.

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Added to Library on April 7, 2003. (7964)


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