Jian Ghomeshi Interviews Joni Mitchell
Transcribed by Lindsay Moon
Jian Ghomeshi: Joni Mitchell, hello.
Joni Mitchell: Hi.
JG: What a pleasure it is to be here.
JM: Thank you.
JG: Thank you for inviting us into your home.
JM: Oh, you're welcome.
JG: This place, it's quite remarkable. It feels like a sanctuary. Is that what it represents to you?
JM: Oh, yeah, yeah.
JG: There's artwork on all the walls, most of it your
JM: Well, the only thing that isn't is this little painting over here, which is a fairly unknown English artist, but it's very minimal. I bought it on Madison Avenue. It's at that moment in the dawn when water and sky are the same kind of color and the light is coming up if you look at it
closely. Everything else is mine.
JG: In terms of the paintings that are yours, all of them except for that one, how do you decide what makes the cut? What makes it onto the walls and what doesn't?
JM: Oh, well, it's changing all the time and they're moving around. Most of the things here - well, I only paint things that mean something. That's Saskatchewan at 40 below; this is Otunba, Nigerian water goddess. I'm a water junkie. She's the Nigerian goddess of water and she came up like Jesus in a tortilla, that came up and I just hard-edged it and brought her out and found out afterwards who she was. So it's kind of like a Jew seeing the Madonna, you know? (Laughs) I don't belong to this religion but, you know -
JG: And ther're self-portraits around as well.
JM: There are some self-portraits around. That's British Columbia, that's where I'm building my house in British Columbia, that's my property, that's my property in British Columbia and that one too. That's Edmonton on the banks of the north Saskatchewan. That's in my kitchen.
JG: That's a lot of Canadiana in this room.
JM: Oh, yeah, there's my Canadiana son-in-law and my grandson looking bored up there. This is Mingus and his son Eugene, Mingus dying in Mexico. That's Whittier right now in June, all the jacaranda are in bloom, that beautiful purple, this one over here. So that's an LA painting. The two hands with the golden eggs, that's symbolic of a double album, "they toss around your latest golden egg/speculation, who's to know if the next one in the nest will glitter for them so."
JG: Well, I actually wanted to start with the painting and I'm glad we're on it wanted to -- and segway into asking you about it because whenever I've seen you talk about painting, or read what you've said, it's quite enchanting.
JG: Does all of your creativity, whether it be painting, writing songs, poetry, come from the same well? In other words, is it the same place in Joni Mitchell that where the visual art comes from or the music?
JM: Yeah. I do believe they're different languages, you know. And some things don't translate as well from one language to another. So you do, you know, you create --like I've got vignettes and things that happened that would make a good short film but wouldn't make a good song. Right? So somewhere down the line maybe -
JG: So is it about assigning the idea or inspiration -
JM: Yeah, I kind of - well, the painting's pretty straightforward, you know, they're all personal moments like, you know, they're like memories on the wall or there's a lot of where I come from in here. You know, land that I love, you know, the landscapes are all very personal landscapes. They're either from property that I own, or a good hike near the house.
JG: But if the -
JM: They're my pets. They're birds that came to me to die.
JG: If painting and music are the two languages or a couple of different languages, how do you describe the languages? How do you know - what does music represent in terms of language to you and what does painting -
JM: Well, I'm a painter first and I kind of apply painting principles to music. I think my production skills are visual and not from the staff. I don't think in terms of the - as Princess Margaret called it, the "fly shit." (Laughs).
JG: Is that what she called it?
JM: That's what she - she said (in put on British accent), "Oh, do you read?" I said, "No." She said, "Oh, well, it's just fly shit anyway." (Laughs). You don't need to read in the studio because you can go direct to tape. You know, and I play with literate musicians who can transcribe my changes to play to them, and they're surprisingly unorthodox. They'll go to write it out and it looks like it's an augmented, diminished, inverted, doo-doo-doo, you know, and they're very long, a lot of them, and
they'll go, "Oh, this is deceptive." You know, until they diagnose it to play to it and it ends up being... So it's a good thing I don't know about that. I just tune the chords -
JG: So painting is your first language.
JM: Painting is my first language.
JG: Your mother tongue.
JM: My mother tongue, yeah. So let's say.
JG: And music is a learned language. And interestingly - and I know you did say this in the documentary "Woman of Heart and Mind," you said, "anytime I make a record, it's followed by a painting period..."
JG: "It's a good crop rotation, painting to clear the head."
JG: And extracting from that it feels like you're saying to a certain extent - correct me if I'm wrong - music is a vocation; painting is liberation.
JM: No. I wouldn't exactly say that. I would say, you know, you do the music which is very soothing in my case - you know, it - I'm choosing chords - okay, let's start with the poetry. Let's say - which came first the lyric or the music. Usually the music comes first. And then I mantra it. I play it over and over in that kind of trance-like - a lot of it's kind of soothing even if it's rhythmic, you know. It's never - you know, I write some party songs but mostly I write late at night and for myself and so it can be grooving but ... and, you know, I'm listening to those chords and I'm going, okay, here's where the pinnacle thought has to go, here's where the high note goes, and this is where the main thrust, the most important idea, has to go because this is the pinnacle in the music. So then I'll get the melody, I'll go over it, like The Beatles, like 'scrambled eggs, doo, doo, doo, doo,' you know, maybe get something phonetic. And then something happens in the course of a day, maybe it all comes that one day, or maybe it's later that week, or in some cases it's taken as long as seven years to get the libretto. You know, what is this music craving as a story, you know. And then you try, I try - it's a point of craft with me - to marry, so that it's theatrical, first of all, they're dramatic
pieces, it's frustrated filmmaking, it's very visual, you know. You're scoring the actress but the actress is singing the lines but trying to get them as conversational as film.
So that you don't really - so everything is so united and conspiring towards the text -
JG: And I want to come back to that because that's really interesting, but on the point of painting to clear the head, it sounds like - saying that, it feels like painting is your comfort food.
JM: No. They're all different. They're all different mental processes. So poetry what you're doing is you're stirring up thoughts, right? Even with a stimulant of some kind. And then you're watching the thought process, which is anti Buddhism. Instead of going thought, dismissing, which is meditative, you know, trying to empty thoughts out (knocks over water) oops! Italian hands!
JG: You're getting excited! I like it!
JM: I don't know how the Italian got into the gene pool - but anyway with the poetry, you're making the head jump and you're raiding it for linguistics. Like I'll go - I've got Irish blood, so I'll go, "Oh! The blarney's running!" You know, like all of a sudden linguistically there's a lot of alliteration in my thought patterns - ooh! Sit down, it's a good time to address a melody that you're working on or something. Because it's like the grunion are running, the blarney's running, you know? But it's a jumpy head and you're going good-better-best, you're evaluating, right?
With painting the head process is completely different --
JG: Remove the thoughts?
JM: It's like meditation. You come down to synapses. You know, (makes electronic humming noise) red in the upper left-hand corner (electronic humming noises).
JG: What was that? What's going on? What was that?
JM: It's the ohm. You know, the universe, the hum of the wires, or whatever. It just comes down to synapses, you know, non-verbal, that - the discourse has been silenced. So it's a very different head space from poetry.
JG: So is poetry more - and therefore lyrics and music - more cerebral?
JM: Well, what would you say? You got a busy head -
JG: I guess so. I would say --
JM: -- and you're watching it - you're watching your busy head from an empty head, right? From a detached point of view, and you're stealing from it. Ooh! Good thought! Bad thought! Oh! Colorful! Or not quite to the point. You know, like you have to peel some more layers off - that's the way I write. That's not the way everybody writes but, you know, but it's an active brain and the analytical process is in play.
In the painting the analytical process appears from time to time as a command, "Red in the upper left-hand corner," you know, (in robotic voice): "Nose too fat." Like whatever.
JG: (Laughs) "Noah's too fat"?
JM: Nose too fat.
JG: Oh, nose too fat.
JM: Upper lip too thin. (makes electronic humming noises). It's more like a -
JG: You sound like a robot from Star Trek.
JM: It's more contemplative or meditative. It's more like a Zen mind, painting. You know, whereas writing is more, from a Buddhist position, more neurotic. You know, you're raiding Mishigas, basically. The chaos of the contemplative "I" thing dishes up.
JG: Let me come back to all that because there's some things I want to touch on in there, and especially the writing for the actress roles you just talked about.
But one of the precipitants for this interview is you'll be back in Canada soon for a tribute concert called "Joni A Portrait in Song" at the Luminato Festival. I was at your induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007. You get a lot of these tributes, this kind of acclaim at this point. How comfortable are you being venerated?
JM: It depends on the venerator. You know, in a certain way honor died in World War II. It just kind of died and not very many people know how to do it anymore. If they honor you wrong it makes you arrogant because it's dumb. You know? If they honor you right, it's humbling because it's inspiring, right? So sometimes it's inspiring. The more experience I have the more, you know, amused I can be by it and less bugged. I just come to expect that people really don't know how to honor.
JG: But the other part of the veneration is it's always predicated on looking back on your career, your legacy, your work, your life, your art. Do you enjoy looking back?
JM: No. I don't like to look back. I have to --
JG: At all?
JM: No. I mean I've come through the worst part. I'm doing a ballet on love, so I didn't want to go back and listen to everything. You know, so I just kind of pulled things out of my head. No, no, because I'd like to redo the bass track on that or why did I put that reed on that word -
JG: You can't go back - you don't go back and listen to "Court and Spark"?
JM: Oh, no.
JG: Or "Clouds" or something?
JM: Sometimes I'll walk in, somebody will play it, you know, when you walk in. Or I have one friend who comes over here and insists on putting my music on (laughs).
JG: What hap- -- what do you do?
JM: He's into it. We play pool and I'd rather have Duke Ellington on, frankly, to play pool but ...
JG: So you hear the things you would do differently?
JG: You can't give yourself a break and go I was in my 20s or 30s or whatever?
JM: No. Neither could Picasso. You know, they arrested this old man for defacing a Picasso in The Louvre - I'm sorry to put myself in such lofty company but, you know, and they dragged him into the office and it was Picasso. Maybe it's a Scorpio trait but he's going "This just isn't right!" and he went home and he got his paints and he's working on it and it's hanging in The Louvre, you know? I mean he should have been able to let it go but he couldn't.
