Transcribed by Lindsay Moon
Amanda Ghost: Hello. My name's Amanda Ghost. I'm a singer-songwriter, and I recently had the chance to visit Joni Mitchell at her home in Los Angeles. I first met Joni when we shared the same record company a few years ago, and I'm proud to call her a friend. She is the consummate artist. Very few people have had more influence on modern popular music than this woman. And the good news is that after announcing her retirement some years ago, she's proved herself wrong.
At the age of 63, she's back in a really creative mood, exhibiting her art, working on a ballet, and releasing her first album of new songs in nearly ten years. Tonight, you can hear our conversation and exclusive previews of tracks from Joni's new album for the first time on the radio anywhere in the world.
So welcome to "Come in From the Cold: The Return of Joni Mitchell."
(Excerpt: "Come in From the Cold")
Joni Mitchell: Hi, I'm Joni Mitchell.
Amanda Ghost: Hello.
JM: We know each other.
AG: We do. We've known each other for a long time. We have a bizarre connection as artists, I think, and somewhat in the sense that I was signed by an A&R man called Andrew Wickham at Warner Brothers, and you were signed by him too.
AG: I think, in fact, you were his first-ever signing at Warner Brothers.
JM: Well, I wasn't aware of that but apparently as the story goes, I'm his first signing and she's his last so what happened in the middle, is what I want to know (laughs). We're the bookends of Wickham's collection.
AG: Exactly. I mean he says that he'd been in a house in Laurel Canyon, he'd been in Los Angeles for a week, he'd had his job at Warner Brothers for one week, and he'd heard a song by Tom Rush called "The Circle Game" which he was absolutely blown away by, and he wasn't aware that Tom Rush hadn't written that song. And he researched it and went to see who wrote it and the credit was Joni Mitchell.
(Excerpt: Tom Rush singing "The Circle Game")
And he told me that he then called Tom Rush personally and said, "Who is this Joni Mitchell? This song's absolutely incredible."
And he said, "Oh, she's this young singer that lives in Canada" - was that correct? Were you living in Canada at the time?
AG: Detroit. Okay, I got that wrong. Well, he was very, very anxious to make contact with you. So he told me that he wrote you a letter saying, "Hello, my name is Andrew Wickham, I live in California. It's very hip here" -
AG: "People are surfing, the music's great, you should think about coming out here." And apparently you wrote back this incredible letter. I think he said it was lavender notepaper, it was maybe perfumed -
JM: I answered everything at that time. And it's unbelievable. I answered every letter that I got. Now look at my kitchen table. It's drowning in mail from a year ago.
AG: Well, he said you responded, and I think you had a few exchanges by letters, which probably seems completely alien to the people today in this email world. But anyway you took the time to respond to him. And then he said you sent him some music, I think you said you'd done some recordings, I think it was maybe of something you'd done live, and he said he received these recordings when he was at Warner Brothers, you sent him this massive reel of tape.
JM: Well, that's all there was --
JM: -- at that time, yeah, reel to reel.
AG: What year was this? Do you remember?
JM: Maybe '66 or - '7?
AG: Okay, right. And I remember saying to him, "So what did you think? What did you think? Did it just blow you away? Was it just absolutely amazing?"
And he said, "Well, I thought it was right."
(Live version of "Chelsea Morning")
And he said, "You know, what I loved about what I heard is that it wasn't political and at the time - "
JM: It was love songs. I do remember that much, that there was, yeah, it was kind of the vogue to be - but the politics were silly of my generation at that time, and the protest songs blamed the soldier. They were impotent, you know, they weren't effective - they were adolescent. You know, Woody Guthrie was effective. He had a way of doing it, you know, that was touching and therefore useful. But the artists of my generation were writing articulate songs but that were ineffective. They were insulting to the soldiers, who were drafted after all into that war. You know, some of them were gung ho but even the gung ho ones came back disillusioned so while my generation and yes, in the folk movement at that time, which I was just passing through because to me that was beginner music.
You know, it wasn't that I loved folk music so much - it sounded kind of fresh after rock and roll 'cause rock and roll was great when it started and then it got kind of watered down in the second generation, and folk music rose up at that time on the college campuses, and it was participatory so it was fun so I picked up the guitar to play basically to accompany bawdy drinking songs at wiener roasts. That was the most of my ambition. And I discovered that I had a fairly decent voice, and I learned it very quickly, and so I appeared on the scene. I looked like a folk singer, and I started singing folk songs because they were easy.
(Excerpt of live version of "Cactus Tree")
You know, my heroes, of course, were Billie Holiday. You know, I hadn't lived enough life - you know, I'm a good mimic but I wouldn't want to start off mimicking Billie Holiday, that's kind of sacred. You know, I never wanted to be a copycat. You know what I mean? So you have to wait - so I emerged on the scene as a folk singer but I dressed all wrong. I dressed all wrong for art school too. There were all these cliques and they all had their uniforms and their rules and their laws, you know, and like to belong to that club, you had to dress accordingly, you had to talk accordingly, and behave accordingly.
AG: So what happened when you came from Canada, you went to Detroit -
AG: -- and then this guy writes you letters saying, "Come to California, I love your music," and then they offered you a record contract? Is that what happened?
JM: Well, let's see. You know, in Detroit I made a bad marriage and with inside of that marriage I was in a singing duo, which was really not musically compatible. I turned it as much as possible into comedy, I played kazoo, I stuck a pillow under my dress, you know, in order to save face, I basically hammed it up on stage.
My lead sheets were done by a black jazz group there, and they began to play my music, which was very melodic, in the jazz set. So in this club we played - like, you know, the musics were apartheid back then. Rock and roll should have been dance music but suddenly you would go and sit still and look at it, and I could never understand why. Why would you sit still and look at it, it's dance music, but it went on at 7:30 and got off at 10:30. Folk music went on between 7:00 and 8:00, stayed til midnight, and then it was jazz after hours. So that was the compartmentalizing in the '60s of the musics.
