Transcribed from the audio by Lindsay Moon
Rock Master Class
December 29, 1985
Tony Hale: From Capitol 95.8 FM, my name's Tony Hale, and I hope that in the next hour or so I can ask at least some of the questions you'd like to ask today's guest.
For the first time in these programs and not before time, the guest is a woman. In a recording career that spans some years, she's made a dozen or more albums and enjoyed single success herself as well as writing songs that were hits for names as varied as Judy Collins, Matthew Southern Comfort, and Nazareth.
People see her in different ways. She's a folkie, she's a jazzer, she's a singer-songwriter, and some say she's a rock and roller. What does she think? Let's ask her: Joni Mitchell.
TH: I hope you didn't mind we invited one or two friends down.
JM: (Laughs). An intimate little gathering.
TH: Sincere welcome to London and to Capitol --
JM: Thank you, Tony.
TH: It's always too long between seeing you. It's some time since your last concert tour. What have you been doing since then?
JM: Let's see. '82 we made the last record. '83 we toured it. Yeah, that was -- '84 was a writing year. '85 was a recording year. And now we're into the promo leg of '85. I'm over here hustling myself (laughs).
TH: So that's what you've been doing in the last couple of years, but if you go back further than that, do you come from a musical background?
JM: In a way, yes. My public school years were spent in a town in Saskatchewan called North Battleford, which featured a very smart marching band, and everybody in the town was very proud of it. And as a result most children in that town participated in music with a formal education in some manner.
Two weeks out of the school year, there was an adjudicated music festival, which if you wanted to attend you could. Otherwise, you could go to very spotty classes, disorganized, a mixture of grades, and the festival turned out to be much more interesting.
So I would go and sit in the back of the church where it was held. They would have adjudicated choirs from all different churches, school choirs, and a lot of little pigtailed girls standing up singing "Hey, Nonny, Nonny," [sings in falsetto] "On yonder hill there stands a maiden," and then a stout woman would come up in a gray suit, put her glasses on, and tear the little performance apart or praise it. And the game was to sit back there and decide what she was going to say, where they missed a note, and what was good and what was bad. And some grade-one student always peed their pants (laughs), so it was more of a spectacle of sitting in these spotty classes. So in a way this small town had pretensions to European classicism and so you were exposed to it.
The town, on the other hand, did not take well to improvisation. It was considered playing by ear. So when I finally took up the piano at age seven, I started off with a real rush, with a thrill, to -- a desire to play this instrument, but I wanted to make up my own melodies. The first thing I wrote was called "Robin Walk." I found it scrawled on the back of a scribbler. I can't read anymore but at that time I could read and write primitively --
JM: -- music. The woman who taught me was named Miss Trelleven, and she told me that I played by ear, rapped my knuckles, and since her class coincided with "Wild Bill Hickock," I decided that I liked "Wild Bill Hickock" better (laughs). And that was the end of my classical piano --
TH: What was the next event that stimulated you to go to guitar, or was guitar the next thing?
JM: Well, in my teens, of course, you know in the '50s, along came the call of the wild, Little Richard and "Rock Around the Clock," and rock and roll was born. Rock and roll dancing was my obsession all through high school. And that was a good experience musically because it was all partner dancing and so it was the equivalent of playing with a lot of different drummers. Some people dance back on the beat, some people dance straight on the beat, so you were exposed to a lot of first-hand rhythm, you know, and leadership partner dancing. I think that was good training.
Then rock and roll went through kind of a decline where they started creating stars. They'd just take good- looking Italian boys, you know, and throw their pictures around in public, and rock and roll got kind of boring. And during that time in the colleges, folk music sprang up as an alternative, because in the face of this overt commerce, folk music seemed kind of fresh and accessible, and people sat around at parties and, you know, got drunk and sang these songs.
So originally I took up the -- well, it wasn't even a guitar -- a baritone ukulele -- just to play along at these parties. It was more for sport than for career. So I started with the ukulele. I went to art college which had always been my obsession, to be a painter, and there I found myself in the coffee houses of Calgary playing [sings in falsetto] "On yonder hill there stands a maiden]. (Laughs).
