Peter Gzowski and Joni Mitchell in conversation


CBC Radio
July 11, 1983

Joni interviewed by Peter Gzowski on July 11, 1983. Broadcast on July 17, 1983 on Sunday Morning - CBC Radio Toronto, ON. Transcribed by Lindsay Moon. Listen to the audio here.

Announcer: The Sunday Morning feature interview. This week Canadian singer Joni Mitchell with Peter Gzowski close to Morningside.

Female Announcer: This summer Joni Mitchell is on tour singing a repertoire that runs from her folk hits of the '60s to her jazz tribute to Charlie Mingus to her current rock songs. She spoke with Peter Gzowski, writer, journalist, and host of Morningside in her suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.

Peter Gzowski: I remember Joni Mitchell from Yorkville, "The Village" as we used to call it, a naïve, loose, psychedelic neighborhood in Toronto of the '60s. Joni Mitchell sang in a number of clubs there: The Half Beat, the Purple Onion, The Riverboat. Before that she sang in the Louis Riel in Saskatoon and The Depression in Calgary.

Ten years after that she was one of the biggest stars in the world of pop music, with her songs recorded by Sergio Mendez, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and all the people she became identified with, her friends, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan.

In 1979 she set lyrics to the melodies of Charlie Mingus, and that record was an artistic triumph but in the radio stations where she'd once been a staple, it was left in obscurity.

Now, she's on the road again, nearing 40, married, after a history of stormy relationships, and with a new, more accessible album on the stands. You're smiling when I -

Joni Mitchell: (Laughs) Thunder and lightning flashing! "Stormy relationships."

PG: Well, maybe not stormy but public, publicized relationships. Let's table the relationships for a moment. I can't help thinking that when I talk about Yorkville in the '60s, are you conscious of where we are at this very moment? Twenty-eight floors above that very scene?

JM: Oh, yeah! I was picking out The Riverboat by the length and the shape of it -

PG: What is it now, The Riverboat?

JM: It's a brass bed store.

PG: Of course.

JM: You have to remember just the shapes and how the stairs went down into buildings to recognize what they were, you know, because they were all old Victorian claptrap, painted bright colors. Now they have this sophisticated brick façade and it's a different clientele. You know, it's more uptown than it was, you know?

PG: I'm just thinking, so are you. You're more uptown than you were and you're more sophisticated. And your music is - has traveled down some interesting roads. Can you chart the progress of your music easily from that time to this time?

JM: Yeah. I, um - the time that we began was a rather romantic time. We were all very young. The style of writing in the - in those days made references to fairy tale like places. My - you know, there were a lot of references to lords and ladies and princess this, and it was almost like decadent poetry without the decadence. You know, it was full of opulence and rich imagery. And my drawings at that time were the same, and most young art students were drawing in the styles of Aubrey Beardsley, and it was almost a nostalgic period, the '60s, you know, what it borrowed from. My poetry then had a lot of adjectives; my music had a lot of grace notes.

(Excerpt from "Ladies of the Canyon")

Anyway one day - I remember where it was, it was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and I had a sensation, and I said to Joel Bernstein, who I've known for years now, you know, "I have a feeling like I'm plummeting to earth" like this is childhood's end, suddenly this style just seemed to want to come to an end. I couldn't - it didn't sit right with me any longer.

Shortly afterwards I ran into an artist from Montreal, and I told him I wasn't - I said, "Look at my drawing, it's too many curlicues in it, it's like embroidery. I'm tired of doing this."

And he said to me, "Draw me and don't look at the paper." So the first drawing that came of that was very uncertain but interesting. The eye was on top of the nose and, you know, and there was - what you would do was you'd look at the person and you'd follow the line of most interest. Maybe I would start, like, with the line of your glasses and come down over your fingers and the inside of your arm, then down the inside of your knee and your foot, maybe put in the circle of your watch and that would be it. And somehow or other, with everything else eliminated, you'd recognize the person.

