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9 December 2020

Joni Mitchell: “I know what I want and I’m not afraid to stand up for it”

The musician on being misunderstood, playing ping pong and why her songs aren't about her. 

By Daniel Levitin

Joni Mitchell was born in Alberta, Canada, in 1943. She lived in a series of small towns, contracting polio during the epidemic of the 1950s that left her with scoliosis and limited strength in her left hand. Bored by schoolwork, she taught herself music, using modified fingerings on the ukulele and guitar because of her left hand difficulties, and immersed herself in poetry and painting. At 17, she moved to Toronto and played and sang in coffee houses, eventually performing in New York. She met the folk singer Chuck Mitchell, whom she married, and whose name she has kept.

She was signed to Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label in 1967, beginning a career that has spanned more than 50 years, 19 studio albums, and nine Grammy Awards – including a lifetime achievement award. Her early albums were dubbed “folk” by reviewers as Mitchell notes, “they just saw a girl with a guitar and to them, that meant it had to be ‘folk music’”. Now considered among the most important songwriters of the past six decades, she has spent her career exploring different styles, which led her own record company at one point to sue her for turning in music that was not “Joni Mitchell-like”.

Mitchell and I met in the 1990s through the Grammys, and we became friends. Over the past 25 years, we’ve played our new songs for one another, played pool, eaten stir-fry from her wok, and attended concerts together. I wrote parts of my past three books sitting in her garden, while she worked in her studio and painted. She is an attentive reader and teacher, generous with practical and conceptual advice about songs, science writing, and love.

Daniel Levitin You’ve been painting a lot since I last saw you. Are you still writing music?

Joni Mitchell I always considered myself a painter first. When I was 20, that’s what I wanted to be. I sort of got into music as a lark, with [my first husband] Chuck Mitchell. I never thought I’d make any money from music.

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DL Painting is very solitary, and music much less so. It doesn’t have to be, but you’ve surrounded yourself with some of the best musicians there are ­– Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott…

JM Well I started out wanting to be in complete control. On my first record, the credit reads “produced by David Crosby”. But he didn’t produce it. The record company didn’t trust me at all – but they trusted him because of the Byrds. So we told them that he was going to produce it, and he just made sure that everyone stayed out of my way. Then for all those years, it was just me and Henry Lewy in the studio, with me producing and Henry engineering.

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DL But at some point, you really were collaborating with other musicians, like Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus…

JM Those were very different collaborations, of course. Jaco did what he wanted. He was very independent. He was the first bass player I ever worked with who realised that he didn’t have to play the root of the chord. I didn’t even know what a root was! With Charles it really was more of a one-to-one collaboration. He had these songs and he asked me to put words to them. I spent a wonderful time at his apartment facing the Hudson, and his wife Sue would go out and make us tea and we’d be working and then take breaks and just talk and talk.

[See also: Jimi Hendrix’s demons]

DL I love the story of how you came to write your ballet, The Fiddle and The Drum.

JM (Laughs.) Well, you know, I loved Prince’s music, and he came up to me at the Grammys and said, “You really should write some dance music.” He didn’t say what kind of dance, so I wrote a ballet.

DL You seem to be working all the time. At one point about 16 years ago, when you were 61, you were working on a ballet, preparing a new set of multimedia art about war, and recording an album. And your involvement in all of these was intense. You had a hand in the choreography and stage design for the ballet, you got involved in the lighting and staging at the art gallery. You played me one song several times over a six month period and you still weren’t finished – you kept tinkering with it to get it right.

JM The problem is that most people in the business of bringing art to the public, the people who exploit artists, lack imagination. And they just want to do what’s worked for them in the past. If I’m not involved, it won’t get done right. And it’s my work. I know what I want and I’m not afraid to stand up for the work. People misinterpret this. They think that I have an inflated sense of ego, that I’m saying I’m smarter or better than they are. I’m not standing up for myself, I’m standing up for the work, being its advocate and caretaker. And with the songs, well yes. It’s always like peeling back the layers of the onion. I keep peeling and peeling until I get to the real truth, the real core of what I’m trying to say.