TH: One of your big tunes, that one.
You don't tune a guitar the same way -- the conventional tuning, E, A, D, G, B, E, I don't think, do you?
JM: Well, when I started playing guitar -- I'm trying to think now when I got my first six-string guitar. I guess it was probably 1964. It was a nylon string, it had a classical neck, a wide neck on it, and at that time I played in standard tuning.
It wasn't until I began to write my own songs that I began to crave chords that I didn't have the dexterity with my left hand to make. The voicings that I heard, the music that I wanted to make, I simply couldn't get out. And it was a frustration because, you know, I could learn your F chord and your G chord, and your minor, and a couple of things like that, but after a while there was no -- it seemed like every variation or combination of chords had already been a well-traveled course.
It was Eric Anderson that showed me some of the first open tunings in the coffee houses in those days. Open G, D Modal, Open E, which I guess is the same as Open -- Open G, Open D -- pure major chords, anyway, were used among some of the people who played more blues oriented folk music. And so I learned those. And then I began to hybrid them. And the only person I knew that was also doing that at the same time was Buffy St. Marie who had developed some interesting- sounding chords with more modal than major or minor, and that modality drew my ear.
TH: So put simply for the non-guitar player, you could, by re-tuning, you can actually play a chord just by running the right hand down the six strings; you don't need to have any finger placing on the left hand at all?
JM: Right. Now this is like an Open D chord and, you know, without any fingering, you've already got yourself a chord. So with simple bars --
TH: So just moving that index finger up and down the neck, can you play those chords that would otherwise take a different shape?
JM: Right. And people started telling me that I was playing in two keys at the same time. "Oh, really?" I said (laughs) because if you started, like, your first chord -- see, a lot of this is intuitive so it's up to other people really to analyze it. A song like "Amelia," for instance, modulates. It goes along for a while in one key and then suddenly it drops down to the low chord. It's crossed over into a whole other key reference. And then it crosses back with complete disregard to the fact that it stepped outside of its family of colors. So I'm told (laughs) --
TH: But it was just coming out like that so you wrote it like that?
JM: Uh-huh. Because it created a chord juxtaposition that sounded fresh to me. Well, I guess the freshness was peculiar if you analyze it.
TH: Do you think you have any favorite chord sequences, groups of chords, that you particularly go back to, that suit the words that come out of your head?
JM: Well, the bulk of my songs are in this tuning. I have about 35 tunings, which I can't remember how I did them. So I have to call a friend of mine named Joel Bernstein who's my annex memory. Two years ago, he wrote out all of my songs in tablature, exactly the fingering and the tunings, which is a great relief to me so that when I go now to tour and I'm saying "how did I do that? I have no idea how I did that," I have Joel's record of exactly how it was accomplished.
TH: The vocal quality, the way you sing, is very, very particular. It's obviously something that's touched hundreds and thousands and millions of people, all of whom have got copies of whatever their favorite album is, "Blue" or "Court and Spark," "Ladies of the Canyon," whatever it is. There's a very particular, rather wounded quality it seems to me, very fragile, vulnerable quality to your singing, particularly from the early to mid '70s. Did that just come out like that? Did it develop listening to someone else? Or how did it happen?
JM: Well, your voice is like a fingerprint. There's not a lot you can do to change it. I know I said to Elliott Roberts who was my manager for many years just at the beginning of making this record, "There's one thing I really want to change this time." He said "What's that?" I said "My voice." He said, "Oh, great, Joan. The one thing you can't change," you know.
I crave change. I like to push style to the limits, you know. But a vocal quality, the -- what would you call it? I think it's the midnight sun in the genetics or something creates a melancholy tone which is suitable to a certain kind of song more than others. It's just -- it's just the way my -- my awk -- I guess I should explain what I mean by "awk."
