Joni Mitchell has a lot on her mind. She's calling me from Los Angeles (she splits her time between there and a home in British Columbia) to discuss a newly released four-disc box set of her work, Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced, on which she collected 53 remastered songs from throughout her career. We begin by talking about a long autobiographical text she wrote as an accompaniment, which ends ominously with a bittersweet toast questioning whether or not musical talent is valued anymore. "Talent no longer means that much to the record companies because it doesn't mean that much to this generation that doesn't seem to have much talent," she says. "They sit pushing buttons and looking at the Internet in the time that the generations before spent practicing an instrument." I ask if, while assembling this compilation of her decades of work, she saw her influence on the music of today? "Where would I see that? On the radio? The stuff that's on the radio bears no resemblance to my music. None at all. None," she says. "People don't write songs anymore, they get a phrase and repeat it - everything is formulaic: A copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. There's nothing innovative." What, then, is her advice for musicians trying to break through? "If they have it, they won't need advice. I had no advice," she says. "I just always did things the way I wanted to. I had no choice."
Listening to Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced, it is easy to believe that Mitchell found her way without any guidance from anyone else. With her probing lyrics and piercing voice, Mitchell's music has been experimental and original from the earliest days of her career. "When I first wrote 'Both Sides Now,' I thought it was a failure because it was such a big meditation," she says. "I was 21." Mitchell was raised on the prairies of Canada and stricken with polio at nine. At 21, she gave a daughter up for adoption, then found her way to the United States, eventually to California, to make a name for herself as a folk musician. There's her warm and introspective music from the seventies, much of which she produced on her own. This work came as close to radio-friendly as her music ever would. "[David] Geffen said to me, 'Come on, you can write a hit.' So I wrote 'You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio' as a joke. It was my idea of a joke," she says. "I had a couple of hits, but it wasn't intentional. I was an album's artist, not a single's artist. And that's got nothing to do with the hit parade."
The box set places as much, if not more, emphasis on her later work - the music she's made since the eighties, which found her experimenting with collaborative forays into jazz and orchestral music. "Getting my first band on Court and Spark was an exciting thing for me, finding musicians that could play my music," she says. "It's hard for a woman to lead men - they don't like it, especially when you do something innovative. I hadn't listened in many years, and the thing that impressed me the most was how well these people collaborated with me." It's the method, not necessarily the product, that Mitchell seems to enjoy most. "The creative process, when it's going well, is delightful, it's the best kind of child's play, it's a peak experience," she says. "When the music is going well, I can't think of anything more heavenly."
Mitchell approached compiling the box set as though she were putting together a movie. "The process of sequencing and editing was taking each song as a scene and connecting it in the matter of documentary filmmaking," she says. "[There's] no more plot than that of Fellini's Roma - this is a story, but it's not a linear story." Each disc represents something of a movement, or chapter, and as they weave through the decades inconsecutively, the themes of her songwriting tie them all together. Mitchell writes about love more than any other topic, from "Blue" up through "Love Puts on a New Face." "[Love] was one of my many searches - it is the pinnacle of spiritual pursuit," she says. "There were never love songs like this. They were all pie-in-the-sky, moon-June-croon, all written by men for women to sing. "Stand By Your Man" - they were all male fantasies. This is a female's point of view on love." If she's become something of an icon for the unapologetic way she expresses one woman's perspective, Mitchell never aimed to be a poster child. "I never wanted to represent anything. I just wrote. I'm an individual, and an individual can't follow and doesn't want to lead."
Mitchell hopes that her sense of independence is in her music for everyone to hear. "Quit looking for your prince to come, quit looking for Jesus or God to save you," she says. "You're on your own. You're going to have to get out of this hole yourself. A lot of [my music] is directed that way. I didn't have any support. That's the way I was raised. I had a lot of illness, and I was in hospitals by myself, struggling to learn to walk again with polio and so on. Even if somebody says that you're never going to walk again, you don't have to swallow it." Her battles with record companies and continuing health issues notwithstanding, Mitchell says, "I'm very happy in my life. I have a lot of wars going on, but I'm up to it."
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