Mick Brown meets Joni Mitchell, America's first lady of confessional songwriting.
At 41, Joni Mitchell remains to all appearances, very much the idealistic woman who embodied an era of pop music at its most wistfully self-absorbed and idyllically romantic. The wheaten hair and corn-flower-blue eyes, the air of winsome candour, are all intact. It was Mitchell, remember, who wrote the song Woodstock (first, an event, later a film, a t-shirt and something of an embarrassment), and whose albums like Ladies of the Canyon, Blue and Court and Spark established her as America's first lady of confessional songwriting.
But much has changed. Three years ago, Joni Mitchell got married: an event that perhaps provoked a small sigh of regret from a generation of distant admirers, and effectively put an end to what had proved a fruitful - in musical if not personal terms - era of emotional turmoil. Then, two years ago, she receied a tax demand by the state of California which, she says, effectively put an end to her residual faith in government. 'It was like finding out', she remarks, 'that daddy goes to 'hookers.'
Both these factors have proved advantageous, resulting in Dog Eat Dog, Mitchell's best album since Hejira, in 1976 - a record which eschews her earlier themes of love lost, found and unrequited, and instead offers a sustained, intelligent and highly lucid reproach of American materialism and decay.
Mitchell is the first to admit her priorities have changed. For years she made a vocation of analysing her romantic travails - and there were a lot of travails to analyse. At various times her name was romantically linked with members of Crosby, Stills and Nash, James Taylor, Warren Beatty and a record company boss, David Geffen.
Today, Mitchell dresses designer-expensive; her long-standing ambition to be recognised as a painter is being realised (she recently had her first exhibition in Los Angeles) and marriage to a musician, Larry Klein, has exorcised her compulsion to consider 'what is love, where is love - the anatomy of the crime'. Mitchell admits that she is feeling politically urgency 'for the first time in my career'.
It is ironic that her political conscience should have been partly galvanised by her feelings of 'persecution' over a California state tax demand, imposed retrospectively on Mitchell and a number of other musicians.
This may not elicit much sympathy from the layman. 'There's no sympathy for rock and rollers losing their money,' she notes wrily, 'because we're the devil now.' Nor, in truth, did it much affect her financial standing - she is a wealthy woman. But the 'arbitrary and unfair' nature of the demand, she says, awoke her to 'the crookedness of government, and the power struggle going on in America'.
'This country is going very conservative, very right wing, and a lot of the progress made in the Sixties through liberal law-making is being undone. I think there is a sense of powerlessness developing among people. A lot of people I talk to say they feel angry. I feel it myself.'
Dog Eat Dog is a characteristically elegant sublimation of these sentiments with its judiciously phrased attacks on big business, ecological havoc and moral decay. Its principal setpieces Artifice. Brutality and Innocence - 'the three great stimulants' of American culture - and Tax Free, a scathing attack on moral majority evangelism, and a retort to the growing clamour for censorship of rock music, are among the best songs she has written.
Mitchell says she wrote Tax Free 'because they are slamming my industry.
There was a time when rock and roll could fill the same stadiums as these evangelists, and in some ways get more respect. I think there is an envy there, because it's all showbusiness.'
Dog Eat Dog is a particularly important record for Mitchell's own career. Her progressive involvement in jazz through the 1970s culminating in a collaboration with, and tribute to, Charles Mingus in 1979, damaged her commercial standing. 'Nobody in the industry knew if I was a Baptist or Catholic', she says, 'and they stopped playing my records as a result.'
Her power within the industry diminished as a result. 'All my career I've been allowed the luxury of being a free agent. I've been able to follow my own instincts, and I've never had to be a beggar. But there's a clamping down now. The business has become a business.' For the first time ever she has had to fight to have her record marketed in a gatefold sleeve - 'Only big digits get gatefolds'. She was also 'advised' to take a producer for Dog Eat Dog. This pained her most of all; a producer, in Mitchell's view, generally being 'a guy that watches football games on the studio TV, talks on the phone and throws his weight around'.
In the event, she co-produced Dog Eat Dog with Thomas Dolby, the English electronics specialist. It is said not to have been a particularly happy association. Dolby's name is absent from some tracks. But the album does bear the heavy imprint of synthesisers, integrated in a way which is of a piece with all Mitchell's work, the jazz emphasis still strongly pronounced.
'For years I was criticised for that,' she says. 'Now you've got a guy like Sting, who has got tremendous personal power, and tremendous personal integrity, moving in a jazz direction. So the executives listen to what I'm doing and say 'This is good, this is jazzy . . . '.' The eyebrows arch in mocking emphasis. 'One year you're persecuted for it, the next you're hip because of it.'
But perhaps it augers well for the record's prospects. Dog Eat Dog is, among other things, the most expensive album she has ever made, and the idealist has become, of necessity, more a pragmatist these days. 'I've learned that the record business is very simple,' she says. 'If a corporation can make a profit on what you do, they'll leave you alone. If this does well, I can afford to do it again next year. If it doesn't, it will be back to Joni and her guitar.
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Added to Library on January 6, 2005. (6958)
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