[Special thanks to Lindsay Moon for transcribing this from the audio]
Announcer: Once again, The Entertainers. I'm Jim Bower. Welcome to our program. Today we salute Women's Year by presenting three very talented female performers. Back by popular demand Malka's interview with Joni Mitchell.
Henry Lewy: At the end, she wasn't really sure what she was going to do with a new song and it was a run through, and she didn't even know I was taping it. And I was, I was very sneaky. I pushed the "Record" button and took it anyway, and at the end of it she looked at me and I looked at her and she just broke up laughing. And I said "That's so good, let's keep it," and we kept it in and to me it's one of the most charming parts of that record, that happy, infectious laughter at the end.
I've never met anybody like her. She's a complete original. Everything that she does is uniquely hers, and she's not afraid to do it. And if people say, "Well, you can't do it," she says, "Well, why not?" And I love that spirit. I think that she's a genius.
Elliot Roberts: Anyone that listens to Joan is affected by her. If you give yourself the time to listen to what she says, you're - it makes you think. She is an artist. She thinks differently. I mean she doesn't think of herself as a songwriter or performer. She thinks more as a classical artist. I mean this is her art, this is what she does. It's not her job or it's not a function she has, it's a practice of her art, just like she paints.
Joni Mitchell: I think of myself as an artist, I guess because ever since a child I have wanted to be a painter. So I believe that I approach both poetry and music with the attitude of a painter, with images, which that just seems to be my medium of expression, and I really feel it. Painting and creating music are very related, for instance like a painter since he was into a new period and it was completed, and he had enough material together, he would try and display it in some way. And he wouldn't be expected to paint so much from his old periods. You know, you wouldn't ask Picasso to go back and paint from his Blue Period. Whereas with a musician I don't like to go over the old periods that much. I feel miscast in some of the songs that I wrote as a younger woman. There are some of them that I can still bring life to, but there are some of them that I can't. There's too much naivety in some of the lyrics for me to be able to project convincingly.
I'd like to retire a lot of them and take a bit of a sabbatical to keep my life alive and to keep my writing alive. Because if I tour regularly, constantly, I'm afraid that my experience will be too limited to the experience of the applause and the hotel room, you know. It's like when I used to work a lot in coffeehouses, I felt very stale, and unless I had a new song, you know, even one song would save me, that would give me enthusiasm to perform.
Henry Lewy: The lovely thing is to watch her grow, year after year as a human being, as a musician, as a poet. She is a painter, you know. She started out being a poetess and a painter and expressing herself through music, expressing her poetry through music. So now it's gotten to the stage where she's like painting with a large palette of oil colors instead of a very small palette of watercolors.
("Free Man in Paris")
Malka: Why the change to a band now?
Joni Mitchell: Well, Tommy Scott, who's the leader of this band, The LA Express, played with me on the last record, and I really liked working with him. I liked the added color of horn lines here and there.
Tom Scott: Joni came in one night at The Baked Potato to hear our band. And after hearing it she asked me very, very shyly, "Do you think the guys might want to play a couple of tunes on my new album?" I said, "Oh, I think they might want to, yeah." So naturally, they came in and I sort of had a vision of what would happen. I knew that -- I was pretty sure that I knew that it would be more than two tunes. And sure enough it turned out to be practically the whole album. So I was absolutely thrilled, you know, at the opportunity to bring the two - actually, Joni was far and away my favorite recording artist/star, if you will, that I have worked for. And so to bring her and the band that I love more than anything together was just a total thrill for me.
Joni Mitchell: I've looked like a long time but I've never before seen a band intact that already had like a working relationship member to member that I could sort of fit into, where I felt that they would be sensitive to my music. It just happened to be that timing that it took me six years to find a band that enflamed me to that degree that I wanted to be part of them in a project.
Malka: Do you think that the fact that you're singing with a band now, you might lose something by losing that vulnerable image?
Joni Mitchell: Well, I don't want to be vulnerable anymore (laughs).
Elliot Roberts: Joan likes to rock, as they say. She does. She likes to party, she's a good ol' wine drinker and she likes to have a good time and, you know, I don't think Joan has to live up to an image, you know, of being - of coming out, being real soft, "Hi, I'm alone." Joni's not alone, she has a lot of friends, she's loved by a lot of people, and I love Joan personally. She's going to have a good time. I don't think that she has to live up to an image per se.
Joni Mitchell: You know, sometimes I feel vulnerable and when I do the song that I write in that space projects that feeling, sometimes I feel haughty and quite the opposite, you know? And some of the music expresses that. So hopefully it will be planned so it shows a spectrum of a person's feelings as opposed to, you know, a locking in to one facet. That's it, you know, that's one other thing that I have always struggled within my personal life as well as in my art form, is that I shouldn't be stereotyped as a "magic princess" as I got earlier in my career, you know, the sort of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" kind of attitude. You know, I didn't like that feeling when it was returning to me. No, I think that the band will only show that there is another side to the music. I think it's a good expansion.
("Miles of Aisles" introduction of The LA Express, "Carey.")
Joni Mitchell: I always get nervous before I go on. Once I'm out there, one of the things that I have had to battle is an almost euphoric feeling. If the show is going well and I'm feeling the music and I'm into it, and sometimes, like in certain situations the audience almost feeds you too much. I've had a feeling and I've heard my voice on tapes almost come to a giddiness. Like there's a thrill, it's a power, you have to learn how to handle it. It can be almost like eating too much chocolate cake, a chocolate cake binge, where you feel like you're going to break out in zits at any moment. I've come to a point in a concert where I've had so much applause and been fed so much enthusiasm and so much love that I've suddenly felt like I was - I don't know how to say this delicately - full of shit (laughs). Do you know what I mean?
