Why Joni Mitchell has had it with the music business
Joni Mitchell has often been called "the greatest ever female singer-songwriter", although she has been known to object to the use of the word "female". Many of her hits, including Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock, are legendary; her albums, such as The Hissing of Summer Lawns, classics. After 35 years in the business, the original woman with a guitar is one of few artists on a par with Bob Dylan. She has inspired Madonna, Prince, and virtually every female singer-songwriter.
Which makes it all the more surprising that she has decided to walk away. Talking in the December issue of America's W magazine, Mitchell insists that her new album, Travelogue, will be her last. Calling the music industry a "corrupt cesspool", the Canadian rages that: "I'm quitting because the business made itself so repugnant to me. Record companies are not looking for talent. They're looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate."
The singer Kathryn Williams, one of several generations inspired by Mitchell, is distraught: "She made me want to be a singer-songwriter. When she turns around and says she's had enough, it's so disheartening for everyone else."
Mitchell's raging against the machine is nothing new. As Karen O'Brien, author of Stars and Light, a biography of the singer, explains, Mitchell has threatened to quit before. This time, however, there's a difference. Following the W article, Mitchell stopped doing interviews. "That's a worrying sign," says the biographer. "Her songs are her babies and she always promotes them. So she could actually mean it."
The singer's ire seems to have been provoked by a spat with her last label, Reprise. According to sources close to the singer, the company was reluctant to release Travelogue. Irked, Mitchell took it to Nonesuch, an artist-friendly label which, ironically, is backed by Warner, the conglomerate that owns Reprise. The company won't comment on the situation, but the row seems to have been the final straw in a three-decade-long battle between the music business and one of its greatest talents.
Emerging from the hippy/folk scene in the 1960s, Mitchell was initially offered what she called "slave labour deals". However, as the value of her songwriting ability dawned on executives, her manager Elliot Roberts negotiated a landmark contract with Reprise (she has recorded for other labels in between). Though unknown at the time, Mitchell was given total artistic control.
"She got the same deal with Asylum and Geffen," says O'Brien. "She's never even had a producer foisted on her - she always went into the studio without a producer. She's always had a lot more autonomy than any other artist."
Despite this autonomy, Mitchell has long felt not just uncomfortable with the industry, but with her position within it. "For Joni it was always about creative control," says O'Brien. "But at some point it will always come down to the bottom line. Even when she was on David Geffen's label, money fractured their friendship. At some point some MD is going to say, 'When did we actually make some money out of Joni Mitchell? Oh, I remember, 1974.' I despise that attitude, but that's how they work."
Mitchell has become expensive to have around. For Travelogue, she re-recorded old songs with the London Symphony Orchestra, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Although they are friends of Mitchell's and may have given her a preferential rate, none of this would have come cheap.
Furthermore, Mitchell's sales have never matched her influence and critical standing. Early in her career, she decided that pop hits were ephemeral, and set out to explore other avenues, as with her 1979 jazz album, Mingus. And it won't have delighted Reprise that Travelogue includes none of her hits.
But just how much value does a label put on the creativity and credibility of a 20th-century giant like Mitchell? Until recently, the big labels wanted to keep artists such as Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan because, while they might not enjoy the sales of the latest pop phenomenon, having them around was good for respectability and clout.
But times are changing. Execs have realised that if they have the back catalogue, they don't need the ageing artist. Warner's recent dropping of Rod Stewart was just as significant as EMI's reported £80m deal for Robbie Williams.
In one of her last new songs, Lead Balloon, Mitchell describes meeting a corporate executive and opens with the words: "Kiss my arse!" She then talks specifically about running away from the music biz and the "whiny white kids on the radio", and "formula music, girly guile genuine junk food for juveniles".
More recently, she had a widely reported pop at Madonna: "She has knocked the importance of talent out of the arena," sniped Mitchell. "She's made a lot of money and become the biggest star in the world by hiring the right people."
"Joni's been quite unforgiving," admits O'Brien. "But then again, she'll rail against these 'women in rock' features and then appear in the next one in Rolling Stone. So there is that ambivalence." Similarly, while Mitchell berates Madonna and others' use of sexual imagery, she once appeared on the inner sleeve of The Hissing of Summer Lawns in a bikini. Her justification: "But I swim every day."
"She's a very strong person and very sensitive," says Rob Dickins, her former chairman at Warner. "That's a great combination and a terrible one. There is an argument that she's done such a fine body of work, why should she put herself through a system geared to 15-year-olds? But if you have the creativity within you, it's very hard to stop it."
It is possible that Mitchell's pronouncement is a Machiavellian way of drawing attention to Travelogue, but this seems unlikely. Dickins is particularly surprised at the timing: "Nonesuch is not a corporate label, and I would think that her experience there might be pleasurable enough for her to continue."
In a recent interview in Rolling Stone, Mitchell was quoted as saying: "I'll be glad if the industry goes down the crapper." It's just possible that this final act of artistic defiance is her way of getting one hand on the flush.
Whatever, the words of her biggest ever single suddenly seem resonant: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
· Travelogue is released on Monday by Nonesuch. Shadows and Light: Joni Mitchell, The Definitive Biography, by Karen O'Brien, is published by Virgin, price £7.99.