Joni Mitchell On Point
With her provocative ballet, The Fiddle and the Drum, the songstress finds a new groove—and a new lens on her past
by Nic Harcourt / photograph by Robert Maxwell
Though her 1968 debut album, Song to a Seagull, was no small feat of folk glory, it was by Joni Mitchell’s third and fourth releases—Ladies of the Canyon and Blue—that her status as one of the most significant songwriters of her generation was cemented. Songs like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “California” have been kindling to a wide swath of musicians—from Dylan and Stevie Nicks to Beck and Norah Jones—who cite her as an influence.
Iconoclastic and reclusive, Mitchell, who divides her time between Los Angeles and Sunshine Coast, British Columbia, has always fiercely refused to follow trends or conventions. She has explored jazz, become an accomplished painter and made avant-garde recordings. Recently, she collaborated with the Alberta Ballet and Canadian choreographer Jean Grand-Maître on a ballet—The Fiddle and the Drum, which is set to her music and artwork and will be making its way to UCLA Live in February of 2010. It’s a project that gave her great satisfaction. “I’ve finally found my niche,” she said by phone, as I made my way over to interview her. Of course, what she did before the ballet was pretty good, too.
THE DANCE GOES ON
Nic Harcourt: In the last few years, you’ve taken a huge creative leap. Your ballet premiered in Calgary in 2007 and then on Canada’s Bravo network. Now it’s a full-length ballet and ready to tour the U.S. in 2010. What inspired you to jump into the world of pirouettes and pliés?
Joni Mitchell: I was pissed off at George Bush, so there was an anger that just needed to be expressed. What I wanted to do was have people confront some of the problems of our times but still leave the theater feeling like they had a good night out.
NH Initially, the ballet was called Dancing Joni. There were posters made up, and they even cast a dancer who looked like you in your youth. How did it change from something overtly about you into a political treatise on war, politics and the environment?
JM: Jean Grand-Maître presented his concept for my approval, and I said, “I think it’s a little fluffy for the times.” I mean, I didn’t think it should be a biography about me. So I said, “I can give you a war ballet. However, your sponsors—Texas oilmen—aren’t going to like it.”
NH: Was there a piece of ballet or classical music that inspired you a long time ago, or is this a new love?
JM: It was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” [from The Story of Three Loves]. That’s what made me want to be a musician. It was on TV recently, and I stayed up till 6 a.m. watching it. When I first saw it, I said to myself, I want to play the piano and write beautiful music like that, you know? It’s the most beautiful melody I’ve ever heard.
NH: The ballet is set to your own artwork and songs. How did you go about choosing some of the songs for this project?
JM: I included songs like “Sex Kills”—Dylan told me about that song. [Imitates Bob Dylan’s voice.] “That song, ‘Sex Kills,’ you got to show me those chords. After that, you can go anywhere.” That kind of stuck in my head, and actually, it was Bob saying, “After that, you can go anywhere.” So “Sex Kills” was in.
REVIEWS ARE IN
NH: You’re used to pop-music critics—how are they different from dance critics?
JM: For the first time in my career, I’m working in a fine-arts arena, so I’m finally getting some intelligent reviews. I’ve been in the wrong arena my whole career. That’s what I felt when I got into this.
NH: What kind of feedback did you get from your peers?
JM: Nina Simone saw me in a shopping center and swept me off the ground kissing me. That was probably the strongest reaction. But I had a lot of negative criticism on the music and harmonies being weird, and even Wayne Shorter said, “These are not guitar chords, these are not piano chords—what are these chords?” He’s a very sophisticated genius of a jazzer, so something in the harmony is unusual and irritating.
NH: Anyone else?
JM: Janet Jackson was being interviewed when it first came out and said, “Never mind my record—listen to this!” [Laughs.] And she played it for them. It was the only good review at the time, and I was very appreciative. Time magazine said it was sophomoric, because after the first year of college, you should no longer have social consciousness.
NH: You’ve lived in L.A. since 1969. What brought you here?
JM: When I came to California, it was the mecca of the world. Every young person on the planet wanted to be here. It was the heart of the hippie activity, and it was our culture, our generation, expressing itself at its most festive, so it was a real magnet for the young people—with the love-ins and so on.
NH: What kind of influence has L.A. had on your music since you’ve been here?
JM: Well, in my particular group, there was fraternity and high spiritedness and generosity. Crosby, Stills & Nash, you know, formed in my house in Laurel Canyon—I was kind of the catalyst in bringing them together. It was high play while they were developing. But once we all became more successful, everything became more cutthroat, competitive. Eventually, with success, I started to feel more and more isolated—like I didn’t have a community of artists.
NH: How did success change your experience with CSN?
JM: Once they were out on the road, they asked me to sing with them, but then they started dictating the harmony and everything. All of the play went out—business wrecked it. This is not the case so much with jazzers. I have more enduring friendships in the jazz community.
NH: What is it about jazz musicians that enabled that? Are they driven differently?
JM: Yeah, it’s less lucrative and more serious. They’re just more talented.
NH: Are you aware that there’s a new scene happening in Laurel Canyon these days?
JM: Oh, that’s beautiful. That’s the old spirit! That was a great time for me. It was healthy and productive and inspiring, and that’s what it should be—a community of artists.
