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World Cafe Interview Print-ready version

September 5, 1994

September 5, 1994

Announcer: As we move from 1996 into 1997, we are marking the 5th anniversary year of The World Cafe, and one of the ways we are celebrating is by playing back some of the best shows from the past five years. At the top of any list is our 1994 visit with Joni Mitchell. Today, we'll spend two hours in conversation with Joni Mitchell.

It's hard to imagine a more influential artist in the 70's and the 80's than Joni. Her confessional songwriting, use of open guitar tunings, musical textures from all styles of music and all countries around the globe were ahead of their time at every step in her career.

There's so much music to get to and so little time that even two hours is not enough. We'll talk about jazz, art, songwriting, and life with Joni Mitchell in this special 5th anniversary edition of The World Cafe.

Go back for a couple of things at the top, including this one, "Chelsea Morning."

(Music up: "Chelsea Morning" and "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio.")

David Dye: Joni Mitchell is our guest on the show today. She's released her 17th album back on the record label where she started, Reprise. She's a poet, a painter, a pinball player and --

Joni Mitchell: (Laughs) Anything that begins with P.

DD: Right. I was working on the P's there obviously. Well, one of the most influential musicians of our time, I'm glad you could be on the show.

JM: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

DD: We're going to be introducing people to "Turbulent Indigo" and talking about that and hopefully some other work and hopefully have you pick some other music that's been influential to you over the years.

JM: All right.

DD: There are some new musical textures and there's this buoyant music with these harsh-reality songs. Is it a challenge to you to talk about serious subjects in these songs and keep them non-ponderous for people?

JM: I've always felt that -- usually, the music comes first and so, you know, you're in search of the right text and the music dictates plateaus where you can -- which will hold a long narrative, descriptive passage, and certain chordal movement shows you that the chord dictates that a short and clear statement be made here.

DD: Mm-hmm.

JM: Like Noel Coward, I've been listening to him over the weekend, made some very heavy statements to some very light music.

DD: For instance?

JM: From Noel? Oh, God, I mean a lot of it. I mean, there's a song that I had never heard before, (sings) 'What, what, what's going to happen to the tots?/what's going to happen to the children when there are no more adults?'.

And this was written in '55 I think about we have everything now appliances and so on and 'Mummy's going for her facelift' and, you know, like 'Mummy and Daddy are as high as kites, Benzedrine,' you know. It's about the drug, facelift culture, but it was written in the 50's. So this was a very, very, very visionary song for the times.

DD: I want to talk about certain songs on this record, it seems to me that, listening to this record the few times that I've been able to so far, "Sex Kills" and "Job's Sad Song" kind of seem like centerpieces of the record. "Sex Kills," a really powerful song, the irony that sex is used as the lure that keeps our society, economy, everything kind of going and yet sex kills.

JM: Well, the strange thing, if you look at it, like, in terms of a hundred years or at the turn of the last century, we were also in the midst of a sexual plague which had no cure, and the reaction at that time under the guidance of Queen Victoria was to pretend that sex didn't exist. So it was a very extreme in the opposite directions. Even the legs of things were considered suggestive, and Victorian furniture is frequently skirted to cover the legs. Anything -- 'Oh, leg!' you know, like it might imply a glimpse of stocking.

So here we have another sexual plague at the turn of the next century and yet the fashion designers, like, have you running around in your underwear.

DD: Let's listen to it. This is "Sex Kills."

(Music up: "Sex Kills.")

DD: From "Turbulent Indigo," that's "Sex Kills."

There seems to be more acoustic guitar texture on this record. Maybe it's just the way it's mixed in. Did you set out to do that?

JM: I set out pretty much the same way nearly every time with the exception of perhaps of two projects, that being the Mingus project where I wasn't an instrumental player but the writer and the singer, and "Dog Eat Dog," which was more collaboration than usual, sonically. You know, I played a lot of that stuff, but I -- those colors were set up for me either by Thomas Dolby or Larry Klein.

