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Diary of a Decade Interview Print-ready version

Greater London Radio
September 6, 1990

Diary of a Decade with Trevor Dunn for Greater London Radio.
Recorded 9/6/90. Broadcast 9/7/90.

(Music up: A Case Of You.)

Trevor Dunn: From Blue, Joni Mitchell, and A Case Of You. And we shall meet Joni after this.

11:21 on GLR. This is exciting. Just before the travel, you heard A Case Of You from Joni Mitchell. It's relevant for three reasons. Firstly, because it's got those words about "I'm a lonely painter and I live in a box of paints." Secondly, because you heard her singing about "Canada, oh, Canada." And thirdly, because Joni Mitchell's here. Joni, hello.

Joni Mitchell: Hi.

TD: Welcome to GLR. We're not gonna be doing an interview about a new record, which is what people like you customarily come in to talk about. We're going to be talking about your paintings because they're about to be exhibited in London.

How long have you been doing your painting? Is it gone alongside -- is your painting career gone alongside your musical career that we're more familiar with?

JM: Well, I've always painted, you know. We moved around a lot when I was a child, and every city and every school that I attended I was kind of like the artist in residence. Until I discovered rock and roll dancing in my teens, which is where I developed my time, I think, because it was partner dancing and you had to -- it was like playing with a lot of different drummers, dancing. It wasn't just wiggling in front of somebody then, you know. But I got mixed up in music in art school in Alberta, I studied painting in the '60's.

TD: Now, most people will be familiar with your work through your album sleeves, which are, for the most part, until comparatively recently, they're fairly straight forward self-portraits for the most part --

JM: They want your kisser on the cover.

TD: Is that what they say? Is that what the company says?

JM: Yeah --

TD: 'Paint one of yourself, Joni.'

JM: Yeah. I mean for instance, DOG EAT DOG had quite a large canvas that was to be the cover, but they said "Oh, no, no, you have to put your face on it." So it's a photograph of me but it's barely recognizable. My face is contorted with anguish, and I'm being --

TD: I've got the --

JM: -- surrounded with vicious wolves. Well, they are wolves but they aren't vicious. We had to make them look vicious. They were sweet.

TD: From the complete Trevor Dunn Joni Mitchell album collection here, there's two albums that have got proper self-portraits of you, aren't they? CLOUDS --

JM: Mmm.

TD: When was that? 1969-ish?

JM: Yeah, late '60's.

TD: And WILD THINGS RUN FAST, which is some years later.

JM: That's '82, I think.

TD: What do you think when you look at the two pictures of you? Which one is the best?

JM: Well, I gained a little weight there in the '80's. That's one thing. Gee, I don't know. CLOUDS was a -- the actual painting -- that's the size of the actual painting. It was painted to scale. The WILD THINGS cover, is like 5-feet-by-10-feet. It's a large painting ...

TD: And you don't smile on either of them.

JM: No. (Laughs).

TD: Which is why it was such a surprise to meet you when I did and discover you had a sense of humor. Now, listen, the reason I mention these is because the paintings that you're exhibiting in London are nothing like them because they are abstract paintings, are they not --

JM: Well, not all of them. No, actually, there are several different styles. You know, as a painter I'm stylistically restless. As a musician I am. I'm just eclectic and I see things or hear things and they trigger off a direction. I don't really belong to any orthodoxy. I think it's hard to pin me down as a musician as to what I do and it is as a painter also. I just paint and make music. But there are some that loosely -- I guess you'd say they're abstract expressionist, and some are figurative.

TD: Obviously, these are the hardest interviews to do on the radio, interviews about visual things, and I can't -- I haven't got the vocabulary to describe your paintings. Have you?

JM: (In a stiff voice) -- Well, a picture's worth a thousand words (laughs).

TD: As somebody once said. Is it -- is there any point as far as you're concerned in actually talking about the way that you paint a picture we can't see? Can you describe them?