Every singer has an awk, which accounts for why some people like one singer and don't like another one when both of the singers are perfectly wonderful. In -- at the South Pole when all the penguins are gathering for their mating rites, they all stand around and they look like tuxedos rocking from one foot to the other going "Awk! Awk! Awk!" And yet for some mysterious reason, the females show a preference to one awk and not to the other and are able to locate that awk in a crowd of thousands of bus boys, you know, even after they've come back from a long and tedious swim.
So I think singers are like that, and I'm stuck with my awk no matter -- it was handed down to me for generations.
TH: Well, having said that, there's nothing I can ask I think more and especially on behalf of everybody here at Duke of York's Theatre for you to demonstrate what you'd call your awk, what we'd call your voice.
You've got a song on your new album that I believe is a song written on guitar, "Three Great Stimulants," written on guitar and then kind of transposed to be played by the band, and it comes out much lower on guitar, I believe.
JM: This was started on guitar. In the making of the record, my first request was that we lay down the rhythm track, being the "fit-fit-fit" of a helicopter which is a very apocalyptic sound after Vietnam, and then the next track was to be this guitar. You will notice that on guitar since you need the whole neck and I can't capo up for it, the song is much lower. We decided in the recording of the song to transpose it, and so I transposed the chords to keyboard and -- but this is the original form it took, and the vocal is keyed down two or three keys, I think.
(Performs "Three Great Stimulants.")
TH: "Three Great Stimulants." Joni Mitchell is today's guest on Capitol's Rock Master Class as you can tell in front of a packed house at the Duke of York's Theatre. In just a moment, Joni moves around to the piano ...
... Joni Mitchell. So it's piano time and your songs divide up, I guess -- I don't know whether it's half and half -- but there seems to be a piano kind of song and a guitar kind of song. And there's a line that I remember that runs, "cold white keys under your fingers ..." which gives me the picture of the piano when you're sitting down to write as not necessarily being all that friendly. Do you find it difficult when you've sat down with a blank piece of paper to write?
JM: Well, that description is in the context of his isolation. That was in "Ludwig's Tune" for Beethoven. So basically that idea is not so much my -- see, everybody thinks everything I say is like personal, you know -- but it's in the context of it's not much of a trade-off -- you know, he was kind of the court buffoon. Women tittered at him behind their fan, but he was pretty much, as I understand, deprived of feminine pulchritude (laughs). You know, some of the other musicians got the groupies or whatever, but so, you know, to be deaf and I don't know if he played when he was deaf or he did it all on the paper, but it's in that context that the keys would seem especially cold.
TH: But if you are given -- I mean, let's do it now, let's say here you are in London on a very short stopover and you're required by the circumstances to write. What I'm really curious about is to know how that happens.
I mean do your hands just move independent of your mind? What happens when you sit down to write?
JM: Well, I'll tell you a story. Just before the making of "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," I can't remember now the chronology, but it seemed to me that I hadn't played the guitar -- or the piano for a long time, probably about a year. And in January of that year I sat down to the piano, and an immense freedom had developed on the keys while I had been doing nothing with it. So I called Henry Lewy up, who is the engineer I worked with at the time, and I said, "Henry, we've got to go into the studio. I don't know what's happened but, you know, I've just discovered I can't hit a wrong note." If you hit a wrong note, you hit it twice and it's right, you know.
So we -- the principle of the game was that the key -- that C was home and that then you could venture out anywhere, and if you were meandering out there and you felt like you were lost, you wandered home to C. And then you departed again. So we sat down and we recorded three of these improvisational flights. From that we edited together a piece of music which was to become the medallion, the insert, in "Paprika Plains." And then after, I built the verses on either end, and after that I came to London and put Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius on the tag. So the song was done in all these sections. I'll see if I can do it now. It's kind of private business but --
(Plays improvisational piano.)
So on an excursion such as that, you'll find chords, obviously some of the more dissonant chords are not going to make good pop music (laughs), you know, but occasionally you'll just find your hands rocking on some figure and that becomes in the improvisation a place that you locate mentally and record and return to. And from there comes the development of a song.
TH: So do you then find when you're happy as you say with the beginnings of a structure there, do you then start to find that you're always kind of humming a tune over the top? Or words come? What happens next in terms of lyric and vocal?