JG: Do you -
JM: Or Renoir. You know, I saw him being interviewed - the, not the painter but the filmmaker -
JG: But can I make a - it's interesting to me that you don't go back and listen to the music -
JM: Unless I have to.
JG: -- unless you have to but you've got paintings up all over the place.
JM: Yeah, but there are things I like to look at.
JG: So you like the painting. You don't look at the painting of Saskatchewan up there and go, "I would have done this differently, I would have done that differently" and yet you do with your music.
JM: Paintings are square things to hang on the wall to decorate your house. (Laughs).
JG: Like music is -
JM: Music like Mozart is wallpaper for princes, you know? And sometimes you want wallpaper for princes in your house, you know what I mean? You don't want Yoko Ono gagging and - I mean you don't want that, not in this house.
JG: Maybe you like your paintings more than you like your music.
JM: You can say, 'Oh, it's really artsy and interesting but I don't want that in my house.'
JG: But maybe you like your paintings more than you do your music?
JM: Well ... if I - there are some paintings here - most of these are quite satisfactory. I don't want to put another stroke on 'em. I guess maybe in answer to your first question, how do I select them, I put up things that seem finished. You know, so I don't have that thing. But if I'm listening to my music there're things in there that, "Geez! I should have put a guitar fill there. Why didn't I do that? Why did I do that? Why did I read that line like that, you know? Why am I whining?" (Laughs). You know? I mean as an actress, you know, I'm performing this song. Yes, it's a sad song but, you know, I would do it differently now, you know?
JG: So even the stuff that people think is classic, the most influential music that you've written, you'll listen to it and find issues with.
JM: I was going to say Renoir, the filmmaker, there was a film that he did about the bourgeois that was very controversial and they were very offended and they walked out. If you saw it you wouldn't understand why. I guess you had to be there at that time. They thought that he was making fools of them, and he did show them as kind of like rich, silly children, unconcerned about the world. But not too - very subtly, right? And who was it - Bogdonavich was interviewing him and he was in love with the film, he was going, "Oh, you must be so proud of this film," and he's going, "Well, I didn't like the editing." (Laughs). So I guess it's like divine dissatisfaction or something, you know? And it's what drives you to your next period, you know, you won't make that mistake again.
JG: Also on the question of the tributes and the veneration again, is there something about it you don't like in terms of continuing to be a vital artist that you are. I had the chance to interview -
JM: No, it's just people don't know what honor is. It's just silly.
JG: Well, I was going to say, Mel Brooks. I had the opportunity to talk to him a few weeks ago about his - this PBS documentary about his life and work - quite a fantastic documentary. And he said, "I loved it but it was a little like attending my own wake." (Laughs). Does that resonate?
JM: Well, yeah, that's because - that's a different crowd and that's the roast crowd. So they just come - they're insulting. And John Guerin, who was a man that I lived with and loved, you know, I went to a wake for him. Everybody stood up there and the things they said, if John was looking down, you know, yeah, I mean everything was so incredibly inappropriate. And I said to - John was a philanderer; he was hard to live with for that reason. But he loved women. He was a lover of women. He had a wonderful mother and wonderful grandmother and they were wonderful women. And he loved all the women that he ever loved and it's something, if you're not trying to be "the one," you know, that's kind of noble about that. So at the wake I was allowed in, the girl after me was not allowed in, she was on the outside. The girl after that, Pixie, he married, she was allowed in. Then the wife when he died was four before me. So there were some that were not allowed in to the wake for various reasons. And I said to Pixie, two after me, "Pixie, you know, this is really weird, I mean people are saying really selfish things. Everybody gets up and they go for themselves, which is, you know, they don't know how to honor. So, you know, why don't we just grab all John's girls and do a can-can across the stage? Let's just do something for John, you know, like 'Hey, John! Here we are, all your girls!'"
JG: I think it's a songwriter's thing. I think people genuinely revere you as a songwriter. I think that was coming from a real place.
JM: What was that?
JG: The Canadian Songwriter's Hall of Fame.
JM: Oh, yeah.
JG: So that - that falls in the category of "good" veneration?
JM: Well, that was good. You know, that was a sweet night, and I had old friends in the house there too which was an honor. I like the idea that I have friends from the fourth grade still.
JG: Part of the reason people love doing these tributes for you is cuz they want to feel -
JM: Yeah, I don't want to make them inhibited like I'm ungrateful. I'm not ungrateful!
JG: People want to feel a sense of connection to you and we don't see you a lot necessarily. I mean I'm grateful you're doing this interview. You don't do a lot of interviews, you don't make a lot of public appearances. You've been called a recluse -
JM: That's because I've been ill. I've been ill. What are you supposed to do, wander around when you're sick as a dog? You can't. So, you know, once again fame is a series of misunderstandings surrounding a name.
JG: You were called a recluse before though.
JM: I've been a recluse all my life. So if I crawl off for a year with abscessed ovaries, I don't make a big publicity of it like Liz Taylor. I don't play the professional sick person, you know.
JG: Starting with polio when you were a kid -
JM: Right. And polio relapse in my 40s. You know, I've had health problems all my life.
JG: Does it bother you when people consider you a recluse?
JM: No. People always get everything wrong. (Laughs). When somebody gets something right, I'm always delighted, you know?
JG: One of the funny things about this house I learned and I didn't know this til I got here. You don't - you have just one telephone in the house, no answering machine, no email, no internet?
JM: No, I've got more than one phone.
JG: You've got more than one phone?
JM: Yeah, but the other one's shut off. (Laughs).
JG: But you don't have internet, right?
JM: I just got a computer because I'm trying to write my memoirs on the Dragon set-up. So I'm trying to learn that one function.
JG: Tell me why you wouldn't want email and the internet and stuff. Is there a reason for that?
JM: Oh, yeah, there's a lot of reasons for it.
JG: Tell me.
JM: Well, first of all, it's a trap. It's Big Brother waiting to spring, you know, for one thing. So there is an element of folly.
JG: You mean affecting privacy? Or what do you mean by "Big Brother"?
JM: Well, that, and also at a time when we should be cutting back on electricity, you know, we're sucking more and more. Not to mention, you know, me in a delicate position, ease is a -- ease is the opposite of disease is created in the holy spots. If people were sensitive but sensitivity is not a virtue in the West. As a matter of fact, you know, it's to be taken advantage of. It's misunderstood and devalued.
Clarity, its opposite, is, you know - look at our laws. Intellect and clarity count. They're revered. Those are the masculine traits. Sensitivity and emotionality are second-class citizens. They're considered the irrational. They're equal and important and one of the reasons that, you know, we've destroyed our - you know, we've pissed where we eat, you know, on this planet. Is because - because especially the Western mind is completely out of balance and has been for centuries.
JG: And so the internet would just -
JM: And so our laws and everything - now, if they were sensitive, they would know that our ionization is just nuts. I mean the oceans, whales are getting the bends because of sonar and all the activity down there. Whales know how to surface without destroying their bones but because of the electrical activity, you know, of our stupid inventions. You know, down there, when you see 56 whales beaching themselves, that's electronic noise. You know, we are being driven mad by cell phones and satellites and everything, and we don't even take that into consideration. So it's like DDT, it's an evil thing, really, in the big picture. I know that there's all kinds of art - there's wonderful things that it can do and -
JG: Exploring creativity. Exploring musicians from around the world.
JM: You don't need it for that, you know. And you've got attention deficit push button people - no, there's more malformation taking place. You know, even down to bookkeeping, you know, white collar crime potential, it's really just further extension of our insanity as a species, you know? And at the point of logarithmically no return which was about 1969 we needed to really go back and use less electricity. But we insist on making push button everything, push button, push button. You got a push button generation. You try to get a thermostat. All you need is to turn it up one degree and down one degree. Two movements, bing, bing. You got, "Are you sure?" "Are you really sure?" you know, you have to push the button about six times because - no, no, it's a tragic little culture. You know, they love it, you know, but in the big picture in the future, it's going to cost dearly. There's
terrible consequences for it.
JG: Take me back to growing up in rural Saskatchewan and Saskatoon in the '40s and '50s. I'm curious when - when you knew that being a creative person, an artist, would be your calling.
JM: Second grade. Yeah. Second grade I forged my identity as an artist. We had a - you know, it was the boomers, it was this big population of children, and my house sat between Alexander School and King Street School. I started at Alexander and later went to King Street. But temporarily they opened an Anglican parish hall and took a spill over there. And they brought a little old lady out of retirement. In the second - and she was a nice little old lady but real "readin', writin', 'rithmetic" kind of , you know? Very classic, in the box kind of thinker. So she graded us in the second grade and all grades and gave us an average. And she moved the A students into a row and called them Bluebirds, and she moved the B students into a row and she called them Robins, and the C students into a row and she called them Wrens, and the flunkies she put in a row and she called them Crows. Right? So I looked at the A students, and they all had their hands clasped on their desks as I recall, and they were all looking very accomplished and very proud. And in my opinion there wasn't a smart person in that row. The smart ones were all in the C row. The B's were trying to be an A, trying to be inside the box, and the flunkies generally were a bit impaired. And the C was average but the really smart ones were in the C's. Winston Churchill was in the C row, Einstein was in the C row, you know, most individuated -- would be in the C row. So I remember saying, okay, that prize does not appeal to me. I don't want to be a Robin, you know, but I don't like the idea of being a third-class citizen but I drew the best doghouse. We had to draw a doghouse. It had the front and one side showing. And everybody's were too tall and skinny or their lines went off at the corners or they didn't have any sense of proportion. So I -
JG: You got a sense that that was your - you had something that others didn't have.
JM: Right. So I went, "I drew the best doghouse." So from then on I forged my identity as an artist.
JG: So in grade two then - I mean I know you knew you draw the best doghouse but do you actually internalize that this is something that you want to be doing for the rest of your life?