So anyway we played at this little club, Chuck Mitchell and I, called The Chess Mate, and it would go jazz after hours. And as they began to put my music into the jazz set, the audience would kind of go black at the last set. And there I would come in to see this person who wrote these melodies and they were being played in the jazz set, and they'd get a girl with a kazoo (laughs) with false eyelashes, like, bouncing around on stage, just trying to make comedy out of a bad situation. And they were very tolerant of that, I must say, just seeing these big bands with white teeth out in the audience (laughs).
AG: So you were kind of this bizarre apparition to them.
JM: Yeah, I was. I wandered once accidentally in Florida, I got mad at my husband in Coral Gables and thought I'd walk home to Coconut Grove and it was a black neighborhood in between, and at 1:00 in the morning in this gold dress that I made myself and gold stockings I wandered into a black neighborhood and it was a hot night and there were a lot of people on the porches, and I heard this man say, "Just let it go by. Just let it go by." (Laughs). So, you know, in a way, I mean I didn't fit into the folk thing because I was just passing through.
AG: But these folk singers took songs that you wrote and covered them?
(Excerpt: Fairport Convention's version of "I Don't Know Where I Stand")
Just to underline the point about Joni Mitchell's songs getting covered before we really knew who she was, that's Fairport Convention's version of "I Don't Know Where I Stand" on their self-titled debut album in 1968. Joni didn't release her version until it appeared on the "Clouds" album the following year.
I'm Amanda Ghost and this is my conversation with Joni Mitchell about her life and times. As a singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell has had a huge inspiration for me. I had to ask her what were her early inspirations.
JM: When I got into this bad marriage we lived in the black neighborhood with a toddle house at the corner because it was low rent. The inner city was nearly all black.
JM: I began to write. When I began to write, my music came out kind of semi classical because what I really loved was Tchaikovsky and Chopin and Rachmaninoff. The piece of music that made me want to be a musician was "Variations on a Theme" by Paganini.
(Excerpt from Variations on a Theme by Paganini) Being a lover of nocturnes, in particular, not so much symphonies because they're all in the same key, they're predictable. The nocturnes and rhapsodies, that kind of classical music, Debussy in particular. I grew up, my mother had three records, Claire de Lune, they were all moonlit stuff, Moonlight Sonata. And my father had a little Harry James and some Leroy Anderson. He was a trumpet teacher. So I grew up loving horns, especially muted trumpets, and these melodic melodies. And that distilled the essence of my sound, I think, through all of its incarnations.
AG: Definitely. Definitely. I mean you can hear it on this record.
JM: Well, this one, it's really now because I can play the saxophones myself which is a bit embarrassing. I feel like kind of proud of myself and kind of embarrassed because of playing with Wayne Shorter for so long, who is a genius horn player so I can see in my style as a horn player now that I'm very influenced by Wayne. And Wayne is a descant singer. The thing that I love about his playing above all other horn players is the way he hovercrafts through my music, descant, like melodic 7th drops and 9th drops and 5ths and then a triad, just the way he crawls across it.
(Excerpt from "Yvette in English")
AG: But in the beginning it was just the guitar, wasn't it, with you?
JM: Well, you've got to start someplace. Guitar and the piano.
AG: So how did these people hear your songs before you got signed? I don't understand that.
JM: Well --
AG: They just came to your shows and they heard you playing and they though "I want to cover that song"? I mean how did it work? If you didn't actually write for anybody.
JM: Well, we lived in this apartment that in its heyday had been a ritzy place. It had bell holes in the floor for ringing for the servants. And we had three bedrooms but it was in a poor black neighborhood in Detroit. So Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, different musicians passing through, Patrick Sky, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, they stayed with us. You know, we billeted them because none of us made any money to speak of so you're always looking for somebody who would put you up.
So every time Tom would come - and I was just beginning to write - I would -- because I was in a bad marriage, I would go down to the toddle house at night, sit there and drink coffee and write songs. And it was a form of exorcism also and, you know, "Little Green" and so forth. I was trying to get a lot of my pain up.
AG: I wanted to ask you, when you started writing songs, did you think you had a talent? Did you think, "I'm actually quite good at this"?
JM: Well, there was always an excitement that you gave birth to it but I was married to a man who had a degree in literature who knew I'd never read anything and basically thought I was stupid. Like when I wrote "Both Sides, Now," --he liked the package, he married the package and then he thought he'd Svengali a brain into it, you know, kind of. (Laughs). So he married what he was pretty certain was a dumb blonde.
I remember when I wrote "Both Sides, Now," he kind of ridiculed me. He said, "Oh, what do you know about life? 'I've looked at life from both sides now,' you're only 21," you know. Well, I had lived quite a bit of life. I'd survived quite a few diseases and then, you know, the worst thing that could befall a woman at that time was to have a child out of wedlock, and I'd gone through that and the accompanying prejudice and terror and I'd been tortured in the hospital. By the time I was 21, I'd experienced a lot of life, a lot of joy, you know, I had terrific teenage years. Not like Janis or somebody, I didn't come to rock and roll to try and be popular. I was always -- you know, I lost my athletic ability at 9 and went from being first and second chosen for teams to being not chosen at all. So I had a social crisis in my early years but that made me have an inner life, and made an artist out of me, I guess. That's where I forged my identity. I always thought of myself as an artist.
You can ask kids all the way back to the first grade, "Joan was the artist," you know, right? So that was my saving grace that when my athletic prowess was taken away from me, which would have been -- in that community, there were no artists in that community. To be popular was to be a good athlete. That taken away probably was good in the nurturing of my gifts.
("Both Sides, Now")
AG: So when you started writing these songs and these guys, these - the boys would come along and listen to what you were doing and say, "I really love that, I want to do it," I mean is that how you - is that how it worked?