Joni Mitchell: Like all of a sudden, it's not - it's more - it's not - it's - I was going to say undeserving but that's not even what it is. It's like, again, out of proportion, and yet I would stand aside and see how much I was enjoying it. That it was totally unrealistic but I was - it was feeding me. There are moments in shows when I have felt as comfortable with 4,000 people as with talking to one new friend. I've felt mass warmth that I could translate to one-to-one, like I like these people, as I would say I like this person so I will open up to them. And I'll be as much myself within the framework of my own theater. But sometimes I have felt out of control with it, where I no longer was myself but I was like transported. I suppose it's not an ugly thing. I just would think that there would be somebody out there, maybe one person, maybe ten, half the audience who was thinking "Come on!" (laughs).
Do you know what I mean? Do you ever feel those things yourself on stage?
Joni Mitchell: Because it's an artificial situation. There you are, you have all the power. You have the microphone, you're up there alone, and you're receiving all this mass adoration, and you're liking it. That's the moment. When you realize that you like it somehow or other. And you have to to finish the show. If you don't like it, if you're suddenly up there and you say, "Wow, this is really strange," you know, like then that's where your nerve goes, your confidence goes, where you bust yourself. And I've had that happen to me, and I had to quit performing for a while, because of that - you know, I took a leave of absence because it became a very confusing position to me to be in, you know.
And I had always thought I was a natural performer, you know, I always thought I wanted to give people pleasure, to amuse them, to entertain them, you know? Especially to make them laugh. I love to make people feel - I just like to see a large group of people get off and if I'm the contributor, great, you know, if I'm the instigator. But sometimes in spite of the fact that I worked a lot of noisy bars and was unappre- - worked under unappreciated kind of circumstances, I found that I got, I guess you'd call it temperamental, I got to a place where I needed extreme - if anything happened in the room, if there was a flutter or something, it would be a distraction to me and I might lose my place. And I had to deal with that several times and finally it came to a head one time and I left the stage.
Elliot Roberts: We've both been through a lot together. And when we first started out in clubs because sometimes Joan would just start and when she didn't feel it she would just stop. And naturally that's how Joan is, I mean that's how she performs. I mean when she's into something, when she's enjoying it, playing it, that's why she works so infrequently. And it used to drive me crazy because she used to just stop in the middle, and the audiences would just wonder what's going on. When we went to the Atlantic Pop Festival and she was playing, and we didn't even want to play it, she just decided to do it, and it was an outdoor day gig and people were milling around, and she just couldn't handle it and she walked off - she did like two or three songs and just walked off and said, "Elliot, let's go. I can't play for these people. They don't really want to hear my music." You know, and they did. She does a very, very personal thing. And just the slightest few people, I mean there could be 150,000 people, two or three people yell, it will bother her.
Joni Mitchell: Finally one day I was confronted with it for I think the last time, and I drew on an experience that I had had in Hotevilla in Hopi Land. I saw the Hopi Snake Dance, it was a rain dance, it was to bring rain to the mesa, and in the course of the dance, a rattler got loose in the audience. And the audience panicked and began to fan out. I mean that was a really genuine disturbance. And those old guys didn't lose a beat. They never opened their eyes, they stayed right into the chant, they never lost anything because it was so important and so sacred. And their faith was so deep.
Elliot Roberts: I used to go over that with Joan because it would drive me crazy when she would stop in the middle of a song when she would walk off rather than face it -
Joni Mitchell: I don't know, it's just that the song isn't going well. If I can find - if all of a sudden I'm playing it like automatic pilot and I'm thinking about a hundred other things, I get the feeling that I'm sure that I'm transparent and that everybody else knows that I'm not into it. So I would stop it.
("For the Roses")
Joni Mitchell: A friend of mine told me a very beautiful story. It's the story of a clown. And this sort of sums up that same feeling. He was the greatest clown in the world. And one day he went into the arena and something was on his mind and right in the most tense moment in his bit where his timing was very important, he couldn't remember it. He locked and he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do. And there was a tension created, and the audience leaned forward in their seats, you know, like - and just at the moment when people would have, you know, been embarrassed for him, he regained it, and they all heaved this great sigh of relief, you know? And they went to that place which is the highest comedy, where there's pathos and amusement at the same time, they were relieved for him, but they laughed this great laugh of relief, you know? So he incorporated it into his act. And he did it night after night, he'd do exactly the same thing. He'd come out there, forget it, he'd lose it for a minute, he'd get awkward, and he'd regain it. And they'd all go "Oh, bravo! You regained it!"
Finally, one day he couldn't live with the fact that they couldn't tell when he was acting and, you know, the difference between the genuine time when it went down and this falsification of it for the sake of theater.
So he left the circus and he wandered around for a long time but in his soul he knew he was a clown and that's all he could do. So eventually he drifted back - he found a circus playing on the outskirts of a small town and he drifted in, and he hired on watering the elephants and shoveling hay and everything, and one night one of the old clowns took sick. Well, he'd been watching everybody's show for weeks and weeks, so he said to the old man that was sick, he said, "Listen, I think I know your routine, I could do it for you," you know. So the old man was very grateful, said, "Oh, wonderful! Good! The show must go on." So he went out into the arena and he did the old man's show, only he did it so much better that the old man lying in his sick bed heard the applause like he'd never heard it for himself and it broke his heart and he died.