So the work became more minimal; the music simultaneously became more rhythmic, adjectives fell away from the poetry. And this period went on for a while, and then gradually the painting became more abstract, the music - I decided I wanted to make a kind of music like Jackson Pollock, like if it could be done graphically, why couldn't it be done in the audio arts? Why couldn't music be like that? In other words, why were we so attached to the backbeat, 'you can't lose it.'? Why not lose it? Why not have the drums coloring and floating up in the air like everything else? And the Mingus project was a pretty good example of that taken to its extreme.

(Excerpt from "I's a Muggin'" and "Sweet Sucker Dance")

The way I hear rhythm and the way I hear chords is unorthodox. The chords are unorthodox because of the open tunings and I guess because of my ear. But a lot of those chords, they're not coming from a background in jazz, they're actually coming out of Stravinsky maybe or, I don't know, things I've heard on the radio, maybe even '40s pop music. You know, I don't know where they come from, what makes me like a chord that's voiced that particular way, why that thrills my soul, but ...

PG: Are you coming back at all to more accessibility? "Wild Things Run Fast," your new album, has got some really clean, simple rock and roll on it, it's got some direct -

JM: A lot of things are very simple.

PG: Yeah.

JM: "He came, she smiled," you know, you can't -

PG: Are you trying to come back to reach more people? Do you think you've been down an avenue that you shouldn't have gone down that far?

JM: Well, I don't regret anything. I should have gone every place that I did.

PG: But are you coming back to reach a bigger audience?

JM: My interests, the things that I have liked in the last couple years are things that happen to reach a larger audience. The things that I liked before that were more obscure. You know, reaching out of myself to what I like externally. So the fact that I like things that a lot of people like now probably will make my work more accessible.

(Excerpt from "Be Cool.")

PG: Your mother still keeps your room in Saskatoon the way it was when you were a girl.

JM: No, she changes it, you know, the curtains change from time to time when I go up there. And she keeps a guest room. And I get up there once a year, sometimes twice a year but it's different than when I occupied it.

PG: Describe the girl who occupied it, the 16-year-old teenager, just learning the ukulele, more interested in drawing than in the piano. You used to dance a lot, I think?

JM: I loved - I lived for rock and roll dances. I - myself and another couple of dance fanatics, we were responsible for instigating a Wednesday night dance because we could hardly make it to the weekends (laughs). And that was good training for me because I have - for a folk musician, quote/unquote, I have pretty good time. And I think that all of that expressing time, like all through your body dancing as a kid, you know, gave me - I can keep a pretty solid groove by myself, you know?

PG: Who is Mr. - I'm going to get this name wrong: "Kantzman," "Katz-" -

JM: Kratzmann.

PG: Kratzmann.

JM: Kratzmann was a great teacher. You know, I don't know how many great teachers you had in the school system -

PG: One. I had one. English teacher.

JM: Well, he was a 7th grade teacher, and he was an Australian, and he was a renegade, and he was one of the few teachers that I met that really understood spirit. And this was a time of "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Blackboard Jungle" and the era of the deadly teenager. You know, there was - we were beginning to break against old ideas, and being the first teenager on my block pioneering that thing, being a teenager was like being a punk. And he was the perfect teacher for a class with that feeling rising in them.

At the beginning of the year, he pulled down the blinds in the classroom, he pushed all the desks out of the lines, he broke down the lines, and he said, "This year's course," he said, "I can cram you in two weeks at the end of the year," he said. "And you'll all pass with flying colors. Most of it isn't going to be any use to you," you know, "in your adult life - "

PG: Your teacher said that?

JM: Yeah!

PG: What a great teacher!

JM: He was a great teacher.

PG: How much of that controlled rebellion has been at the essence of everything you've done since, a rebel under control, if you've in a sense wanted to challenge your public?

JM: It was never my intention to leave my audience behind. I thought that I was a vehicle in a way for bringing people along. I always thought they'd hang in there with me because I didn't think I was that unique - you know, I thought that I was pretty much abreast of my times. Now, I never thought I was that much ahead of it, you know. There were things that I did that were - that horrified people and shocked people, and five years later similar experiments were done and they were embraced, you know.

So maybe in some projects or some ideas, I was a little premature. You know, like I was the wedge.

PG: We never got to the stormy relationships.

JM: (Laughs) Oh, thank heaven.

PG: Good luck!


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