But ordinarily it begins with the song, with the voice and the guitar, or the voice and the piano, and then I orchestrate. If I want to put strings on, I go straight to a string sound or a stringy sound, like all the strings on this album, for instance, are distilled from remnants of fabric left by a guitar player named Bill Dylan. We make them into -- my husband, Larry Klein -- or it's hard to title him -- Larry Klein, my ex. We're still in each others' lives. He distills these pieces of fabric that Bill Dylan leaves for him into orchestral sounds that we used on this project in lieu of the traditional string section. So that it's -- the music is really kind of like a guitar orchestra.

DD: Mm-hmm.

JM: 'Job' has a lot of Mellotron on it, background string passages that you hear that sound like strings --

DD: Yeah.

JM: -- that's collaboration of sound between Bill Dylan and Larry Klein, Mellotron synthetic string.

DD: Moving back to the beginning of the record, it begins with this very visual, short, stark song, "Sunny Sunday."

JM: (Laughs) It's the shortest song I ever wrote.

DD: Where'd that come from? Where did that --

JM: Oh, just a bit here and a bit there, the way songs do, you know. I had a friend, a painter, who had a roommate who was a painter, and from time to time she took pot shots at the streetlight, you know, so an image here and an image there.

DD: This is "Sunny Sunday."

(Music up: "Sunny Sunday" and "How Do You Stop?")

DD: "How Do You Stop?" and "Sunny Sunday," two from "Turbulent Indigo."

More from our conversation with Joni Mitchell. We'll return in just a moment on The World Cafe.

(Music up: Excerpt from "Corinna Corinna.")

Voice Over: You're hearing this special edition of The World Cafe on 90.7 FM, member-supported WFUV.

DD: We're back on The World Cafe. We're talking with Joni Mitchell.

There's a song on this album called "Not to Blame," which is about abuse of women but has one of my favorite lines on the record, for some reason it just resonates with me, is the "six hundred thousand doctors putting on rubber gloves/and they're poking at the miseries made of love." That's just really powerful. But it also seems to be about a specific well-known person.

JM: No, no. That's the conjecture of Fink, you know, a man aptly named, like Bobbit or Barney Cuts, who was a tailor that I know in Saskatoon (laughs). Why do people like -- no, no, no, no, that's ridiculous. That's so much of a bigger issue. For instance, "Six hundred thousand doctors are putting on rubber gloves/and they're poking at the miseries made of love."

There was an ad that came in "Newsweek" -- I think it was "Newsweek," I don't think it was "Time." It was the issue with Madonna on the cover in black and white with a gold tooth.

DD: Yeah.

JM: The AMA took a two-page ad. Now, what does the AMA take a two-page ad for? They take it obviously for commerce. When you take an ad, you take it to solicit business. This ad was very strange. One page there was a photograph of a doctor with a stethoscope outside an operating room, with his head hung like, you know, in sorrow. It was a very sorrowful posture. On the other side the copy said -- it named a doctor who they kind of insinuated was some kind of a genius, and his genius lay in the fact that, you know, so many battered women were appearing in emergency rooms and they tended to cover, they'd say, 'Oh, I fell down the stairs,' you know, and he had some ingenious technique of deciphering whether they had been battered or not. And he was teaching the medical corps this technique.

DD: Yeah.

JM: And it just struck me as really strange because every woman I know is fed up with the AMA in particular. I have night blindness, just to give you an example, and if I say to a doctor, "I have night blindness," "Oh, women don't get that." I said, well, men make the statistics. My mother is color blind and women aren't color blind either but she is. So women are -- I think must be abandoning this system of medicine for alternate medicines in droves. In other words, for them to make an ad like this appealing to women's sympathies, you know, look how we are on your side, especially in this issue.

In Canada, there came to me a statistic in the newspaper, 50 percent of Canadian women admit now to being battered, women polled, and I don't know how they ranged the poll. Fifty-nine in the province of B.C. -- I live in B.C. -- there's a lot of unemployment there and a lot of alcoholism. So I made my own poll, and of 10 women polled around where I live, nine of them were battered.

I've never been a feminist, you know, I've hung with the boys all my life. I've been on the road with men, you know, I like their company and I'm kind of an honorary male at this point. But I wonder what is happening in the heterosexual relationship at this time. We've come a long way from 'Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair' to the rap songs, you know, which come out of a pimp's tradition, 'my bitch is badder than your bitch,' but, you know, even the old life songs, the old raps, because rap's been around for a long time, weren't as violent as they are with the addition of the cocaine culture. So I would say that going from booze crime to cocaine crime that, yeah, that the violence and the sadism definitely has increased.