JM: Not really. I just drew my self-worth from -- that I was above average at something. I wasn't just average. I drew the best doghouse. So it was a matter of self-confidence, "Well, I'm good at something," you know. I'm just average at all of this stuff but those people are not imaginative over there, any of those A people. And I did have this that all they did was she said it and they said it back. From here on in unless she asks something that nobody knows the answer to, I'm not even going to try. And I didn't. I spaced out all the way through the school system. I drew clothes. I wrote poems. I drew pictures of beatniks and hoods and funny sayings, you know. And thank God because most of what they taught was wrong anyway. I flunked physics. If they taught quantum physics, I would have been intrigued. 'Light is intermittent matter'? Let's talk about it! Where is it if it's solid and it goes away and then it's solid again? Where does it go? That's some interesting stuff.
JG: Were you popular as a kid, as a teenager when you're doing this drawing and not applying yourself in the academic realm?
JM: Well, to hear people talk - well, as a young child in North Battleford, the girls were hard to play with because they were so envious and competitive, and -
JG: Envious because you're good-lookin'?
JM: Okay, I'm - imaginary play - I am at the top of this wall, 'I am descending a diamond-studded staircase in a gold lame butterfly pleated dress.' At the bottom stands a girl who stamps her foot and says, 'No, you're not! I am!' Right? So even imaginary stuff. So the girls were hard to play with. What passed for friendship among them for the most part was conspiracy. They liked to gang up on other girls, arbitrarily almost. And when you wouldn't, they'd gang up on you. Right? So you just tough that out because that's just, you know - And the boys - I played with the boys a lot because I had a
cap pistol. So they would say, you know, "Get your gun, Joan. We're playing war. You can be the German." And then they'd shoot me. And I'd go, "Well, when can I get up?" "Oh, you can't get up. You're a dead German." So I'd get bored and I'd wander off after a while.
JG: Right. Not so fun.
JM: Or they'd pick Roy Rogers. This is really a crucial life story. They would pick Roy Rogers and whoever they picked would do exactly the same thing, they'd slap the posse - we'd slap our asses up and down the back alley, and he would holler to us all, "Come on, men! Over the rise! Come on, men!" Roy Rogers, whoever he was, "Come on, men! Over the rise!" Well, one mile away from this back alley with laundry on Mondays and garbage burning on Saturdays was a ravine with a bridge, you could roll down, you could sabotage, you know, it was really a better - so, you know, I was into location (laughs) for play. "Oh, come on! If we just go one mile over here, there's a great place to do cowboys, you know? Let me be Roy." "You can't, you're a girl." So I said to my mother one Christmas, "I want a Roy Rogers outfit." Oh, she was all upset, a girl wants a Roy Rogers outfit. So my father said okay, they get me this thing. And the first spring day that I could take my coat off, I come out, there's a picture of me in it, and I'm trying to look really tough (laughs). And it was red, it had a red hat, I had these brown oxfords on because I'd had polio and I had to wear these stupid, ugly shoes. No cowboy boots but they're crossed at the ankle, I'm looking really ... leanin' on the old corral, you know? And the red shirt with the red fringe and the "Roy Rogers" written. So I come out and I say, you know, they picked Roy and I say, "No! I'm Roy Rogers! Look, it says right here." "That doesn't mean you're Roy Rogers." "Why not? It says right here, right here!" (points to her hat and embroidered shirt). "That means you're Dale Evans." "Why?" "You're wearing Roy's clothes." "Well, what does she do?" "Well, she stays home and cooks. Come on, men, over the rise!" (Laughs)
JG: Did you want to be a boy?
JM: No. I just wanted to play. But I wanted brothers. And I liked the idea of being included. I've always enjoyed men's company. You know, but I found them a little unimaginative. I finally did find friends to play with who grew up to be gay. And they didn't role-play. They let me dream big. We'd put on circuses. They were theatrical, we put on circuses, you know, and I ran the gyp joint and I was the lion tamer. I'd get all of the cats. You know, I made all of the posters. And they were creative, they dreamed big -
JG: Was that in Saskatoon?
JM: Yeah. They were - one - they were baby classical musicians. One grew up to be an opera singer in Italy someplace, and the other one grew up to be a choir director in a church in Montreal.
JG: So fast-forward a little bit. Your through-line is your drawing, you're a visual artist. You attend - you go from Saskatoon, you attend art school in Calgary for visual arts, right? For painting -
JM: Went for a year -
JG: You are painting, right? You start also playing in some cafes in Saskatoon, then you end up in Toronto. How did music become the career?
JM: Because I got pregnant. I got pregnant. I was the only virgin in art school, right? You've been holding on to this precious thing and I just kind of stupidly let it go -
JG: One weekend in Toronto.
JM: As Jean, my choreographer says, "You were Banff'ed." No. It wasn't Banff. "You were Banff'd." So I got caught out immediately and so I had to create a smokescreen. The music was not of interest. This was a trick that fate -- because I didn't know I had the gift. I hadn't started to write. I was just a folksinger.
JG: And how did music become the smokescreen rather than painting?
JM: Well, because I'm going to quit art school. You know, the pretense to protect my parents was that I was having trouble with the profs, I was in a debate with them all the time. They didn't like the way I dressed. Again, you had to go into a box. You know, to be a painter you had to wear ben- -- you know, there was a uniform. It didn't allow for individuality. And they were prejudiced against people with hand to eye coordination. They were all abstractionists and I didn't care for that pocket of painting.
JG: Even in art school there were too many rules for you?
JM: Yeah. Oh, yeah, it was total conformity. And I was an honor student there, and I've talked to other students later that they - even though they were hard on me and always on me, that they used my work as examples. Well, I guess because I became famous that they used it. But I was an honor student but I was docked because I was no good at mornings and I would go to Edmonton and sing on the weekends, come home tired and miss Monday morning. So tardiness which should not have come into play for an artist, a real artist, anyway was the reason they were going to dock me was for absenteeism. I said, "Well, why? I got my work in. I just didn't get it in by the clock exactly."
JG: So music becomes the smokescreen.
JG: You go to Toronto. And by the way, of course, you have the child. You put the child up for adoption and you find your daughter many years later, we've heard some of that -
JM: But let's clear up something that -
JM: -- that people assume erroneously, and I see it written again and again and again: That I gave up my daughter to further my career. This is so wrong. There was no career. My music at that point - first of all, I was just a folksinger. It was just - it was just - there was no ambition, there was no - you know, I had a nice voice, I guess, I played okay, you know, but there was no real gift that -- it was just something that was happening, that was going to die out soon, you know? It was a way to get money to smoke, you know, and have a pizza and go to a movie. And to bowl. Because that's what I did at art school too. I came in there with no frills. I had to earn half my fare to art school because my parents disapproved, and there was nothing left over. So singing in the clubs was fun, and it afforded me a little bit of income that I wouldn't have had.
JG: Joni, when did you know it was more than fun?
JM: Uh -
JG: That you actually did - you were more than just a folksinger.
JM: When I made a bad marriage. When I married Chuck Mitchell, you know, I should have been a runaway bride on our wedding day. You know, even his mother said, of him and said he was - referred to him as the first waffle and said it should be used to warm up the pan and then thrown out. He behaved so selfishly on his wedding day I, if I'd known about runaway brides, I would have, you know? So it didn't last very long. And like they say "If you make a good marriage, God bless you. If you make a bad marriage, become a philosopher." So, you know, "Both Sides, Now" and all of those songs that came out of that were - you know, to get away from him I would go to, down to The Toddle House. We lived in a black neighborhood there, you know, and I would sit there and drink coffee and write. And so the writing began to happen. You know, he tried to gain ownership of it. He set up a publishing company. I had him set up two because I knew I had to get out of that marriage, you know. But the thing that keeps getting written is that I gave up my daughter in order to further my career. This is just not so. What was done at that time was you didn't even see the daughter. You didn't have - the right thing to do to protect your parents was to get out of town, go into a home. Well, in '65 the homes were full. So many girls got caught out because everything was changing. Movies were getting sexier, it was very confusing to be a young woman there. What's right? You know, everything was changing. And the pill was not available. So there were a lot of unwed children (sic) born in 1965, more than could be adopted, and all the homes were full, you know. So it was very difficult to survive. I mean at the time I had her, I was destitute. And there was no way I could take her out of the hospital into a blizzard with no job, no roof over my head, there was no way I could take her. And there weren't even foster homes available at that time because there was such a glut of unwed children (sic). But she was beautiful and she found her way into a foster home. And I tried to get work and get a set-up that I could bring her to. Well, in that time period I couldn't get any work in Toronto because I couldn't get 160 bucks to get into the union, you know. I was beset by predators, you know, like people trying to take advantage of the situation. I won't name names but a lot of human ugliness came at me because I was in a - white slavers. I mean you wouldn't believe the gauntlet you have to run when you're young, destitute, and in a situation like that. They tortured me in Toronto General, they literally tortured me, you know, in there out of disrespect, you know. Thirty years later when my granddaughter was born in the same hospital, it wasn't the same hospital. But it was the Dark Ages then for women. You know, I was a criminal, I was a fallen woman, it was a very difficult situation. So things change, things improve. The Christians would have us go backwards, you know ... you know, in their lack of compassion and in their ignorance, and in their desire to increase their folds. Like the Catholics kept the birth control thing going. It's kind of the same ruse, it all comes down to money, not compassion really, you know, the driving wheel behind it. So, you know - am I getting too heavy? (laughs)
JG: No, I'm glad you cleared that up but I do want to ask you -
JM: But I did not give - I had no career. They don't understand. At the time I gave her up I had no career -
JG: So when does the -
JM: -- and I had no ambition to be a musician. Because there was no reason. I mean, the bottom was falling out of folk music. My only thing was this is the last time I'm ever going to be able, with a Grade 12 education to get enough money in the bank, you know, make hay while the sun shines, you know, take a lot of gigs, you know, I booked myself -
JG: So what becomes the turning point -
JM: For what?
JG: -- where this becomes not just a career but a massively successful one? When did music actually become something more than the diversion? When did it become - and when did you realize, hey, man, I'm good and people are flocking to my show?
JM: Oh, I remember going, trying to go get work in New York and saying to a club owner who wouldn't hire me - I was working all up the coast - and bursting into tears and going, "But I'm good!" So I mean under duress, I knew I guess to a degree I knew I was good enough that he didn't have to - that I would like to have worked in New York. New York's a hard town to crack, and once you crack it, they're very loyal. And they're very loyal to me to this day. But initially until you had a record deal it was hard - and you couldn't get a record deal until you had a - it was Catch-22 kind of but - what was your question again?