JM: Well, Tom would come and stay with us, and he was always looking for material because he didn't write his own. And I would play things that I thought he would like, and he'd say "Anything else?" And I guess I obviously - the ones that I withheld from him was not - I just didn't think they were very good. So one was "The Circle Game" and one was "Both Sides, Now" - well, "Both Sides, Now," for instance, is a big meditation on fantasy and reality, each verse, is like half of it is young thinking and then experience. It's like Blake, you know? In a sense, an experience, kind of. I didn't think it was very successful. I thought I'd just skimmed the surface of it. You know, that I hadn't really gotten down to the meat of the situation. However, you know, people have found profundity in it over the years. When they hear the stories associated with it in people's lives, one guy used it - he sat his parents down, he played it for them and then told them that he was gay. You know, be he used it as an icebreaker.
The place where I take pride in my songs is their utility. Are they good kids? Do they go out into the world and make nicey-nicey? You know, like, can they hold a job out there? You know, like can they survive? I don't want to make cast-away songs, even though we're encouraged to make throw-away songs, it's a disposable culture, I still see that the songs should endure and, you know, and some things date like "a helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof like a dragon fly on a tomb."
(Excerpt "Harry's House/Centerpiece")
In your own time you see things become historical, or the price of the admission to the tree museum in "Big Yellow Taxi," I finally just, you know, got rid of the price tag because every time I sang it I had to keep upping it, you know (laughs) so it's "They charged all the people an arm and a leg just to see it."
(Excerpt "Big Yellow Taxi")
But you see little bits of your work turning into Trosser/Chaucer.
AG: It's important - we were just talking earlier about you being viewed as a poet as opposed to being viewed as a lyricist and what the difference is. It doesn't seem to me that many people accept you as being both.
JM: Apparently I'm not a poet.
JM: And in a way that's a good thing because I don't like poetry for the most part. I'm with Nietzsche, "They muddy their waters that they might appear deep." (Laughs). You know, I don't want to play the poet, I don't want to be the poet. I find it a lot of nauseating ho-hum word play and not much meat on it. You know, I'm with Nietzsche: "I looked among them for an honest man and all I've dredged up are old gods' heads, old gods' heads."
But perversely there are a lot of people, like Dylan is considered a poet, Jim Morrison is considered - I'm not considered a poet. And basically I guess I'm a rhyming - I'm a frustrated filmmaker. My favorite compliments have come always from the black community it just seems - this girl came up to me in the green room, she was a black girl working on the makeup department when you're at the Grammys. She burst into the green room, which was really uptight. It was all the rappers on one side, it was really apartheid in there. And she came bursting through the doors and she said, "Girl! You make me see pictures in my head!" And I thought, "Okay."
AG: What a compliment.
JM: So I'm a frustrated filmmaker. So I'm making - if I can make people see pictures in their head, to me that's better than poetry. And in a song you don't have the luxury that poets have - if you put anything in there too vague, in my opinion, at least the way I write, that makes them have to slow down and think, then they'll miss the next line.
(Excerpt "Help Me")
AG: When you sit down and write a song, and I mean I know not every song is the same and not everything has the same process, but when you write a song, do you write the lyrics first, do you - does the music come to you, then the lyrics come? I mean how does it work?
JM: I seldom write the lyrics first. You know, because I find then I end up in iambic pentameter (makes rhythmic sounds). And it all goes white bread. So by creating the music first, the music then provides your rhyme scheme, and every one is different. So you end up with harder puzzles, which I like. You know, it's harder to write it, to set the words to music than it is to go the other way.
AG: I always find as well, like if you take a poem and put it to music, it won't work. It won't work the same way.
JM: Oh, yeah. It's easy that way.
AG: It's easy that way.
JM: I mean that's what Schubert said, "Oh," -- Schubert said that, "They write themselves." Because your rhyme scheme is given to you. It's easy to write the music when your rhyme scheme is given. But going the other way is harder and more challenging, and also there's another level of challenge then in the writing is to put the important thought on the apex of your music. You know, so you're working to that, okay, here, you don't have a lot of modulation so there's room, more room for descriptive passages, here, it has to be really direct communication because you're dealing with short phrases. So it's very challenging but also because it's hard, at least I have a structure to begin with to reel me in and focus me. And I like hard puzzles.
(Excerpt "Sex Kills")
AG: I know I keep going back to the beginning but it's just because I don't know much about it and I'm being, I'm probably acting quite ignorant. But I want to assume that everybody out there is just as ignorant as me.
JM: Everybody is ignorant. We're all ignorant. We're born in the cave of ignorance. (Laughs)
AG: So shed some light back on - so Tom Rush heard these songs. He covered them and people had hits with your songs before you had hits as an artist yourself.
JM: Oh, I had very few hits actually, which is a blessing in my case. But yeah, the first hit was - well, Tom Rush was singing "Circle Game" and "Urge for Going," and George Hamilton IV heard "Urge for Going" and had a country hit with it. That was the first hit that I had. Then Judy Collins did "Both Sides, Now" and she covered some other songs as well but she had a hit with "Both Sides, Now" and then a lot of people covered it after that.
(Excerpt: Judy Collins singing "Both Sides, Now")
AG: But you were in the meantime making records on your own as an artist, right?
AG: And the first one you made was with Crosby. David Crosby.
JM: Yeah. Crosby - well, because when Andy signed me, there was no excitement about signing me because they thought I was -- the folk movement was over and basically they viewed me as a second-rate Baez or Judy Collins. So nobody really wanted me. Crosby and musicians saw my gift but businessmen really didn't because, you know, they don't know anything about music, A, and B, you know, they're so superficial and also the whole business is so superficial so, "She looks like a folksinger, she's a folksinger!" Right? You know, that was out of style. So Crosby loved the music and was a folk rock, which was the next wave, star. So he conspired. He said "I'm going to pretend to produce you because they're going to think I'm going to turn you into folk rock." But you can't make folk rock out of this, you couldn't. There's too many - it was semi classical, it was like Schubert.