DD: It's devastating how it just lays out. Let's listen to it. This is "Not to Blame."

(Music up: "Not to Blame.")

DD: That's "Not to Blame" from the new Joni Mitchell album, "Turbulent Indigo."

You're a painter and songwriters, a lot of them actually, have referred to the creative process as resembling sculpture and you chip away at words to refine them. Does being a painter influence how you work or think about music?

JM: Mmm, yeah, I would say so. To me, music has a visual -- I see it kind of like fluid architecture. You know, that it has gables. I know that -- okay, within my own -- the limited range of my guitar, which is broader than normal guitar playing because of the tunings, so that, you know, its orchestral range, where there would be an E on the bottom, may be a C or a B flat. It's definitely -- has more bass than normal guitar playing. And I tend to think of the upper three strings as a horn section and, you know, the sixth string, the thumb string, as the bass, and the midrange as like celli/viola.

So when I add other players I usually give them minimal instruction and a lot of tracks and I let them play and discover the music without much guidance, and then I edit them after they're gone so that too is compositional. And since a lot of the songs are module in form, even if they play -- if they play a figure that I like on the third verse and I want to put it on the first, with the aid of Fairlight and tools like this, I can move what they played around and compose them in that manner. So it's more like collage for the ears or tone poems. I kind of see the notes in terms of, you know, especially linear players, like horn players, the line is breaking too soon or, you know, in this one -- when it comes to the editing, why do I reject this line and thrill to this particular --

DD: Yeah.

JM: -- piece in 12 takes, say, you know. Okay, it's the way that little silver line adheres to the rest of the drawing, you know, either because it's loose and lovely there, or because it's just beautifully tight and parqueted, or because it's playing -- in "Yvette in English," for instance off the lyrics so well. The last verse of "Yvette in English," you hear Wayne playing the high heels of the girl walking away. You know, he's a pictorial thinker and plays more than notes. You know, he really does play like a tone poem player.

DD: Let's listen to that. This is "Yvette in English."

(Music up: "Yvette in English.")

DD: "Yvette in English," another track from "Turbulent Indigo," one written a few years ago with David Crosby.

JM: It was the first of this collection of songs --

DD: It was part of this (inaudible) --

JM: It was really David's project, you know, that triggered it. David called me up and he wanted me to produce him. The way his album was, he had different people produce him, and David's never been a prolific writer so he asked me if I had -- first, he asked me to produce him and I said, "Oh, I don't believe in producers, really, you know. I don't think I could do that. I don't like being produced myself, you know, like I'm unproducible frankly so how could I produce anyone else?" You know? So anyway he came back again and he said, "Do you have any songs?,"" and I said, "No, I don't have any at this point, you know, I'm just beginning to write." "Well, would you look at some lyrics of mine?," he said.

So he faxed me basically just some jottings. There was no rhyme, no structure, but there was a premise, girl meets boy in Paris. There were some images that needed paraphrasing, and there were some good lines. So I phoned him back and said, "What do you want me to do with this? Do you want me to marm on it? Do you want me to mark your paper (laughs) or what?," you know. So he said, "yeah." And he said, yeah. So I said, "Okay, well, I'm going to mark you as hard as my seventh grade teacher, you know, did, who made a poet out of me," you know.

And so I circled a lot of it cliche, cliche (laughs) and sent it back, but in the process I took some of the cliches and paraphrased them, and next thing I knew I had a few rhymes going and it came together fairly quickly. So out of this premise that he had and a few good lines like "so quick to question her own worth," the chorus line which is "she offered him a little bit of instant bliss," "uninsulated wires laid bare," those were some of the good lines. There were some strange ones like "you look like Picasso drew you." (Laughs). You know, you could just see like a breast where the eye should be. Like an ear in the navel, you know. So the thing I thought of was a quote from Picasso. He was standing at some beautifully scenic place and he said to the people with him, "Ahhh, if I was a painter, I'd paint this," and so that line evolved to, "if I was a painter, Picasso said, I'd paint this girl from toe to head."