NH: Do you think the music of
the ’60s and ’70s made an
JM: All those poor boys coming back from that nightmare in Vietnam were shunned by their own generation. It was a tragedy, and I wasn’t a part of that. I wasn’t a protest singer when it was fashionable. Those protest songs appealed to youth—they were only effective at rallying sillier youth. Even Dylan’s “Come you masters of war... I want you to know I can see through your masks”—it’s a flea on the elephant’s leg.
NH: Are you saying your generation’s activism was fashionable?
JM: We were a very experimental generation. We rebelled against the authority-loving aspect of our parents’ generations. I’m a Spock baby—bury the rod, spoil the child. A lot of us were raised on psychology as opposed to smacks. I’m in favor of the smacks, you know? A good bear cuff on a kid is...you don’t have to brutalize the thing, but I think a good whack once in a while... I was raised on psychology, and I’m too psychological, I think. I smack my grandson—not hard enough. I have to learn how to hit him hard enough, because the last time, he said, “Do it again,” and I thought, Oh my God, we’re going to make him kinky like a Brit, eh?
NH: What are you trying to say?
JM: Well, they do like their dominatrices over there in the U.K.
NH: Musically speaking, your generation has made an enormous contribution, no?
JM: People think of us as the golden generation of music. I think it was actually the Swing Era. Rock and roll. The roll was part of the swing era. Neil Young sings, “Rock and roll will never die,” but he never rolled—he doesn’t even know what that means. The swing was gone. To me, the swing beat was so full of joy. The great thing was that during the Great Depression, the music was joyous, swinging. That’s how you escape hard times. Now we’re in a depression, and you’ve got this violent, militant sound—it’s psychotic.
NH: Where did we go wrong?
JM: They’re cutting the budgets in the arts, and I don’t think the arts have been doing their job, either. You have two generations that are into pornography and shock. They’re numb. My generation went numb in the ’70s, and they never recovered. Then they became wildly materialistic, you know? And yeah, they failed. Their rebellion had some intelligence in it, some real beauty and optimism. Then Woodstock came, and the hard drugs, and it was over.
NH: Do you listen to the radio?
JM: I listen, and I hear the most horrible contemporary music—just horribly derivative—and I hear young deejays go, “That’s the best record I ever heard!” And it’s bad, out of tune—it’s tragic! I mean Madonna is not very talented, but she’s a very hard worker. We’re no longer looking for talent—we’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate. Because talent is a pain in the ass. We need to go back and listen to Duke Ellington— his work is where Africa met European classicism. It was one of the most exciting times in the history of music. All those African rhythms started to match up with the polyphonic harmony of Bach. Gershwin came out of that. There was a tremendous amount of degeneration from Gershwin’s generation to my generation.
NH: How have your musical tastes changed as you’ve aged?
JM: Well, you become more discerning. You like less and less because you’re looking for inspiration. Been there, done that, heard that—it takes more to get you off. You know you’re looking for something more spectacular because you’re growing, getting rarefied. I think it’s a natural thing that happens.
NH: So it’s just part of the process of getting older?
JM: Perhaps. Classical music, with its complexity, becomes more satisfying as you get older.
NH: How do you look at the music industry now?
JM: It’s gone, isn’t it? You’re not getting your royalties, so kids are gypping you out of your retirement fund, you know? And the whole thing is a mess. I would like to make another record. I’m loaded with ideas. I’m kind of itching to go, but what do I do with it? Where do I put it?
NH: Are you still writing songs?
JM: I jot all over the place. The last album I wrote in the studio, which is usually what bands do. I never did that before, and I really enjoyed it. I used to write all of the songs and go in and arrange them in the studio, but a lot of the last album was completely invented in the studio, and it’s exciting that way.
POETRY IN MOTION<>NH: Do you think songwriting is a kind of poetry?
JM: Well, Leonard Cohen and Dylan tried to make music literate. You know, when the ballet was in Japan, the press said, “Joni, you used to be a poet, and now you’re a journalist—why?” I should have asked them what they meant, but I went straight into the answer and said, “Because America is the land of ostriches, you know? Somebody has to do it.” And then afterward I went, “What do they mean by journalism?”
NH: Was it a compliment?
NH: What about poetry?
JM: I don’t like it as a rule. Nietzsche and I are on the same page. He says the poet is the vainest of the vain: “All of them make their water muddy that it may seem deep.” To me, a lot of poetry, even the so-called best, is kind of like cracking sunflower seeds with your fingernails—it’s a lot of effort for very little meat. And sometimes there’s no meat at all—like Shakespeare’s sonnets. I can smell the commerce. I can see the poets. I can see the thumbs in their lapels. I can see the pomposity, and yet it’s much ado about nothing. The poet thinks all of nature is whispering to him. It doesn’t have enough humanity in it.
NH: Are you reading anything these days?
JM: I’m reading Emily Carr, a famous Canadian painter who went to art school with Matisse and studied at the Sorbonne. She paints British Columbia forests like I do, which are kind of hard to paint. She’s also a wonderful writer. I’ve been thinking about doing a piece— an album called Emily—and using her writing, which is very kindred to my own. The way she puts a sentence together is similar to songwriting. You have to put a lot of description into a very small space, and she must have felt the same need as a prose writer to get a lot of description into a very small space. Her writing is very visual, because she’s a painter.
NH: Do you think that might be your next project?
JM: Part of it. I have other ideas.