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A Conversation with Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Debi Martin
June 22, 1983

Debi Martin interviewed Joni by phone before the June 23, 1983 show in Austin, Texas.

JONI MITCHELL: Debi, hello.

DEBI MARTIN: Hello there.

JM: How are you?

DM: I'm fine. How are you?

JM: Pretty good.

DM: How'd the doctor visit go?

JM: It went well. You know, I've got ... the voice is coming back.

DM: Yeah?

JM: Yeah.

DM: You've been on the road since February, huh?

JM: A long time, yeah. And I developed a - what do you call it, a "polp"?

DM: "Polp"?

JM: A polyp. You know, like it's not a node - you know what singer's nodes are, right?

DM: Uh-huh.

JM: Like friction, you get a lump on one vocal cord or two vocal cords. So, it, you know, does weird things. You know, if it was a reed on a saxophone, you'd throw it away and get another one, you know? (Laughs).

DM: Yeah.

JM: It looks good.

DM: Yeah? Doesn't hurt any, does it?

JM: No, it doesn't hurt. It's just like - you know what happened was we had to cancel three shows. You just go for a note and it's just like a bad reed in a horn, you know? All of a sudden it would just split off and go - you'd either get air or you'd get an octave or you'd get a chord, but you wouldn't get what you were going for, right?

DM: Uh-huh. That can be frustrating.

JM: And so it just kind of came on all - I guess it builds up. Anyway, I don't want to dwell on this.

DM: Well, you've been working hard.

JM: Yeah, we've been doing -- it's a long tour.

DM: Yeah, you're going to be through like July 26th, right?

JM: Well, we've got to pick up those gigs now, so I guess probably ... somewhere around in that zone. Whenever they -- the three we missed have to go back on the end.

DM: Well, what do you want to talk about?

JM: Well, you know, you're -- ask me something. I don't know.

DM: Well, I was hoping you'd say the new album.

JM: Okay, I'll talk about that.

DM: Why don't you tell me how you see this album fits in your progression as an artist. I mean I have my own theory about this but why don't you tell me.

JM: Okay, let's compare theories.

DM: I mean this sounds like the consummate Joni Mitchell album to me.

JM: Well, it's ... it's a synthesis of ideas, isn't it?

DM: Mm-hmm.

JM: It brings a lot of things together. Like I've done so many interviews on this trip and I've read so many reviews and I've seen all kinds of opinions, right?

DM: Mm-hmm.

JM: Some ... I'll start with other people's opinions; that's what critics usually do, before they get to their own, right? (Laughs).

DM: Well, you know, I didn't get a press kit. And all I did was just read some books I have on you from a long time ago -

JM: Oh.

DM: -- and I've been listening to the album over and over again for two days. And so that's what I've got is my impressions.

JM: Okay. Well, what I wanted to do - part of the concept was I wanted to anchor the rhythms down a little more, they've been kind of flying down, you know, with the jazz excursion, you know, like the "Mingus" project. Because I don't consider the other things I did jazz so much as I was joined by people who play jazz, you know. Took it out into kind of a Jackson Pollock zone, you know, where people drew lines in the air over white space in an attractive way, but there was no real anchoring of graphic design in a certain way. It was all very abstract expressionist almost, right?

DM: Mm-hmm.

JM: So, you know, I wanted to get more minimal, which I think rock and roll is more - you know, it's still got a lot of expression, but structurally it's more minimal, right?

DM: Mm-hmm.

JM: So I was trying to bring it back there. With the ideas, there was a lot of summation on love. I wrote a lot of positive love songs, like that expressed a feeling, right?, an unqualified feeling, "Yes, I do," you know, like no debates which was kind of unusual ...

DM: Right, right. Like "Solid Love" hits me that way.

JM: Yeah. It's just real present tense and how you feel right then, you know, without saying "Oh, but what if," and "maybe" and "then again."

DM: Some of the reservations seem to be gone.

JM: Right.

DM: That motif of disappointment seems to have dissipated a bit.

JM: And so, you know, it's got a lot of cheer, it's got a lot of good cheer in it. I find that in playing these songs in concert, we play a lot of the more positive love songs towards the end of the show. And I look -- I like the way the show builds because it gets -- builds towards positive energy, almost like a happy ending, you know?

DM: Mm-hmm.

JM: Which is really nice in performance, because it gives you a lot of energy at the tag, right?

DM: Are you still doing the acoustic set first? Is that what you're doing?

JM: I only play acoustic guitar on one song.

DM: Really? I thought Charlie said to me last night something about you do an acoustic set.

JM: Well, I play alone - I play acoustic piano on one song and dulcimer, which is acoustic - but I play electric guitar by myself, which is like acoustic with just a different sound.

DM: Mm-hmm. Tell me, you're talking so much about love in an upbeat, cheery way and all that, does this have anything to do with getting married last November?

JM: You know, it certainly is - oh, yeah.