And there was another line, "the moonlight spilt like wine," and I rewrote that to "burgundy nocturne tips and spills and they trot along nicely in the spreading stain."

DD: Really beautiful. I love that line.

JM: It rhymes too, you know!

(Excerpt from "Miles of Aisles": "That's one thing that's always like been a major difference between like the performing arts to me and being a painter, you know? Like a painter does a painting and he does a painting. That's it. You know, he's had the joy of creating it, he hangs it on some wall, somebody buys it, somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he's never -- nobody ever says to him -- nobody ever said to Van Gogh, "Paint 'A Starry Night' again, man!" (Laughs) You know? He painted it, that was it.

Let's sing this song together, okay? This song doesn't sound good with one lonely voice. It sounds good with -- the more voices on it, the better, and the more out-of-tune voices on it, the better. It was really -- it was made for out-of-tune singing, this song.

("Circle Game.")

DD: We're back in The World Cafe. We're talking with Joni Mitchell.

I want to get back to talking more about "Turbulent Indigo," but I wanted to talk about some other records. I wanted to talk about Jaco Pastorius because of all your collaborators, he and Wayne Shorter, their playing on your records is so beautiful, it breaks my heart in a lot of ways.

JM: Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate you appreciating Wayne especially. A lot of people appreciate Jaco, but I don't think a lot of people really hear how splendid Wayne is.

DD: He's not a man of many notes, but he weaves them so well. Do you tell him to --

JM: No, no, I wipe holes in it (laughs), a lot of it. But he is economical, you know. He has the freedom in that climate to just explore without any concern -- there's no worry as to whether he plays -- he can just stretch out knowing that the best of what he lays down will be chosen, and also that, you know, he can play through areas where I don't want him to play, but I can always put silence in there.

DD: I know you're a Miles Davis fan.

JM: Yes.

DD: Was that where you first heard Wayne, on those records?

JM: Yes. "Nefertiti" and "In a Silent Way," yeah.

DD: Well, pick something -- it's hard to pick something from "In a Silent Way," but pick something from "Nefertiti" --

JM: "Nefertiti"?

DD: Yeah.

JM: Because that's an amazing piece of music. Now, to jazzers, it's a very strange form. It's really -- that's Wayne's composition. The melody is haunting and strange, you know, wonderful intervals. Even the starting note is an unusual starting note and the fact that it's kind of almost like a folk structure. It's not a standard structure like jazz is normally played around a longer melodic form, but this is like a verse, verse, verse, verse structure. And Wayne and Miles begin playing in unison fairly tightly but they begin to pull apart and phrase their own way and it's almost like a 50's silk screen, you know, where one color is laid a little offset over the next color of the printing. And in the meantime the free instrument on it is the drums, so you have Tony Williams just purring along -- he's like -- it reminds me of living in Soho as I did for a long time, you hear drunks like at four o'clock in the morning, you know, like really pissed off at God knows what, screaming at the sky and knocking over everything as they walk along, kicking garbage cans and, you know, it's just -- it's just got that 'long walk from downtown to uptown in an angry state' to it. (Laughs.)

DD: Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter on saxophone.

(Music up: "Nefertiti" and "Hissing of Summer Lawns.")

DD: Joni Mitchell with the title of track of "Hissing of Summer Lawns," and Miles Davis with Wayne Shorter on saxophone on "Nefertiti," the title track of that Miles Davis album.

Joni Mitchell is our special guest today on The World Cafe today where support is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The show is produced at WXPN at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. If you want to get in touch, we have a couple of ways to do so, whichever is easier for you. You can call us at area code 215-573-33CD, or you can always e-mail us at We'll get right back to you.

More from our conversation with Joni Mitchell next hour. I'm David Dye. This is PRI, Public Radio International.

DD: Stay tuned for the second hour of The World Cafe coming up in just a moment on 90.7 FM, WFUV in New York, member-supported public radio from Fordham University.

In the second hour of this 5th anniversary re-broadcast, more of our 1994 conversation with Joni Mitchell. There's still much ground to cover. The occasion for our interview is the release of "Turbulent Indigo," her latest studio album at the time. Since that time, she's been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, certainly past due on that.

