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Dennis Elsas interviews Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

November 1985

play Listen!

Transcribed by Pete Christensen

Dennis: We've been talking about the brand-new album, "Dog Eat Dog," just out, and I asked Joni if she wouldn't mind if we talk a little bit about some of the older stuff. I was looking at all these albums and I said, "Do you have any particular songs?" and you were saying about these songs as being almost like children?

Joni: Yeah, some - I can't really remember what I have. I'm always surprised to rediscover them when I look at the jacket. It's like they've grown up and left home and they never write and they never call.

Dennis: And you were saying that you would have to look back at these if and when you got ready to go on tour - that that's when you get back into the older material sometimes.

Joni: By the time you've finished recording it, you've pretty much finished with listening to it. You know, unless it sneaks up on you some place, like over the meat in the supermarket or in an elevator.

Dennis: It must be very strange.

Joni: Or when you're preparing for a tour. Then I go back over it. I have to relearn it. Sometimes I don't know how I even played those things. Luckily, I have a friend, Joel Bernstein, who I met in Philadelphia when I was in my early twenties. He was 15-1/2 or something - 15-1/2 and proud of it, braces on his teeth - and he took great pictures. He ended up traveling to California and being photographer to most of the old wave: Neil Young; myself; Crosby Stills Nash & Young. He's been around me all these years. When I forget a song and how to play it, he's the one I turn to because he's got a more methodical filing system. So I call him up before I'm going to tour. I say, "Joel, you gotta come and help me out," and he shows me how I played it. Otherwise the music just kind of passes through me.

Dennis: You just lumped yourself in with a couple of other people and said "the old wave." Is that how you think of it?

Joni: Well, as opposed to the new wave, I guess so.

Dennis: Well, I mean it's been a long time for those of us that loved your music in the early days and have stayed with it all the way through. Does it begin to get - you're beginning to become a spokesperson, whether you like it or not, for a whole different generation only because your music is so tied into it. I imagine that every time people start talking about a Woodstock anniversary, they try and track you down to say, "What was it like when you wrote that song and how do you feel?" I mean, do you enjoy that?

Joni: No, I don't like to be pigeonholed. I'm too eclectic, in a way. I like many different kinds of music and I would prefer not to be associated with a bag per se. But it's inevitable because journalists like to do that. They like to lump you into a group. I've been in so many different categorical groups at this point, you know, that I don't really have a home base in music.

One of the things that I find difficult, having been around for a long time, is this notion that when you change, the new music that comes out of you is not authentic. For instance - I'm thinking about this a lot lately because I'm at the time now where the reviews are coming in - and in one review, I guess it was Newsweek, they said that the music wasn't authentic. And I thought this is a peculiar idea because what happens when you make your first record: there you are, you're an unknown; you're sitting out there, you're listening to music, obviously; and passing through this filtering system is the music that you like and the music that you don't like - and what sticks to you kind of ruminates and your music comes out.

Now, just like actors: however you come into the game, in a way, is how they want you to stay. You remember Dylan, his transition - just plugging in an electric guitar - and there was so much hostility towards him, mainly from people who were afraid of electricity. People are afraid of change. Now, every year I'm exposed to different music. I like a lot of contemporary music, so the contemporary music that I digest is going to come out and reflect in my own music. Therefore, it's as authentic as the first record that I made. And it's always going to change as long as you're listening to different kinds of music.

So, in a way, this is my pet peeve, if I can air my pet peeve. I think - and there's nothing that can be done about this; it's inevitable - people resist change even in their friends and yet they have an appetite for it. The question is: since I am a long-distance runner - I'm in this game for life - why is it so difficult at this point for people to adjust to the fact that, since I've made the last record, I've digested different music? And what do they think roots are, anyway? You know, this is a pretty rootless society. Music always needs to stay fresh. It needs new tributaries coming in. So I'm asking a question. What do you think?

Dennis: Well, I just think that people, as you said, they pigeonhole. They remember, maybe, songs like "Both Sides Now" and they just want that forever. Whether that's right or wrong, that's perhaps something that they think of - "Oh, yeah, Joni Mitchell, 'Both Sides Now,' that's great," you know. And then you put out something contemporary and something that you're doing in 1985 and they don't understand why it can't be 1969 again, right?

Joni: I guess that's it.

Dennis: What a setup for this song. Here's Joni Mitchell and "Both Sides Now." [MUSIC] About what year was this recorded - you think '68-69?

Joni: Which album is that? That would be '70.

Dennis: "Clouds."

Joni: Yeah. The first album was '69.

Dennis: And when you wrote "Both Sides Now" - I'm just trying to get a perspective here. You may have written that - what? - 15-16 years ago, the song "Both Sides Now"?

Joni: That was one of the songs that I had before I started recording, so I think I wrote it between '65 and '67.

Dennis: All right, so 20 years ago or less you had looked at life from both sides now and really didn't know - so what about 20 years later when you sing that song?

Joni: Well, that song, actually, is one that you don't grow out of. Like, some of the early songs I feel miscast in; they're like ingénue roles. But that song, I used to take a lot of ribbing because I wrote it when I was, I guess 20 or 21. It was kind of presumptuous. Yeah, I was 20, because I couldn't even drink legally yet. So to say that you've looked at life from both sides now, people thought that was peculiar. But the funny thing is that kids, even little kids, see so much people don't realize. I mean, like you take Freud, for instance. The smartest thing I think he ever said, he said when he was 19, and that was, "Dissection of personality is no way to self-knowledge." He should have quit then. Then he made his whole career out of disproving that. It was one of the smartest things I think he ever said. A lot of the insights that I had into what lay ahead of me I had at a very young age. All that happened after that was that experience backed it up.

Dennis: I thank you so much for coming by today. This is a treat. I have a record cued up on the back table there that I couldn't possibly let you leave without - disc jockeys are a curious lot and they always love songs that have to do with radios. We're obsessed with the topic and obsessed with the ideas. And the whole concept of "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," where did that come about?

Joni: It was a drawing first. It was a drawing of a radio turning itself on - like an old Marconi table radio? It's hard to describe it because it was a visual first. I don't know. The song is pretty much self-explanatory.

Dennis: I think it is, too. Thanks for coming by.

Joni: All right.

Dennis: And please come back soon.

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Added to Library on October 6, 2015. (3445)


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