DM: If you don't mind my asking. I mean, you know, here's the woman who wrote "Song for Sharon" and said she wouldn't get married. And so many of your songs seem to be about disappointment and having to choose between being yourself and being with someone else.

JM: Well, it's hard to put a hyper-creative person into a permanent relationship. It's hard enough in more organized situations. Tedium can eat it up. But, you know, it's just hard to structure coupling in this business and sustain it. People are all drifting off in different directions all the time, whether you're an actor or a musician, there's like separations and so on. You know, Larry and I working together, and we work together really well. You know, our arguments are real constructive. You know, we get along real good.

DM: Do you feel like you've moved to a place where you're more ready for the compromises and the commitment?

JM: Yeah, I do and ... yeah, it's worth it to me.

DM: Yeah, it's worth it to you now.

JM: Yeah.

DM: That's great to hear you say that (laughs).

JM: Sharon Bell, getting back to that song, so we do it in the show, and the last verse is probably the only thing in the show that when I come to it that seems like removed from the chronology of my own life. And the last verse, "Sharon, you've got a husband ..." that line, you know, is the only one that seems theatrical. Not theatrical, but like a role rather than personal statement -

DM: Because you've changed so much.

JM: But what it was was when we were kids, she was going to marry - she was into voice lessons and, you know, performed in adjudicated classical competitions, right? She was the singer. And I liked to be out in the country so I was going to marry a farmer and she was going to be a famous singer. And it was just so peculiar that fate had these childhood fantasies reversed.

DM: Yeah. I've seen the same thing happen with my girlfriends.

JM: Where one of you would say, "I'm going to be a journalist," right? And you ended up being a journalist, right?

DM: (Laughs.) Well, let's see, where else do I want to go with this record. Hmm. There's a song that kind of sounds like you're talking about my generation, "Chinese Café" in the medley.

JM: Right.

DM: What do you think about your generation there? I keep getting images of "Hissing of Summer Lawns" in that too as well.

JM: There is a generality to it, you know, like anytime that you make a specific statement, there are others who have the same specifics. That's where your generality comes in, right? So basically I'm addressing myself to an incident, like just, you know, the backflash in the song is "Unchained Melody" and there's also a quote from "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," which has the same melody pretty much, you know? "Tonight you're mine completely / da da da da da ..." they're almost the same notes. Backflash is sitting around in jukeboxes, you know, listening to romantic ballads, you know, over a Coca-Cola, you know, hanging out - like "Happy Days," right? Like in a "Happy Days" kind of joint? That was our Chinese Café, you know? And then coming back and seeing her kids, you know, teenage, going to the same places that I used to, the same pool hall, you know, like hanging -- Some new places had sprung up, obviously, but some of the places are at least in the same zone, they're on the same strip, the management has changed. And because my life has been that of a prolonged adolescence, you know, this industry gives you in a way ... it is. It's responsible but to adolescent ...

DM: You mean it gives you permission to be impulsive and reinforces your creativity?

JM: More so than the straight life or not to say that there aren't impulsive people living in those circumstance and coloring housework with it, you know? Mainly what it's about is like change and the passage of time. Like "Unchained Melody" talks about time going by so slowly. It does when you're sitting in class waiting for school's out, and the older you get, time seems to go speeding by. You know, I don't know whether those are illusions or it's a physical curve or whether it's physics or what, you know.

DM: Yeah. Some of the songs on this record sound like you're kind of more objective and maybe just slightly more distant than you used to be. Not so much as your catharsis right then but looking back at ways that you used to be.

JM: Well, I have this friend of mine who was very well educated in a literary way who used to pass on to me bits and pieces of his knowledge. And one of the things that he said, whether it's true or not, was that lyric poetry belongs to your teens and your 20's. Your 30's begin to produce epic poetry because everything that you do is a variation on something you've done before or a few times before or many times before.

DM: Kind of like rewriting your history, or rewriting your past through new eyes.

JM: Yeah, so everything that happens to you, it's not that you haven't done it before, it's that you're coming in on it on a different tack. Your perspective is shifting on it. You're doing -- the actions are the same, you're seeing it from different angles all the time, right, so ... And then he said the last thing, of course, is the tragedian which is the final, like, overview in a way, like you sort of withdraw like an eagle from the affairs and see more planetary things going on, you know. But all those, you know, like "my feelings," like the poetry is wrapped like - you know Rimbaud? He quit writing when he was 19. His stuff was very personal --

DM: A lot of those poets did.

JM: Yeah, they wrote a personal outgushing of their feelings and their reactions. You know, at a certain point, you start to get other points - you start to see yourself aside doing that. Like a lot of the New Wave writing isn't that personal. It's almost as if they saw that aside and came up with the idea show us what you see but not what you feel. Like I feel a lot of detachment among the writing. And sometimes it's good because of that and sometimes it doesn't have any meat, you know?

DM: Yeah.

JM: Like people who are all engulfed in their personal feelings of like the '70s writers were in danger of being personal to the point of where no one else could relate to it -

DM: Yeah, kind of self-indulgent distancing.