This hour, we'll get more classic recordings from Joni and continue our discussion of her favorite musicians to work with. We'll also discuss Joni's view of her place in the musical world, a position that by anyone's standards is both very personal and far-reaching in its influence. More from Joni Mitchell on this very special 5th anniversary encore presentation of The World Cafe.

It's interesting that there has not been a Joni Mitchell tribute album yet because she's one of the most covered artists of all time. Everybody from Tom Rush; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Judy Collins, up to more recently Cassandra Wilson have covered Joni's work. This is one of the best, in fact, Bonnie Raitt really makes "That Song About the Midway" her own. From "Streetlights," Bonnie Raitt.

(Music up: Bonnie Raitt's version of "That Song About the Midway.")

DD: We're talking with Joni Mitchell about -- actually, I mentioned Jaco and then mentioned Wayne Shorter too so we ended up playing something from Miles Davis from "Nefertiti."

I was curious about working with Jaco because was recording with Jaco as free-flowing as it ended up sounding on the record? Did you all play together?

JM: No, I had my vocal and my guitar part down for the most part as I usually do before I bring in players, with a few exceptions. But in that case Jaco was added after my performances were laid down I think for the most part, although I'd have to listen -- I haven't listened to the record for years --

DD: Right.

JM: -- to be absolutely sure that that's true.

DD: How did he come to mind to record that with you? You'd been playing with him?

JM: No. What happened was I was hearing the bass. As I learned -- as I was adding colors to my own music, I had opinions about them, and one of the things that disappointed me when basses came in to play on the music was why did they always root the chord. I mean when they would play, it seemed so predictable to me, everything that they played and I would be disappointed. I would think it's not thrilling me, it's so predictable, you know. And I didn't really know why, so I would encourage them to lift off the bottom and go up into the midrange and travel around and throw in some kind of -- and come back down and they'd say -- there would be rebellion. Also the sound of the bass at that time was -- bass players didn't change their strings, dead strings was in vogue, and I craved a more resonant, round, ringing bass sound and you couldn't get them to go against the hip. You know, everyone was hip together and this was the way it was, they were all hip and this was hip and that wasn't and they wouldn't do it.

So when the first keyboard synthesizer that had some presets on it, the first one I ever saw was called a farfisa, and it was sitting out in the hall at A&M, and I said to my engineer Henry, what is that? He said that's a farfisa. What's it doing there? Oh, it was on a session and they're coming to pick it up. When? He said in half an hour. I said, drag it in here. So we dragged it in and I worked out a bass part on "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" for "The Jungle Line," and then I tried to get Max Bennett to play it and he wouldn't play it, and I said, well, why not? He said it's not playing the root of the chord. Well, why does it have to play the root of the chord? Why can't it lift up into the midrange? Well, it just can't. Well, I said, gee, harmony seems to have so much more freedom on the up range. Why is it so locked in on the bottom?

Well, I tried a lot of bass players and I guess they all heard this lament, well, Why? Why? Why? Finally somebody said, you know, there's this kid that plays in Florida. He plays, like, with Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller in some of these show places. He's a really weird bass player, they said. You know, you might like him (laughs).

So I sent for Jaco. And when he showed up with that sound, you know, and he had a terribly bushy ego. I mean I loved that he offended everyone in town in a very short period of space by saying things like, "I'm the baddest bass player in the world, I'm not braggin', I'm just tellin' the truth." But to me, you know, he was telling the truth, because he wasn't playing the root of the chord. He was zipping up and playing like little Stravinsky counter- melodies and, you know, it was just thrilling. But, you know, he did mix himself up pretty hot in the mix on that album. You know, I had like more of a blend between him and the guitar, but he kept going, "No," and he'd push himself -- I'm almost his background singer on "Hejira."

But, you know, that too was a new idea. The bottom end of music was changing. Stevie Wonder was one of the pioneers. I took people over to Stevie's because he was using Moog bass and saying, look, you know, the rhythm is not (makes sounds) -- you know, all these little ditzy sounds and these dead sounds, the kick with the pillow in it. Listen to what Stevie's doing, you know. Like I mean Stevie's one of the great composers of this century. People don't like to admit that because he's working in the pop arena. It upsets people. Nd he's black, it upsets white people, you know, we don't have black geniuses, you know. But he was like a real -- a real musical innovator. But all of that -- it was just hard to block the hip. The hip is a very communal concept.