JM: Some of it's quite autobiographical. The abstract work, of course, is kind of exploratory and visionary. It would be kindred to the jazz. Jazz and abstract painting kind of go hand in hand. Let's see. How could I describe it?

A couple of pieces are done from life. There are a series, three of -- where the preliminary sketches were done by a cheap camera, which eliminates a lot of detail. They have a geometry to them that's very angular. They're quasi- realistic. There is some brush style -- they're kind of a diary of a day. They're a lot of snapshots thrown up in the air and coming down at -- you know, what I consider to be interesting angles. From there, the work went into the abstract. The angles remained and there are a couple of pieces in the show like that, but the subject matter disappeared or abstracted. One of them is cubes of ocean in Los Angeles and the sky the way it gets in November. So it's a diary of a kind of light that happens at a certain time of year and squiggles of gold which represent the kelp washing up on the beach. So I know what it means. Even when it's abstract, it still has some subject matter, but it's less recognizable.

Towards the middle '80's, I began to abandon the brush for rolling paint on thickly and using rolling pins, glass bottles, anything that rolled. And we did a show up at the BBC with this technique, and scoring back into the canvas with the end of a brush. I think figuratively, I paint abstractly, but most abstract painters are almost offended if you see subject matter in their pieces. They feel they've failed. Whereas I paint abstractly and then like an Eskimo carver stares at his stone and then brings out that which is entrapped in it, I stare at the abstraction and then carve out that -- those figures that I see, and some of them are quite complex stories.

Children see the things in them. Children see a lot of things, and I think people with a child-like imagination would enjoy them best by looking for things in them rather than looking at them as pure abstraction. I think that's the fun in them.

TD: Okay. GLR 94.9 1458. It's Trevor Dunn. My guest, Joni Mitchell. We're talking paintings, and we'll talk Canada after this song from Joni Mitchell's album HEJIRA, the title track.

(Music up: Hejira.)

TD: Joni Mitchell on GLR. Title track from HEJIRA. I don't want to sound too kind of 'naff' or anything, but I always thought that that line in there about "in the church they light the candles / and the wax rolls down like tears / this is the hope and the hopelessness I've witnessed 30 years" was one of the great lines ever written.

JM: What does that mean, though, 'naff'?

TD: Naff. N-a-double f. It's a kind of British expression meaning flaky.

JM: Mmm, mmm. Okay.

TD: So I was just, well, flaky there, wasn't I?

JM: No, no, I don't --

TD: But it's a great song. Are you proud of that one? Because I know you don't like all your old work, do you?

JM: I think there's some good writing in that song. That and Furry Sings The Blues I'm very pleased with. You know, sometimes the writing comes like a gift.

TD: What do you think when you're driving around and somebody puts on Big Yellow Taxi? Do you think 'oh, no, not that again! Why am I always remembered for that one song?'

JM: Yeah, I do. I think it's a shame in a way. I mean not that -- there are some lovely things that have happened with Big Yellow Taxi. For instance, this year, a teacher of third grade children in New Jersey sent me a letter and a parcel, and the letter said, "every year I request that my children -- I give them each a line and have them illustrate it. I thought I'd send you this year's batch." And it was charming, especially the line of "a big yellow taxi come and took away my old man" (laughs). This kid, he'd drawn the taxi and there's like this little stick figure like hanging on to the bumper and sticking straight out behind. It was really good. So I'm going to get all of that mounted, you know, and framed.

TD: Now it's a while since you made a record. You haven't given up, have you?

JM: Oh, no, no. I just finished making an album. They take a long time.

TD: Oh, goodness.

JM: It's in the can. They're sitting on it until January.

TD: So what kind of a record is it?