JG: My question was when you really, can you pinpoint a time whether it was writing a song or playing a gig when you realized that this was going to be a career for you? This had real potential.
JM: There was no such time - no, there wasn't. As David said, "Joan, you're the only person I know who doesn't want to be famous." I really didn't. I wrote a poem about -
JG: Which David, Crosby?
JM: Geffen. You know, I thought fame was going to be a horrible experience, which, until you get used to it, it is. You just have to deal with an incredible amount of stupidity because this place is mentally ill with celebrities. So you have to see a lot of mental illness coming at you. You know, you go, "Oh, my God, this culture is so sick!" I'll tell you what, at 16 - this'll give you an idea - I'm not a kid that played air guitar in the bedroom and go, "Oh! I'm gonna be rich and famous!" and all of that. I felt sorry for stars. Sandra Dee was all over the local magazines with her mascara running down, the paparazzi were on them, she was breaking up with her husband, it was misery. Oh, I thought, the poor woman. What if they did that to me in the school newspaper. You know, that's what empathy is, you can identify, you know, with what you think is so big over there with what is - you know, you can identify. So I had to write - I had to write in blank verse on assignment. And I was getting my hair done for some beauty contest at the hair school by amateurs. And there were these stacks of these magazines with Sandra Dee crying on the cover, and so I wrote this poem called "The Fishbowl" about Hollywood before I ever was here:
The fishbowl is a world reversed
With -- where fishermen with hooks that dangle
From the bottom up
Reel down their catch without a fight
On gilded bait
Pike, pickerel, bass, the common fish
Ogle through distorting glass
See only glitter, glamour, gaiety
Fog up the bowl with lusty breath
Lunge towards the bait and miss
And weep for fortunes lost
Envy the goldfish? Why?
His bubble's breaking 'round the rim while
Silly fishes faint for him and say
"Oh, my God! I think he winked at me!
(Laughs). So you see -
JG: When did you write that?
JM: When I was 16.
JM: So before I went to art school, before I got into this game. So I'm not entering the game in a normal way.
JG: Also, you see yourself as an outsider at that time as well, right? You see yourself as different from -
JM: Oh, yeah. People tell me I'm from Mars all the time.
JG: -- not mainstream.
JM: No, I'm from Mars. (Laughs). How many times have I been told that?
JG: But you also believe that, to a certain extent?
JM: What, that I'm from Mars? No, I don't.
JG: No, not that you're necessarily from Mars but that you -
JM: I'm sick all the time.
JG: You always felt like you were out of the mainstream.
JM: I am. I'm lying in hospitals trying not to die. I'm not a herd animal. Yeah. So I am outside. I'm born the Day of the Discoverer, the Week of Depth so I'm cursed by Astrology to be deeper than the average person and also have the need to be original, to plant the flag where no one else has been. So I'm going to have - listen to traditions, which satisfy everybody and sell like hotcakes and go, "That ain't shit." You know? It's been done and done and done.
JG: So what does it feel like when that person becomes, as you did in the - by the early '70s, this massive star? Having said all you did about fame.
JM: I retreated into the BC wilderness, you know? I hated it. Hated it. "The fishbowl is a world reversed ... pike, pickerel, bass, the common..." -
JG: Meaning all of it? Like to the point where you look back at those times and go, "That, that ..."
JM: That attention to celebrity is mental illness. You know, the mental illness that creates that attention is tragic to me.
JG: What about the fact that tons of people were buying your records?
JM: Well, that's different. You know, that's different. And the people that feel the music - the trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you're not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it'll probably make you cry and you'll learn something about yourself, and now you're getting something out of it. You know? And those are the people - those are the people that my communication is complete. Most of them, they know I'm famous, they know I'm this, but there's no real communication, it's just a phenomenon there. And people will flick their Bic at anything (laughs). You know what I mean? It's no big deal.
JG: So when - I'm just thinking to this point of when you really having a difficult time with how popular you were becoming, how famous you were becoming -
JM: No, wait. I'm not having a difficult - it's just when I realized how popular I was becoming it was right before "Blue." And I went, "Oh, my God. A lot of people are listening to me, well, then they better find out who they're worshipping. Let's see if they can take it. Let's get real." So I wrote "Blue," which horrified a lot of people, you know, and then it created a lot of attention that was really weird. And so then I bought a property in British Columbia and dropped out. Because what had happened is they're looking at me, and all I've done is reveal human traits. They haven't seen themselves in it. At the point that they see themselves in it, the communication is complete. At the point where they're looking after me, it's like pigs to blood, you know? It's like Marilyn Monroe on a tightrope or something.
JG: "Blue" is considered a classic, how so though?
JG: But at the time? People -
JG: People -
JG: How were they horrified? Why were they horrified?
JM: Well, the men, because it was a man's world, Kris Kristofferson went, "Joni! Keep something of yourself!" Johnny Cash said, "The world is on your shoulders." They all recoiled because the game was, "I'm bad, I'm bad," you know, it was before that -- the game is to make yourself larger than life. Don't reveal anything human. And my thing is why? You know? Movies do it. Okay, you know, it hasn't been done in the song. Why do we have to - you know, Bergman did it in film. It's been done in film. So - you know, but the trouble is I'm the playwright, I'm the actress, you know, and I want them to look at the play and see past it but all of it - it's such an intimate art form and I'm doing so much of it that all the attention is going to me. Which is insane to me. From my point of view, it's like you're not going to get anything out of it if you look at me. You know, you've got to see yourself in it. Otherwise, it has no value.
JG: It was enough to send you into the BC wilderness but not enough to prevent you from continuing to make records. You're quite prolific at that.
JM: Oh, yeah. I went deeper and it even got more unattractive. I went deeper and it got sadder.
JG: Well, it got bigger first. I mean "Court and Spark" and -
JM: Well, no, that's later. "For the Roses" went deeper. That was written while I was, you know, on the lam. And then "Court and Spark," by that time the masses were - you know, it was like the same thing that makes people stop at accidents. That's how they were viewing it. And I thought, "These people are sick," you know. Like, so to shake it off, I morphed again and I got a band and came out red hot mama, you know, kind of (laughs). And I had band players that I, you know -
JG: And wrote some killer songs.
JM: Yeah, but they were fun. So, you know, enough inner self-exploration of human nature. If that's what they're gonna do, you know, they're gonna make it all on my shoulders. If that's the way they're gonna view it, then they're not - you're not getting anything out - eventually a lot of people did. There was a good article written in The New Yorker last Christmas by a black woman who hated my music with a passion. 'Take that stuff off! Take it off!' And suddenly in Wales she had an epiphany, she had people playing it in the car and she said, "Take if off! Take it off!" She gets out and she's wandering around this church and suddenly she's singing a snatch and she goes, "Ah! Now I'm singing it!" So then she got into "Blue" and what happened was she couldn't be around people. Because she said it would make her feel naked, you know? And it would make her cry and if she was going to listen to it, she couldn't have anybody around. You know, and then she read where I said I felt kind of naked when I was writing it, which made her feel better. But it does, when you see yourself in it, impart a lot of self-knowledge, which keeps you from being quite so delusional. You know, I mean it's healthy, I mean there's a lot of nutrition in this stuff if you can get by your own stupid intellect. You know what I'm saying?
JG: The other thing is it takes a lot of courage and confidence to be calling these shots and morphing the way you were.
JM: I nearly died a lot of times and nobody was in my corner. I've never had anybody in my corner. So, you know, as my mother and father would say, "We didn't mollycoddle her." (Laughs.) So I, you know, maybe it's the Irish blood, you know -
JG: You've always been tough.
JM: -- like that fighting Irish. I had to be or I'd be dead. You know, I'd be dead. Denge fever - my doctor that I'm going to now, he's got four of us that had Denge fever. The other three are blind. You know, I was never supposed to walk again. I'm a polio survivor. That took a lot of fight. And nobody believed that it was accomplishable. Then I lucked out later in my 40s when I began to deform again, post-polio syndrome, which Western medicine, which is so greedy and careless and evil, doesn't even recognize that that exists. But I found a healer who regenerated the lost nerves in my back, a magician, a Chinese national treasure who happened to be smuggled out of China by some Tonga from San Francisco. A great healer. And he, you know, regenerated the lost nerves in my back, boing!, some muscles came up, the spine went straight, you know, for very minimal charge. So I found a real genuine healer. So I've been lucky, I've found three - a Kahuna, she's dead now. Western medicine has - you know, Western medicine crippled children in their ignorance.
JG: But if the creative confidence, then, came from that place - let me try this out on you, and you tell me if this - so many of the artists I get to speak to, and I can certainly relate to this and these are very successful, highly acclaimed and creative people, are freaked out or fearful or nervous or have insecurities, are neurotic ... there's a lot of fear of being an artist. Where did the fear happen in you?
JM: Oh, you have a pocket of that in your process. Like in doing this ballet, there was not that long ago - I'm over that hump - and somebody said, "Joni, you go through this every time." So there's in the process -
JG: What do you go through every time?
JM: There's a part in the process where you just get lost and you just don't think you can get the mixes or you don't think you can get the sequence right or you - you know, there's always a pocket where you bog down -
JG: Thank God, that even happens to you.
JM: -- you know? Yeah, and it's just part of the process. You gotta keep going. And there's a process in illnesses where you think you're gonna die and if you keep thinking that, you bloody well will. You know? You just have to - no way I'm a cripple, no way I'm gonna die, you know?
JG: So with those classic records in the '70s, there are moments where you thought 'Maybe this ain't so good'?
JM: I'm sure there were. And where there was, maybe one line or this isn't quite right, you know, this is good, this is good, this is good, ahh, that's not clear enough, you know, or that line is the weak line and eventually -
JG: That's different. That's not the same as 'I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I'm good enough. I don't know if people will appreciate what I'm putting out there.' That's -
JM: Okay, yeah.
JG: That's where you're talking about is honing something to be as good as you know it can be.
JM: I don't care whether they appreciate it on a certain level because I like the process. It's like, you know, I don't care - nobody's seen these paintings except me, except people come in now with their cameras and they photograph them, boom, they're on the internet. I mean there is no privacy anymore so but, you know -
JG: You like the process. It doesn't have to be - people don't have to hear or see it.