JM: Right, like that's the line you had to walk, like where's the line, you don't want to cross over it, where my feelings get thrown back on me, but you don't see yourself in it. You don't see - it's then just kind of a jack-off (laughs).

DM: Yeah, the sharing quality isn't there as much.

JM: But sometimes I listen to some of the writing like "the next movement" so to speak. And every once in a while something personal crops up in it, and it's like really refreshing to me.

DM: Yeah, I wonder how you look at the violent psychedelic punch of the New Wave. It's a kind of a minimalism in itself, that nursery rhyme lyrics and that sort of thing. And I wonder how you look at that. I feel like an anthropologist sometimes when I go hear punk bands. Because part of me remembers that energy from when I was younger. And rock and roll concerts had this feel to them like you could come in a costume, you know, whether you dressed like that the rest of the week. And you could really participate on a level that you can't in, say, theater, where you sit back and watch - but you're given a kind of permission to be a kind of performer yourself when you get there. And the punks in this town are amazing. I mean they get up on stage. It's almost - it happens at every concert. They all - loads of them fill the stage and sing with the people because they know all the songs. And they jump off the stage into a crowd of people and do incredible gymnastics and acrobatics, and land into each other's arms. Of course, it's most men doing this. It's kind of a variation of slam dancing. And they've got this real pagan ritual feel to it. When I go see them I'm kind of an observer because I don't quite move that fast anymore. My heart doesn't go that fast. And I kind of like melody too.

But I was curious how you see that kind of music. It's so distant from feeling yet when I ask them, when I talk to them, "Well, how do you relate to this? it seems so distant and cold," and they tell me, "This is how we feel. This is how we feel. We feel angry." They're saying it's a feeling, they're saying stoicism is a feeling.

JM: I haven't been to - like the punk rock fair that I've been to haven't been that way, radical spectacle. There was a lot of costumery. It was kind of a face lift on something borrowed, more than something that innovat- -- that sounds to me like what is that movie - "Rocky Horror Show"?

DM: Uh-huh.

JM: That's the first time I heard of anything like that developing, that kind of media participation. So that's some years ago. So what you're describing I haven't seen anything like that. But I can understand the frustration of it - when I talk of pop music, I put it in an English setting, it makes more sense to me than it does in this culture. That may be naïve -

DM: You mean the British youth?

JM: Yeah, I can see their - to me, their dead ends are more apparent to me than they are here. I mean here I feel the dead ends because I'm thin-skinned, in spite of my financial - you know, I'm taken care of in that way but still culturally I feel certain things although I don't see the specifics. You know what I mean?

DM: Yeah.

JM: You feel an apathy or a general tonality slide over cultures from time to time, you know, like -

DM: Well, what about the dead end in music? I mean that's what a lot of them are saying, that the music reached a dead end, the formulas are just too pat. And they said let's give the instruments to the people who have ideas, not necessarily technicians. And they think that they're getting some guts into that.

JM: That's, that's -

DM: I mean I feel like you have approached some dead ends at certain points because you kept evolving, going from folk, to jazz folk, to a rock-y kind of jazz to pure jazz.

JM: To me, in a way they're like the Dadaists, it's like when the masters that they admired, when they met them in person they found them brooding and pedantic in coffeehouses and, you know, already into the epic zone when they're boiling with hot blood and so on and everything. And they had to sort of thumb their nose at it. So I see it as like that, as a transitional thing. I mean Picasso and the Cubists, when they entered into that Cubist kind of, you know, collaborative kind of cult, you know, they had already said the end has come to modern painting, you know.

DM: Right.

JM: And yet they continued and Picasso found his own voice, you know, and continued to work for many years after they decided that. Now, I kind of relate to it that way. I think in a way some things are dead. For instance, I like a certain amount of virtuosity that has all kinds of angry fingers pointed at it in view of this new rawness. And a lot of the new rawness is just as formulated and without chops as some of the music with more technical ability. Although there are raw, fresh ideas and sounds coming out of it, you know, new colors - textures that I would like to and will incorporate in my music when I can find a way - when it becomes a part of me. When I've absorbed it long enough to put it out without just liking it like putting it on like -

DM: When you can put your own original stamp on it -

JM: Like pink and gray like a banner. Without just taking it on like a trend.

DM: Yeah, I can see you doing that.

JM: The parts that I like, there are some things that I like a lot like certain synthesizer sounds and - that I haven't really started to incorporate yet. You know, I still see - I think the show that we're putting on now is really good. It's one of the best shows that I've put on, um, as far as a balance of emotion, you know? You know, and there's lightness, and it can all be misinterpreted because people expect you to be a certain way, so if they see me as someone they loved as a melancholic damsel in distress, you know, having a good time, you know, sometimes they'll call it "guile." (Laughs.) You know what I mean? It's like it's some kind of Mae West joke rises up in you on stage. You know, they think, you know, you're not supposed to be like that. So ...

DM: Well, do you see yourself now more as a jazz artist --

JM: Oh, no, no.