DD: Well let's play something from "Hejira" if you're talking about it. Let's play "Coyote."

(Music up: "Coyote.")

DD: "Coyote" from Joni Mitchell, and we were talking about the bass player on most all that album, "Hejira," Jaco Pastorius.

Probably one of your biggest influences on other people has been your guitar sound and your tunings. I was wondering, on your first record you were using your tunings. When did you first discover what you could do?

JM: Almost immediately when I began to write my own music -- I had polio and my left hand is a bit impaired. I was never going to develop the facility to get at the chords that I heard in my head. There were tunings floating around that came out of the black blues tradition, mostly open major chords, and, there was D modal, which is the dropped D and -- or the dropped D's, and people knew of those. And of course there was a Hawaiian slack key tradition, but that hadn't really leaked into folk music much at that point.

So it was Eric Andersen who showed me open G, I think, and Tom Rush played in open C. I collected a few of them. I think Buffy St. Marie had a couple of her own. I just started tuning the guitar to the chords that I liked.

DD: Are you still developing different tunings?

JM: Oh, yeah. I have 50, 50 tunings. And those are the ones that I've written songs in. So for every one of them, I've probably lost -- I've probably come across maybe 75 tunings at this point and lost them just because I didn't write anything in them.

DD: I'm curious, I was trying to figure out a way to get to this. Does the voicings you develop with these guitar tunings, do they have any influence or bearing on the wonderful intervals you use when you stack your vocals on records?

JM: I just think that's my innate sense of harmony because it goes over to the piano too -- like Wayne said to me, "Ethiopia," for instance, he said, "Well, these are not guitar chords and these are not piano chords. What are these chords?" So idiomatically to him the harmony was different. I don't know why. I mean I know the vocals have parallel seconds. Somebody told me that, you know, the dissonance was necessary when you think of these women with these babies with flies in their eyes and their ribs sticking out and homeless and foodless walking somewhere with some kind of big optimism, you know, the harmony is not going to be in a major key in that particular situation. It would be unsuitable.

DD: Well, we'll play "Ethiopia."

(Music up: "Ethiopia" and "Carey.")

DD: We're back in The World Cafe. We're talking with Joni Mitchell. We're talking about some of the incredible vocal harmonies that you've been putting on your records for years. I wanted to play "Turbulent Indigo" because it has some wonderful, moving -- the song -- because it has some wonderful, moving vocal harmonies. What's the story behind this song lyrically?

JM: "Turbulent Indigo"?

DD: Yeah.

JM: Well, let's see. It's a long tale. And I don't mean to be bashing the Canadian Council of the Arts. But I was invited in -- I forget what year it was, but a few years ago, to speak to the Canadian Council of the Arts from my heart on art and education, and it was to be held in my home town of Saskatoon on the 23rd of May. 23rd of May is the day before my mother's birthday. It's also Queen Victoria's birthday and Bob Dylan's. It's like the day of the extreme moralist.

DD: (Laughs).

JM: Bobby will be putting piano skirts on things any day now. (Laughs.) But so I thought, well, it would be an opportunity to be home for Mum's birthday, which was something I hadn't really done. You know, I've been away in my adult life. I'd never been there for the day of her birthday. So partially I accepted it for that reason.

When I got there, I received a pamphlet which had been distributed among the members of the council and on it were listed eight topics of discussion, I think. For whatever it was, a four- or five-day conference. I was the last speaker of the conference. Two of the topics of discussion really kind of disturbed me in a way, and I thought, gee, if I'd seen this thing I wouldn't have done it, you know, I would have known what I was walking into.

One of them was, it said -- and this was given, I think, an afternoon's discussion -- now that the arts are being taught at the high school level in Saskatoon and I believe British Columbia, does that mean that we have to become artists in order to teach art? I thought, well, I would hope so. You know, I would hope you'd have a teacher that would know something about the subject.