So when the clown came out of the arena and saw what he had created by trying to do this man a service, and he was just really saddened by it, and he wandered off. And for years and years he just wandered around odd-jobbing, and one day he was in a park. He was himself an old, old man at that time, and he saw a cop coming towards him and he got up and he went into his old routine, his greatest clown on earth routine, and he got to that moment where he loses it, you know, and he regained it and his timing was perfect. And the cop laughed and applauded him and everything. And he died.
It's a tragic ending but that's the same thing, you know, like I think you can't help but looking at it sometimes, at the illusion. The illusion breaks down. You know that you're creating an illusion because no matter how honest you try to be, or with my new material, I relate to most of the things which I have just recorded enough that I could probably get into them pretty consistently, genuinely feel them, you know?
And there have been times where I have overfelt certain songs, I mean, when I wrote "Woodstock," you know, I don't know why, because that song was so moving to me that two or three times that I first performed it I had to stop. I got so caught up in the emotion. I guess it's because I didn't go to Woodstock. I watched it on television and it seemed like an amazing thing to me that, under the circumstances, that many people helped each other out, they delivered babies in the mud, they shared their food, and there was so much brotherhood, you know, in action. There was only one day but it was symbolic to me, of some idealism. So like whenever I would start into that song, and that one more than other songs were much more personal. I mean that one I wasn't - you know, that one was almost like a news report, you know? But it really moved me a lot.
Malka: Did you ever think that you'd make it so big, Joni?
Joni Mitchell: No, I didn't. I always kept my goals very short in front of me. You know, like I would like to play in a coffeehouse, so I did. I would like to play the Mariposa Folk Festival, so I did. I would like to play in the United States (laughs), the States, the magic of crossing the border, so I did. I would like to make a certain amount of money a year, which I thought would give me the freedom to buy the clothes that I wanted, and the antiques, you know, just women trips, just to make myself a nice apartment in New York just so that I wouldn't have to be working continually to support my apartment, you know, just to keep my overhead. But no, I had no idea that I would be this successful, especially since I came to folk music when it was already dying, it was really on the wane, you know? I always had star eyes I think, you know, I mean I was always interested in glamour. My childhood longing mostly was to be a painter. I always want- -- that was always my ambition, I was always the artist in the classroom. And music, my first experience with music was at this boy's house because he played the piano and they had old instruments like autoharps and things lying around. And it was playing his piano that made me want to have one of my own to mess with, you know? But then they gave me lessons and that was it (laughs). It killed it completely.
Malka: How did you switch from art into becoming a folksinger? And what gave you the impetus to write your first few songs?
Joni Mitchell: Well, in Saskatoon there was a coffeehouse that opened up which I was kind of involved with in the beginning. Some friends of mine were doing the carpentry, and I was hired initially to be kind of a resident artist. You know, I - there was some talk of me doing portraits of people as they came in, and I ended up waitressing and I came there with an interest in jazz which I was starting to get into at that time. Folk music didn't excite me at all because I'd heard so much bad, competitive kind of, 'hey, nonny nonny' kind of folk music that I was not interested in it at all.
Then I heard a few people who came through Saskatoon who really fascinated me.
Malka: So these people actually gave you the impetus to start performing yourself, or did somebody suggest "Hey, Joni, why don't you sing a song?" or did you just pick up a guitar?
Joni Mitchell: I bought a baritone ukulele first of all, and the only thing then was it was fun to sit around at parties and sing. That was the way I came to folk music was that it was just fun when you got a roomful of people playing, you know? And so that's the way I started and it really was to be no more than that.
I had written poetry without knowing what to do with it or even considering it poetry because I didn't enjoy poetry in English class at all. I wasn't drawn to it, it wasn't a thing that I studied, but I found myself scribbling rhyming things down from a very early time. And still there was no connection between playing the ukulele and scribbling this poetry.
So I went to art college and found a coffeehouse there in town, and I went and auditioned for them. I said, "You know, look, I play this ukulele" (laughs). I think I had a guitar at that point, yes, I'd bought a guitar when I got there, and a friend of mine gave me a Martin Tipple which is a glorified South American 10-stringed ukulele. It has more sound because of all the strings and it was sort of a novelty item, and I began to sing in this little coffeehouse called The Depression in Calgary. And then my mother said to me before I went to art college that my stick-to-it-iveness at certain things was never that great, and she said, "You know, you're going to get to art college and you're going to get distracted." She said this very prophetic thing. And I said, "Oh, what could possibly detract from my art?" This is what I'd always wanted to do. I doodled through French and history and biology. I'd failed mathematics but I'd done drawings of the mathematicians for the math room, you know. So finally here I was in a situation where it was all drawing, you know?
Well, when I got there the same thing happened to me where it seemed a lot of the courses were meaningless to me, not particularly creative. And so at the end of the year, I said to my mother, "I'm going to Toronto to become a folksinger," and fulfilled her prophecy. (Laughs).