So he saw that. So he went in and basically was a cheerleader but that was about it, you know.
AG: And he didn't really -
JM: And sometimes a detractor.
AG: But he didn't really produce your first record. You kind of produced it yourself, right?
JM: No, no. It produced itself. It existed. He saw it in a club and all we had to do was get the performance down, you know. They tried to get me to lay the guitar down first and then sing to it, and I couldn't. I had been playing so long that it was so interconnected. So all you had to do was get a good performance. So I thought, "Well, I know when it's a good performance." I can select that. So from then on in I produced myself.
(Excerpt "Night in the City")
AG: Which brings me to the record you're doing right now, which you're producing yourself.
AG: And what number is this record in your career?
JM: I think it's 23.
AG: Wow. (Laughs)
JM: After a ten-year layoff because I quit. I just got fed up and went I've still got some time to develop my gift as a visual artist, you know, which I've kept going simultaneously all the way along but never had total time to devote to it.
AG: But you're a painter.
JM: First, I'm a painter. Yeah.
AG: And just now you've just had an art show?
JM: Yes, yeah.
AG: In Los Angeles which is not just painting, it's photographs and multimedia.
JM: It's kind of state of the art. It's mixed media but it's taking a look at war. It's 60 big 8-by - I don't know what the cross measurement, the vertical piece is, all on a war related theme, World War I, World War II, a little bit of the French Revolution, Tiananmen Square, a little bit of some revolutions, really, more than wars.
I have a habit since early childhood of drawing kind of out looking into outer space and looking back at the planet mentally speaking. It's nothing occult like an out-of-body experience but I just have a way of - I love nature. I can see the earth without us as being better off. Maybe I'm a traitor to my species, I don't know, but I wish we weren't the way we were. I wish we weren't so self-centered and fearful because those two traits in us make us really dangerous to ourselves and to every other living creature.
AG: And you're exploring these themes in your new record too -
JM: I am as nicely as I can put it. I apologize for this batch. (Laughs). I'm trying to get some light ones going now, and I try to slip in some levity and usually when I write heavy topics, I make the music intentionally very light so it doesn't go into melodrama. You know, but here I'm indulging in drama, like I'm actually playing heavy topics in the minor keys. So it's kind of - to me these are like show time for the stupid human being. Like if he doesn't get his act together now, we're all - we've had it. We need a spirit of cooperation and generosity that basically we're incapable of for any - except for moments, you know?
AG: You played me an absolutey brilliant song just now called "Bad Dreams are Good."
JM: Bad dreams are good - well, when my grandson was three years old, we went to a musical. And he was so good, and everybody said, "How old is he?" "Three" "Oh, he's so well behaved. I could never take my three-year-old to a musical."
And afterwards the way he got cranky and hungry and we were in a café and he threw a big hissy fit and we just got him all quieted down and his mother was talking about his father and speaking ill, and I told her, "Don't do that in front of the son," I even demoed - I like mock bad-rapped her father in front of her and she went, "Oh!" and I went, "See, a-ha! It makes you feel bad if I knock your father." I said, "I didn't really mean that but just to show you."
But anyway she was doing that in front of him and I thought you're going to give him a chip. So at the end of it she concluded her paragraph by "It's a wonder it doesn't give me bad dreams." And Marlin tugged on her sleeve, "But mama, but mama, "
So I said, "What, Marlin?"
He said, "But bad dreams are good in the great plan."
I said, "How do you know that?" It took me like -- you know, I didn't really know that til I was in my 40's, it's something you learn when you've got a life tailing out behind you, you know? It really made me believe in reincarnation. Because his eyes went "dink-dink" left to right like he really didn't know how he knew that, he couldn't explain it, but he said it adamantly, you know. He's 13 now. The line, this was one of the great quotes that I heard from anything in the English language.
So I called him up, I said, "I'm going to use that line of yours in a song, like I'll set it aside a little - cut you in on the song a little bit because you got the title line," you know?
(Excerpt "Bad Dreams Are Good")
AG: So there's a couple of little tasters of tracks on Joni Mitchell's album, "Bad Dreams are Good" and before that, "Shine." In fact, "Shine" is the working title for the album.
The last one before this was "Travelogue."
JM: Right. That was just a contract fulfiller. Like my writing dried up about '97. "Taming the Tiger" was the last one and it was pretty I'm mad at show business and a kind of a re-visitation of the men. They allowed me to do an album of covers, which I was never able to do contractually, which I enjoyed because I was able to sing in that genre as a standards singer, which is a different type of singing, which I never had the ability to express contractually. There was a swell of feeling in it where we all took off that was very, very rare where pop meets classical musicians. And they were all crowded into the playback booth like little kids, like - you know, it was really beautiful. And we got most of the same players on the second date. So as big a band as it was, it wasn't just a for-hire feeling at all. I mean we all lifted up together.
(Excerpt "Answer Me, My Love")
JM: They were nice projects but they -- basically I didn't have anything more to say -
AG: And you covered some of your old songs on that as well -
JM: Yeah. Travelogue is all old material revisited.
AG: And what made you pick the songs that you picked? Are they your old favorites or are they the ones that you felt were more resonant of that time?
JM: I enjoyed, yeah, I can't remember my thought processes at the time, and I'm sure if I was to do it again I would do it differently but I would - some of them because I thought they would - I wanted to hear my arrangements transcribed and kind of preserved in classical form so that they could be played that way.
(Excerpt: Circle Game; Cool Water)
END OF PART ONE
BEGIN PART 2
Amanda Ghost: Hi, I’m Amanda Ghost and welcome to Part 2 of “Come in From the Cold” in which we’re celebrating the return to recording of the incomparable Joni Mitchell. Tonight you’ll hear more of a very candid and detailed conversation I had with Joni at her house in Los Angeles. We discussed everything from her classic album “Blue” to her other ‘70s releases like “For the Roses” and “Court and Spark.” We’ll play the hit song she told me she wrote as a joke, and we’ll hear about the ballet that opened recently in her native Canada featuring her songs and her art. We’ve also got some more exclusive music from her album “Shine” including her new version of “Big Yellow Taxi.”