So the other one was even more frightening, you know, the -- the arts are frequently government-funded, and I think nearly always in Canada, and I know from my own experience as a child, at seven or eight, I wanted to compose music and I took piano lessons to do that and I had my knuckles rapped on more than one occasion which was typical of the way music was taught at that time. It was a real impresario, you know, like 'pain is gain' kind of method. Most piano players that I met also received a good rap here and there.

But what they told me at that time was, 'why would you want to play by ear when you can have the masters under your fingers?' So the idea of wanting -- especially at that young age -- to make up fresh, original music seemed to be completely foreign in the culture and the traditions were being carried over from Europe and that was it, you know.

The second offensive topic on this portfolio was 'We're Going to Make Van Goghs,' and that was the name of the conference, you know, 'We're Going to Make Van Goghs.' We're going to make Van Goghs out of native Canadians, women, and other ethnic groups, you know.

Now, when I went to art school, we were housed in between cafeteria cook trainers and auto mechanics and the place of the arts had -- that was to be my criticism -- speaking from the heart on art and education. I intended to, and I did, I spoke of a grade seven teacher who I had who was a miracle, a genius of a man, who gave me permission to both paint and be a poet at an early age. In the sixth grade when I was hanging my drawings on the wall for a PTA, you know, parent/teacher day, he said to me, he said, "you like to paint?" I said, "yes." He said, "If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words. I'll see you next year."

DD: That was Mr. Kratzman?

JM: Kratzman. So this was a great invitation to give a child, permission to be creative (squeaking door noise in background) in inner sanctum -- (laughs. Joni imitates squeaking noise.)

So getting back to this council event, now it's the night of the event and I'm about to speak and there's an award to be given and the speaker stands up and he says -- he says, 'more than anything else it is the artist who puts a country on the map.' And he cites Van Gogh, you know. And then they proceed to give the award to a Czechoslovakian immigrant who is a promoter of a dead Austrian, Mozart, you know.

So I thought -- well, anyway, I got up and I gave my two speeches and I'm sure that there were bright and creative people in that audience, but they didn't come forth and they didn't -- all I saw, I saw the painters were the first to leave. I could tell who they were because they looked like Smith Brothers cough drops. They all -- they left first and the next day in the newspaper they said -- it said, 'We don't need some rich rock star who left the country years ago standing up there and telling us that she's a serious artist.'

So I suddenly realized I was in the damnable position of being asked to speak on art and education from my heart when from most of the house I had no credibility. You know, I was an expatriate, you know, like, and I was pop fluff as far as they were concerned. So the song -- I said as I threw it open to questioning and received questions like (in a nasal voice) "What other famous people do you know?" You know, "Did you ever consider being a teacher?" You know. I said, "Look, you know, I don't think you can make artists. Artists are born. I mean the real artists are born. They are both the disease and the vaccination. You can't just teach them to bind wheat, you know, into Christmas ornaments and call them an artist. I mean look at Van Gogh, the whole thing is modeled after Van Gogh, a lot of great art comes out of emotional disturbances. How are you going to teach that?" So, anyway, I was not a popular speaker.

DD: But you got this song.

JM: (Laughs).

DD: "Turbulent Indigo."

(Music up: "Turbulent Indigo," live version of "Free Man in Paris.")

DD: Joni Mitchell is our guest on The World Cafe.

I saw you performed a lot of this material at Edmonton, at the folk festival this summer.

JM: A little of the new and some of the very new which is not on this record yet and some of the old.

DD: How did that go?

JM: It was lovely.

DD: Are you comfortable performing -- I know you haven't performed in a while. Would you consider doing that, or is it mostly -- I heard it was a physical problem holding --

JM: I am a polio survivor and we now have another gauntlet to run it turns out. You know, it's kind of like post-polio syndrome is a little bit like multiple sclerosis, you know, your wiring is kind of burning out. So -- and also you don't metabolize correctly so you can't -- extremes in heat and cold, same with MS, you can't -- air conditioning, fluorescent lights, all these things weaken you. Even, you know -- so, and the muscles in my back, a lot of them are gone. And the ones that are left are being driven by wires -- one wire that should be driving one muscle is maybe driving three or four, and they are weakening and so the contortion that you put yourself in, you know, the guitar weight, can lead to pain, and I don't want to get -- I don't like to think about it too much, but that's part of the reason.