And I went out and I struggled. It was very difficult to work. I didn't have enough money to get in the union, and I couldn't even play a benefit on the same stage with union musicians so I scuffled. I worked at Simpson's, Sears, and I struggled for that time. And then the following year I met a folksinger, Chuck Mitchell, where my name comes from. We were married in the States and I was in a duo with him which wasn't exactly - it never really was a duo. We shared the same stage space, but he did Bertolt Brecht and a lot of theatrical songs. I was beginning to write, although my early writing was very precious. My songs didn't - they had - were pretty superficial, 'the daisy summer pipers come to town,' and silly, sort of flowery images as I look back on it. And he was singing some very heavy material.
So we managed to get together on a few numbers. We did some Lightfoot things together, and we did some Flanders & Swann comedy things, and we'd kind of send it up and I played kazoo, and it was just fun, you know? And we worked for a couple of years that way. And then my work began to mature, a few things happened, and I began to kind of long for my own growth. I felt that I couldn't grow with him, that we would never grow together, that I had to separate myself from the duo, that I had to become an individual in order to grow. And as soon as the duo dissolved, the marriage dissolved.
("I Had A King")
Joni Mitchell: So I went to New York, and I played a lot of coffeehouses in North Carolina, South Carolina. I booked myself, I had no manager for a period of a year. I worked very hard, Philadelphia - I worked the bulk of the year in club dates. And then I met Elliot Roberts who is still my manager, and it became a really good partnership. He's a dear friend of mine and we kind of grew together. I was like his first act, and then later on he took on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, those people, and it continued to expand so we all grew together.
Malka: I wonder if you could recall the feelings and thoughts that went through your head and your heart in those years of paying dues. I remember certain occurrences myself but it seems that the more I'm removed from it, the more I seem to forget that I went through this period. I wonder if it's the same with you.
Joni Mitchell: Yeah, you do forget it or else a lot of things become comical to you, you know? For instance, I remember staying in Charleston, you know, which is a naval town, and there were two clubs, one was in Fayetteville and one was in Charleston, so you're playing Army and Navy, right? And the gig came with accommodation, and the place that they accommodated me was over an all night greasy spoon with a jukebox that came up through the floorboards. And I think mine was the only room in the building which wasn't - you know, it was like a whorehouse. You know, it was a whorehouse place. So all night long the drunken sailors banging at my door for Gladys ... and the floors had been sprayed with kerosene for cockroaches. Well, they call them Palmetto beetles, which is sort of polite but they're these huge cockroaches. So the floors were like - the room smelled of kerosene or some sort of black slick grease that went all up the baseboards, you know? And I can remember being, like, afraid in that room, you know, very lonely and afraid. And it was down near the slave quarters in the city, and there was something at the same time that was very romantic about it to me. I guess it went along with my idea of the struggle. But finally they moved me out of there. I said I don't like to stay there. They moved me into the slave quarters on a mansion into a little place, a little house where the shower curtains were all covered with that green moss that accumulates in the South on shower curtains if they don't have a maid or if they don't have the inclination. And the thing that seemed ironic to me was that with the same repertoire of songs I was like the opening-opening act on a triple billing, and people talked all the way through the show, and only a few months transpired by the time I made my record, which was sort of an establishing point. And I would play in the same areas and the reaction would be different, you know, with the same songs and the same delivery and everything.
I realized then that people don't - the bulk of the people, the mass of the people really cannot formulate their own opinion. A few people can and those little clubs that I played where I had a consistent following where they liked the fact that I was undiscovered and they discovered my work, you know, seemed to keep it in balance so I wasn't totally frustrated.
Malka: I read in some newspapers that it said that you auditioned for one coffeehouse in Toronto and the owner said, "Well, you'll have to wash dishes."
Joni Mitchell: Oh, Bernie. Well, that's another story. The first time I met Bernie, I was playing at a place called Half Beat in Toronto. And he and his wife had a club up the street called The Mouse Hole. And they came in one night sort of snooping, and Bernie's got this great kind of dry wit. Well, we're friends now but at that time I didn't really understand the man at all. He came up to me and he said, "Oh, very nice, trying to achieve the Baez sound, are you?" (Laughs). That was my introduction to him.
And then later as I felt my growth - I could feel my growth almost prematurely. I could feel that I, you know, I had potential - before it really showed, and I would come up to him and I'd say, I'd play at his hoots and there'd be a little bit of response and hopefully you'd hire me at the club. Well, obviously from a business point of view I was not a draw, you know, so he'd say, you know, "Darling, don't bother me, you know, I don't like to associate with failures." One of the things he said, "I'll call you when I need a good dishwasher." It was all in his sense of humor but there was a certain amount of seriousness to it. He wasn't interested; I wasn't going to make him any money.
Malka: How did it affect you? Did it affect you personally when people rejected you professionally?
Joni Mitchell: Oh, that, I was very angry with Bernie those two times. I can remember really burning over those things. I was insulted! (Laughs). I really was. As a matter of fact he takes credit to this day to giving me the tailwind that drove me to success (laughs).
Malka: And what actually was the turning point?
Joni Mitchell: Tom Rush recorded some of my songs. Judy Collins recorded some of my songs. I guess if there was a turning point that would be it. Because they were established and through hearing an established person doing songs created some interest, so that I was able to play in some of the clubs where Tom Rush worked because two of the songs that I'd written that he did were received very well. So it opened up a curiosity as to 'Author! Author!', right? So I was allowed into those clubs. And that was a turning point. And that opened up that facet of it, and then Judy's recordings of my songs, since she had a bigger audience than Tom, was like a further stepping stone. She also gave Leonard Cohen a greater audience, you know?