JM: Yeah, it's exciting when you come - you know, it's like advanced crossword puzzles or something. And, you know, you come to the point where, 'Oh! That's it!" It's very exciting.
JG: But then someone will challenge that. They would say, "You didn't have to do all - you didn't have to put out all these records, you didn't have to sign with Reprise, you didn't have to work with Geffen, you could have just done making music in your home."
JM: Well, what else would I have done?
JG: You would have enjoyed the process.
JG: Played music by yourself.
JM: Oh, but I was in the harness. I wouldn't have done it by myself. I wouldn't have written poetry in high school except if it was on assignment. Something had to -
JG: Ah, the push.
JM: I had a contract to fulfill. So I had a duty. You know? So I kept signing up one after the other. And then they started complaining, you know, like I used to put out an album a year in the first part. But then the press got longer, the tours got longer, the illnesses increased. And they're going, "Well, you're not putting out as much as you used to!" You know? You go, "Geez, I'm dancing as fast as I can." I mean I'm not going to tell 'em, "Well, I just spent a year in bed. " It's none of your business. You know what I mean? So I lost a year there. You know, and I was lucky or stupid or whatever, you know, or courageous, a combination of that. I found a way to tap into most of the things that were happening to me. It made my hard changes interesting. Like this disease that I have is a nightmare. If you look at it subjectively, people all over the world kill themselves. They just can't take it. If you look at it objectively it's fascinating.
JG: Do you - in terms of the confidence piece, something that's really refreshing about you is reading at times - I mean you tell me if they've got this right - but you own your talent. You're willing to accept having an ego and say, "I'm good at - you know, I did well on this. This sounds good. I'm good at this." And on that -
JM: Everyone has an ego.
JG: Do you feel like -
JM: You cannot say, "I like this tomato soup" without an ego. Ego is the original sin. You know?
JG: Do you feel like too many artists engage in false humility?
JM: Yes. It's disgusting. (Laughs.) I'd rather have real arrogance than false humility. I mean, you know, when somebody pays me the few compliments that I've really enjoyed, you know, that I've received they humble me. They're heart-warming. Because a real connection has been made. We have met. I've put out a signal and this person has picked it up. Right? And we're meeting like this (holds hands evenly). It's not like they've got me on a pedestal or they're looking down on me because I'm not their favorite, whatever. And so we meet. That's a - that's a communication.
JG: Why do you think peop- -- why do you think there's this notion - why do you think those artists engage in false humility? Why do you think -
JM: Because it's fashionable and it's politics -
JG: To be humble?
JM: Yeah, it's baby kissing. It's politics. And it's also Christian training. You know, and this is basically a Christian - well, I guess it's not Christian. You know, it's considered appropriate conduct so therefore that conduct is emulated.
JM: You know?
JG: And you prefer them to say, "I'm really good at this."
JG: I don't know. An artist that -
JM: Well, it depends if they're going around - no, because
there's an academic - there's a thing about academics where they're encouraged
to boast. And they can stand and run their credentials for two hours ad
nauseam. I'm not advocating that. But it's - I know what my standards are,
and every time I met them, I raised them a little bit more, and there are still
things that I look up to. Not as much as when I was young, but there are still
things like, oh, thank God, that I can still be amazed by. You know, Debussy,
Duke Ellington. You know, not a lot, but there are still some things that I
could learn from.
JG: You're such a singular, you're such a unique and
individual artist. Who do you - who have you seen as your contemporaries?
JM: Didn't have any. I mean Leonard and Bob were the only
- peer group you mean? I didn't really have a peer group. Maybe in the beginning,
you know, when I was first starting out everything sounds good to you when
you're young and all your friends, oh, geez, we're all making songs. But it
was much more competitive I felt than it needed to be. You know, there was a
lot of short-sheeting and breaking your guitar, especially for a girl. I'm too
good for a girl, right? So there's a lot of resentment for that, you know, and
a lot of things -
JG: You play too well?
JM: Yeah. I'm too good on pinball, makes guys mad. In
pool I can sandbag but - (laughs) you know, just to make the evening pleasant
but pinball, you've got to keep the ball in the air, it's hard to sandbag, you
know, without throwing it. Pool, you can play a different - yeah, yeah, those
things for a woman - and they're all kind of Zen. I mean they're just eye on
the ball. My dad was good at that, eye on the ball. He was a good -
JG: But you don't - you never - I mean so Leonard and Dylan
are peer group -
JM: Were writers.
JG: -- but you don't consider -
JM: Not peer group. Not musically.
JG: Not musical contemporaries?
JG: There's no one?
JM: Duke. The people that I look up to, Stravinsky, Duke
Ellington, for daring and individuality, Debussy -
JG: But they're not even the same era as you.
JM: Well, no, there wasn't much. Marvin Gaye, towards the
end when he got daring, and really he was fighting the odds too against - you
know, they were trying to hold him back cuz he was moving away from the hit
department into the art department.
JG: Let me ask you a bit about the Joni Mitchell image that
is projected onto you.
JM: Which one?
JG: Well, I guess there's a couple -
JM: A couple?
JG: First of all, you've always had a distaste for being
referred to as a "confessional" songwriter, right?
JM: Yeah -
JG: Tell us why.
JM: That's a like a swinging light and billy clubs: "You
will confess!" You know? It's like what did I confess to, I'm selfish? Mine is
the most selfish generation, you know, in history, right? What is so confessional,
I'm sad? Oh, geez, you know, have you never been sad? You know, there's no - I
mean I guess my biggest secret was that I was an unwed mother, but when that
came out, my God, there were so many of us over time. Even from my mother's
generation women came forward that got caught out, you know. And it was kind
of liberating when my daughter and I were reunited. It was a good-news story
for many people, you know, that I wasn't run out of town on the rails or
something for being a bad girl.
JG: So back to - so if songwriting isn't confessional then
it's storytelling, and you are the actress or the director?
JM: I'm all of those things, many-hatted Joan, you know?
Like I'm the playwright like Tennessee Williams, right? Then I have to perform
the text, which takes sense memory like a Method actor, right? And sometimes
I'm critical, "Ooo, why'd I read that line like that? It's too this or too
that." I'm critical of my performance as a purveyor of words. Why did - now I
would read that word (sound) "bon," you know, like to get more - I put the
emphasis on the wrong "syl-LA-ble" or whatever. You know, why didn't I catch that
because I'm my own producer. So I'm using my own judgment when the performance
is right, and a lot of them hold up over time. You know? And some of them,
that was the pinnacle of where I - I grew after that.
JG: But if you're Method acting -
JM: Well, all singers are. All singers are.
JG: So you're saying that if someone writes a song, if
Adele writes a song and she's singing it and it's about a break-up she's had,
JM: Of course! She's not breaking up at that moment, you
know, it may be her own experience.
JG: She's reliving the emotions.
JM: She's reliving it, that's Method acting, you know?
JG: But when you say an actress and director, then it suggests
that it's something ersatz. It's not you then. It's a role you're playing.
JM: No, no, no. Method acting is being you. You know,
it's drawing on all your sense memory and everything. It's very real. But of
course it's art. And art is short for artificial so the art of art is to be as
real as you can within this artificial situation. That's what it's all about.
Right? That's what art is. You can make it like Van Gogh's paintings, you
know, are exaggerated to make the emotional experience of these landscapes realer
for the deadened. You know. It's not really that blue, the sky and the stars
aren't really that big. So you're not seeing them so he's going to blow them
up. So in a way it's a lie to get you to see the truth.
JG: Is it ever just entirely fiction? Not - I mean in your
writing? Or is it always Method acting? You know, Kate Bush says 'I don't write
about myself at all, I write about' -
JM: Well, "I am Lakota," for instance. I'm not Lakota. But
it's written with a lot of empathy. And I sing it with enough authenticity
that the Lakota Sioux had me march as a dignitary with their chiefs and their
medicine men. Men, all men. The women were kind of upset about it, a white
woman marching, a blonde yet, you know, Custer was a blonde, all their enemies
were blondes. You know, so with enough authenticity for - to be invited to
march with them as an equal and a dignitary. So - but there were people within
the reservations that we marched with that looked at me with suspicion as an
outsider. No matter how authentic, I am not Lakota. But I was able to state
their case as articulately -
JG: It always comes from inside you.
JM: Right. So it's real. But it's art.
JG: But it's not confessional? I'm getting the lexicon
together here. I'm making sure.
JM: Well, "confession" in this culture, is usually, it's
either in church and it's a sin or it's being whipped out of you in the police
station. You know, I just find - or, you know, it's the confessions of the
first person to write in first person in any language I believe was St.
Augustine, who wrote volumes of "I" to his god, right? That was the first
person to write that personally I think in literature anywhere. You know, and
it was called "The Confessions of St. Augustine." So that comes in.
But they lump me in with Plath and Sexton who frankly, to me
Plath is morbid and Sexton is a liar. She's not really telling the truth most
of the time, she lied to her psychiatrist. You know, I don't like being on
that list with those women. You know, I don't think they're as honest as I
JG: Let me ask you about something else you get lumped in
with. There continues to be the pervading image of Joni Mitchell, the winsome
blonde with the guitar, the hippie folk goddess. How do you feel about that?
JG: Your sometime alter ego.
JM: "Hippie folk goddess." Well, we need goddesses but I
don't want to be one. You know, "hippie," the only hippie thing that I really
- you know, I liked the fashion show and I liked the Rainbow Coalition. You
know, but most of the hippie values were silly to me. Free love? Come on, it's
a ruse for guys, you know? It's just - there's no such thing. If you, like I
did, I said okay, you know, look at the rep I got that was, you know, a list of
people whose path I crossed. It wasn't even - you know, in the Summer of Love
they made me into this love bandit. Right? You know. In the Summer of Love.
So much for free love. Nobody knows more than me what a ruse that was. So,
you know, that was a thing for guys, it was a ruse for guys coming out of
Prohibition, you know, the - it was hard to get laid before that, right?
So, "hippie goddess," again, if you elevate me you're not
going to meet yourself in my songs, you know - well, maybe you can do - I don't
know. I don't think so.