JM: Hmmm. How would I describe it? People that have heard it like it. David Geffen -- he and I have been along through how many records, since the beginning -- I've never seen him enthused about a record of mine. I know he loves HEJIRA, but I wasn't around, I didn't play it for him. I play it and -- he's -- what I found out this time is he's a word man. He could care less whether I want to orchestrate and compose, you know, and stretch as a musician. He could care less. If he can't hear the words right up in his face, it's a failure as far as he's concerned. So, anyway, I played it for him this time and he said after the first cut, "Oh, this is great. This could have come right after HEJIRA.

TD: Excellent.

JM: So the way he hears it, it has travel songs on it. The harmony is still my harmony, you know, which some people like and some people don't, a lot of parallel seconds, you know, makes some people feel neurotic (laughs). The guitar and the voice are up forward, and you can -- it has an intimacy. We mixed it twice completely. What I ended up doing is recording the voice completely dry. We didn't put anything on it. Not any Elvis, nothing. Dry. So that you cannot -- it's right up in your face. You can't miss the words. That's one --

TD: This is a good thing, actually. If I'm allowed to express an opinion, I think that's a much better idea than what you did on your last record, where you played around a lot with your voice, didn't you?

JM: Well, I think each record -- it's all experimental work. You can't -- you can't just go "this works" and stay there. It would be terribly dull, you know. Like I mean my patron saints, Miles Davis and Picasso, are restless people. I'm a restless artist. I try different things, and they succeed or fail depending on who you talk to. We mixed those albums for what we thought was appropriate for the music at the time, you know. To me, the orchestration is as important as the words, but not to a lot of people. It depends who you're listening to. People who like instrumental music, they like that, you know, they like that attention to detail. Some people would rather that I just did everything with the guitar and nothing else. Had I done that, I wouldn't be alive in this business today, you know?

TD: Okay. My guest, Joni Mitchell, this morning, and here's something from a few years ago.

(Music up: You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio.)

TD: This is GLR 94.9 and 1458. Trevor Dunn with Joni Mitchell this morning. We're talking about Joni's exhibition of paintings which is in London from next Monday, the 10th of September, organized in connection with an exhibition about Canada and celebrating all things Canadian.

You're an odd person to find, in a way, as an ambassador for Canada, because you left there almost as soon as you could, didn't you?

JM: Well, it wasn't so much that I could hardly wait to get out of there, it was just circumstance that I couldn't get any work there. And I was lured across the border by a Detroiter who promised me work in several clubs that he worked -- we'd been working the same club in Toronto. There was only one or two clubs. I couldn't earn my living in Canada. At the time there was just no --

TD: Is this when you were still part of the duo or --

JM: No, this is how I met the duo. I was working --

TD: So you were still --

JM: I was a solo artist --

TD: Joan Anderson --

JM: -- when we met. He was playing upstairs in the import department, and I was down in cellar, you know, with the leaky pipes. So he said, "Oh, I can get you work." He thought I had talent. I hadn't really begun to write. You know, I was a folksinger then. That's why Canada still thinks of me as a folksinger. You know, as soon as I crossed the border, I was no longer a folksinger. When my own music began to come, it's really much more classical music than it is folk music. It's studied in classical textbooks, you know.

TD: Anyway, back to Canada.

JM: Anyway, back to Canada.

TD: I mean this exhibition is described as a celebration of Canadian art, music, and culture in the city of London. Canada has a reputation a bit like Belgium, you know, the old joke about "can you think of a famous Belgian?" And nobody can.

JM: Like the book of English lovers? (Laughs).

TD: Wa-wa-wa.

JM: I thought of "Fawlty Towers." Sorry. (Laughs).

TD: So how do you come to find yourself cultural ambassador?

JM: Well, gee, I don't think I'm a very good ambassador. I'm too independent, you know, to be a spokesperson for anything and too blunt I'm afraid. I hope I don't offend the Canadian contingency.