Malka: The song "Both Sides, Now," how did you feel when somebody had a hit with your song before you even recorded anything?
Joni Mitchell: I think I probably would have liked to have had it myself, but at the same time she made - it was so successful and the song became a standard as a result and was picked up by so many different artists. But it was only good, you know, it only did me good.
But I remember thinking that yes, I would like to have sung it. Dave Van Ronk I think did the best version ever of "Both Sides, Now" because it was like an old man reflecting on his life, you know? And also the take on his album was very emotional. He almost cried. And it really reached him and that's all captured on tape.
("Both Sides, Now" by Dave Van Ronk)
Malka: How does a person write a song?
Joni Mitchell: How does a person write a song? A lot of it is being open, I think, to encounter and in touch, in a way, with the miraculous. I'll tell you about the way one song was written. It has a song within a song. I had a line which went "three waitresses all wearing black diamond earrings/ talking about zombies and Singapore slings." The song can be taken on a couple of levels. Symbolically to me, it represents the trinity in a way, three waitresses. It's like a religious parody. Making Mecca or making the shrine or the church Barangrill. You know, just the frequenting of these kind of places, some people are drawn to them. And I had two verses written to it and I didn't know how it should end, I didn't know what kind of point I was trying to make or anything. And one night I pulled into a gas station at 4 o'clock in the morning, and there was an old man there, there was no one else around, and he said to me, "What are you doing out so late?" And I said, "Well, I've just come from this recording studio down the street." So he said, "Oh, you sing." So he asked me to sing him a song and I couldn't. I was tired and impatient. I just really wanted him to put the gas in the car and let me go home. And he said, "Well, listen, if you're not going to sing a song, I'll sing a song," and he says to me, "Well, you know, I can sing just like Nat King Cole," and he burst into two verses of (sings) "Merry Christmas" just exactly like Nat King Cole. And then he turned to me and he said - and all this time he still hasn't put the gas in the car, and I'm feeling this incredible tiredness and impatience to go home - but he's being amazing, you know? He said, "You know, you can write a song about anything," you know. He said "I could make up a song about this car," and he started singing this song about my car having nice tires, whitewalls and windshields, and different things just around the gas station. It was so amazing, and the thing that came to me, the thing that I used in writing my song just in the last verse was that common thing that's bandered around now about being in the here and now. I suddenly recognized my impatience to get home was spoiling my absorption of how beautiful this incident was that I was in the middle of, you know? That became the last verse of the song, it went, "He makes up his own tune right on the spot about whitewalls and windshields and this job he's got/and you want to get moving and you want to stand still/but caught up in the moment some longing gets filled and you forget to ask, hey, where's Barangrill," Barangrill being whatever it is you're seeking for.
Malka: What are the influences that affect your work? Are there any, I should say?
Joni Mitchell: Oh, along the way there've been a lot of people who have influenced me. Anything which moves me influences me. Now at this time in my life, I'm going through a strong musical change from playing with the band whose chordal sense comes predominantly from jazz. Already I'm beginning to think in terms of playing with them and some of that is creeping in. And I wrote something in a rhythmic feel which is definitely their influence. I'm influenced at this point by Stevie Wonder because I think that he's like a musical genius, I really do, and I love the quality of his singing. Lyrically, there's no one at this time who is thrilling me with their words so I find myself uninfluenced. I had hoped to hear Bob Dylan's new album which I've heard that he would come back and say things as he did, you know, in 1966 and 1967 which were, like, "Oh, I wish I had said that" kind of thing.
It inspired me with the idea of the personal narrative. He would speak as if to one person in a song, you know, like (sings) "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend," you know? I mean nobody had ever written anything like that in song form, you know, such a personal, strong statement. That particular song is very -- almost like an afterthought. There was something about the negativity of some of his expression which even appealed to me, you know. Everybody has that need for negative expression in spite of Jesus and 'be good to everybody,' you know? The fact that he had the nerve, you know, to come out in music, and to speak his mind and it seemed to me he went out on a limb a great deal. And I think that his influence was to personalize my work. "I feel this towards you, or for you, or from you," or "because of you I feel this," you know?
Sometimes I write just to think clearly what it is, you know, to tersify my thoughts, almost like a meditation. It's to clear up some vagueness in my own mind a lot of times that I write. But I wrote a song called "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" out of blatant commercial - I just thought it would have a certain amount of disc jockey appeal since it was full of things like the recording tower and, you know, call me at the station. And it was just my own peculiar, warped sense of humor. And so I decided to make an attempt at it almost like you go to the races and you play a horse. Well, the charts, the Top 100, are very much like a racetrack. If it gets on the charts, say you come on at 77 with a bullet, that means that your horse is racing up the charts and has a chance of making it. So just to follow that like a racing sheet is kind of a good game, you know?
("You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio")
Malka: What about the music part then?
Joni Mitchell: The music? The only time I really play an instrument is to explore it. You know, sometimes I'm going to have to play my instruments to rehearse old material, that's drudgery to me in a way, that's work, that's the piano lessons as a child, that practice, practice. But the time that I enjoy playing the most is like I'll sit down late at night and tune my guitar into a tuning which I'm unfamiliar with so I have the unknown in front of me. A combination of - a chord in front of me, a combination of strings which I'm unfamiliar with the fingering, and just mess around with it. And then gradually introduce liaisons almost the things that smooth from chord to chord. And then it gradually takes shape. And that seems to be to me - that's also a magical process, trancelike. It takes total preoccupation with it. But that comes easier to me than words do. I seem to be more prolific musically than I do lyrically.
