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q&a Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

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July 1996
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Congratulations on your Grammy for Turbulent Indigo. By the way, I saw you at the awards with your new boyfriend and your ex-husband, producer/bassist Larry Klein. He is your ex now, isn't he?

No, we haven't officially divorced yet. As a matter of fact, he broke up with his girlfriend, who was also with us, the day after the event. It's funny-when he's back with his girlfriend he pushes for a divorce, and when he breaks up with her, he slacks off again. (laughs) I call her "the mistress" when I see her, and she gets real upset.

Very '90s of y'all to double-date.

Isn't it? Actually it was for economic reasons: We had to split the cost of the limo.

Oh, come on! After thirty years and seventeen albums, surely you --

No! You don't understand. I don't make much money. I haven't seen a royalty check in twenty years. And at a certain point Geffen [her former label] dammed up my only income -- which is my writer's income from my publishing company -- so I had no money coming in. So I went to David Geffen and said, "Let me go." He said, "Joan, you're not gonna find a better deal out there than this, and I'll keep you here forever -- I'll never drop you." And I said, "Slavery with tenure is not attractive to me."

Why do you think it is that ever since 1974's Court and Spark you've been increasingly invisible?

America is trained to the new, and Joni Mitchell has been around for a while, although each of my albums has been a brand-new ball game. But I spent most of my life out of sync. I mean, I've been blacklisted for a long time.

Blacklisted?

Yeah. Over a personal incident involving an asshole with some power at Rolling Stone.

Has this got something to do with the time they named you Old Lady of the Year? What was that about, anyway?

They made this elaborate diagram charting all these hearts I broke. I mean, I can't date? Am I a sinner for dating? That was kind of shocking. And it was the men on the list who called me up and said they were gonna make a complaint. After that, I was told that the magazine had a policy not to ever say anything nice about me. Like, The Hissing of Summer Lawns was named Worst Album of the Year in Rolling Stone.

And this affected your exposure in general?

Well, a career goes up and down, and the press over the years has gotten more vicious, but my not being played became kind of...conspicuous. "Adult contemporary" wouldn't have me, "pop" wouldn't have me, so for twenty years I did not "fit." My argument was: Look, what Sting and Paul Simon are doing is coming from me -- so why can't we play me where they play them? But those outlets were barred. MTV wouldn't play me at all, and VH1 only occasionally. All these doors were closed -- no one would give me an explanation why.

It's been said that Sting wouldn't have come up with his world-music/fusion bit if you hadn't done it first on Hissing.

(laughs) Sting is a tributary of James [Taylor] and me and we call him our son, so whenever I'd see Sting I'd say, "Hello, son." Because for a long time he liked to think of himself as a pioneer blazing new territory, when in fact he wasn't. He did some bold moves, but blaze a trail? No.

But you have. In 1971 you created your trendsetting confessional masterpiece, Blue. What's its power?

I was beginning an emotional descent at the time of Blue -- they'd call it a nervous breakdown in this country  -- and when you're depressed, everything is up for question. You see how unbelievably phony the world is and most of your survival mechanisms fall away. So that album was made at a time when I had no defenses at all. As many a person has pointed out, Blue works really good if you're really low. These five girls came up to me once in a bar and said, "Joni, before there was Prozac, there was you." (laughs)

Your popularity took a nosedive with your jazz experimentation on Hissing and Mingus. Why do people hate jazz?

Because they don't understand it and they're scared of it. Also, I think Americans are simple -- they like their tragedy in the minor key and their happiness in the major key. But if you give them anything more emotionally complex than that? No. Because emotionally complex chords make you feel emotionally complex things, and I don't think Americans are very emotionally complex.

What do you think of music these days?

It's appallingly sick, for the most part. It's boring chord movement and bad acting.

So how good do you think you are?

If you want to be a songwriter and see what the standard is, you have to take a look at Dylan and me. Dylan tremendously upgraded the American pop song in terms of content, and I...well, musically I'm further out than Dylan, and as a result less popular. But I'm a musical explorer and not just a pop songwriter or an occasional writer of a song or half a song, like these other women. Alanis Morissette writes words, someone else helps set it to music, and then she's kind of stylized into the part. To me, Sheryl Crow is a style invention, and I know some of her inventors. A lot of these women are made, they're not...well, Laura Nyro was not like that. She and I were composers and poets. Of the women who have come up after that, I can't think of anybody who...well, let me put it this way: If you take me to a concert, it'd better be great enough to make me forget that I want a cigarette, and I haven't seen anybody lately who can do that.

I have to say you're sounding rather like something David Crosby once said about you: "Joni's about as humble as Mussolini."

I am an arrogant artist! And I'm sick of the false humility in this business! (thinks about it) And I get really arrogant when they start pitting me against people and saying something or someone's like me when that something is mediocre! And talk about arrogance  -- Crosby has no right to call . . . I mean, I'm fond of Crosby. In fact, when I thought he was gonna die I actually prayed for him. And then when I got my recent Billboard honorary award, I'm sitting in the audience and there's David going, (in a nasal, mocking tone) "I'll tell ya, man, what a great songwriter she is: We came back from Woodstock babbling about it and she wrote that song from our babbling." I thought, "You bastard!" I had that song written before they got back. So when Crosby says I'm as humble as Mussolini, let us please put it in context that he's always ready to take credit where it isn't due, and that's typical -- get a man within four feet of me and he's gonna say he did it.

You've written long and eloquently about relationships through the years, but I'm sure having one with you must not be very easy.

It couldn't be. I'm not a normal female.

You've got one of the greatest voices in pop and you're a chain-smoker. What would get you to quit?

I can't think of anything....And anyway, I'm singing better than ever. Don't you think?

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (6055)

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