JM: I usually don't -- I don't usually add melody until I have a completed structure. Then I'll sit around and hum it or -- and then once the melody which is a counterpoint to the chords is pretty much jelled, then I begin to work with the lyric. As I add the lyric I'll modify that melody, you know, to incorporate the poetry. For instance, you know, if I get it too locked in and I end up with a three-syllable word where I've got a one-syllable melody, I'll push it open. That's why people say my songs have no melody; I've been seeing that a lot lately: "There's no melody here." (Laughs).
TH: Because perhaps the basic rules, where the tune ought to go at a given point -- it's like you were saying about chords before that if you're changing key unconsciously, you're actually pushing the structures about a bit.
TH: Is that why you like jazz?
JM: I think it is why I like jazz, yeah. Well, you know, I came to working with jazz musicians because the voicings that came from my open tunings were wider than what was normally associated with pop music at that time. Not so much now because it's opened up considerably in the last ten years. But, you know, at the time that I began, it was pretty much major, modal -- well, not even so much modal music. Occasionally you'd hear major chords and minor chords and pretty basic chordal ideas. Everybody used to laugh. They'd pick up the guitar that I'd been playing and they'd say, "Oh, the martians have been here," or "Oh, no, you know, Joni's put it in one of her weird tunings." But you hear that kind of voicing all the time. Steely Dan now, their music is broader harmonically. Peter Gabriel too, although maybe not so much.
TH: Can I come back to the question of lyrics because I mean it must be very odd for you when you do concerts to see the 5,000 or 50,000, whatever it is, mouths silently going through, you know, "the last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68" -- whatever everybody's favorite lyric is, "just before our love got lost you said I am" -- I do it and I've watched people around me and they're all doing it as well. Do you find -- I mean do you find that disturbing to see that kind of "owned" by everybody, your lyric?
JM: In the more personal songs, I'm kind of out on a limb, having used myself as a subject. So the more company that I can have there (laughs), the better I feel, you know.
TH: That's another question. I mean how is it to play a song about somebody who's then and not now?
JM: Oh, well, the songs -- first of all, the songs are fiction, like all fiction, good fiction, I think is based on something actual anyway. Many of the songs, they don't -- it's all theatre, you know, this is show biz. (Laughs).
If I don't feel miscast in the songs -- some of the early songs I can't sing that high any longer -- my voice is much lower now and some of them are the roles of an ingenue. I would feel miscast in some of those early songs. A song like "The Last Time I Saw Richard," no, I could sing that, you know, when I'm 70. Or talk it perhaps (laughs).
TH: And you're still happy to think about having to do that when you're 70? Because you will have to because for thousands and thousands of people, that is the song.
JM: Well, yeah, I saw Mabel Mercer play in New York, and she's more of a chanteuse like, you know, Sinatra, everybody took from her. And at that point she was practically speaking the songs, but they had so much vitality to them. So I suppose you could be doing it all the way up to the end.
TH: As John Lennon said --
JM: [In old lady voice] "The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68 and I told him, then, Richard" -- (laughs). TH: Well, yes.
JM: Would you come?
TH: I'll be there. We'll be there, won't we?
TH: But then, we're committed.
John Lennon once said that the one thing he didn't want to do was to be singing "Twist and Shout" when he was 30. And at that age, you know, being sort of -- being much the same age as him, I thought, yeah, that's sensible. Having got beyond that, I think for me personally, well, that isn't so sensible. You've got to learn what your audience needs as well as you need. I'm delighted that you don't, for example, do medleys. I think that people who do --
TH: -- "18 Joni Mitchell Hits in 64 Bars," you know, sort of -- it would be awful. What about talking about songs and how much they mean to you? Is it actually possible -- this has happened loads and loads of times -- that people have covered your material. But is there an interpretation that you can think of where somebody's taken a song of yours and you then hear it, you know, completely different thing, that's really good, I wish I'd done that or I'm glad he's done that, whatever?
JM: Oh, yeah. While we've been here, we went to dinner at Tim Curry's house --
TH: Tim Curry, the English actor?