But first we’re talking about more of the early covers of Joni’s songs. This one went around the world.
AG: You’ve been covered so many times by so many different artists. Do you find that a big compliment as an artist? (Laughs) How do you feel about –
JM: Well, John Lennon came in to the “Court and Spark” dates. He was recording across the hall. And he came in with Harry Nilsson one night and he was drunk and he went – he’d listen back to something and he went, “Oh, it’s all a product of over-education. You want a hit, don’t you? Why do you always let somebody else have your hits for you?” That’s what he said. (Laughs)
And I guess in a way I did, you know, either people came to me and wanted to record a song and saw an opportunity like “Woodstock” with CSN, the timing for it was kind of ripe for it to be a hit no matter who recorded it. So I let them usurp that opportunity. But I never really wanted to be – well, actually, I was a little sketchy, I shouldn’t -- and let’s be honest here, I never really wanted to get into the rat race of being a hitmaker. Simultaneously, I did feel all my friends were on the radio and I wasn’t, you know, and I did feel like –
AG: That’s human nature though.
JM: Like, you know, I wish my stuff was on the radio but by the same thing, I watched the pressure that they were under because once you have a hit, you’ve got to keep writing a hit, and who knows what a hit is. I mean the company said, “Come on, Joan, write us a hit.” And I said, “I thought my idea was to write you a song and you make it a hit. I can’t make it a hit. You know? That’s your job.”
(Excerpt: “Woodstock” recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash)
AG: The song that blew me away, I mean literally stopped my heartbeat, was “A Case of You.” I mean it just was, “You are in my blood like holy wine, you taste so bitter yet so sweet, and I could drink a case of you, and I would still be on my feet.” Joni, that’s one of the best lyrics ever written, and I mean I really do –
AG: -- and what I wasn’t aware of as I started to get to know your music was how many young girls, like me, have sat in their bedrooms listening to “Blue” over and over and over and just knowing that you speak our pain, our love, our hope.
JM: It’s a good transitional teenage record. Even though it was written a little later than that, I mean, I think it’s a good thing for a girl in that which is generally – you’re supposed to get your angst out in your teens although sometimes people have a delayed reaction –
AG: My apprentice, I have to say –
JM: Mine came out in my 20’s. It’s got to be done when you’re young. I’ve seen it come out with people in their 50’s and they give themselves bursitis or something. You need to get through that to get the inoculation while your body’s young enough to take it.
(“A Case of You”)
AG: It’s considered one of the greatest albums of all time, “Blue,” and it sounds very weird, me saying that as you’re sitting right in front of me.
JM: Well, it was one thing that distinguishes it. You know, I think I -- I don’t think it’s my best or my only good one, and it gets more attention really than it’s due. But one thing to its credit is at the time that it was recorded, and I could show you on later albums the absence of this, and then on later ones gaining it back. But the thing about it was that, you know, I was so – I couldn’t look at people without weeping. I mean, my jive detector like all drowning people was set so low, and there was almost a psychic thing where I could see through people and I was sure that they could see through me. It felt like we were all cellophane. But that was recorded during that time period. So I was incapable of guile. And you need a certain amount of guile for self-defense, you know in certain – friendly jive, fooling around. I didn’t have that so I was just dripping in earnestness and sincerity. I’d lost my sense of humor, and as a result there is – it’s like the London Philharmonic where real emotion is real emotion. And there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t date because we’re still going through that change like “Blue”: “There are so many sinking now, you gotta keep on thinking you can make it through these waves, acid, booze and --” you know, all the drug pitfalls that kids are err to. In that way it’s a good – it’s like Kipling’s come on – “Blue” and Kipling’s “If” have a lot in common, it’s like you’re down to the bare bones.
AG: I could imagine, I mean, if somebody wrote a record like “Blue” today, they’d probably put it to one side and say “There’s no radio hits on it, forget it.”
JM: Well, yeah.
AG: But when you delivered that record to the label, what did – I mean what did they –
JM: They were very nonplussed. As a matter of fact my own peer group was horrified by it. Kris Kristofferson, I played it for him, and he went, “Joni! Save something of yourself!” Because it was unprecedented in its vulnerability in a certain way. But it was all I was capable of, you know.
AG: It definitely was. It must have been – I don’t think there could have been a record out there that was that personal. I mean you were definitely crossing a line as an artist I think.
JM: Mm-hmm. “I’m bad! I’m bad! I’m bad, look at me! I’m happenin’” I mean that’s how you present yourself like in pop.
AG: It’s true.
JM: You don’t go, “I’m selfish and I’m sad,” which is the human condition, you know (laughs).
AG: Very true. Was it a success, “Blue,” by the way? Was it a commercial success?
JM: No, no.
AG: It wasn’t?
JM: Over the years, yeah, I mean because people that discovered it wore it out and passed it on and, you know, I guess it’s probably gone multiple platinum at this point.
AG: Is it your biggest selling album --
AG: -- to this day? I think it is.
JM: Well, it’s the most hyped album, you know, and people are sheep so (laughs).
AG: And then it was followed by “For the Roses.”
JM: Yeah, “For the Roses.”
AG: Which actually is my favorite album –
JM: Is it?
AG: -- of all your records. It is mine. Only because again –
JM: Yeah, because you went through that space.