JG: You basically don't like being pigeon-holed, Joni
JM: Exactly. No, right, I'm fluid. Yeah. Everything I am
I'm not, kind of.
JM: And that's the way it is with all people if they really
JG: And you've referenced a few times in this interview
talking about how the interviews that you've done, things have been
misunderstood, things have been taken that you've said and changed. I mean do
you feel generally misunderstood? Do you feel like a -
JM: I don't go around feeling misunderstood. What I am -
JG: Do you feel like others misunderstand?
JM: Oh, constantly. But I don't go around feeling
JG: What does that mean you don't "go around feeling
JM: Well, I don't hold onto it. Like I go out, I'm
misunderstood, I see a butterfly, I go for a swim, I go out, I'm misunderstood,
you know (laughs), I take a drive in my car, you know, somebody comes over, I'm
misunderstood. But I don't, you know -
JG: You've learned to shake it off.
JM: Well, I usually - like we've been working to try and
get - you know, like I'm trying to get clear - you know, like Wayne Shorter.
People say, "Oh, nobody can understand what Wayne's saying." And then his wife
and people say, "You can understand what Wayne's saying." And I said I think
so. But he'll do to me what I do. He'll say something and I'll paraphrase,
and he'll go "No." Because in my paraphrasing I have misdirected the target
ever so slightly. I almost get what he's saying but not quite.
JG: I love that we've been doing that here. I mean if the
theme is you're constantly misunderstood -
JG: -- what is the greatest misconception about Joni
JM: Okay, I'll give you an example - the greatest
misconception. Oh, there's so many. If I told you - if I made a list of the
things I've been likened to and gave it to you and you didn't know who it was
about, you know, 'you're just like The Singing Nun,' 'you're just like Marilyn
Monroe,' 'you're just like Mick Jagger,' 'Joni, you're like Mick Jagger,
Richard Nixon and Gomer Pyle rolled into one.' 'You look like Greta Garbo,'
'you look like an embryo,' 'you look like' -- (laughs) you know? If you saw -
JG: An embryo?
JM: Well, you know, if I went into this long description.
'You look like a puppet,' 'You look like a ...' of all these things, both yin and
yang and male and female, and the list is ... and okay, these things, this person
was described this way, who is this person? You'd never know! You know? I mean
whatever it is that's triggering the "like," you know, "you're just like..." is
in the individual's head, you know, whatever it is that they're seeing. And
Warren Beatty said, "Fame is a misunderstanding - a series of misunderstandings
surrounding a name." I don't know whether that was his thought or he's quoting
somebody on that but it's - it stands as the -
JG: I'd run with the Garbo. "Yes, I'm just like Greta
JM: (Laughs.) I met the guy that hollered out, I put it on
a record, "Joni, you're just like Richard Nixon, Gomer Pyle and Mick Jagger rolled
into one." Years later I met him at Studio 54 and he came up and he said, "I'm
the guy that said that." I said, "I've always wanted to ask you: Are you just
like Mick Jagger, Gomer Pyle and Richard Nixon rolled into one?" He said, "Yes."
I said, "I thought so."
Because people tend to project their trip onto you,
especially if they don't have self-knowledge, and most of them don't. You
really, so to be famous, you really have to know who you are because you're
getting this barrage of mislabeling and stuff coming at you.
JG: Let me ask you about your relationship to some of your
songs, especially the big songs that people think of back to the '70s and the
'80s and Joni Mitchell in the late '60s for that matter.
When I interviewed Leonard Cohen a couple of years ago, we
talked about how he's almost grown into his songs. That the songs that he
wrote when he was 30 years old are more appropriate for him now than when he
actually wrote them. It's quite remarkable. In your case it almost feels like
the inverse. You said, "I feel miscast now in my early songs" --
JM: Well, not "Both Sides, Now." "Both Sides, Now" I grew
JG: Well, you re-did "Both Sides, Now."
JG: And was that why?
JM: Well, it's not a good ingénue role. I saw Mabel Mercer
do it in her 70s, and I thought it was a wonderful performance. And I went
back to tell her, you know, I said, "You know, I've heard that song performed
by a lot of people - " I didn't tell her I was the author, you know? I said,
"But it takes somebody your age to pull it off," and she went, "Huh?!" And I
went, "Oh, oh. You don't even tell a 70-year-old, which I am now, that she's
old. And she was offended and I just kind of slunk out and didn't say anything
But that song, "I've looked at life from both sides, now"
you know, 21 when I wrote it, I took a lot of ridiculing for it. Dave Van Ronk
who was young but was like Burl Ives, he was an he was young but an old-seeming
guy or Gabby Hayes. He could bring - I was just miscast in it I think as a
young girl. I really like the performance I did in my 50s of it. And my young
one, eh, it's too young a girl to pull off that role.
JG: When you did it in 2000, the new version of "Both
Sides, Now," and you sang it an octave down, was that because it's more
comfortable to sing it an octave down or was that to really send the message of
the pathos or the feelings involved in that song resonated to you in a lower
JM: No, it's just that 30 years into my career, my mother
told me that she was an alto, that my grandmother was an alto, I was probably
an alto. So I've been singing pseudo soprano but this disease has eaten my
sinuses. About '75 I started saying, "Oh, it feels like I've got bubble gum in
my horn," you know, like everything ... So - and I have vocal nodes from singing
rock and roll. So you know, I used a lot of alto on my first record, and then
I used a lot of real high - from singing along with CSN, I would sing up there
with Graham in the razor throat thing in the high end.
No, I'm probably - at this point I don't have a soprano
voice at all. You know, I used to have three octaves so I didn't know what I
was, I could just sing any -- I could sing any note I could think. Now I'm
just an alto so I have no choice.
JG: Beyond "Both Sides, Now," do you still relate to those
songs? The songs we'd find on the early records?
JM: Some of them, yeah. I mean in putting together this
ballet, one concept which I abandoned was to do songs of innocence/songs of
experience kind of a Blake thing, you know, in two acts. Because it's got two
acts with the intermission. And to use a lot of the early love songs and to
use the younger dancers, you know, for that.
But I opted for a more dramatic thing, and I'm kind of
mixing styles together. But I don't go back and listen to them but the first
album is semi-classical, it's almost like Schubert, you know? It isn't folk
music; it was kind of mislabeled from the beginning. Folk singers went out and
bought it, put it on their turntable and went "What??" And the open tunings at
that time too give it - it's more like indicated classical arrangements on the
guitar. Like it's kind of classical guitar more than folk style guitar.
There's some strummy stuff, you know? And I got a little more strummy for the
next three records because I was hanging out with strummers: Neil and David
and Graham. And I got kind of caught up in that.
JG: And then you do the full band thing by Court &
Spark. And then you - and then you start to move into this amazing
transformation of genres into the jazz. And I wanted to ask you about the
Mingus record. Because - a record I'm quite fond of.
JM: Oh, thank you.
JG: But a record that you really put yourself out there on
in terms of doing what wasn't expected of you, it didn't sell as well, it got a
bit of a critical drubbing -
JM: Yeah. Except in Europe where it was more understood,
like jazz is.
JG: Tell me about the decision to not take the easy route
and make a record like "Mingus."
JM: Well, I was warned - when Charles approached me; it was
Charles's project, not mine. He was approaching me with a very different
project. He, when he found out he was going to die, he told his friend Danieli
Sanitori, "Come over, I want to talk to you about God." And Danieli was an
Italian film producer, said, "You're talking to the wrong person." But he went
out and he bought him - what's his name, the quartet, "Through the halls the
women go speaking of Michelangelo..." oh, what's that poet's name? ... anyway, he
read it and he couldn't get anything out of it.
So his wife Sue, who was kind of a literati, she had a magazine
that was somewhat literate I think in New York, paraphrased it to him, he still
didn't get it. So you know, he was trying to approach through my office, and
my office didn't want me to go towards jazz because it was less lucrative.
They were still trying to get me to write hits.
JG: "Your office" being your label?
JM: My office being my managerial company. And, you know,
they warned me, they didn't even tell me he was approaching me, you know. But
it came through the grapevine, it went from Sue to a fashion designer who was
the friend of an actor, to the actor to me that Mingus wanted to make contact
so, you know, through the grapevine.
So I made contact and he had this idea to have an Oxford
English voice reading from - oh, I almost had the name, I keep thinking E. J.
Pratt or e.e. Cummings and it's not - anyway , reading the text. And then he
said in the style of the Baptist church where you have tag team preaching, one
preacher preaching the thee/thou text, and the other one saying 'the little cat
with the bent frame,' you know, translating it into the vernacular.
So I said if you want to do that why don't you get John
Hendricks because he's the master at that, he's the great bebop lyricist.
Well, no, he wanted me and he wanted me to play acoustic guitar, so he liked my
acoustic playing. Anyway I got the book, I read it, I called him back and
said, "You know, I could paraphrase the Bible, but I can't do it with this
because frankly I don't think there's a lot of meat on it, you know, like
poetry, it's kind of diaphanous. 'They muddy their waters that they might
appear deep.' (Laughs) As Nietzsche would say.
So then he wrote six melodies and he flattered me, you know,
he called me up and he was kind of wry and he went, (in raspy voice) "I wrote
these melodies, I call them Joni I, Joni II ... " all the way up to VI. So I
thought well, you know, he's a character. I'll go out and visit him. So I
took a flight out and we kind of hit it off, and we started this project for
his album, and he put me in contact with bands, a lot of great players, Chick Corea
and Mahavishnu people and, you know, Stanley Clark, a lot of great players.
To me it was kind of like, I can't explain it, *Bradlees,
retro, and I wasn't confident in myself as a jazz singer, you know, I thought
my voice was too clear. You know, when I'd hear it back, it would seem very
fledgling, especially against these tracks. But I had my dream band in mind so
I finally, I tried all these different takes which I should put out at some
point because I think I sang better, they were steadier.
But I had a concept in mind, which was pretty risky, and the
players that I got were Wayne and Herbie and Jaco who were all very innovative
players and Peter Erskine who was a drummer I'd never worked with before. And
I ran it by them. So they did as I instructed which was an unusual approach at
that time but it would weave me in as a musician because they tended to look at
"The Chirp" they called them, you know, the girl singer is the necessary
decorative evil. They weren't considered a musician per se, and I wanted to be
woven into it like a textile.