JM: Yes. And he played us a cover of "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" that he had done that I thought was just excellent. Because the language of that song is very beat poet in a certain way and need to be spat out.
(Plays portion of Tim Curry's version of "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire.")
TH: So that's Tim Curry doing one of your tunes. When you start out piano tracks, do you have a shape for the intro? Could you demonstrate how you structure the intro of songs? Because I think that if somebody played me a piano intro, I would know whether it was one of yours or not.
JM: Let's see. (Plays intro to "Dog Eat Dog.") There's one. Here's another one. (Plays intro to "Impossible Dreamer.")
TH: That has that evocative quality that I associate with your music. Do you look to do that deliberately or is that just the way the intros come out?
JM: I get bits and pieces, you know, out of my scoop-and-capture method which is to space out and, you know, let my hands lead me. And my ear identifies and says, "Oh, that's nice and that would go nice with that if you would put that there and that there," you know. So part of it is intuitive and almost a mindless activity, you know, letting your hands just make abstract form, and your ears, and your judgment say, "I'll take a bit from there and I'll take a bit from there. No, I don't need that. Well, maybe just a little bit of that."
TH: There's a song called "Impossible Dreamer" on the "Dog Eat Dog" album that is a piano song which has a nice intro. It would end Part 2 really nicely.
(Plays "Impossible Dreamer.")
TH: I'm Tony Hale and on stage for this third section of the program with today's guest, Joni Mitchell, I'm delighted to welcome Larry Klein.
For anybody unaware of what's happened in the last couple of years, Joni Mitchell deserted those of us who'd been proposing in our heads for some considerable time in favor of this ridiculously young, ridiculously good-looking, and ridiculously talented bass player, Larry Klein.
You, sir, have a lot to answer for. Welcome. Larry, you've got a co-production credit on the "Dog Eat Dog" album, and you've been working with Thomas Dolby also which is kind of quite modern. Do you want to talk just for a minute about some of the things you've done? You've used sampling devices on that, haven't you?
LK: Yeah. Before we started the record when we were just doing the pre-production demos at home, at that point we kind of decided that we wanted to do an album utilizing a lot of the more recent electronic devices that had come out like the Fairlight and different drum machines and synthesizers. At the point that we were ready to do the record, Mike Shipley, who was the engineer and one of the co-producers on the record, we were talking to him and we decided that we really needed -- although I had been studying these instruments -- that we needed someone who could really race around on them at first, you know, to speed things up, and he recommended Thomas for that job. And so we called him and he was overjoyed to be involved --
JM: He said, [sounding very lethargic] "Oh, I'm so excited." (Laughs).
TH: Sounds like Tom Dolby.
LK: The first day that he walked into the studio after he came over to start the record, he walked into the studio, and he walked in through the door and said, [very lethargic voice] "I'm so excited." So we stuck that on one of the songs.
TH: Should we just have a very quick listen to one of the things you did on that record? (Plays small intro to "Good Friends.")
TH: Now, on that backing vocal there off that single, is that sung everytime or did you do some electronic jiggery-buggery on that?
LK: There's two chords where it see-saws back and forth from one to another and she'd sing those stacks and then we sampled those with an AMS digital delay and then triggered them with like a rim shot or something like that. And so what you're actually hearing is these two different samples being triggered da-da da-da / da-da da-da.
TH: So that's not being sung at the right point, that's actually being done digitally by machine?
LK: Yeah. It was sung just to stack that initial sample and then we triggered it in time.
TH: Okay. I've got another little one here that apparently demonstrates Joni's range (plays sample from "Fiction.") Now, there's a real deep voice there going "truth." That can't be anybody's natural note. Who actually did that one?
LK: That was me, actually.
TH: Oh, maybe you could get that one.
LK: That was my Russian diplomat impression. And what I did was I just spoke it kind of like "truth" and we sampled it with the Fairlight and played it down I think a second or so or minor third below where it was sampled and then added -- opened up the filter on it so it sounded like it was coming over Radio Free Europe or something. And that's what it is.