AG: I went through that space. I was at the point when I had delivered my first album for Warner Brothers and it came out and it had been critically acclaimed which is the kiss of death for most artists and – but never got on the radio and so subsequently didn’t sell many records. And suddenly I was being called into these meetings of men in suits asking me to write radio hits, and they wanted me to wear sexy clothes, they had lots of meetings about whether or not my hair should be straight or curly –
JM: I saw the feather bra. I was horrified. This picture of Amanda in a feather bra? You know, like she’s a jeans and no make-up girl. I went “Oh, my God, what are they doing? They’ll be putting a ruby in her navel.” (Laughs)
AG: And I remember talking to you about it going “Joan, “For the Roses,” oh, my God, this is what I’m going for, you know, “I heard it in the wind last night, it sounded like applause,” you know, I mean that song was exactly what I was going through.
I remember you turned to me, oh God, I remember it so clearly and you have no idea how much it influenced my life as an artist after you said it, you said to me, “Amanda, you know, you’ve gotta make up your mind.”
JM: Which do you want to be?
AG: Which do you want to be? A star? A rock and roll star –
JM: Or an artist?
AG: And, you know, I didn’t know what you meant. And I remember sitting there and kind of smiling as you said it and kind of thinking “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about; I can be both – I can --”
JM: You’ve gotta know from the start because once you compromise – if you want to be a star, compromise, and you’ll be short-lived, you know, and you’ll maybe get a bigger splash but you’ll go down and you won’t have yourself. If you want to be an artist, you have to start fighting from the beginning and never stop. You have to fight them all away. So you have to know what you are at the beginning.
(“For the Roses”)
JM: I watched the prediction of the black church when, you know, gospel was usurped for rock and roll, and they were the first to say, you know, “This is the devil’s music.” When you go back, early rock and roll, you say, “How can this be devilish?” White people were scared of it too because it was creating movement below the waistline. You know, I mean we were still being held at ruler’s edge on the dance floor – they’d literally come around with a ruler to keep you apart –
AG: “Back in 1957 I (sic) used to dance a foot apart.”
JM: Yeah. And they’re just standing there “with their rulers without a heart” on the side. No close dancing was allowed and so this stuff hits and it’s so innocent and joyous –
AG: The biggest validation ever for me as an artist was when I wrote that song called “Blood on the Line,” which I wrote kind of at the end of my, uh, tether at Warner Brothers, and the biggest compliment was that – because I was always scared about ever playing you anything I did so I was like, “Oh, my God! Finally I’ve done something good. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought in the world.”
(Excerpt: “Blood on the Line” by Amanda Ghost)
JM: I was so glad to like it because it was at a time I didn’t like any music. Any music. I didn’t like my music. I hated music. I’d come to hate music. I listened only to talk shows – ten years I couldn’t listen to anything. And then Starbucks of all places saved me. Starbucks came out with this limited edition of Artist’s Choices. And my management gave me a couple of them which I didn’t like either. I didn’t like the music on them. But I thought, “Could I do one of these?” So they let me do one. Well, there was only supposed to be I think 12 songs on it or something like that. I couldn’t get it to go – I listened to everything I ever loved and to see what would hold up, and much held up. And I put together one that starts with Debussy and it kind of takes a journey up through Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday and Miles and into Louis Jordan. I had Louis Jordan records before rock and roll was called rock and roll. And they were great storytelling, party time records. House of Blue Lights I had and “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and they were party records, right?
(Excerpt: “Saturday Night Fish Fry”)
JM: And then of course along came Chuck Berry who to me is still the definitive rock and roller in terms of rock and roll writing and playing, and that’s the birth of the art where it makes this little jump – basically the jump was from him playing boogie woogie piano on guitar. It’s just boogie woogie but it’s guitar emphasized piano so it’s going from jitterbug – it’s not that big a jump from one era and it’s still swinging.
Once it turned into rock and roll, what they call rock and roll, which was – had no “roll” in it, it had no black jitterbug, it had no Swing Era. I’m a Swing Era baby, you know, there’s still joy, and that joyous music was conceived in such terrible times. It was such a great relief to the culture at the time. And that’s the trouble with now, we’ve got a horrible culture, horrible times, and horrible music and nobody – you know, all at the same time. It couldn’t be any worse, you know, when your music is horrible too – ugh!
AG: I bet “Court and Spark” was your biggest hit record, it spawned the most hits, “Help Me” –
JM: Well, it’s the only radio hits that I had. And at one time, from a bean counter’s perspective, it was the biggest seller. But over time “Blue” –
AG: “Blue” overtook it?
JM: -- “Blue” overtook it. And that’s what –
AG: And did you consciously sit down on that record and think, “I’m going to write songs to get on the radio”? Did you ever, ever take that into account when –
JM: Only once. Geffen pestered me to write a radio hit and, you know, I said, I said to him, I think I may have said this: “It’s my job to write a good song. It’s your job to make it a hit.” But even the song about Geffen –
AG: “Free Man in Paris.”
JM: “Free Man in Paris,” you know, like “stoking the star-maker machinery.” That’s your job. Like, you make it a hit. I wouldn’t know a hit if it bit me on the ankle. All the hits I’ve had, I wouldn’t call them hits.
(“Free Man in Paris”)
JM: As a joke I wrote “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” but I said, “Okay, okay, okay, I’ll write you a hit.” So it was completely tongue in cheek. You know, it was all, okay, how would you write a hit if you were going to contrive it? Well, first of all, flatter the DJ, right? (Laughs).
JM: So, you know, it’s got all that like the radio tower and all that, tipping the hat, but it was a joke. And that’s the only time I ever tried to write a hit and only as a joke.
AG: “I’m a country station, I’m a little bit corny.”
(“You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”)
AG: Next I asked Joni about an album that included a great song in which she makes a reference to Kilauren, the daughter she’d given up for adoption as a teenage single parent. The song comes from the mid 1980’s, and to the great interest of the world and media, mother and daughter would be reunited in 1997.
AG: Moving on to your prolific career, “Wild Things Run Fast.”