JG: Were you disheartened by the reaction?
JM: By who?
JG: To that record. Mingus.
JM: No! Things conspired. They warned me at my management
company, "If you do this, you'll be excommunicated from the airwaves," which I
JG: The jazzers didn't think you were - thought you were a
rocker; the rockers thought you were a jazzer.
JM: The jazzers thought I was taking advantage - not the
greats. You know, it's never the greats because they're risk-takers, but the
near-greats gossip, and they're usually riddled with envy anyway. You know, so
they - there was some complaint among what I would call the less talented, you
know, that I was taking advantage of Mingus when I'm Mingus's scribe. I mean he
sent for me.
But he didn't like that band. That was Miles's band and he
was very competitive with Miles, and he didn't like electronic music. And I
thought, "Oh, here we go again. I went through this in the folk clubs." Pete
Seeger cried when Bob Dylan plugged in.
You know, all these schools have their perimeters and they
have their uniforms and they have their laws. It's like -
JG: And there you are traveling through it -
JM: Are you a Catholic or are you a Baptist or what are
you? You know, like stick to one thing. And I can't. I like a little -
JG: You're an original.
JM: I'm an original.
JG: What did you say earlier, I was cursed with the
proclivity for originality or something like that?
JM: Yeah, I'm born the day of the discoverer. I mean when
I found that out, it explained things to me why I'm kind of contemptuous - and
Mingus was too; Mingus has got a song called "If Charlie Parker were a
Gunslinger, There'd be a lot of Dead Copycats."
JG: Well, this is the thing -
JM: Mingus and I clicked.
JG: -- about the copycats. Is it realistic, Joni, for a
contemporary music artist to not be a copycat of some sort?
JM: Yes. I'm not a copycat. Who am I a copycat of? You
know, I'm pretty original. You know, and I can't -
JG: What about a new artist today? Isn't everyone -
JM: I left a lot of half-baked ideas - a lot of half-baked
ideas in my work for people to come and finish, you know?
JG: Where's the line? Where's the line between paying -
JM: I just have -- I'm not saying people have to be like
me. Please. I'm not trying to start a school. People that have tried to
start into my school I went, "Oh! Woe be to the imitators!" You're going to
pile up those many words? Paul Simon tried it and I went "Yikes!" and I stopped
doing it. I go, "Uh-oh, this should not be a school." This is just painter's
principles that I'm trying to apply. Don't take that direction, I'm not sure I
succeeded with it. It kind of sounds goofy when I hear it coming back.
JG: Where's the line between learning lessons from our
predecessors, our musical heroes, and being a copycat?
JM: Well, tradition is a copycat and most people love
tradition. I'm not saying ... like that's what sells. So please, you know.
What I need, I'm not proselytizing what I need. I need because of my birthday
to discover. Not everybody has that birthday or that need. And most people
are perfectly content. And 99.9 percent of the musicians sat in their room,
picked a hero, and emulated it and tried to cop that sound or that this or that
that. You know, that's not my approach.
I approached it like a painter with a painter's need to be
an original. And that's not a normal need in music nor am I saying be like
me. I'm not, you know? It means you end up - I'm a mutt. I belong to
nothing. There's a great liberty in that and I'm a freedom freak but there are
times when you wish - when you have no one on your side.
JG: When you talk some more about in 2010 about Dylan, Bob
Dylan, when you say, "He's not authentic at all, he's a plagiarist..."
JM: Oh, wait, wait. I didn't say that, I didn't say that
he's not authentic at all. That is not a word I use. That's -
JG: That's from the LA Times.
JM: Okay, that's journalistic bullshit. You know. He told
me, "I haven't written a song in years." I said, "Well, what are you talking
about? Who's writing them then?" He said, "The box." He just jots down. It
came down to craft. You know, inspiration doesn't stay with a lot of artists
very long. It's very brief. And then you're in the game and you've got to
keep it - sustaining it with something, right? You know? You notice it with
like one-trick wonders, you know, two good albums and they peter out. You know,
to sustain a gift for a long time is really very rare.
JG: Does that make you disappointed in him?
JM: In Dylan?
JM: No and that remark is completely out of context. The
interviewer was an asshole. So I went into that thing about the actor, the
thing that we've been through here, and he accused me of being unauthentic.
Now, that's just ignorance. So I'm talking to a guy, how do I explain to this
moron whose IQ is somewhere between his shoe size and his knees, and he's
misconstruing everything I say. I'm doing this for John Kelly, who's
impersonating me. I hate doing interviews with stupid people. This guy is a
moron, and I said to him, "And then I got philosophical." "Philosophical?" I
said, "Yes, philosophical." I said, "You do know what philosophy is, don't
you?" You know.
So everything I said he's calling into question. I can't
talk to a dolt like that without getting aggravated. They call us 'exploding Morgies.'
Our nerves are all wrapped around by fibrous things and everything, you know, our
nerves are worn thin. We do not want to talk to stupid people, you know,
anyone with this disease.
JG: How am I doing?
JM: We're doing fine. But I do get intense sometimes but
that's the problem - get off the Bob Dylan is a plagiarist.
JG: I will ask he is of your generation, like there's a
generation there. You talked a lot of Leonard, about Bob -
JM: I like a lot of Bob's songs. Musically he's not very
gifted, he's borrowed his voice from old hillbillies, he's got a lot of
borrowed things, he's not a great guitar player. You know, he's invented a
character to deliver his songs - (in Bob Dylan voice) sometimes I wish that I
could have that character - you know, because you can do things with that
character, it's a mask of sorts.
JG: Let me ask you about the common generation because you
wrote "Woodstock" in '69 -
JG: -- a song that defined a generation -
JM: So they say.
JG: Yes, they do say that. A lot of people assumed you
were there. And you weren't. And how did you, in David Crosby's words,
capture that moment better than anybody who was actually there?
JM: Because I was one of the many that were thwarted. You
know, that was the place every kid wanted to be. And I got to the airport with
CSN and our agent, David Geffen, and our manager Elliot, on a Sunday night when
I was supposed to play and it was a catastrophe. I had to do the Dick Cavett
Show the following day, you know, and it was Geffen that decided, oh, we can't
get Joni in and we can't get her out in time. So he took me back to The Pierre
where he had a suite, you know, where he lived, and we watched it on TV. And I
was the deprived kid that couldn't go. So I wrote it from the point of view of
a kid going there. If I'd been there in the back room with all the cutthroat
egomaniacal crap that goes on backstage, I would not have had that perspective.
It's a good thing I didn't go, because I wouldn't have been able to write it
from the point of view of a person in attendance.
JG: And if that song -
JM: I wrote it for a person in attendance and why they
wanted to go because I wasn't allowed by circumstance to attend.
JG: That song ...
JM: So it was written with empathy.
JG: ... the spirit -- and beautifully explained. If that did
capture the spirit of the generation, you've also been outspoken, you've been a
critic of that generation -
JG: Tell me about the - your views of the failure of the
JM: Okay. We were raised on Disney, 'some day my prince
will come,' a lot of fairy - we came up in affluence, unprecedented, not that
we were greatly wealthy but we all had houses even though they were mortgaged.
Our parents - our mothers had bought into the white picket fence, you know,
like cottage. Little modest houses, not like big "McMansions" that they have
now, big Yuppie appetites now but just some nice houses with a nice garden and
'baby makes three' or whatever.
And they got caught up in competitive, keeping up with the
Jones's, the cars took the husbands away, they had a life separate from the
housekeeper. When they came home, they were tired, they didn't want to hear
about the housekeeper's problems so the housewife was always shown smiling and
holding up a detergent. It was all about keeping a clean house, and my sheets
are cleaner than yours, and my husband's got a newer car than yours therefore
I'm the most important person on the block. All that pettiness and it trickled
down into the play of the children, you know, it was culturally Rebel Without -
and out of it came the first seeds, "Rebel Without a Cause," and Marlon Brando,
you know, what are you rebelling against? What have you got? The sickness of
the collapse of that dream was vague. But the wives were unhappy. The home
contained these, for the most part, these unhappy women.
JG: And it's led to an unhealthy world.
JM: Yeah, so when the women are not singing in the kitchen,
you've got a sick nation. So whatever it was, the breakdown of that dream,
then out of it came this liberated, spoilt, selfish generation into the costume
ball of it: free love, free sex, free music, free, free, free, free, we're so
And, you know, Woodstock was the culmination of it. At that
point our numbers were big enough to constitute a voting block. So suddenly
instead of being a minority, we were a political - a viable political
community, you know? And then the straights began to grow their hair long and
wear the love beads, and I'm going to get a Nehru suit for my husband, Martha.
And my generation for most of the '70s fell into an apathy,
sucked their thumb, heavy drugs followed light drugs, you know, the thing got
darker and darker and they didn't know where to take it. And when the '80s
came along and the Reagans got into power, it went hippie, yippie, yuppy, and
there was all of the shootings and the beatings and the Democratic convention
with hippies coming this way and cops coming the other and their heads getting
bashed in. You know, seeing that America was an ugly and violent place at the
governmental and the social structure of it. You know, "the pigs" and all of
that stuff, the violence against this subculture, which was really -
JG: All right, I've got it.
JM: So they just didn't have another plan so then they
moved into - they were converted into consumers. Portfolio, play the Wall
Street thing, consume, consume, they went right into the thing that their
parents had on a bigger scale, on a greedier scale, make more money, make more
money. "Dallas," like, you know, crooked rich people are good. You know, the
Reagans are good, Madonna "I'm a Material Girl," you know, is good. All of the
role models were to the shallow and the acquisitive. And we were converted
from some kind of naïve idealist - I was not a part of that. I was not a part
of the anti-war movement either. I played in Fort Bragg, I played - I went the
Bob Hope route, you know, because I had uncles that died in the war, and I
thought it was a shame to blame the boys that were drafted -
JG: You were part of the -
JM: I played in Fort Bragg -
JG: A very long time before others, you wrote, you were
aware of environmental destruction. You write "Big Yellow Taxi" before -
JM: That was my issue. Nobody was interested in it. They
were all hung up on the war and blaming the soldiers. It was dumb. Even
Dylan's writing was dumb: "I just want you to know I'll spin on your grave..."
