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CBC Magazine
February 11, 2000

Transcribed from the audio by Lindsay Moon

Brian Stewart: Good evening. We start tonight with the latest on one of those Canadian stars that have remarkable endurance, Joni Mitchell. Always known for her quirky melody and willingness to take risks. You can depend on her to come up with something new. And so she has. Her upcoming CD is a collection of jazz standards that includes covers of two of her own. Her songs have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Tori Amos, and many others. The CBC's jazz authority, Ross Porter, met up with the singer from Saskatchewan in Los Angeles.

Ross Porter: Here is "All That Joni."

(Music up: "Circle Game.")

Joni Mitchell started out as the Canadian girl from the prairies who played the guitar. Through her career, she's made an enormous contribution to popular music. The 21 albums Joni's released since 1968 chronicle a woman navigating an emotional and musical journey for which there are no maps. After a series of successful albums, Joni started to push popular song to new frontiers. She also began to slip from commercial and critical grace. The culmination of which occurred in 1979 when Joni did a complete 180 and recorded "Mingus" with one of the giants of the jazz world, Charles Mingus.

Since then she has reluctantly kept recording and promoting her albums, averaging a new disc every three or four years. With each release Joni has slowly reclaimed some of her musical and critical appeal, and in 1995 won two Grammies. Now Joni Mitchell is back with a new CD called "Both Sides Now," and, once again, Joni has done the unpredictable with a slight nod to her musical past, she's recorded an album of well known jazz songs.

RP: Let me play the devil's advocate for a moment. What do you say to people who say, you know, with this album you're jumping on the jazz bandwagon, the success that Diana Krall has had?

JM: Oh, that's crazy. It's really ridiculous. Who would think like that?

RP: But I'm just curious to flesh this out with you a little bit more.

JM: The jazz bandwagon?

RP: Yeah.

JM: That's ridiculous. Jazz makes up one percent of the sale of music in this country. The jazz bandwagon is like more of a jazz donkey. You know, the idea of like moving -- I lost -- I did "Mingus" I mean, this is really absurd to me. Mingus called me from his death bed to do his last project with him, right? Management begged me, "Don't do this," you know, "you're going to plummet into obscurity." I couldn't refuse it in terms of musical education and opportunity. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. However, before that act I was ex-communicated from the pop airwaves and the jazz community. Not the great artists. But the lesser greats, you know, said "that white chick is an opportunist, basically. She's tailgating on Charles." Well, Charles is using me for a bigger funeral, you know. No, no, no, that's ridiculous.

RP: So if you had it to do over again, would you?

JM: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Mm-hmm.

RP: And if you lost your recording contract?

JM: I've been begging them to fire me. They were cleaning house over there, and I called them up and I said, "Look, while you're firing everybody, fire me." "Oh, we couldn't do that, Joni." I've been trying to get out of this business ever since I got into it. I'm a painter. I just kind of lost my way along the -- (laughs).

RP: Joni Mitchell is 56 now, and after 32 years of making albums, she knows how fickle the recording industry can be.

What do you think of the business side of the music?

JM: Oh, don't get me started on that. I don't want to do that. I'll just whine. It won't be a pretty sight. (Laughs).

RP: Well, I'm thinking what's been going on. Universal swallowed like a quarter of the music business about a year and a half ago, and the recent merger with Warner Brothers and EMI, it's changed.

JM: Well, in a nutshell -- and this is from an artist's point of view, this is in my opinionated opinion -- you know, the music business has always been operated by crooks, but it was like, you know -- and the artist was always screwed traditionally because they could. I mean we make so very little of what we generate. But at least the crooks loved music. But I think it's become either more extreme where liking it, you know, is not the criteria. It's funneling into the surveyed formulistic demographic.

RP: Do your albums make money?

JM: I make almost no money as a recording artist. I only make money as a songwriter. The artist pays for everything. The company loans you money to make the record, and you have to pay back the loan. If they don't promote it, which they don't after a certain point if you own your publishing, they're not going to promote it. Like a person like myself, I just kind of glamorize this table. They don't care whether I sell records or not, which means I'm constantly in debt to them because I don't -- the outlets that are allowed for younger, less talented artists, you know, for the breaking, MTV, VH-1, they don't care whether I sell. They use me as a type. You know, I'm more effective as a tax write-off and a lure.

RP: So if the music part ended, it would be art, painting, full-time?

JM: Yeah. If I could kill it, I'd be painting now.

RP: Joni's been interested in the arts since childhood. While recovering from polio, she pursued painting and as an adult studied art in college. Since 1968, her work has often been used as the cover for her albums. Painting is an integral part of Joni's life, but she doesn't depend on it for financial gain.

JM: The painting will never be taken seriously so I don't even take it seriously. I tell them, you know, I painted it to go with my couch (laughs.) You know, it's the best way because I mean, you know, there's no point. They won't ever take me seriously because there's such resentment that you can draw a crowd to a gallery, that people will come and look and buy -- whether it's good or not. You know, so even if it was good, you know, and that seems to have to be deemed by so-and-so's fine intellect.

RP: Joni's new CD, "Both Sides Now" is a collection of songs woven together to reflect the early glow and final ashes of relationships. These are songs from the past, many of which were written in the 30's and 40's and sung by the greats such as Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Is it an album that your parents can relate to?