Canada is a big country, and each of the provinces is almost like a European country. You know, I feel -- I feel the pull of the land in Saskatchewan. Whenever I go up there, it's very stimulating. It stimulates my writing and it stimulates my painting. It's visually exciting to me. And I don't know -- you know, I loved the time that I spent up there. I feel that I grew up in a third world country (laughs). No, I did. I mean, I'm not that old. I'm not 50 yet and yet our water was delivered by horse and wagon. I had a beautiful backward experience. I don't mean this as a knock. During the war we were on rationing also, you know, because the factories had all geared up and everything. Well, I think it was difficult for adults at that time. It was a wonderful childhood, and I went back there a few years ago hoping to have a nostalgic experience and found that the lakes of my childhood had changed. They'd become national parks and things had changed a lot.

When I went to Jamaica, I found things. That's why I suddenly said, gee, I grew up in a third world country. There were -- for instance, to go to the lake, you went down a paved road, it was paved for about five miles. It turned into gravel and it turned into a trail with grass up the middle, and you opened a stick fence with barbed wire and you waved to the farmer and you went to the lake. That's how you went to the lake. Now, it's paved all the way and it has -- instead of berry bushes, it had grass lawns down at the water's edge.

In Jamaica one day, somebody said let's have a picnic. So we took a paved road, it turned into a gravel road, it turned into like a road with grass up the middle. We opened the stick and barbed wire fence. We waved to the farmer -- he was black, you know, and when we got to the beach there was this shed with a lock on it, you know, with a padlock, just a big box that you put a padlock on it at night and a stick to prop the window open and that's where you bought your sodas and everything. That's what I mean about growing up in a third world -- I don't mean it derogatorily at all but the prairie province where I come from, it was my grandparents, they homesteaded. That land was up for grabs, you know. It's not that long ago. It was developed late.

TD: Don't go away.

(Music up: Lakota.)

TD: GLR plays Joni Mitchell from CHALK MARK IN A RAIN STORM which was the last album so far. There's another one to come as we found out a few minutes ago. The Tea Leaf Prophecy. You said that was Canadian-inspired tune.

JM: Mm-hmm. That's the story of my parents' courtship. Yeah, my mother went to see a gypsy. And the gypsy said to her, she read her tea leaves, it was war time, and basically the town was full of farmers and Mounties and all the other men had shipped off. My mother was late to marry. She was a school teacher and she was independent and she was a beautiful woman. But she was holding out. She didn't want to marry a farmer or a cop. So, anyway, she went to see this gypsy and the gypsy read her tea leaves and said, "You'll be married within the month, you'll have a child within the year, and you'll die a long and agonizing death." This is a terrible thing to tell a person. My mother said, "Oh, don't be ridiculous. There are no men in this town, I'm not going with anybody. And she just wrote it off. Well, two weeks later she met my father on a blind date, I was born within the year, and the woman became a germ chaser to the max because, you know, the impossible occurred. She would sanitize everything. As a result my immune system is so -- I mean, the Dawson kids across the street, you know, the mother kept like a very, very dirty house. Those kids never got anything. You could eat off my mother's floor. She vacuums the garage to this day.

TD: (Laughs).

JM: And I went to school and, of course, every bug that came along landed on me (laughs) so I said, "Don't worry, Mother, the gypsy had -- two out of three ain't bad," I said, but I'll be the one that gets the long and agonizing death because I have no immune system (laughs).

TD: Do you yourself miss having a close knit family life of your own, or is that something -- because you talk very fondly, and you always have done, about your childhood and about children and all that kind of thing, and yet your own family is you and your husband at the moment, isn't it?

JM: Well, we have cats and also I have a lot of godchildren. I haven't had children by choice really. And there were children all the time growing up in my house and in Los Angeles. There were always children splashing in the pool. I have friends who would come and stay for long periods of time, bring their children. So, no, I didn't miss that. And I love children. I'm drawn to them, you know.

TD: You did have a child, didn't you, when you were very young?

JM: Yes.

TD: Do you know what happened to him or her?