The other reason is not a pretty topic either, but like I'm not an arena artist and my music doesn't suit big halls. The cost of renting little halls is amazing and we are surrounded -- the artist pays all the expenses, everybody's hotel rooms. And last time I was out, I was out nine months and, you know, I made less than the roadie. People don't realize. The artist is the last to get paid so to go out for a period of time and break even is not attractive in my condition.

DD: We talked to Rickie Lee Jones a while back and she talked about a wonderful peace offering you sent her --

JM: Yeah!

DD: But she wrote her own bio when she made her last record and there's a little funny story I wanted to read here.

She said she was born in Chicago on November 8th, 1954. "Bonnie Raitt and I are born on the same day. We learned this many years ago in Seattle riding in an elevator together. We were talking about -- she was talking about having met Bette Midler at a big party. She came up to Bette and Bette was wearing a dress in which her breasts were prominently displayed in a friendly way, and Rickie Lee says that before she realized it she just reached out and cupped one of them in her hand which -- like one might appreciate a fine sculpture, she says, and that Bette was kind of taken aback. She was laughing at this when Bonnie reached out and she said, 'Oh, you mean like this?' And, of course, I -- she reached out and held Rickie Lee's breast. And then she goes on to say that I like to think that Joni Mitchell, who was born on the 7th of November, would actually stop just before the moment of contact, smile, light a cigarette --

JM: (Laughs).

DD: -- but then she goes on and this is the part I would really like to get your comment on -- the point of this is nil, she says, except that lately I have begun to feel a certain affinity with women where I once had a vague, vacant disdain. Women were invited guests in a private club and in order to gain membership, the old boys who ran the place would always liken you to that other woman they had let join. Which is something sort of what you're talking about, about the people who ended up being compared to you.

JM: God, my mind ticker-taped over a lot of territory in there.

DD: Yeah, right.

JM: I don't really have anything too focused to say about it. Well, what people call "the new Joni Mitchell," "the new Joni Mitchell," "the new Joni Mitchell," you know, I don't see -- they're girls with guitars. To me, they all have their own identity. I hear very little of myself. But do you hear much Edith Piaf in me or Billie Holliday? Maybe a little? You know. And it seems strange to me, for instance, like to hear myself referred to in one place as a jazzer and in another place as that folk singer from the 60's, you know, like when a lot of my roots are in rock and roll and swing era and classical and, you know, black southern blues. I mean it's like I like a lot of different kinds of music.

DD: You know, for fall, I was playing a couple weeks ago Tom Rush's "Urge for Going" and I was just playing it as here's another record, and four people just kind of wandered in with this glazed look in their eye and I know what a big effect that song -- and actually in many ways that album -- had on people. Besides Fairport, was he the first person to record your songs?

JM: First for playing them, and when the recording hit, I'm not sure. But it opened up certain clubs for me, the Club 400, for instance, which was very cliquey and hard to play. Like in Tom's playing my song kind of heralded and opened the doors to some club work. Buffy St. Marie also took a couple of songs and traveled around with them. And Dave van Ronk took a couple and George Hamilton, IV, recorded "Urge for Going" too and it was a country hit at that time. And then later Judy Collins. So, yeah, all those people --

DD: Pretty much at the same time, I guess.

JM: Yeah.

DD: And then your first album came out after that, I guess.

JM: Mm-hmm.

DD: Thank you very much for talking with us.

JM: You're welcome.

DD: It's been a lot of fun. Joni Mitchell, our guest on The World Cafe.

(Music up: "Urge for Going" sung by Tom Rush, and "Come in from the Cold.")

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Added to Library on June 23, 2003. (6673)


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wkh13 on

I loved this interview! Even though I always wish I could hear this type of thing, this one was quite readable. There was a lot of insight into Joni's playing and writing technique, as well as comments on the performers who helped shape her sound. I never realized how much she depended on the other players when developing her music. This interview coverd a lot of territory in Joni's career, there were also some mentions of Joni's polio which help me to understand the way it influences her writing and her playing style and technique. Quite an informative interview...