Joni Mitchell: The only instruction that I had on guitar was I bought a Pete Seeger Folkways album "How to Play Folk Style Guitar," and it's very simple. It starts out with the first band, "Now we will tune the guitar," then you learn maybe two or three basic chords, you know. And it has a book accompanying it with tablature which is a simplified kind of form, shows you which string your thumb should be plucking, and he does the pattern very slowly and then he speeds it up. And I got about three bands into it, although it was a beautifully presented album and great instructor and you could take your own time with it, start the band over again and over again, I lost interest with it. I was impatient. I don't learn anything well by instructions.
And then somebody showed me one open tuning which simplified the left hand greatly. It meant that you could play one-finger bar chords, simple chords, you could get a lot of progressions out of the tuning by making it as it stood open a chord, you know? And I began to play with that and I discovered a lot of my own tunings so that now I can't play in standard tuning at all, and I don't really know the neck comprehensively. But as far as composing and finding unusual chordal colors and combinations, my system works for me very well, you know, except that when it comes to sitting down and playing with someone else and following their music, I'm handicapped in communicating with other musicians. I'll just have to replay it and they'll say, "Oh, now she's going to a C, here she's going to a such-and-such."
Malka: I've been talking to some people throughout this week, I didn't hear anything other than total love and adulation towards Joni and sort of putting her on a pedestal. And since you are the one that has known Joni for a very long time, is it true that she's an angel?
Elliot Roberts: She's actually a rotten (laughs) - no. She's human, you know. She's a terrible driver. She has all the other human frailties that we all have. She loses her temper and she's cranky sometimes just like any woman, if you don't mind my saying so, or just like any man for that matter. We all have our bad days.
Malka: That's better!
Elliot Roberts: We all wake up on the wrong side occasionally and Joan's no exception. Occasionally, just like everybody else, wakes up, and is mean before she's eaten. She's a very, very human woman, I think that's why people love her.
Malka: How do you go about making a record, Joni?
Joni Mitchell: In the course of a year I usually have 10 to 14 songs, so probably three of them are weaker. Either that or they don't pertain to some sort of story continuity because the album I feel hopefully in the course of a year is more than just a collection of songs. It has some sort of continuity or thread to it. I like to think that it's almost like a novel. I try as much as possible to link up the songs so that there's a musical connection, one to the other, and also a thematic connection.
For me the one that worked the best that way was the first album because when I recorded it I had 60 songs or so to choose from. So I could choose songs thematically that made up that. 'I came to the city, out of the city and down to the seaside' theme. That's why songs like "Both Sides, Now" and some things that people thought were stronger were left off of that. It was an attempt to make a novelette in music.
And on every album there's usually one or two tunes, maybe only one, that's the forerunner of the next movement, you know?
Malka: Which are the forerunners on this album?
Joni Mitchell: Well, I think the last song on the album is sort of an oddball and it's not my own song, it's that Annie Ross song "Twisted," and it's an old jazz song, you know? And it's in a feel, a rhythmic feel which is new for me.
Malka: Why did you decide to record something that is not of your own?
Joni Mitchell: Because I love that song. I always have loved it. And I went to an analysis, you know, I went through analysis for a while this year, and since it's a song about analysis I feel that I earned the right to sing it. It's a funny song, it's really a naturally funny song whether you sing it straight or add comedy to comedy, it doesn't matter, you know. It's just something I always wanted to do. I tried to put it on the last record but it was totally inappropriate. It had nothing to do with that time period. And some of my friends feel it has nothing to do with this album either, it's added like an encore.
Malka: I hope I'm not encroaching on your privacy, Joni, but why the analysis now?
Joni Mitchell: Why - well, because I felt I wanted to talk to someone about confusion which we all have, everyone has confusion. I wanted to talk to someone, and I was willing to pay for his discretion. And it proved effective because simply by confronting paradoxes or difficulties within your life several times a week, designating a time to confront them, they seemed to be not so important as they do when they're weighing on your mind in the middle of the night, you know, by yourself with no one to talk to or someone to talk to who will probably tell another friend, who will tell another friend, as friends do, people talk, you know, especially about people that they know. And I went through a lot of changes about it too. It's like driving out your devils do you drive out your angels as well, you know, that whole thing about the creative process. An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion, and I've created out of that. It's been like part of the creative force. Even out of severe depression sometimes there comes insight if you meditate on it. Sort of masochistic to dwell on it but it does - you do gain understanding, you know?
So instead of meditating and exploring these questions that I had, because that's mostly what it was, questions about, in this case, myself and the way I was conducting my life and how I felt - what were my values in this time, what are values in this time. You know, everything is so temporal. And most of it was like moral confusion. And some people maybe would turn to a priest or something, you know? I didn't want to be read any religious rhetoric, and I combed religions for certain answers, found them to be for the most part too idealistic for me to put into my everyday life except for some of the broader religions which include the yin-yang principle which give you a broader pendulum swing, you know?
And, um, I think it did me a lot of good, I really do. I just think that it's self-confrontation is a good thing whether you do it by yourself in solitude or whether you do it in the presence of another person. He turned out to be particularly sensitive to me and able to make light of a lot of things that seemed heavy to me. Which is just really a good friend, even though he's getting 50 bucks an hour or whatever.
