At last the times have caught up with Joni Mitchell - musician, artist and now inspiration for a ballet.
Joni Mitchell is watching The Fiddle and the Drum for the first time. It's ballet with a twist - vivid, sexy and of the moment. Classical movements lie at its base, but the dancers are not afraid to rip into contemporary, hip-hop, even gymnastic moves. It's Mitchell's music they're dancing to. Two a cappella verses of the title song from way back when, then straight into Sex Kills, segueing into Passion Play, her gnostic retelling of the story of Mary Magdalene. A pause. "Superb," she says. "Excellent. I love it." I'm no ballet critic, but it is exhilarating, something that deserves to be seen by a far wider audience than for its Canadian premiere. And this is only a run-through.
Originally, Jean GrandMaître, the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet, had conceived a semi-biographical ballet based on Mitchell's classic songs, but she told him: "I'm not interested in escapist entertainment when the planet is at red alert." His timing, however, was perfect, for Mitchell was in the middle of a creative burst. She was preparing 60 pieces of antiwar mixed-media art for Flag Dance, her first big gallery show, and writing her first new music in 10 years. She agreed to work with him on choosing songs and designing the stage set for a ballet that addressed her concerns.
"I pulled together a set that would match this material and the war images from Flag Dance. This is my least popular material we are dealing with here," she chuckles. "I came straight out of retirement into doing the work of three 20-year-olds. I really burnt myself out physically, but emotionally it was uplifting. I realised I wasn't ready for gardening and growing old." The ballet features two brand-new songs that rank with her best. It's surprising only that this took so long, as, for Mitchell, dance is one of life's essentials. Growing up in Saskatoon ("Even to a Canadian, I come from nowhere"), she caught polio and was not expected to walk again. Ask her what she does for fun and she says: "I play pool and I dance."
She looks exactly like Joni Mitchell should: ageless, elegant and passionate, the same as she always has, a little more lined, perhaps, but nowhere near 63. She wears layers of beautiful clothes, a jaunty beret decorated with a jewelled lizard, and oversized sunglasses. One of the world's last great smokers, she chains American Spirits in the sub-zero streets, but refrains from lighting up in my rental car because that would inconvenience others.
Conversation with Mitchell is a spiralling, fractured thing - the way she creates her songs, her paintings, maybe even lives her life. While her record sales have decreased since the heady, million-selling days of Court and Spark and Blue, her music has become both more distinct and more uncompromising. "You are supposed to stay neatly in your decade and then die," she says. A few years ago, she went on tour with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. They were both playing their hits; Mitchell stuck with her new songs. "I never wanted to be a human juke-box. People didn't like the harmonies and general musicality of the direction I was going in. It is not jazz, it is outside the laws of jazz, totally original music that is now being studied in music schools."
She moved from love chronicler to acid-tongued commentator, attacking fundamentalist Christians, Reaganomics and those who do nothing while the world decays around us. What is so disconcerting - and beautifully illustrated by the ballet - is how her stiletto lyrics stand in sharp contrast to her exquisite melodies and warm vocals. Debussy was her first musical love, and it still shows. "Somehow the music makes it more palatable than my usual irritated tone in conversation," she smiles.
There are no superstar tantrums in Joniland. She is incredibly polite, though for one so poised she is acutely sensitive to criticism. "I don't care for fame and fortune that much," she says, "but the rejection of my later work was too extreme. A lot of the songs I wrote [in the 1980s and 1990s] were a warning that people may be ready for now, but they weren't then. It was dismissed as negative and sophomoric, which tells you something about the American culture - once you are past the first year of college, you shouldn't be worrying about the world."
By the mid1990s, her loathing of the record business had reached crisis point. "It got more and more difficult to be a public person. Aspects of the job became repugnant to me. I started having nightmares, and when it hits your subconscious like that, it's time to quit." Since 1998's Taming the Tiger she has been involved in the repackaging and rerecording of some of her work, though she announced in 2002 that she was through with the business. "I really believed I was never going to make another record," she says. "I was trying to keep my legs crossed, and it was like a late birth."
By then, her three-octave voice was a shadow of its former glory. "I'd go to hit a note and there was nothing there," she says. "People blamed it on my smoking, but I have smoked since I was nine, so it obviously didn't affect my early work that much." In fact, she had nodes from singing rock'n'roll, her larynx was compressed and there were physical problems caused by polio and playing guitar. Rest and some good healers have restored most of her power and range.
Her musical rebirth took place at her home in British Columbia, the place where she feels most at peace and safe. She sat down at the piano and began to play. Three more songs followed. When her friend the dancer Charles Valen-tino read her Rudyard Kipling's poem If over the phone, she knew she had the album's (and ballet's) optimistic closing number. "Then they decided to whittle down the mountain behind my sanctuary and sell it to California as gravel for Mac Mansions, and I had my second guitar song," she says.
The album, with the working title Shine, has a minimal feel, a sparseness that harks back to her early work. "I'm proud of it, because this is as serious a work as I've ever done. I have always had an ecological overview. I am looking at the planet, what the churches are doing, what's happening to the water. Usually, nobody knows what I am talking about, and they call me an alarmist. It's funny to think I am on time - maybe even a little late."
For years, painting has been Mitchell's private passion. She never exhibited and seldom sold her work. The inspiration for the impressionist Flag Dance series came after her flat-screen television died and started running in negative. "Black and white movies were running in greens and pinks and yellows. I noticed that for about five minutes in every hour, it was spewing art. I took pictures for six months until I was up to my shoulders in green snapshots."
The original installation has been adapted onto changing triptychs on either side of the ballet stage. The negative colours blur the differences so that images of war and environmental degradation intertwine with Busby Berkeley musicals and women waving flags. Part of the video she spent 100 hours creating features Mitchell dressed as a guerrilla, smoking and "mouthing bad words".
She has a cracking sense of humour and is a great raconteur, blessed with a photographic recall of the pink tablecloths in the French Canadian household where she first heard Edith Piaf sing, or a performance of Hair given in the hippie caves of Matala, on Crete. At heart, she feels she is really a nine-year-old boy. In Saskatoon, girls were too bitchy, too obsessed with possessions and position. The boys would let her play cowboys - "because I had a cap gun" - but she was always Dale Evans, never Roy Rogers.
So here she is in snowy Alberta, leaping to her feet, explaining what her songs are really about, apologising for being "doomsday Joan", stressing the intrinsic importance of the words on another new number, If I Had a Heart, I'd Cry. It has the melody of a classic everlasting-loss ballad, but it's about destroying the most important love of all our lives - planet earth. The encore to The Fiddle and the Drum is a joyous Latino Big Yellow Taxi. Mitchell wants the dancers just to cut loose and do their own thing. She'd prefer to be on stage with them, for she knows that where there is dance, there is also hope.