JM: Well, “Wild Things…” was a total commercial disaster on every level for two reasons: One, at that time I found my dream band and where the chemistry was right, it was just this power quartet and we all pulled together like a dream. And that was completely out of vogue. Drum machines had come in so we were against – my timing was off. And it was my time to die anyway because you only get a decade. “That artist from the ‘60s…” Well, I came in and they wanted to make me into “that artist from the ‘60s” but I trickled over into the ‘70s. They’re trying to hold you down to a decade and the bosses who are pornographic pigs, they are looking especially at a female, “Oh, she’s getting old now, she’s just about 27,” so like, you know, so they want to dispose of you and get a 14-year-old in there, you know?
The other thing, because it was a live band, we took a lot of flak for that, and simultaneously I fell in love and got married. And they counted it up. They went, “Oh, gag! She used the “L” word 44 times!” or something, or “love,” “Yes, I do, I love you,” you know, that repeats a lot. The “L” word came up so many times, and that was nauseating in a very cynical period.
We were – well, the album got lost. We toured it anyway –
AG: I wanted to talk to you about “Chinese Café” because again, I came to “Chinese Café” on that compilation Hits and Misses. I remember listening to that song, and when you talk about “Your kids are growing up straight, my child’s a stranger, I bore her but I could not raise her.” I could not believe somebody had written a lyric that personal.
JM: Well, if I sing it -- I feel like a Method actor. If I sing it – I’m kind of a Method actor, I guess I’d probably be a good Method actor because I have good sense memory. When I get to – like I’m in a fairly good mood, I have a little – sick right now, like I’ve got this flu but I’m generally in a good mood. But if I start thinking about bad things that happened to me, I’ll go right back into the feeling.
So when you say, “What did you think about the song?” if I’m performing it, well, I’ll relive every moment like it was now. But there’s a lot of feelings in my songs.
AG: Did you have any feeling when writing that lyric in “Chinese Café” that it would be so pounced upon, that people would make such a hullabaloo about it?
JM: No, well, it takes a really dirty, petty, conniving, stinking, low-life person to do it.
(“Chinese Café/Unchained Melody”)
AG: What is this ballet that you’ve been working on?
JM: Well, it started off while I was working on the art show and before I started recording, I got wind that they were going to do a ballet in Calgary of my music. There were to be three ballets presented that night by three different choreographers in February. The first one is a classic Tchaikovsky with the long tutus, and the second is a Schubert, I don’t know much about it, and the third one was to be mine. So I thought they can do it, I just have to give permission, and it didn’t really have much to do with me. But the choreographer came down to take a visit and he saw the model because I had a mock-up of the gallery that was hanging in on my pool table. And he went, “Oh, we must have –“ he’s French, you know, “we must have these images in the ballet!” So I looked at the repertoire that he chose and it was quite young because they had a young Australian prima donna who looks like my daughter -- my granddaughter, Daisy, I mean she looks like an 8-year-old she looks so young, blonde. So they’d chosen “Chelsea Morning,” all these very young, early pieces. I said, you know, “You can’t put that art with that music.”
He said, “We’ll put together – you know, I want to use the art in the ballet. Put together the music.”
So I started to do it. Well, most of the music that would suit it came from “Dog Eat Dog” which was my least popular album. They hated it so much they buried it for 20 years. I had to dig it out, you know, beg them to reopen it and put it out under another name, “The Beginning of Survival.” So I did a re-release packaging on it. So I said, “If we do this it could be very controversial. To do it would be my most unpopular music. Are you willing to stick your neck out like that – and it also has very big drums on it, you know, which people don’t necessarily like and I’ve taken a lot of criticism for that.
“No, no! This will be fantastic!” you know.
AG: I’ve just been listening to your new record that you’ve done which is the first one you’ve written in ten years, right?
AG: And it’s the first time you’ve played the piano –
JM: In ten years.
AG: And so what –
JM: Actually eight because I’ve had the four piano melodies – the first one I think we call it – we nicknamed it “Gratitude” which is really what it is. The first one born, I was up in my house in Canada and I was just so happy. I was in the country, I was in the wild, it was beautiful my big blue heron was there, I just was self-sustaining, I was poking in my garden, I was feeding myself, I was living alone and taking care of myself, and every time I stepped outside, the view was breathtaking. And I was just getting happier and happier and happier, and I went in and I played that – which is a hymn of gratitude. You can – you can hear in it, it was just “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
(Excerpt from “Gratitude”)
JM: And then the other melodies started to come, and they were like a suite. They had a kindredness to them although they had a slight, different character. And once I had four of them, I thought, “Well, what am I supposed to do with these?” They’re sort of semi-classical. One has a little bit of ‘50s Brill Building kind of chordal – about four bars – but the rest of it is kind of Joni music.
AG: Whenever I hear a female singer-songwriter coming out on the scene, they are always touted as “the next Joni Mitchell,” and I don’t know whether or not you find that a compliment. I find it quite annoying –
JM: No, I think it’s a social sickness. It does both of us a disservice. I’m not that easily imitable, and then what always happens with those poor girls is they’re very flattered the first year and by the time they’re slandering me, and by the time their second record comes out.
AG: I’m sitting here thinking – and correct me if I’m wrong. But, Joan, do you understand how revered you are? I mean I know they go on, your given music example – because you are so revered.
JM: Oh, yeah. No, not impressed. No, I’m conspicuously in the media I’m always, “Well, what do you do with HER?” It’s like in the media I’m conspicuous. There’s no one like me, I’m an uppity female, we’ve assimilated our blacks, now we kind of revere them but we’re still not sure about women. I know I’m as good and better than most but I’m not given my fair shake.
AG: What inspired you to come back? What inspired you to put it to tape again?
JM: Well, I had these four piano pieces and they had these four – ten years of nothing and suddenly I had these four semi classical piano pieces. No words or anything, and I just didn’t know what to do with them and I thought, “Well, some record should be kept of them.” That’s basically what a record is. It’s not enough for an album. EP’s had come along and maybe I’ll just make an EP or something. You know, just make it available to my fans, you know, people that collect everything.”