DM: -- with a rock orientation subordinate to that, or what? I mean I have a hard time trying to find labels for you because I have to find some way of describing you.

JM: Well, it's really tricky. You know, I've always just wanted to -- I've followed my own interests, like having - you know, like starting in folk music because A) - I'm going to A, B you here - because I could master it. It was a good place of departure. It was simple, portable, you know. And then with that next evolution into folk-rock which simply is adding pieces. Rock wouldn't go with my music too well. It had to - the rhythms and the harmonies of it, the colors of it were different. So I ended up playing with jazz musicians. But it wasn't really jazz that I was making. It was neither/nor and it wasn't even fusion which was something else, which had more funk roots in it, it had different tributaries leading into it. So that was a confusing tree so what is this music? It was just simply playing with musicians who could hear certain things that was part of the music that came out of me. Then the Mingus project was a pure jazz invitation. And that was a real baptism in a certain thing. And on the other side of that, a lot of the vocal, like put words and sing old sax solos and things, my voice started working, picked up some jazz singer's colorations, more jazz players' actually, I think, than jazz vocalists, I think things even came off of Miles or a saxophone player, you know, like more than Ella, like I don't scat like (scats), you know, all that stuff.

You know, and the next thing, of trying to bring it now because rock and roll got interesting to me again, back into the rock and roll arena. But it is still kind of sophisticated, and that's where a lot of people get annoyed because it's sophisticated - like I saw one review in LA where they said, you want real sophistication you go see Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Mel Torme. You know, then they had - I mean it was kind of a silly article in a way. Then they had the next column was pseudo-sophisticates, in which they included Stephen - what's his name? "Send in the Clowns" - Sontag? And Rickie Lee Jones in the same breath. Then they had a third category, you know, in which they lumped Elvis Costello and I, you know. I couldn't really understand exactly what he was getting at, but my point is that for some reason often, people seem to think - it's like any church. You know, like, churches, you're either Baptist or you're Catholic or you're this or you're that. It's like racial hybrids, you know, you're either Jewish or you're black or you're this or you're that, if you're a mutt you know that you're an American maybe but hybrids to me are kind of interesting, like beautiful things. Like racial mixes and so on.

So what I'm messing around with is messing -- mixing a lot of things together, you know, and to greater and lesser successes, some things work better than others. But trying -- hopefully trying to find a pure idiom to come out of it.

DM: Do you see this album as your most successful attempt at that?

JM: Um ...

DM: I mean it has a lot of everything that you've ever done in it.

JM: I never thought of it that way. I think that, you know, other things are successful for different reasons. You know, like "Hejira" to me is a good album all the way through or "Court and Spark" is too, you know. You've got to take the time that they were made into consideration and the influences that were distilled at that time to make those pieces. Codal (?) music back around the time of "Blue," you know, there's a lot of things that come in and sit there, and come back out again. But to make music in this time period - The Police, okay, there's a good example. They're as jazzy sometimes as my music to gets. They seem to like some of the same kind of voicings. They can get it minimal enough that people recognize it as rock and roll. They're pretty good writers, the content of their things, you know, is good and simply presented. I love a lot of their stuff.

DM: The "goo, goo, goo" [sic]?

JM: I love that song!

DM: I loved that song when it first started. It got played too much on the radio but I loved it.

JM: I haven't heard a song that knocked me out like that, when I heard it about that time I'd run and turn up a radio, or wherever I heard it, I would just, like, spring into action.

DM: It's like a babytalk song.

JM: And what it was saying if you listen to the lyrics was really smart, like politicians, polits, you know, trying to seduce you with rhetoric. And that's all well and fine, but I have to say is (laughs) - da doo doo doo.

DM: Goo, goo, goo. I'm still interested in your painting. You keep making references - I noticed years ago, things that I read about you, you'd make references to visual painting with words. And you keep making references to phases, and the progression, or however you want to call it, to the evolution of painting in music. And I'm wondering what you want to do with your painting now, where you want to go with that.

JM: Well, I'm still doing that. You know, I'm trying to synthesize interests. You know, I like this from over here. I'm eclectic, you know. So for me I haven't had time to really develop it. You know, I've got a good piece here or something I think is successful, but I haven't really found my voice I don't think yet. I don't think -- I'm still a student to a certain degree.

DM: Do you ever think you'll slide into that later on?

JM: Oh, yeah. I've been sliding in it all the way along. And the last three years I've spent more time at it than I have before.

DM: You have a great set-up, you can do your own album covers.

JM: (Laughs) Yeah, right.

DM: That's a great set-up. Do you have your canvases at your house? I'm just curious.

JM: Yeah.

DM: Really? I bet that's amazing. I was thinking about what you do with the jazz orchestration in your songs is kind of like painting to me. You know, you painted in your earlier songs, you painted with words, and then when you started moving into jazz, it felt to me like you were painting - that those jazz sounds were colors as well.

