Joni. That one word conjures images of a flower child, folksinger and icon — an artist so familiar to us, she almost feels like family.
But a new biography shows that the Canadian musical treasure has long been misunderstood. Maybe it's time to meet the real Joni Mitchell.
In Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell, Postmedia journalist Katherine Monk literally rewrites the book on a musical legend.
The biography explores the creative and intellectual drives behind Mitchell — outlining the thinkers and philosophies that shaped her life and informed her music. It also casts aside misconceptions about the artist.
For starters, Mitchell was never locked into her folk persona. It was largely crafted by David Crosby, who urged her to ditch the mascara, fake eyelashes and designer purse for a natural look.
"She's not the hippie goddess that anyone might take her for," Monk says. "She's considered this winsome, bittersweet blond with this flawless soprano ... (when) her true voice is that of an alto. She's hugely fashion-conscious ... she's always been dressed to the nines and likes designer labels and likes fine stuff. She can swear like a trucker and she loves to dance. She loves to have a party and she loves to have a good time, and her music lends you to believe that she's sort of this martyr for mope ... Joni Mitchell is very complicated. She's not soft; I'd say she's a hard person."
Mitchell is defined by heralded albums such as BLUE and FOR THE ROSES, but the book aims to unravel the varied influences on her creative spirit and world view. It argues that Mitchell's interest in psychology and philosophy — and, in particular, her admiration for Friedrich Nietzsche — shaped her music. The book also examines the influence of Mitchell's contemporaries, including Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the latter with whom she had a brief, intense love affair. An underlying thread in Joni is Mitchell's creative courage and her unwillingness to let others define her as an artist.
"I think at the beginning there was a certain amount of fame drive in her — as there would be in any young artist," Monk says. "(But) she recognized how destructive it was and how it was actually going to taint her creative soul if she went out and tried to simply emulate the successes of her past."
Armed with a recording contract that gave her complete creative freedom, Mitchell followed her own muse — whether it pulled her into jazz, '80s electronic pop or world music.
"She just kept following her own thing and didn't give a crap what anyone else said about it," Monk says. "Everybody called her stubborn and bitchy and difficult. She just did what she wanted to do. And I think to have that kind of confidence is really inspiring."
Initially, Monk worried there would be nothing new to say about an artist who has received endless ink over the years. But after deciding to explore Mitchell's creative process, she picked up a copy of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and hit the jackpot. Monk says so much of the imagery, metaphor and even lyrical fragments in Mitchell's songs can be found in the German thinker's work. Mitchell herself refers to the book in interviews throughout her career, calling it a personal bible.
The book is about a man who abandons his faith in the old gods and traditions, and devotes himself to his own creative spirit. Zarathustra's journey to enlightenment calls for renouncing and overthrowing old values, and then recreating the world — self-destruction followed by self-creation. Zarathustra eliminates the old god — the grand creator — in order for human beings to fully unlock their own creative potential.
Nietzsche's work also calls for a new breed of truth-telling poet to help transform society. Zarathustra laments the lack of poets who are deep, creative thinkers — calling most "mediators and meddlers."
Mitchell's creative output shows she took that message to heart.
"There's this Nietzschean voyage in terms of how her life journey unfolded — from creating a persona, that persona being worshipped, and then destroying that persona — kind of systematically through alternate identities," Monk says. "Here's a story of self-creation and then self-destruction in a way — but always with this underlying thread of creativity — that worked as sort of this personal and spiritual arc (for the biography)."
One of the hurdles Monk faced is Mitchell's aversion to interviews. But the lack of a one-on-one with Mitchell turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It forced Monk to dig deep into existing material on the musician.
Others had done the legwork by interviewing Mitchell and key people from her life. All the stories were there; they were just waiting for someone to look at them as a whole, and to uncover new patterns and themes.
"If I had had my own interview and I could have relied on all my own quotes, I wouldn't have read any of the stuff that really shaped (the book) and I might have walked in and continued the same inaccurate mythologies," Monk says.
Monk received help on the project from Les Irvin, the jonimitchell.com webmaster, who told her the book made connections he'd never thought of before.
"He liked it and he was one of the faithful, and that was incredibly validating, Monk says. "To give this new spin to someone that we all think we understand was just a bit daunting."
Monk is Postmedia's national movie critic, and former pop music critic, so creativity is in her DNA. But writing about Mitchell truly inspired her.
"I found I attained a sense of meaning just in writing the book and finding that I started to understand the universe in a completely different way. And going through that Nietzschean voyage with Joni Mitchell's music — (I realized that) being a creator is so incredibly freeing ... I really do believe now that making something is what gives our lives meaning. In fulfilling our creative destiny, I think we just attain a sense of purpose. That's what Joni Mitchell taught me."
Monk says people can find that purpose in any creative endeavour — from writing to gardening, from cooking to raising a child. But when it comes to the music business, do Mitchell's ideals offer any lessons for the Lady Gagas and Carly Rae Jepsens of the world?
"I wonder if it's possible anymore to carve that kind of unique path. She had complete control over content and packaging and I don't think you can get that anymore in a corporate record model," she says. "I think in the digital age there are endless opportunities for artists to go out there and be completely honest and truthful with who they are. But will they ever be able to achieve the same degree of success as Joni Mitchell without the infrastructure of the corporate model behind them?"
Mitchell was smart enough to turn her back on the fame game at a critical time in her career, and pursue her own creative path.
"I do think she is a one-off," Monk says. "I don't think there is anyone — no Dylan, no Cohen — there's nobody that comes close to the integrity ... I don't know if any young person in our fame-obsessed culture has the courage to do that anymore.
Monk hopes her book will change some perceptions of Mitchell — noting the artist herself has often expressed frustration at being misunderstood: From hippie stereotypes to being labelled a "confessional songwriter" — something Mitchell associates with penance and a patriarchal brand of Christianity.
Monk recently received a request for a copy of the book from Mitchell through one of the artist's friend — a major compliment in itself. "It's very exciting. She doesn't want to read anything about herself, so the fact that she's interested and curious about the book is hugely heartening."
Monk also believes the Nietzschean arc of the book makes it timely, given we live in an age where art and the creative process are undervalued.
"Even though this is a book about Joni Mitchell, it really felt like it was coming at the right time," Monk says. "What we really need right now are people with a brave, creative vision ... to recreate new values. Joni Mitchell was in many ways a revolutionary whose time has truly come ... and we just thought she was a folksinger."