JM: Well, initially my father wanted participation in selecting repertoire, which was interesting for him because he used to play trumpet in small town swing bands and he taught trumpet. But he's a lighthearted man, you know, like, and -- things conspired, anyway, and he didn't get his input on it. So when the record was completed, I said, "Oh, Pop, it's got a life of its own. People hear it and weep." "Oh, I'm not going to like it," he said, "it's too sad." So when he finally heard it, the first song that he liked was "Sometimes I'm Happy," you know, which was closer to his taste in music, I guess. But I think as -- and my mother went for the saddest ones. But she said after Pop would leave the house, she'd turn it up really loud, you know, like that's the way to listen to this record, like concert loud because then the strings can be effective. You can feel the vibration of them. They get up under your rib cage and the orchestra played with such passion. They weren't just hired guns. They really got emotionally involved and at a louder volume, that's perceptible.

So, anyway, she was saying she had a new favorite every day. The last time I talked to my father, he conceded that the project was beautiful, but I think initially, you know, he was disappointed in the selection, you know, because he would have picked things of a lighter nature.

RP: That need to satisfy our parents, does that ever leave?

JM: No. Like parental guidance, my mother's still trying to shape me (laughs). All these many years later.

RP: In 1996, Joni embarked on her most personal quest yet, the search for a daughter she gave up for adoption when she was a struggling student. After Joni met her daughter and grandson, the media had a feeding frenzy. Despite the attention they received, Joni feels some public good came of it.

JM: There was a healing for a lot of women. It made it -- it made -- enabled women to be able to say, "I had a child." You know. There were millions of women holding on to this terrible, painful secret. I mean my mother received all kinds of calls. The neighbor woman leaned over the fence and said, "I had a child out of wedlock." A teacher called her. "Can you imagine?," she said, "a teacher called me. Why is she telling me all this?" Because, you know, my mother is like a private person. And I got letters. Women sent me flowers. It was really kind of a beautiful and cathartic experience.

RP: Over the years, Joni's experiences have provided the inspiration for countless songs. Besides quality, it's been one of the constants in her writing. Musically, she's been completely unpredictable.

JM: My music is not for everyone. First of all, it's a very shallow culture. You know, my music is -- my texts are deep. You know, I think that I have a large black audience. I have a large gay male audience. I have a large female audience. But I have a small white male audience. And the white males that like it generally are sensitive men or men who have been screwed by something. White males and the white male press present me always in groups of women. You know, like always in groups of -- like they always want to keep me in groups of women. Whereas the black press lumps me in with Santana and Miles. So like they're not afraid of my -- they don't have to keep genderizing me.

RP: There's a style of music though that I think Canadians have excelled at. We think of Leonard Cohen, Ian & Sylvia, you.

JM: But my music is nothing like any of theirs.

RP: No, but, okay -- maybe not. But I mean I think they share rooms in the same house.

JM: Because they're Canadians?

RP: No, but I think some of the music when you started was derived from folk. I think that was a common --

JM: I wouldn't put myself in that group. It would be a "what's wrong with this picture?" If anything, I have a relationship to Leonard, you know.

RP: Gordon Lightfoot is another person.

JM: I have no relationship to Gordon Lightfoot. I'm much more related to Miles Davis and Edith Piaf. If you want to put me in a group -- I tell you -- nobody ever puts me in the right group. You want to know the group I should go in? The black press gets it. I'm not a folk musician. I'm a girl who plays acoustic guitar but so does every other rock and roller. You always have to have a cord hanging out of it to write on it, you know, but you see a girl with a guitar -- I was a folk musician from 1964 -- 1963 to 1965. At the moment that I began to write my own music, even though I wrote it on acoustic guitar, I was no longer a folk musician. You know, melodically -- folk musicians were playing three-chord changes. I'm steeped in Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Edith Piaf, to put the desire to write with more content with a desire for more complex melody was my creative objective. That is not folk music.

RP: As the girl with the guitar, Joni was a radio favorite. As her sound changed, airplay waned. The irony is some of the most popular women in music today cite her as a major influence.

JM: I don't think an artist as good as me should be banned from the airwaves for the last 25 years, which is, you know, like -- I think that there is something sick about an industry that -- everytime I make a record it's new product. But the industry does not address it as new product because Joni Mitchell, you know, has been around too long. So what they do instead is they have this penchant for raising up new Joni Mitchells. That's capitalism, that's the same as you go to a supermarket and you look at Vel or any soap product, and after a while it's the "new" -- it's got "New!" On it and it's got "New! Improved!" on it, right? And this is the way merchandising keeps going with an old product in this country.

Well, with me, they keep reeling up "new" Joni Mitchells all the time, you know, like -- and they have nothing to do with Joni Mitchell. The only similarity is they're a girl with a guitar or a girl at a piano. You know, they're a girl. No, don't confuse the artist with the art. Yeah, I'm uncomfortable with being a role model, but as a standard-setter in my art, I'm not uncomfortable with that, you know. I'm aware of what my contribution was. I'm aware of how original it is.

RP: In the almost four decades Joni has been creating music, she's been uncompromising and fiercely independent. When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may be remembered as one of the most important and influential recording artists of the 20th century. For The Magazine, I'm Ross Porter CD.

Brian Stewart: Joni Mitchell's new release "Both Sides Now" will be widely available March 21st ...

 

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