And my main job at the Statesman is as a dance critic, and Martha Graham's work has been described as the 'landscape of the unconscious.' I don't know if you've heard that quote about her but I have a lot. And that's kind of what I thought about how you do your jazz as well. Like it stems from real deep within is what I'm saying.

JM: And you know like Wayne Shorter? I love working with him for that reason in that he "draws" well. Like to me he's a great painter. He draws well, like, his lines. To me, music is like audio lines, right? You know, so when he draws a line through the air or against a texture or against other instruments which is like spattering, right? You know, the way he draws it, he shapes it and bends it and where he stops it, you know, his sense of design is very good. But also he's very witty so that he'll take a lyric and paint - it's where he gets -- he can actually do figurative painting with a linear horn, you know, with a linear instrument. You know, like to me if I say "people don't know how to love" on "Be Cool," he'll go (sounds) sounds like a male voice arguing and then a high female voice argues back, you know? Now, to me he makes -

DM: Now, what song is this?

JM: On "Be Cool." And there's another place in that too where it says - where I go up to a high note talking about how I'm not going to lose my cool at the peak of that high note, he puts this phrase, this maniacal like 'losing it' note. Like ahhhh!, comic shriek. And then immediately he regains his cool and he plays this real, not "Silk Stockings" but this quote? Like this tender entreaty to a woman, right? It's got a real comic relief because it's like, you know, it's almost like Laurel & Hardy to me, but it's done - you know, that's another kind of musician. Or even among the painters. Not that many had it all. You know, they'd have the passion or the guts or they'd have the draftsmanship with a certain sterility, or, you know, to have the improvisational thing, the freeness, the gut level, the cerebral, tenderness, the full emotional spectrum, and then the wit (end of side one of cassette)

Part 2

DM: Well, it's amazing to think that you've been able to fuse what some people would call dialectics in your talent, being a visually oriented person and a word and musically oriented person. That would tear some people apart at some points in their development, trying to decide which way to go.

JM: Well, it has at some points -

DM: And with you it's worked for you.

JM: Well, sometimes it feels like -- at some times they're all different insanities. Each of those different pursuits, you know, three entirely different heads. And sometimes you think, oh, you're never going to be masterful at anything, you're never going to know it all, because there's not enough time in the lifetime. Film is the only thing really.

DM: What is?

JM: Film. Like moviemaking, you know, has to put together a team to pull all that together, or have the overview for all of it.

DM: I know what you're saying. I started in this business as a dancer and I used to write in journals and write poetry. And a part of me was very oriented towards very visual kinetic forms, and another part of me is very oriented towards written forms. And one seemed to be temporal and ephemeral, and the other seemed to be kind of intellectual and tying reality down, defining it, somehow putting it into words. And I kept trying to figure out which way I was going to go. And one of the things I came across was film because it has everything. I mean it's a moving canvas and it has narrative. And it has all those intellectual narratives, literary connotations, and the aural stuff too, and the movement which is just real primal to people that watch somebody move and go through movement.

JM: You know, I suppose there are films that have been made and maybe they're shown underground pieces that I don't know about. But, you know, like there's a kind of film that I haven't really seen, you know, like in the commercial arena, I've seen poetic commercial films, great moments of it, but I don't know whether it would even - you would sustain - it would just be "too too" or something.

DM: Have you ever wanted to make a film?

JM: Yeah, but I think the kind of film that I want to make, you know, I don't know where you'd put it. You know, it would be expensive and it wouldn't - you know, that's the thing about film is it's a big money gamble and you have to get investors, and investors they want to see return. And some of the ideas, you know, you have to figure out a way to do it on a real shoestring. You know, almost do - not do - do the ideas in a crude manifestation of them and be happy with that. You know, I mean they would be best suited to the whole slick-o, eleganza state of the art situation -

DM: You lose your control.

JM: You'd lose control, where would they go? Who'd come to look at them? but they would incorporate sequences of textural movement. Like I got a Super 8 camera in Milano. I've been shooting out the window and I get rushes off the random effect of cars going by out open windows, where occasionally a driver turns his face to the lens, or an orange car follows a green car follows a - just the random color of the machinery that goes by - stuff like that.

DM: So like a Yoko Ono film.

JM: Yeah, or like Warhol's "Sleep" or 24 hours on the Empire State Building, almost a realm of absurd it's so personal. Like I still think like that's like fine art. Fine art because it's like so individuated that -

DM: Without commercial potential so often.

JM: But I still think that somehow or other, you know, because film has got to evolve and people are used to from commercials, they've assimilated real short hits of those kind of things. But the temptation is how to expand it so you'd - I don't know, to talk about it ...

DM: Well, I think film is amazingly interesting to me, and I've never been able to figure out, again, the money situation. You know, when I was a dancer, I always had film students in college asking me if I would be in their - I don't know, if I would just dance and they could take pictures of me. They did some really interesting stuff. It was their project though and I got some ideas from that. But something about that moving canvas and how you sculpt it, it leaves so many options that you can't do in reality, you know, kinds of colors you can't mix, things that you can't do because of gravity as a dancer, or things you physically couldn't do for 30 minutes straight, but you can edit it so it looks like you did --

JM: Right.

