[JPL] Five years after she told the 'pornographic pigs' of the music
industry she was through, Joni Mitchell is back
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Wed Mar 21 09:32:54 EDT 2007
'I came to hate music'
Five years after she told the 'pornographic pigs' of the music industry she
was through, Joni Mitchell is back: feisty, funny and doing a mean Dylan
impression. By Paul Sexton
Monday March 19, 2007
'I'm an uppity female," says Joni Mitchell, sitting in the kitchen of her
house in an upmarket neighbourhood of Los Angeles. "In the media, there's no
one like me. I'm as good as - and better than - most. But I'm not given my
Mitchell's house is big, warm and rustic, very much the abode of a working
artist. A large pot of brushes sits out; a giant painting is propped against
a wall. She looks healthy and serene, younger than her years, dressed in a
casual smock and no-nonsense boots, and laughs readily and infectiously.
When Mitchell announced her retirement as a recording artist in 2002, she
did so spitting hatred at what the music business had become. She bowed out
with Travelogue, an orchestral revisiting of her earlier work, and quietly
set about directing her creativity at her surviving passion: visual art.
It's hard to reconcile that embittered woman of 58 with the energised,
feisty, funny 63-year-old before me now.
"Here," says Mitchell, when I arrive, "let me hug you." I'm here as the
producer of a two-part radio series in which Mitchell talks to her friend
and fellow songwriter, Britain's Amanda Ghost. The double Ivor Novello
award-winning Ghost is now hugely in demand in America, as Beautiful Liar,
the R&B song she co-wrote for Beyoncé and Shakira, races up the US charts.
>From the next room, I can hear the elegant strains of Mitchell's work in
progress. Tentatively entitled Shine, featuring a new version of Big Yellow
Taxi and due in autumn, it will be her first album of new songs since 1998's
Taming the Tiger. The prototype singer-songwriter - five times a Grammy
winner and inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 - has no
doubts about her place in the annals of music. But her absence from the
mainstream has bred an endearing uncertainty. As a fumbling icebreaker, I
say: "That sounds great, even from the next room." She looks genuinely
Mitchell makes frequent eye contact, smoking prodigiously. She talks about
the "pornographic pigs" of the modern music machine, who care only about
"golf and rappers"; it's a subject she can now tackle with a hearty laugh,
no longer bothered by their belief that her sell-by date has been reached,
and delighted to be embarking on her busiest and most productive schedule
for more than a decade.
The newly inspired Mitchell has lately immersed herself in The Fiddle and
the Drum, a ballet based on her songs and art by the Alberta Ballet Company
in her native Canada. From merely advising on which of her songs to use, she
has progressed to designing the set and collaborating with choreographer
Ghost talks to her as an informed fan and fellow sufferer at the industry's
hands. They became friends when Ghost, a Londoner of Spanish and Indian
parentage, was signed in 2000 to Warner Brothers by Andrew Wickham, who had
signed Mitchell to the same company some 32 years before. "We're the
bookends of Wickham's collection," jokes Mitchell. "What happened in the
middle is what I want to know."
What happened was that Mitchell became universally garlanded as the most
eloquent songwriter of her generation. But it was soon clear that the
profundity of her work would burst out of the stifling restrictions of
mainstream pop-rock. She wrote the precociously world-weary Both Sides Now
as a mere 21-year-old, much to the disdain of her then husband Chuck
"I was married to a man who had a degree in literature, who knew I'd never
read anything and basically thought I was stupid," she says. "He married the
package, and thought he'd svengali a brain into it. He married what he was
pretty certain was a dumb blonde. When I wrote Both Sides Now, he said,
'What do you know about life? You're only 21.' Well, I had lived quite a
bit, I'd survived quite a few diseases."
Mitchell had polio as a child, but says she had "terrific teenage years. I
wasn't like Janis [Joplin], I didn't come to rock'n'roll to be popular. But
the worst thing that could befall a woman at that time was to have a child
out of wedlock, and I'd gone through that, and been tortured in the
hospital. By the time I was 21, I had experienced a lot of life."
After the success of Both Sides Now and other compositions such as Woodstock
and Big Yellow Taxi, it wasn't long before Mitchell tired of what she
describes as the "hit-making rat race". "The company said, 'Come on, Joan,
write us a hit,' and I said, 'I thought the idea was I wrote you a song and
you make it a hit.'"
When Ghost arrived three decades later, little had changed. Warners tried to
make a "sex bomb pop chick" out of a substantial songwriter and lost
interest in the process, leaving her disillusioned and her career in
neutral. Ghost says she practically had to mount a "prison break" to get to
where she is now. Clearly seeing her younger self in Ghost, Mitchell says
she was insulted to find that, after briefly allowing herself to be milked
as a source of revenue, notably around the time of 1974's double-platinum
Court and Spark, she was then effectively written off, and regarded almost
as a specialist taste by the time of 1979's Mingus. "It was my time to die,"
she says of the 1980s. "The bosses were looking, thinking, 'Oh, she's
getting old now, she's just about 27.' They want to dispose of you and get a
14-year-old in there."
By the late 1990s, Mitchell had simply had enough. "I came to hate music,"
she says. "I listened only to talk shows for 10 years." Her rebirth came
about, improbably, when she asked her management if they could arrange for
her to compile a CD for Starbucks' Artist's Choice series: "I listened to
everything I ever loved, to see if it held up, and much did. So I put
together one that starts with Debussy, then takes a journey up through Duke
Ellington and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, and then Louis Jordan. That
joyous music was conceived in such terrible times - and it was such a great
relief to the culture at the time. That's the trouble with now. Now we've
got a horrible culture, horrible times and horrible music."
But Mitchell is determined that, concerned though she is about the state of
the world, her return to recording does not come across as embittered
heckling. It shouldn't. Pieces such as Shine and If (inspired by Rudyard
Kipling) emanate bruised but unbroken optimism, not to mention an absolute
refusal to be musically classifiable: one moment she's jazz, the next
classical, then occasionally pop.
"A real artist is going to like a little bit of this and a little bit of
that, and it's going to take an entire life to assimilate them into
something new," says Mitchell. "It's not going to happen when you're young,
and this is a youth-driven market. It's like painting: everybody knows, or
they used to, that it takes a long time to distil all this. You don't become
a master until you're in your 50s and 60s."
If she sometimes suffers in comparison to her contemporaries, Mitchell has
found a way of enjoying it. She seems to know her value, laughs readily, and
has rediscovered her creative centre. Privately, she does a mean
impersonation of Bob Dylan, too, delivered as a hazy drone. "I'm not
considered a poet," she says. "Dylan is, Jim Morrison is. In a way, that's a
good thing, because I don't like poetry, for the most part. I'm with
Nietzsche, 'They muddy their waters that they might appear deep.' I'm a
frustrated film-maker, and my favourite compliments have always come from
the black community. This girl came up to me in the green room at the
Grammys and said, 'Girl, you make me see pictures in my head.' To me, that's
better than poetry".
· Come in from the Cold: The Return of Joni Mitchell starts on Radio 2 at
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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