But all the people, Yeah!, they rally around these things which, in terms of
revolution, just make the people in power snicker.
JG: "Turbulent Indigo" is not about - the songs on that
record run the gamut from "Sex Kills" to - there's environmentalism, there is a
look at the war. So you then become - you're seeing the world in a more
political way than you used -
JM: I'm politically awakened by the personal - I beat City
Hall, by the way, in two courts. I had a corrupt lawyer; they're all corrupt.
They're just fleecing the insurance company. But I lost in the first court,
went to the second and won, and my own lawyer said, "The judge was stupid." I
said, "What do you mean he was stupid?" "He was a Latino and he looked at it
and he said, 'I don't see a case here.'" I said, "You call that stupid? That's
common sense. It's very rare. It's like Alice and the Red Queen, that's an
intelligent man. You, on the other hand, are not an intelligent lawyer. Thank
God we won. We had a good judge, you know?"
JG: Joni, when you were talking about - Joni, when you were
talking about the way you created the conditions where you could call the shots
to a certain extent around your own creativity - not just to a certain extent,
to a large extent, you were producing your own records -
JM: There was no producer. Let me get this clear. What I
realized, David Crosby, quote/unquote, produced my first record. Well, how you
could screw up a voice and guitar like that, and all he did was hold court.
It's just awful that record, sonically. It's a shame. It needs to be redone.
But of course there's no money for it. But the point is, after that (in nasal
voice) "Shouldn't we get a real piano player, man?" Well, wait! I haven't
played the piano since I was 8 but I got this idea (sings some notes) so let me
get it up to speed. So by the time you explained what you want - anyway after that
I went into the second album. They sent in a hotshot producer Rothchild that
was doing The Doors, what he put me through on that one, which is the old
producer thing, constant coitus interruptus. I'm singing with my eyes closed,
and he bursts in like God and he goes, "No!" So you're being hammered with
negativity, you know, you've swayed off your my acre, you've done this or the
other. And when he was finished he looked at his watch and said, "Well, I have
to go do The Doors. I'll be back in two weeks." He left. I said to the
engineer, "Henry," was my first encounter, "do you think we could get this
record finished in two weeks before he gets back because if this - he'll make
me hate music. After this one day, I hate music. He's making me hate music."
My love of it was killed at 8 by a woman that hit me with a
ruler for composing, you know. And it went underground for 10 years; it's a
delicate thing. So we had the record done. It wasn't that good, you know.
But we did 13 records together, Henry and I, with no producer.
JG: Okay, so I guess my question is - in terms of really
maintaining a sense of your creativity, you did the artwork. You know, you're
very powerfully determining what the music is going to be on the records.
There's no - nobody's parachuted in to write the stuff for you -
JM: You're painting it on. Nobody stands over you when
you're painting, tells you where to put your brush.
JG: Well, do you feel like - do you feel then, and
especially doing this all as a woman too and what you just talked about in
terms of the terms of your contract that Neil and others were followed in your
footsteps, do you accept that you were a pioneer?
JM: Oh, yeah. Sure. I blazed a lot of trails. Mm-hmm.
Self-publishing. A lot.
JG: And a lot of that as a woman but you don't like to be
called a feminist, correct?
JM: I'm not a feminist.
JG: Where's that line for you?
JM: I don't want to get a posse against men. I'd rather go
toe to toe myself. Work it out.
JG: Before I let you go and finally be rid of me, let me
ask you a bit about where you are now, where you're at now. You have a
milestone birthday this year. Turning 70.
JG: How do you feel about aging?
JM: Oh, I'm fine with it as long as I can be healthy. I
don't mind the aging. It's hard to tell at this age what is age decline and
what is the disease. You know, I'm always asking my doctor, "Do old people do
this? Is that the disease?" In other words, can I fight it or do I have to
accept it. What can I fight and what can I accept? So that's my battle at
this time is just trying to enter into old age which is a decline of certain
things but also there's a liberty to it which I feel kind of like it's like
second childhood only not that you're childish necessarily - it's just that -- I
saw a Monarch butterfly go by the other day. Well, I'm always kind of thrilled
by little things like that anyway. I've never lost that wonder and delight at
things like that.
JG: Are you someone who's preoccupied by mortality?
JM: By immortality?
JM: Oh, God, no. I've faced death so many times, no.
Salvador Dali was. That's why he was doing all that commercial stuff. To be
hibernated, no. No, I'm very good with death. All my animals have died, some
of them in my arms. Birds have died in my - started with birds. I was
introduced to death, a bird came to me, died, it was mauled by a cat, and then
another bird that hit the spray came to me who died.
JG: What about your own mortality when you say you've faced
JM: I don't want to die yet!
JG: Are you freaked out by it?
JM: No! I just don't - I want more time. It's as simple
as that. So I'm trying to -- I don't want to go yet. I've got a lot of things
still that I want to accomplish and savor. You know. No, not at all.
JG: Well, there's a lot of things that we want you to
accomplish because I know you've got - and you've got lots of time to do it - I
know you've got -- you're working on a memoir. You're working on a book of
JG: There isn't a book of poetry?
JM: There's a book that came out of my songs that just came
out called "Gathered Light," where, you know, again, I've been kicked out of
every school of music that there is, and also I've been kind of withheld as a
poet because I sang it. Right? So - whereas Leonard is considered a poet and
Dylan is considered - and even Jim Morrison, God knows why, is considered a
JG: Because he called himself a poet.
JM: Maybe but they go, "Oh, she thinks she's a poet" or
"She was the most poetic among them." So there's always this perverse
withholding of this thing. So a book came out that promised to - full of poets
- promised inclusion. Some of them are nice but for the most part I realized I
never liked poetry so whatever it is that I do - to me, poetry - Nietzsche on
the poets was very accurate, you know. Did you ever read "Thus Spake Zarathustra"?
In a nutshell, the poet is the vainest of the vain. 'Even before the ugliest
of water buffalo doth he fan his tail. I've looked among them for an honest
man and all I've dredged up are old gods' heads.' Here's a good one: 'He
muddies his waters that he might appear deep.'
Well, so, the academic poets in this book, they're digging
under my lines like looking for hidden meaning and slapping themselves on the
back going, 'I think I'm onto something here!' So poetry is obviously mis-taught
at the level of higher education. It was mis-taught in the school system and,
you know, I don't - to me it was like eating sunflower seeds with your
fingertips, you know, for all that effort to crack this thing, you get this
piddly little nugget, you know? Like, you know?
And Nietzsche felt like that about it. And even Shakespeare
who I love like soliloquies and stuff, they're rich, you know? Regardless of
whether he stole it or he collected it, he rounded up great thought, and did it
in a very artful way. But his sonnets, I can smell the money in them, like
he's got I don't know how many sonnets about 'you're so beautiful that you
should reproduce yourself and I'm the guy to do it!' You know, and I think,
okay, he wrote one, some guy said, 'I'm hustling this girl, would you write me
one like you wrote for John?'
JG: Even Shakespeare's a copycat.
JM: Yeah, I mean, "You did that for money, Willy. And you
did that for money," you know?
JG: What about performance. Let's come full circle to
where we started with this interview.
JG: This Luminato Festival, are you going to get on stage?
JM: I guess. I'm going to do something kind of -- I can't
sing. There's no point. My singing is probably permanently gone.
JM: Well, you know, it would just - yeah, you have to know
when to quit. I mean I had an instrument that I could control, and I don't
have an instrument that I can control now because of - basically because of the
illness. And even though I'm getting better and it's getting a little better,
it's still very impaired in the planes, in the sinuses. Like, you have all
these planes that you bounce notes off. Well, if I bounce - it could
ricochet. I can't control it like I used to, and I used to have very good intonation.
So, you know...
JG: So you're going to do a poem?
JM: So I can still talk. So I have a poem which I haven't
been able to set to music because I can't sing so I'm going to try talking it
down, doing something. But I'm going to do it with Brian, I'm going to try it
with Brian and this trumpet player that I like. So I don't know what it's
going to evolve into. Maybe I'll sing a couple of notes. Because it's
frustrating, with the singing I could put the correct emphasis on certain words
by hitting the notes, I could put emphasis that I can't with speaking it. It's
lacking, to me, something just to speak it that I miss. But, you know, Jorn seemed
to think, and Rufus that it communicated so they've encouraged me to do this
JM: I think that will be really exciting for a lot of
people. This has been such a pleasure. Before we end this I have to ask you.
We've talked so much about all of what you've done throughout your career or a
lot of what you've done throughout your career, your tremendous creativity, the
tremendous success you've had as defined by yourself and as defined by others,
your fans, critics, etc.
What are you most proud of, Joni? What do you look back and
go, "That is what I'm really proud of"?
JM: Well, there isn't anything singular, you know. There's
healthy pride and unhealthy pride. I try not to indulge too much in pride, but
you know, there are cases with man in the street where people come up that it's
really meant a lot to them. Like, for instance, what first comes to mind here
is two young girls who lost their mother in their early teens who holed up in
their bedroom with this music and it was cathartic - and I kind of surrogate
mothered them, you know? And there are people like where did I read the woman
that plays in The Sopranos -
JG: Edie Falco.
JM: The boss's - she said -
JG: She loves you.
JM: -- that I raised her. So there are these strange
things out there. There is experiential exchange in the work, you know, that
to a young person I think is valuable. There's one thing that I've been trying
to bring across to people, I think, is you're on your own. Let's face it.
(Laughs). You know, like, you - and that's okay. And that's what Nietzsche's
uberman was all about, it's kind of a different approach to a similar idea.
You know, to remove the crutches.
JG: That's a little scary.
JM: It is. It is for most people. You know, for me it
just kind of happened. I didn't have anybody guiding me. They just removed
themselves because I've had a very interesting and a very challenging life, you
know? Like I say, like, a lot of battles, just disease after disease after
disease. I mean I shouldn't be here, you know? But I have a tremendous will to
live and a tremendous joie de vivre alternating, you know, with irritability
JG: Joni Mitchell, thank you for inviting us into your
home. Thank you for taking the time. It's been an absolute joy.
JM: Thank you.
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