DM: -- yet you lose a certain amount of control as well and that live quality also. Even the best films, that feel like they're hugging you when you're watching them, they still have that distant effect which I don't know if we'll ever get to that point. I don't think people have gotten into 3D ever got anywhere closer to us in our seats, you know.

JM: No, it still is just an imitation of art - of life, you know. Like, so that's the thing, the way I see, like my eyes ... like often the composition is at its most interesting from peripheral, and by the time you zero in on a shot, there's a million ways to frame things up really.

DM: Yeah, and the choices are all left up to the director and the cameraman whereas when you're doing a canvas, when you're doing a dance, you have different parameters. The camera dictates what you see, and there's less choices -

JM: There are, you know -

DM: -- which is what abstract art has become about, to me, is that Jackson Pollock leaves loads of choices. With blank canvases you can see all kinds of things: the color of light hitting the canvas and where you're standing and what your mood happens to be that day. Kind of invites the viewer to invent his own painting rather than kind of spoon feeds you, what he wants you to see.

But we're really getting off here, aren't we? (Laughs.)

JM: Yeah, this is deep shit, Debi! (Laughs.)

DM: I know, I know. I'm real eclectic, I kind of have this thing. That's why I went into journalism 'cause I found out I could write about anything and rather than having to decide whether I wanted to be a dancer or not, I could use writing to just explore the whole world with and meet all kinds of people. And so that's what I do. I just connect everything as much as I can and then I pull it apart again and see what happens.

But the next thing I'm going to ask you, somebody said that they think you did a video, an MTV video. Did you do an MTV video?

JM: We did at rehearsal, we filmed three songs and I think they used two. One of them we just did live performances rather than lip sync and we did just straight ahead overhead lighting. They were good performances and --

DM: This wasn't one of those connived little short story things?

JM: No. Those things, there's always such a great opportunity but there's always the woman in the stiletto heels that steps on the guy's hand when he's down, you know?

DM: It's driving me crazy!

JM: I mean the posturing, the general attitude, the woman, the beautiful man-eater syndrome. I talked with guys, like, at a certain stage about making a video, and the ideas that they came up with made my blood run cold. You know, they were so - they took any - they pushed it over, you know, into some other zone, so we just ended up going with something real simple and I --

DM: Is that airing now in the States? I mean is it being distributed?

JM: I don't know where it's gone but it's on Home Box Office or Z or one of the L.A. channels they're using them, like they use shorts.

DM: Uh-huh, but it's not on MTV, right?

JM: I don't know about that. That I didn't hear.

DM: Hmm. Because I hate that stuff. I don't watch it. I can't stand to watch it. It's like when radio - what is it? When television took over radio, you could listen to a radio show and they were talking about the boogie man, and the boogie man in my mind was so much worse, my imagination went wild, the kind of boogie man that I could create from listening to a drama over a radio. And then when you get TV you see the boogie man in person like Hitchcock. Then I see MTV and I hear these songs that's made my imagination go crazy and then what they do - you know, what's in front of my eyes has nothing to do with what I felt. And it ruins it for me.

JM: That's what - my girlfriend and I had this idea. We had to bail out the last two I did, we did a film of it and the way it was shot, you know, it was, you know, they turned the event into a one-man show. You know, with me editing it was really pretty dull. I thought, gee, we've got to have some more pictures in this thing. So we had no budget and we started -- we raided old film libraries, we raided old movie outtakes, we cut things in to augment, and I found out a lot about that. Like, you know, if you put - it didn't always work, but if you're talking about an object and you show the object, it would like kill it. It's like the doubling up of it was insulting somehow or other. So you had to - like instead of - and they don't usually do this. They put it pretty literally together, you know?

DM: They do. They're singing, 'we're driving down the street' and you see them driving down the street, whereas when I hear 'driving down the street,' I can feel all kinds of things, like I'm moving or I feel all revved up and ready to go -

JM: Or you might even do (makes sound) 50 different flash shots of different drives, like real fast, in your mind and anytime you listen to it those 50 different shots could shuffle up and be different. So the best thing that I found out about film was like trying, more like dance, is to get into movement. Okay, like put in a moving picture, I don't know of what, but something that augments, that doesn't rob - like you never see - like "Coyote" for instance. We did a film of "Coyote" and that was the first thing that I'd shot and directed and I didn't know what I was doing. And I did know enough to try to keep Coyote's face abstracted, like Coyote's face and eyes only so you never saw a whole face. So whoever your Coyote was it wasn't completely robbed of him, you know?

DM: The viewer still had their imagination that could work.