Malka: People that would view your life would find it almost incredible that with your success and with your adulation you need to pay 50 bucks for a friend.
Joni Mitchell: Oh, but that's not - friends, like, all have problems, and at this particular time all of my friends were -- had so many problems that why should you lay them on them, you know? I mean they could take - I mean I know that within myself, somebody who I really liked would come to me and "Oh, God, this and that," and everything, and I didn't want to hear it, and it would make me feel terrible because I'm so close to that space too that I don't want to go there. That's why. (Laughs).
Joni Mitchell: I don't enjoy some of the old records. You know, I see too much of my growing stages, you know? And I find in listening to some early material, qualities in my voice, things which I picked up which seemed to me to be stylistic affectations. We're all, in the pop field, I think, guilty of this to a certain degree. I'm very open to almost subconscious mimicry, so if I'm in the South for a while or if I'm in England for a while or if I'm in France for a while, I find that I'm drawn to the musical inflection of the area where I am. Well, the same in pop music, and when I look back over my old records, I see the tracings of what I've been listening to.
For instance in "Real Good, For Free," I don't know why I did this but I said, "I slept last night in a good hotel/I went shopping today for jew-els," and "the wind swept through the dirty town/and the children let out from the schoo-els." Now why I did that I don't know.
Joni Mitchell: I mean obviously it didn't seem peculiar to me at the time but it does to me now. It bothers me when I hear it. I think, "Woo! Jew-els and schoo-els?" All right, you know? (Laughs). And in a lot of cases although I know that I delivered it on the record with sincerity, in looking back on it I feel, again, a certain amount of "jiveness" to my own work. And there are like exceptions to it so maybe on one record, there'll be one or two songs which I can listen to. I guess it's part of that searching more and more for reality, will the real me please stand up, you know? (Laughs).
When you're living with a household of like - I feel sometimes like I'm a multiphrenic person, like inside my head there's this whole boarding house full of people. And some of the people who live there are like authoritarian, maybe there's one who has the loudest voice and the clearest voice, you know, like assumes leadership in a classically good way.
And then there's this other really lazy one, the one that tells me "Quit smoking!" and tells me very clearly and emphatically why I should quit smoking and I say, "Oh, yes, yes!" And I wake up in the morning and he's moved out. (Laughs.)
Malka: Many of your songs reflect this nostalgia, to the days when you sang on the road for the fun of it. What do you think is it that makes you work? What is it that gives you the impetus to put out records?
Joni Mitchell: It's really thrilling to me to create, the creative process, in any medium, whether it be painting a picture, taking photographs, having one come out unusually interesting, or making a beautiful piece of music, adorning it with words, or making words and pouring it out through the music. It's like a game I like to play, you know. In a way, there's no childhood's end. It was my favorite games to play as a child, and I have the luxury of being able to continue them into my supposed adulthood (laughs).
Malka: What about the lines from "For Free" that you're singing for the curtain calls and for the money and for the applause?
Joni Mitchell: See, that was written a couple of years ago and that was when the burden of that was the heaviest on me and I felt a little whorish about it, about selling my soul in a way, you know?, putting a price on it. In other words, that I would get up there and I would pour out fragments of my life for money and applause. And sometimes not only my life but the life of someone who I would be involved with in a close relationship. So I would be taking their life into the public with me. Now that's one end of it that I always hated, you know.
Malka: Before I can talk to you I read some of the press clippings that have been collected through the years, and your name has been linked to some powerful people in this business: James Taylor and Graham Nash. Do you think that it helped your career?
Joni Mitchell: At the time that James and I were spending time together, he was a total unknown for one thing. Maybe I helped his career (laughs).
Malka: Isn't there a certain amount of an occurrence that when you surround yourself with musicians or troubadours doing the same kind of work that you're doing, with almost the same outlook on life, that you really create your own world and you're not so open to what is happening in the rest of the world?
Joni Mitchell: A friend of mine criticized me for that. He's someone in another field. He said that my work was becoming very "inside," making reference to roadies and rock and rollers. And that's the very thing that I told you I didn't want to happen, why I like to take a lot of time off in the course of a year to travel someplace else, you know, to travel someplace that's foreign enough where I have my anonymity, and I can have that day-to-day encounter with other walks of life, you know?
("All I Want")
Joni Mitchell: Love. That's such a powerful force. Talk about power, you know? My main interest in life is human relationships and human interaction and the exchange of feelings person to person on a one-to-one basis or on a larger basis projecting to an audience. And love is a peculiar feeling, you know, because it's subject to so much change. You know, the way love feels at the beginning of a relationship and the changes that it goes through and I keep asking myself, "What is it?" (laughs) So that's why it reappears all the time, it reappears as a statement "I love you" or it comes along as a question "What is it?," you know? Because you say it and then suddenly times have changed, things have gone down, and the commitment - because it always seemed like, that word, seemed like a commitment to me when you say to somebody "I love you" or if they said that to you, it meant that you were there for them, and then you could trust them. But knowing from myself that I have said that and then reneged on it in the support of - in just physical support, that I was no longer there, side by side with that person. So I'd say, "Well, does that cancel that feeling out? Did I really love?" You know, what is it? You read philosophy all over the place, you know, "Love" is a warm blanket or love is two people who can be together but stand independently of one another. I really believe maintenance of individuality is so necessary to what we would call a true or lasting love. That people who say "I love you" and then begin to do a Pygmalion number on you are wrong, you know? Love is a very hard feeling somehow or another to keep alive. It's a very fragile plant. Especially like I feel sometimes I'm so disillusioned with the human race and knowledge and where it has led us, you know?
