'Jazz killed my pop career' says Joni Mitchell. Now with a new voice and a new message of protest, she's trying again. Martin Townsend reports.
TWENTY years and a dozen albums into her career, Joni Mitchell has decided she doesn't like her voice. There are plenty who might agree with her - Mitchell's piercing soprano and semi-operatic yodel has drawn as many sneering detractors as fans since her debut album, Clouds, nearly 20 years ago.
But experimentation has always been Mitchell's keynote, and on her new LP, Chalk Marks In The Rain - partly recorded in England - she puts her voice through hoops, attempting to mimic the precise tones of various duettists (including Peter Gabriel and Don Henley), and multi-tracking her own voice in different characterisations.
"During my last album I told Elliot Roberts (former manager and long-time friend) that I didn't like the sound of my voice," she explains. "He said: 'Oh great, Joni - you hate the one thing you can't change.' Well I'm starting to do that now."
Chalk Marks will not be in the shops until February - but a 'new' live video, Refuge Of The Road, appears this week. A documentary of her 1983 tour, drawing mostly on material from her Wild Things Run Free album, it could mark the end of a vocal style and an era.
The 60-minute video intersperses live performance with offstage and on-the-road footage shot by Mitchell herself.
"I love documentary," she says. "Tape recordings, pictures of parties, holiday snaps - all of them. And some of the footage, I think, accidentally transcended the level of a home movie. There was one scene where the bus was adjacent to a moving train. It was a very dark, grey day and the camera was saying, 'uh-uh, you're not getting anything', but that section of film, I think, is lovely ... just that train gaining momentum."
It's a typical moment for her to pick. As a child, growing up in the "two-block, one church, one hotel town" of Maidstone in Alberta Province, she lived opposite the old railway line and would sit up in bed each morning to watch the one train that always passed daily.
"The weird thing is that years later my parents met the conductor of that train at a party. He said: 'All I remember of your town is a house with Christmas decorations and a kid that used to wave at me.'"
Today she'll still, occasionally, take an overnight express from Los Angeles to Winslow, Arizona. "You leave LA at 9 in the evening," she explains, "and it drops you among rocks and Red Indians at 7 the next morning."
The image of the lone, romantic traveller has dominated Mitchell's work since she left Alberta College of Art in Calgary in the mid-Sixties to sing in Toronto folk clubs. By 1974 - when she moved to the Bel Air home she still shares with second husband, bass-player Larry Klein - she was ready to filter the spiritual wanderings of early hits like Woodstock and Both Sides Now through a more opulent LA atmosphere.
That year's album, Court & Spark, with its lush images of Californian wealth, became her all-time best-seller in America. "It wasn't a studied image change," she says. "I prospered and I moved into a higher rent bracket. It was a natural progression."
Thirteen years on, the traveller finds herself backed into a siding. Recent albums have not sold well on either side of the Atlantic, which she blames on her 1979 project with jazz musician Charles Mingus.
"Jazz killed my pop career stone dead," she says. "After the Mingus album I simply lost my airplay. Most of the radio stations were starting to specialise - and if Mingus was even jazz it was as new a form of it as be-bop was when it first came out. It was eclectic and difficult and radio didn't want to know."
Ironically she now sees a re-emergence of the jazz idiom through Sting's solo albums - "he's going over my old ground" - but Joni's moved on.
Her last album, Dog Eat Dog, which scraped to a measly No 57 in the British charts, marked a return to her protest roots. "The climate at the time was very pro-Reagan and very ra-ra-ra," she explains. "America was regaining its belief in itself, convincing itself that it wasn't in decline. But you'd be out on a freeway and you'd put on your turn signal to change lanes and the attitude suddenly was 'you're not getting in front of me.'
"That had never existed in California before. It was the ugly American - the loud, arrogant American that Europe already knew - being ugly at home."
The album found Mitchell hitting at Reagan and the new Right - and at the "hypocrisy" of TV evangelism and Live Aid on an epic track entitled Ethiopia. "There was a time on American TV when you'd get three evangelical shows in a row all about the plight of Ethiopia - then an appeal," she says. "They'd immediately cut to these people, in Rodeo Drive safari suits, standing among all these starving kids. I'm sure there are evangelists who do genuinely care - but mainly it's such a parody of emotion that no real feelings can get through."
She has similar reservations about Live Aid: "I did the Canadian Live Aid but always, at these things, it's difficult to stay on the beam of why you're actually there. The artists are vying with each other - whatever they say to the contrary - the managements get ugly and don't think people come for the cause - they come because they want to see their favourite stars.
"Actually my manager begged me not to record that track," she adds ruefully, "because it was a very unpopular point of view."
The new album continues the protest trend, but tempers it with typical Mitchell humour. Alongside Dancing Clown - which casts Billy Idol and Tom Petty as bully and victim respectively - there's a track called The Teabag Prophecy, which deals with America's raid on Libya. It was recorded, during the period of the raid, at Peter Gabriel's studio, within sight of Mildenhall airfield. "Every night we'd see the lights from returning planes," says Joni, "and wonder if this was the retaliation."
Chalk Marks In The Rain will probably stand as Joni Mitchell's most collaborative effort to date. But there's still no room for one Prince Nelson Rogers who has cited Joni as his greatest influence, her LP The Hissing Of Summer Lawns as his all-time favourite, and even 'stole' a line from her single, Help Me, for his track, The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker.
Mitchell seems oblivious to the depth of his devotion. "I know him," she says simply, "and we've had abortive attempts to work together. He sent me a song to sing but I said, 'I can't do it, I'm not used to singing things I can't understand.' It was called Emotional Pump and the first line was 'You are my emotional pump, you make my body jump.' It's quite a good song," she adds, "but it's probably a hit for someone else..."