JM: It pushed the whole thing into like melodrama, it took all the levity out of the song. So we went to National Geographic and we got this footage, I said, "Could we see all your coyote footage?" And they happened to need to use "Big Yellow Taxi" for something so it was the perfect barter opportunity. So they said we'll trade you if you find anything. So I found this footage of a coyote chasing a mouse against snow. So it was like very Japanese, it was all white background. Everything, like the mouse runs into a snow bank and the coyote sticks his nose in the hole so we put that over "peeking through keyholes in numbered doors" where before we had a hotel room with a door on it literally. And then it says "And he drags me out on the dance floor" and the coyote hits this snow bank with his paw, whacks it, and the mouse goes up in the air in an arc and drops down and he chases him. We put all that in. And when people first saw it they didn't realize they could laugh. It just turned out beautiful I think. And that way you didn't ever have to give up your own romance concerning the piece.

DM: Yeah, it's one of my favorites, that song.

JM: Oh, you like that one?

DM: I love that song! I love that one and I love "Song for Sharon." I wrote those -- I typed those words out for my aunt.

JM: Oh, yeah?

DM: Yeah, I did. My aunt and I have gotten really close as we've gotten older. We seem to be going through the same stages of life and she's in her mid 40's or something like that and she's not married. I don't know, that song just seemed to say it, to me, how I feel sometimes and how she feels sometimes and the things we talk about. And ideas we talk about and your independence and your growth, that you want to share it with somebody but it just doesn't seem to work out and you reflect back on what you thought love was going to be but now it seems like you don't want to be cynical and you don't want to be bitter either.

JM: Yeah, you still want to keep going for it.

DM: Yeah. Well, I still keep going for it. I'm just a fool. People keep saying, "Toughen up, Debi!" you know, "develop calluses," you know, but when it feels real good, I couldn't feel as much. So I just burn and feel great sometimes too.

JM: Well, you're still here. You've just gone for the big dynamic (laughs).

DM: Yeah, it's exciting! The roller coaster's more exciting. Rather than having some kind of -

JM: (makes sound) a drone.

DM: -- heavy cement shoes on that are real safe. Forget that.

But we're going all over the place here. I've got to make sure I ask you some questions that -

JM: Okay, I guess I've got to wrap pretty soon.

DM: I know.

JM: But I'm enjoying this. This is better than an interview.

DM: Oh, this is a lot of fun. I'm having a great time! Let's see, back down to earth here. I read somewhere that you said that you felt like you were older in your 20's than you are now. I don't know if you recall saying that, but it really struck me as real interesting.

JM: Well, those times were pretty difficult and, you know, we, the singer/songwriters, the poets of that time, inherited a lot of responsibility, ludicrous responsibility. We were told we could change the world, right?

DM: Yeah.

JM: So that'll make you old. You know how presidents go gray overnight? So it was partly the times and partly like the longer you live all of the ages you've been and will be come in and out on you almost like premonitions. I'd be walking down the street, like today I'm in a really good mood, right? And my legs will want to be one big gangle, like I'll want to break into dance in the middle of the street and look at things that aren't there and stare at people with my mouth open. It's like a three-year-old head or a seven-year-old head or parts, they seem to come out like old acid flashes on you from time to time. And old age too, like some days you start thinking - not decrepitly but with a resignation or - moods come over you that feel like central casting has called upon you to play out the old lady zone or -- you know?

DM: Sounds like you're younger than that now, like that song.

JM: Yeah, I think I feel a lot more -

DM: You sound happier these days, maybe not as serious. Maybe it just isn't - maybe you just can't figure it all out sometimes.

JM: Yeah.

DM: You've just got to "be."

JM: Yeah, exactly.

DM: That's what I've come up with. I just "be." I'm not sure I have a definite handle on this album, but let me tell you what I think so far. It sounds like some of it is reflecting back to older material. There's a song "You Dream Flat Tires"?

JM: Right.

DM: And that sounds like it's about romantic failures.

JM: Yeah.

DM: And like "Man to Man" is kind of a look back at the female Don Juan, kind of wondering can I settle down. So what I'm saying is in the album I'm hearing these upbeat kind of songs that are saying I can make a commitment, I want to make a commitment, I can deal with the compromises now. But there's some looking back there, still some material that deals with romantic failures.

JM: Well, you know, the collection comes from a period, a period of over three years so it was all written at different times. And anyway, you can hit a mood - I could hit a mood tomorrow in the middle of - and bring out of it a song, just like you'd write a short story about something that happened to you when you were 17, the tone, would have no bearing on my present thought if I didn't will it that way. If I didn't allow myself to go back and reflect on.

DM: Well, generally, do you think you're going to start writing more upbeat material or stay in that vein? Or do you know?

JM: I don't know. I don't really think so. No, you know, I think all of those things will come and go because there's that many moods and places to reflect on. I still will draw a lot on past experience and - I don't know really where the poetic content is going to go. The next project I've got a couple of things in the can and they seem to be mostly about advertising seduction (laughs) you know, just coincidentally that's what they've come out about.

DM: Do you think marriage is going to change what kind of material you write? I mean will you - I don't know how to put this - will you stop writing the 'I'm disappointed in love' songs and write, um ...