TH: Because that's what the song's about as well to make it sound as though it was some kind of illicit broadcast almost.
LK: Exactly, yeah.
TH: Okay. What's it like, Larry, being the bass player in the wife's band?
LK: Uh --
TH: She's letting him answer, I think.
LK: We don't really have too much of a problem in that respect because our ideas and our aesthetics when it comes to music are pretty similar and along the same lines. So as far as conflicts of ideas and that sort of thing, we don't have too much of a problem. When we do, usually --
JM: We fight it out to the death. LK: We fight it out to the death (laughs).
LK: No, I mean usually it just takes a few days for the one who's wrong to admit it and then we go on from there.
TH: Joni, do you find that you're writing differently now that you're married to a bass player? Do you think that end has made any difference to the rhythmic bits of your songs?
JM: Oh, definitely. Well, "Tax Free" and "Fiction" are both Larry's compositions, and the poetic configuration is Shorter. There are more short-line phrases. Ba-dum / ba-dum / ba-dum dum dum dum. The parqueting is a different art. That was one of the things that was challenging. He was working up those tunes for his band which is -- you know, the question is, is he a bass player in my band, or am I the singer with his band? (Laughs).
TH: Talking about "Tax Free" if I can just ask you a couple of questions, Joni, about the "Dog Eat Dog," album. There's some real anger on that record.
JM: I never thought I would become a political animal -- God, I hope not -- it's like an intellectual or political animal, I always hoped not (laughs). But censorship was rearing its ugly head. There were insinuations -- okay, church and state were holding hands -- are holding hands. You'd see Reagan on the 700 Club which is a powerful evangelist broadcast, and they would be insinuating that any criticism that was raised against the president was communist propaganda with a feeling that there were certain dangerous right-wing tendencies happening in the country and that there was a massive vote to support them. It seemed like an important time to make certain statements. You know, "use it or lose it" comes to mind.
You know, I felt that I did have opinions and while I'd always been reluctant to express them, feeling basically that politics was none of my business, I suddenly felt that it was everyone's business. Rock and roll was an alternative voice and hadn't been used that way for some time. I'd forgotten that it was that. And suddenly I remembered. That's what, "Dog Eat Dog," "I'm just waking up," it was more of a re-awakening than an initial awakening.
TH: As well as the worry about that church and state mix-up that we hear on "Tax Free," there's also a song called "Ethiopia," and if -- I guess if 1985 was anything, with the hangover from Band Aid and its re-release and Live Aid, it may be thought to have been the year that groups, performers, became conscious of their responsibility in rock.
Do you think that's just a passing fad, or are people in the pop business more conscious of the responsibilities than they were?
JM: Both. It was very controversial this time. In other words, when there was social consciousness in the '60s, you didn't hear -- it seemed like everybody -- everybody I knew anyway -- was thinking like-mindedly. There was less skepticism. It was a very optimistic period. This re-visitation of rock and roll politics, so to speak, was accompanied by that kind of inquiry. I did a lot of thinking along those lines myself and had to be very solid in my motives before I went to do anything.
Farm Aid I did. That was easy for me, because I came up in towns where the hog broadcast accompanied dinner, and the people there are very sky-oriented ... in the small towns that I grew up in. The economy was directly connected to the farmers, so if a cloud gathered in the sky, the people said "oh, this is not good. It shouldn't rain this time of year. It will be bad for the crops." Because what was bad for the crops was bad for the shoe store.
In America, people in their urbanization, I felt, had lost that knowledge and yet it was very much true. You know, if the American farmers are suffering, this is not good for anybody, you know, because you'll be getting these corporate farmers, you know, trying to grow square eggs so that they package better, you know. Everything will be done on paper, you know.
TH: What a way to go. Speaking of which incidentally, that's today's Rock Master Class, which I hope you've enjoyed. Next week at this time Midge Ure on modern electronic keyboards.
This is Tony Hale saying thanks very much for listening, and my thanks to Larry Klein and especially to Joni Mitchell.
(Plays "Dog Eat Dog.")