AG: Your following?
JM: It will be interesting to them, you know, I mean I should go in and record it. So once I got in there of course then I’ve been doing something that I don’t usually do. Bands do it all the time, and that is creating music while I’m in there. I usually do – maybe I have nine songs when I go in and create one. But here I came in with four and had to create everything, you know? And I told them that I wanted to orchestrate these pieces and to get me a good orchestral synth, you know, I just need a good studio and a good palette of oboe and strings and blah, blah, blah. I knew I was going to go in that direction.
AG: Listening to what you just played me just then, what struck me, what was quite interesting about it, is what I think about a lot of your work is that it kind of transcends all genres. Your music, I can’t really sit there and say “Well, this is” – I hate it when people say “Oh, that’s Joni Mitchell’s jazz record or that’s Joni Mitchell’s electronic record.”
I don’t like talking about music like that, and what you just played me just now transcends all that. Again, it’s back to what I think is so great about what you do. It’s the basics. You know, it’s you at piano. It’s what you do.
JM: Well, a real artist is going to like a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and it’s going to take them their lifetime to assimilate it into something, hopefully, new. And it’s not going to happen when you’re young. And this is a youth-driven -- it’s more like painting. Everybody knows – or they used to – now that’s even a youth market, that it takes a long time to distill all of this, and you don’t become a master until you’re in your 50’s and 60’s. But this is a youth-driven market. I’m only now getting to the place where I feel authentic, that what I really love is maturing, you know, like you can see it in my compositions now, you know, the influence of Debussy and Duke Ellington, and those are my real roots.
(Excerpt: “If I Had a Heart, I’d Cry”)
JM: I had to get these – you know “Bad Dreams are Good in the Great Plan,” “If I Had a Heart, I’d Cry,” you know, I had to get those alarming songs out. You know, they’re not going to be pleasant, you’re not going to want to start your day with them, you know (laughs), and I’m trying now –
AG: But they’re important.
JM: -- to forget about the world, you know, while I’m making this music and just make some cheery music for the moment to intersperse into it without hopefully making the album schizophrenic. I mean I don’t want to make it go up, down, up, down, up, down. Because it’s got this heavy stuff that – I mean, that’s the main thing that I suffer from and, you know, all my life, is this overview.
AG: The melody and the piano and the arrangements are beautiful, you know –
JM: Look, I love making art. I’m compulsive. I’m drawn to do that. I just don’t like being the front person for it. Much too much attention is placed on the artist and much too little on the art frankly. That’s my great frustration. Although where I do get – there came a point where even the people on the street who approached me with great warmth and gratitude, you know, the people that have been helped through this situation or that situation by the work that make you feel like you’ve served a purpose in that way.
At one point, like I was talking about quitting and there was a waitress there and she was waiting our tables and she overheard it. And she burst into tears and said, “You can’t quit! You don’t understand.” And she revealed to me – and she’d waited on me for a couple of years without mentioning anything, but hearing that I was going to quit, she then said, “You can’t!” you know, “We need you!”
You know, and I went “This is so touching.” You know what? This is how far gone I’m -- even this touching encouragement isn’t going to change me. It’s just not worth it to me, you know, to stay in an industry where the character of the men is so disgusting to me and perverse. You know, I just don’t want to be associated with it. Or I’m dreaming that slime – my nightmares are all about, you know, stepping into slime unprotected. You know, I just have to distance myself from that and get out in the country and just live. So I did that for ten years.
AG: In a few minutes we’ll have a listen to Joni’s new version of “Big Yellow Taxi.” But first here’s part of another track on the upcoming album inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”
JM: The mayor here – there’s what they call the LA River which is a kind of a trough but it got really polluted, and they spent billions and billions to clean it up, and in the process they learned a little bit of how -- God knows what the consequences of how they did it because there’s always a downside to the upside, you know. But they seem to have made it kind of healthy again. So the mayor of Seoul, Korea, and the mayor of Los Angeles have become sister cities because they’ve polluted their river terribly. So our mayor is lending that technological knowledge to clean up in Seoul, to clean up the, you know, the river. So I heard him on the radio going, “So you can unpave paradise,” is what he said. So that’s my optimism with this stuff is that on one level or another – but on this album I’m – I’m – it really came from a position of hurting. So they’re sadder than “Big Yellow Taxi.” When you send in “Big Yellow Taxi” as comic relief – you know? (Laughs) The preceding song is pretty sad but it’s sad, you know, like what’s happening. And maybe people need to experience it if they can tolerate it, to experience that sadness, feel it thoroughly and get inoculated and then try on some small, regional level to contribute a little bit but quickly because time’s running out.
(“Big Yellow Taxi”)
AG: I hope you enjoyed that chat with Joni Mitchell as much as I did. It goes to show you how much fun she is, the media image of her being some sort of solemn recluse is so way out of line. While we were packing up to leave, Joni told us a joke.
JM: A chicken goes into a library and says to the librarian, “Book!” The librarian says, “How interesting! A chicken that reads!” She sticks a book in its beak, the chicken waddles off. The next day the chicken comes back again and he says to the librarian, “BookBook!” She says, “Oh! This is a reading chicken!” So she puts a book under each arm of the chicken, the chicken waddles off, and the next day he’s back. And he says to her, “BookBookBook!” She says, “Yeah, I wish more people would read like this! This is a literate chicken!” She picks out three books she thinks the chicken would like, sticks one in the beak, one under each arm, the chicken waddles off, and then the fourth day it’s back. “BookBookBookBook!” And she says, “Well, I’m going to have to help this bird” so she sticks one in the beak, one under each arm, and she follows the chicken carrying the fourth book. She comes to a pond and books are lying all around the edge of the pond. And out in the middle of the pond sits a bullfrog. The chicken takes a book, hops really quickly from lily pad to lily pad to a rock in the middle and hands the frog the book. And the frog says, “Readit.” (Laughs)
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