Songwriter Joni Mitchell was a major star but she became frustrated and quit the business when, as she put it, 'the muse went out of music'. However, she was lured back by the chance to create a new album, out tomorrow, as part of an Artist's Choice collection, as PAUL SEXTON reports
FOR YEARS, it looked as if the unique artistry of Joni Mitchell was consigned to the past.
After the release in 2002 of Travelogue, a typically elegant but essentially backward-looking album of orchestrated versions of her old songs, the peerless Canadian singer-songwriter announced her retirement.
Thoroughly disillusioned with the music business and unable to rise above what she saw as its nauseating corruption and knee-jerk ageism, she turned her attention to her other passion, visual art. "By the end of the 20th century, " she said, "it seemed to me that the muse had gone out of music. Nothing sounded genuine or original. Truth and beauty were passé. I got the picture. I quit the business." To rephrase one of her most famous lyrics, it was as if they'd paved paradise and put up a writer's block.
But a couple of years ago, Mitchell was asked by Starbucks to compile one of its Artist's Choice collections in which she was given free rein to select any song or artist who had been important to her life and work. After almost a decade in which she says she barely listened to music at all, the passion came pouring back as she relived the inspiration she had imbibed as a young woman listening to Debussy's Clare de Lune, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and the pioneering rock 'n' roll of Chuck Berry.
"I listened to everything I ever loved to see if it held up and much did. So I put together an album that started 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." Even if Mitchell still found the industry and the world around her shallow and soulless, she had found her feistiness again. That project kick-started her to writing the material that now forms the basis of the most notable comeback of the year, not to mention perhaps 2007's most refined and poignant album.
Shine, out tomorrow, is Joni Mitchell's first record of new material since Taming The Tiger in 1998 and appropriately it's on Hear Music, the label launched recently by Starbucks, where she finds herself label-mates with Sir Paul McCartney and James Taylor.
The album, bittersweet but beautiful, is a worthy new addition by the woman who more-or-less invented the modern genre of the singer-songwriter. Shine has Mitchell playing endlessly evocative piano motifs and writing about our ailing world with a poetic vision that makes you realise what we've missed.
A few months ago, I visited Joni's house in Los Angeles as the producer of a Radio 2 series in which she spoke to our mutual friend, the English singersongwriter Amanda Ghost. It was fascinating to observe a conversation between kindred spirits and to realise that in Ghost, the co-writer of Beyoncé and Shakira's Beautiful Liar and James Blunt's You're Beautiful, Mitchell clearly sees herself as a younger woman.
The house was that of a true artist, with a huge canvas, a work in progress, standing against one wall and a large pot of brushes just to my side. There we spent a captivating Saturday evening with one of the sagest, funniest people I've ever met in the music world.
Most remarkable of all, after many health problems and the pathological smoking habit that she has kept up from childhood to this day, she looks and sounds terrific. Her voice is probably an octave deeper than on those first, sun-kissed recordings of the Woodstock era but that only serves to enrich the dark tones of her later music.
Like many of the great creative forces, Mitchell is a fascinating combination of self-assurance and insecurity. She is not shy of referring to her work as art or of describing her place in the pantheon of rock-era musicians.
But the way she was made to feel unwelcome by record executives in the Eighties and Nineties has left her uncertain that she can still fit into the contemporary scene.
AN uncomfortable flyer, she has no plans to tour the new record, so, unlike the period in the Seventies in which she sold hundreds of thousands of albums worldwide on week of release, Shine is likely to be a word-ofmouth success. It has every chance of becoming a truly cool album to own.
"The Eighties were kind of hard on me, " she has said. "I was butchered by dentists, I spent about five years in dental hell and simultaneously in litigation.
Everybody who could rob me robbed me in the greedy Eighties.
"On top of it I was diagnosed as having post-polio syndrome, which they said was inevitable for a polio survivor." Mitchell had suffered that disease as a child in Canada but it hadn't stopped her enjoying "terrific teenage years, " as she told Amanda and I.
Her life changed when, as an aspiring teenage songwriter, she had a child out of wedlock and, unable to raise it, gave up her baby for adoption.
SHE THEN entered an unhappy marriage to the man whose name she still takes, Chuck Mitchell, who severely underrated her.
"I was married to a man who had a degree in literature, knew I had never read anything and basically thought I was stupid, " she says. "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 of life." She moved to New York, playing the coffee house circuit and then to Los Angeles in time for her first album in 1967 and soon the years of obscurity found their reward as she was garlanded as the reluctant figurehead of a new independent creativity.
It wasn't until the Nineties that Mitchell was reunited with her grown-up daughter Kelly (renamed Kilauren by her adoptive parents) and discovered that she was a grandmother.
The reunion was seized on by the media, whose intrusiveness made an otherwise happy event difficult. But it has a charming postscript on Shine, on which one of the most striking tracks is based on a phrase uttered with precocious wisdom by her grandson: "Bad things are good in the great plan." After another marriage to her then-producer Larry Klein, Mitchell now lives alone in her LA home and seems more content than she has been for years.
As well as the new album, Joni has been closely involved with The Fiddle And The Drum a ballet based on her songs and art created by the Alberta Ballet Company in her native Canada.
She was a spokesperson for her own generation; thank goodness she's back in circulation to be a spokesperson for this one, because she perceives truths about the planet that politicians would never see. "Maybe I'm a traitor to my species, " she says, "but I wish we weren't so selfcentred and fearful, because that makes us really dangerous." Forty years on from her first record deal, Joni Mitchell has a new appetite. "A real artist is going to take their entire life to assimilate things into something new. It's like painting everybody knows you don't become a master until your 50s and 60s."
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