Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

Captive on the carousel of time Print-ready version

by Paul Sexton
The Guardian
March 19, 2007

I'M AN UPPITY female," Joni Mitchell says while sitting in the kitchen of her house in an upmarket neighbourhood of Los Angeles. "In the media, there's no one like me. I'm as good as - and better than - most. But I'm not given my fair shake."

Mitchell's house is big, warm and rustic, very much the abode of a working artist. A large pot of brushes sits out; a giant painting is propped against a wall. She looks healthy and serene, younger than her years, dressed in a casual smock and no-nonsense boots, and laughs readily and infectiously.

When Mitchell announced her retirement as a recording artist in 2002, she did so spitting bile at what the music business had become. She bowed out with Travelogue, an orchestral revisiting of her earlier work, and quietly set about directing her creativity at her surviving passion: visual art. It's hard to reconcile that embittered woman of 58 with the energised, feisty, funny 63-year-old before me now.

"Here," Mitchell says when I arrive, "let me hug you." I'm here as the producer of a two-part radio series in which Mitchell talks to her friend and fellow songwriter Amanda Ghost, whose R&B song Beautiful Liar, which she co-wrote for Beyonce and Shakira, has raced up the US charts.

From the next room, I can hear the elegant strains of Mitchell's work in progress. Tentatively titled Shine, featuring a new version of Big Yellow Taxi and due later in the year, it will be her first album of new songs since 1998's Taming the Tiger.

The prototype singer-songwriter, five times a Grammy winner and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, has no doubts about her place in the annals of music. But her absence from the mainstream has bred an endearing uncertainty. As a fumbling icebreaker, I say, "That sounds great, even from the next room." She looks genuinely delighted.

Mitchell makes frequent eye contact, smoking prodigiously. She talks about the "pornographic pigs" of the modern music machine, who care only about "golf and rappers". It's a subject she can now tackle with a hearty laugh, no longer bothered by music executives' belief that her sell-by date has been reached, and delighted to be embarking on her busiest and most productive schedule for more than a decade.

The newly inspired Mitchell has lately immersed herself in The Fiddle and the Drum, a ballet based on her songs and art by the Alberta Ballet Company in her native Canada. From merely advising on which of her songs to use, she has progressed to designing the set and collaborating with choreographer Jean Grand-Maitre.

Amanda Ghost talks to her as an informed fan and fellow sufferer at the industry's hands. They became friends when Ghost, a Londoner of Spanish and Indian parentage, was signed in 2000 to Warner Brothers by Andrew Wickham, who had signed Mitchell to the same company about 32 years before.

"We're the bookends of Wickham's collection," Mitchell jokes. "What happened in the middle is what I want to know."

In that time Mitchell became universally garlanded as the most eloquent songwriter of her generation. But it was soon clear that the profundity of her work would burst out of the stifling restrictions of mainstream pop-rock. She wrote the precociously world-weary Both Sides Now as a mere 21-year-old, much to the disdain of her then husband Chuck Mitchell. "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," she says. "He married the package and thought he'd svengali a brain into it. He married what he was pretty certain was a dumb blonde. When I wrote Both Sides Now, he said, 'What do you know about life? You're only 21.' Well, I had lived quite a bit. I'd survived quite a few diseases."

Mitchell had polio as a child but says she had "terrific" teenage years. "I wasn't like Janis [Joplin]. I didn't come to rock'n'roll to be popular. But 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 been tortured in the hospital. By the time I was 21, I had experienced a lot of life."

After the success of Both Sides Now and other compositions such as Woodstock and Big Yellow Taxi, it wasn't long before Mitchell tired of what she describes as the "hit-making rat race".

The company said, 'Come on, Joan, write us a hit,' and I said, 'I thought the idea was I wrote you a song and you make it a hit.' "

When Ghost arrived three decades later, little had changed. Warners tried to make a "sex-bomb pop chick" out of a substantial songwriter and lost interest in the process, leaving her disillusioned and her career in neutral. Ghost says she practically had to mount a "prison break" to get to where she is now. Clearly seeing her younger self in Ghost, Mitchell says she was insulted to find that, after briefly allowing herself to be milked as a source of revenue, notably around the time of 1974's double-platinum Court and Spark, she was then effectively written off and regarded almost as a specialist taste by the time of 1979's Mingus.

"It was my time to die," she says of the 1980s. "The bosses were looking, thinking, 'Oh, she's getting old now, she's just about 27.' They want to dispose of you and get a 14-year-old in there."

By the late 1990s, Mitchell had simply had enough. "I came to hate music," she says. "I listened only to talk shows for 10 years."

Her rebirth came about, improbably, when she asked her management if they could arrange for her to compile a CD for Starbucks' Artist's Choice series. "I listened to everything I ever loved, to see if it held up, and much did. So I put together one that starts with Debussy, then takes a journey up through Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, and then Louis Jordan.

"That joyous music was conceived in such terrible times - and it was such a great relief to the culture at the time. That's the trouble with now. Now we've got a horrible culture, horrible times and horrible music."

But Mitchell is determined that, concerned though she is about the state of the world, her return to recording does not come across as embittered heckling. It shouldn't. Pieces such as Shine and If (inspired by Rudyard Kipling) resonate with bruised but unbroken optimism, not to mention an absolute refusal to be classifiable: one moment she's jazz, the next classical, then occasionally pop.

"A real artist is going to like a little bit of this and a little bit of that and it's going to take an entire life to assimilate them into something new," Mitchell says. "It's not going to happen when you're young and this is a youth-driven market.

"It's like painting: everybody knows, or they used to, that it takes a long time to distil all this. You don't become a master until you're in your 50s and 60s."

If she sometimes suffers compared with her contemporaries, Mitchell has found a way of enjoying it. She seems to know her value, laughs readily and has rediscovered her creative centre. Privately, she does a mean impersonation of Bob Dylan, too, delivered as a hazy drone. "I'm not considered a poet," she says. "Dylan is, Jim Morrison is. 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.'

"I'm a frustrated filmmaker and my favourite compliments have always come from the black community. This girl came up to me in the green room at the Grammys and said, 'Girl, you make me see pictures in my head.' To me, that's better than poetry."

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Added to Library on April 20, 2007. (4346)


Log in to make a comment