("I Had a King")
Joni Mitchell: Love and marriage, I really don't know a place marriage has in this society.
Malka: Do you think you'll get married again, Joni?
Joni Mitchell: I really don't know. I really wouldn't see a reason, really, for marriage except to have children, and I'm not sure that I will have children, you know. I liked, when I have really strong maternal drives and everything, but at the same time I have developed at this point into a very transient person and not your average responsible human being, you know? (Laughs). And I think about it in terms of that and I keep examining my reasons for wanting to have a child, you know? And some of them are really not very sound, you know? And then I keep thinking of bringing a child into this day and age and what values to instill in them that aren't too high that they can't follow them and then have to suffer guilt or feelings of inadequacy. And, I don't know, it's like I'm trying to teach myself; I don't know what I would teach a child.
Malka: What's so bad about guilt? Guilt is such a strong force in creativity, Joni.
Joni Mitchell: Well, it's not a very pleasant thing to live with (laughs). I don't like it! I don't know, guilt is like conscience, and I guess in its own way sometimes it teaches you, you know, that you've gone off the path but the path is something that has been taught to you early in your life.
I'm a very - I'm your average guilt-ridden person. I mean I'm a worrywart and I always am having these moral conflicts, continual battles of what is right, what is good. You know, am I a rotten person? Guilt as to my indifference, guilt as to my running off at the mouth here, guilt as to my vulnerability even, you know, which you try to make a nice quality of, guilt that I'm too weak or guilt that I'm too strong, or guilt that I went out of line here, was too loud here or too quiet here. Nothing is consistent, you know, general guilt for any occasion (laughs).
I don't think it's necessary to have that much guilt. I think the artist has always been in conflict in that he seems to be in touch somehow or other, maybe because he has time on his hands to think with a lot of high ideals and values, and he's got to recognize their beauty, you know. And at the same time, the flesh is weak and has too many appetites so you're in that continual conflict with yourself, you know.
So you can express these really like high and beautiful thoughts but your life may not back them up.
("Car On a Hill")
Malka: How do you feel about old age?
Joni Mitchell: Old age? I feel my life as I get older I feel better. I feel now as good as I did in my teens, which was a good time also in my life. My 20's were too full of questioning because of being hurtled into the spotlight without any childhood preparation for it, you know. I think they were probably my richest but also my toughest time. So now it's almost like - complacency might even set in! I might just enjoy myself and never write again (laughs).
Elliot Roberts: Joni's been a big star, as it were, or an important artist for about five, six years now and will continue to be as long as she wants to be. She's just an important writer as Dylan is an important writer. He's already made his mark as has Joan. There are certain people who have made their mark. If they never did anything else they will have influenced a great many people.
Malka: What about this complacency that you mentioned or the cynicism that comes with growing up?
Joni Mitchell: I really don't know because the questions get more and more like Catch-22. I think as I grow older I realize more and more that there are no answers. So even the questions become more futile than they did when I was in my early 20's. You know, the questions that I posed because most - a lot of my music is music of inquiry, you know, it doesn't tell anything so much as it asks, and I have a fear that I might become a tunesmith, that I would be able to write songs but not poetry. I mean that's what happened to Dylan, you know, his work became more and more diluted, you know, as - well, he comes from Duluth so what can you (laughs) - terrible pun. But he's writing again well now (laughs) but I don't know. It's a mystery, the creative process. Inspiration is a mystery.
But I think as long as you still have questions - when I say to keep your child alive, the child questions, I think the adult presumes that either they have the answers - they just seem to give up inquiry.
Malka: So you don't think the well is going to dry?
Joni Mitchell: Well, I always think it's going to dry, you know? Maybe that's why it hasn't dried up, maybe if I just presume that it's going to dry up at any moment. It'll keep going maybe as soon as a thought enters my mind that oh, it's going to go on forever - bam, that's it, you know? Who knows? I don't know - I'm not sure how you treat a muse. It's been pretty good to me so far, you know?
I have been carrying around in my head for two years now a skeletal outline of a film, which is a questioning film. It asks a lot of questions, and I don't know what I'm getting at yet. And I would like to write it and act in it except that I think that by the time I have the maturity to finish the plot, I'll be too old for the role (laughs) so I don't know.
Malka: What is your idea of happiness, Joni?
Joni Mitchell: Oh, my God. (Laughs). She's getting heavy on me. What is my idea of happiness. (Laughs). I don't know. I can't answer that. That's really a hard question because that's like a Quotable Quote or something. I don't know. It's funny because I can - I never could describe my joy as well as I could my - to me, happiness is expressed in the hands and the face and the light in the eyes and everything, you know? I mean I can't express it verbally as well as I can my dissatisfaction or my anguish or something which is easier - I have more vocabulary for those things.
("Court and Spark")
Joni Mitchell: The most rewarding moment is when a song is falling into place, when you have that feeling - especially if the words and the melody come very close together so you're not tired of the melody or tired of the words. So everything's coming together and just as the last piece of the puzzle fits together, that's the most rewarding.
("Down to You")
Announcer: Joni Mitchell interviewed for The Entertainers by Malka.
(End of interview)