JM: I do and I don't. Maybe I do. Maybe I know a little. Maybe I don't know anything. I'll tell you by that I think I've done my -- people are too possessive about their children, too egocentric with their children anyway. I reproduced myself. I made a beautiful child, a girl. When -- but at the time I was penniless. There was no way that I could take -- she would have been -- I was not the right person to raise this child. There was no indication that I would -- I don't have a good education, I couldn't keep her. It was impossible under the circumstance. I had no money when she was born, none. Imagine. I mean none of the music would have come out. We would have just been -- I would have been waitressing or something. It wouldn't have been -- fate did not design this to occur.

Now, at the time that she was born in Toronto, it was just before the Pill was available, and the new sexual mores were coming. Every girl from every small town in Canada, of course, gravitated to the anonymity of the large city. So the week that she was born, it was headline news that there were so many illegitimate -- there were more illegitimate children born than there were legitimate. As a result there were not only not enough adoptive families, but there weren't enough foster homes. Now, blessedly the child was beautiful and good-natured and she was two weeks overdue so she was very polished, and she -- they found a foster home and she was adopted, I was told, by a young legal family.

Three years went by. In the meantime, my career began to happen, and I was at the Mariposa Folk Festival. We were corralled inside a storm fence for our own privacy. Someone said, "There are some people at the fence that would like to speak to you." I was talking to Kris Kristofferson at the time. I looked over and there was a young couple, fair-haired. There was a boy about two on the shoulders of the man. They were dressed like hippies but they were pressed hippies, you know? He had a U.S. Army shirt on and jeans with a crease down the front. There was a small, curly-haired blond girl -- my child had thick, thick curly hair -- with her fingers in the fence. So I went to see these people. I looked at them. Nobody spoke. The child -- on the adoptive papers her name was Kelly Dale. Kelly Dale Anderson. And there was some background on both the father and myself.

By that time I had a little reputation in Toronto so it wouldn't be that hard to put two and two together. Nobody spoke until the child spoke, and she said to me, "Hello, Kelly," and I said, "Oh, my name's not Kelly. My name's Joni." And she said, "Noooo." She was three years old, you know, and they go through a phase, "No, you're Kelly." And I said, "No, I'm Joni." And her mother looked down and she said, "She's Kelly," very warmly. I said, "Oh, you're Kelly," and she said, "Nooo, you're Kelly." And this went back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth. So finally I looked up at the adults to say, "Well, do you have anything to say?" and nobody did and I walked off.

When I turned my back and all of a sudden this shiver went up my spine, all my chakras rang, if you'll pardon the term (laughs). I turned around and they were gone. So I've always suspected that that was her and that the mother had said something to her in the course of the concert out of, you know, some kind of pride or, you know, about -- I don't know but it was a strange little game. And she --

TD: And when was that?

JM: That was in '68.

TD: So now she'd be, what, 25.

JM: Yeah.

TD: How do you think you'd feel if you bumped -- I mean, would she come looking for you?

JM: I don't know. I started to look for her once and, you know, and what happened, the story has, you know -- I don't have too many secrets. There were Kellys coming out of the woodwork, people trying to claim me, you know.

TD: Of course. I hadn't thought about that. Am I being impertinent?

JM: Well, no. I mean it's something that I used to be protective of. Not out of any embarrassment of my own. It was very difficult at that time. That's -- you know, it was like you killed someone. It was very painful to be an unwed mother in the '60's. Women died in abortions and those who went through the experience were treated like lepers, you know. It was cruel. There was a lewdness and a disgrace placed upon it.

TD: Thank you for being so frank, what we've been talking about. I'll give the details of the exhibition and everything after this. Joni Mitchell, thanks for coming in this morning.

JM: Oh, you're welcome.

(Music up: Free Man In Paris.)

TD: Great song, Free Man In Paris from a great artist, Joni Mitchell. Thank you for coming in. The exhibition that we were talking about is called "Canada in the City." It's a celebration of art music and culture from that country …

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