JM: No, I don't think so. In a way I think that's my forte. I mean if a new twist on it came along. I mean I wouldn't want to just repeat myself. If I wrote something and say, 'well, I've written this before or better,' there's no new insights into this - there would be no point. But - I don't know, it's hard to really say ahead of time. It's easier to look back over it. You know, I think of Picasso's work, so influenced each period by the women that he was with.

DM: He was such a womanizer.

JM: And the woman that dominated every period produced a different kind of art, you know. And Jacqueline which was probably his best soul match, the last one, really had more of a feminine aesthetic, more voluptuousness, a roundness, not the angles that the first woman, I forget, the dancer, was pretty shrewish and all those angular ones with their tongues out and screaming and weeping, and all of that disappeared. But I think that, in a softened way, showed up in later things. Almost like maybe he woke up one day and thought about her.

DM: Do you think you'll continue in this jazz idiom? I mean you seem like you're really sticking with that. I mean I'm not asking for crystal ball things, but just some sensations you have.

JM: I'll tell you what I think about jazz in general. Like any other idiom, there's only a certain amount of it that you love. You know, and the rest of it owing to your ignorance, your inability to get -- or just it's a different wavelength, it doesn't have a voice for you. It might be great to someone else, it might strike the perfect chord in them. So there may be a lot in the world of jazz that I haven't grasped or hit that chord or begun to appreciate. But I really - aside from the open voicings and the spontaneity, the improvisational, the surprise element of players playing along and stumbling onto something, you know, wonderful, whimsical, passionate, you know, the surprise element of it appeals to me more than rock and roll. But the groove and the simplicity of rock and roll is increasingly appealing to me. So it's kind of like, well, I love daffodils and I love gardenias, I have no real - I don't belong to one camp or the other. I'm critical of a lot of things in jazz is not a lot of it now having explored it for several years, five, six years, a lot of it becomes common to me now. Like there's nothing there for me to incorporate into my own music. You know, every once in a while you come upon something that's uncommon like Jaco, you know, when I first met him was a radical change in that end of the music. Wayne Shorter who's just classically exquisite. You know, I'll never get sick of him. You know, even in what he does, he's like constantly surprising to me even though --

DM: It sounds like you like that combination of surprise and improvisation, and kind of go where you feel like going -

JM: I like -

DM: -- and also that rhythmic predictability of rock that we never seem to tire of, the 2/4 time.

JM: Yeah, I like that. I like it kind of anchored, but I can't give up the other part of it, it's the mystic or something. If it gets all too figured out, pre-figured out, logical, it's the process - it just takes some fun out of the process.

DM: Tell me, is "Wild Things Run Fast" about you?

JM: It's, no, it's just fiction. It's just a vignette. A lot of those things are fictional. You know, I heard the heater cutting in and out myself, like I was in the storm but nothing surrounding it. You know, it was just more or less a dream.

DM: But that's real different from what you used to do. What you used to do was so confessional, right?

JM: A lot of it, yeah.

DM: And you've really pulled back a lot now. Is that a true statement? Have I got that right?

JM: Well, I think if I had something - you know, I'm willing still - there's still some confessional material on that attitude, there's some vulnerability. Like, I'd rather put myself in a vulnerable position in the song if I think that by being that sacrificial lamb I serve some purpose. You know, like if it really kind of embarrasses me to say some things, really that's when I should leave it in. Like in "Man to Man" there's a line, "I sure can be phony when I get scared." I thought, oh, gee, why do I want to - in rock and roll you stand up and bluff, you know, how good you are in bed or something, you know, why do I want to get up here and say there are times when I can be phony. Who wants to admit that? But the first time that I performed it up at the Berkeley Festival, when I sang it there was a gasp, an audible gasp went up from the audience, both male and female. And it put a shiver down my spine. I thought, oh, this line has got to be left in. It obviously --

DM: Catches people.

JM: It releases something, it has a power, not in a cynic, not in an intellectual, you know, it won't do anything for them and they'll throw it back on me and take it literally and say, oh, she's a phony, you know. But in those people it has the power to make people see something about themselves and feel relieved. So those kind of things - there's another one in Betsy's blues in "Moon at the Window" that's like that, about being hard on herself. Those things about I'm okay/you're okay stuff. I think that's good. I think that riches, like literature's still discovering itself. Since people don't read, since literary -- literature is becoming an elite climate -

DM: It always was for a long time except for the Elizabethan times, or romantic times, or Victorian times when people sat around and read it to each other. But again people said literature was dead too. They said painting was dead before the German expressionists came along. I don't know, it's a weird time to live in when you're growing up and all the things you're so excited about people say are dead (laughs) you know, years before you were born.

JM: Like now you know why people love the swing band stuff.

DM: Yeah, it can't be dead. If nothing else, it just recycles itself. There's no such thing as death. But anyway, I've got to let you rest. This is your night off I heard.

JM: Yeah.

DM: So go have fun. And I've just enjoyed talking to you.

JM: Yeah, it was really nice.

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Added to Library on June 5, 2008. (10865)


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