People misinterpret my lyrics, they project them on to me as autobiographical, psychological revelations. But they’re not. I’m really the playwright and the actress. The songs aren’t about me. I’m writing and singing in the first person, but they’re not all about me. I’m giving voice to a character, to a set of feelings. And to explore that character and those feelings, just like a playwright, I need to keep at it, keep working at it until I know it’s right. Sometimes that means revising the music, sometimes the lyrics, sometimes the presentation, the mixes, the whole thing.

DL Donald Fagen said that he and Walter [Becker, his co-writer in Steely Dan] never talk to journalists or anyone else about what the songs mean or where they come from. They’re just there for everyone to bring their own interpretation to them, and they want to keep it that way.

JM I don’t know if he really feels that way or is just trying to be obscure or provocative. I bet he doesn’t really feel that way. My songs are about very specific things and people often get them wrong. Like you did with “Amelia”.

DL To me, the narrator was singing about a lover, with whom she is realising she is really not in love – the “false alarm”. So many of us can identify with that – thinking you’re in love and then realising you’re not. And the metaphor for all this – an alarm – is so apt, because love does feel like bells going off, fire alarms, sirens… It’s as though the character is saying, “Those bells that were going off in my heart were wrong, this isn’t love.” In my defence, David Crosby and, well, just about everyone I know, understood it that way.

JM Just because it’s common doesn’t make it correct! Look. The false alarm was the end of a relationship. We were both Scorpios and, you know, we cling to things. We couldn’t let each other go. It was done, but we couldn’t let go. We felt we belonged to each other. That whole relationship was winding down and I was driving solo without a driver’s licence across the country. I thought of Amelia Earhart and her solo flight. I can’t remember how many hotel rooms later the song was complete.

[See also: Yungblud’s Weird!: bland, indistinct pop-rock]

DL That is a thread I see in your life – you keep working at something until you’re happy with it, never mind that someone else might be happy with less.

JM Well, I’m not writing or painting or doing any of the things I do to please other people. I don’t know what they’re going to like or not like. My spirit guide reminds me I am not in their heads. I have to be satisfied with it. And I’m harder on myself than anyone. I didn’t write for years because every time I started to write, I gave myself a block. I’d go “been there, done that” or “I don’t want to write social commentary” or “I don’t want to do this” – and finally I just got so angry at this routine that I had to use my old catharsis method. I had to get it out, but I wouldn’t want to put out just raw anger.

Some might say, “Ooh, how powerful!” but it doesn’t do any good. So in the process of tempering, tampering, tinkering with it, you learn; you educate yourself. Working through your crap, trying to make it suitable and subtle. It’s not that you whitewash it, but it’s like you look for the magic mushroom in the turd. Or something like that that’s useful. You try to find the transcendental point of your own mishegas [craziness] so to speak. What are you working on these days?

DL Well, since I saw you, I’ve been working on my new book Successful Aging [published in the UK as The Changing Mind].

JM So what can we do to age better?

DL Well, one of the things is to avoid getting hit in the head when you’re a kid, or having a stressful childhood.

JM Too late for that! (Both laugh.)

DL Right. But if you’re already older, staying active socially, like you do, is crucial.

JM That makes sense. My dad lived to be 100 and my mom lived well into her nineties. Dad’s goal was to go out on his 100th birthday – and he did. He was golfing. He shot his age three times. At 82 and at 83, and then on his 100th birthday, he shot his age, and he died that day. Both of my parents were very physically active. They went cross-country skiing, did a circle walk every day of a mile around the house. My mother was nutritionally savvy so that had that going for them too. I basically eat a soup and a salad a day.

DL A soup and a salad a day? Is that all?

JM And porridge for breakfast. You’ve seen my pantry – whole grain oats, those Irish oats for breakfast. Vegetables and fruits.

DL And physical activity helps us age better, like you do.

JM Yes, and I’ve been doing more lately. I have been swimming a lot. I’ve had this pool for 45 years and that keeps me in shape. And I do a lot of climbing of stairs. You know, it’s a three-storey house so there are lots of stairs outside of the house, and then a lot more inside. I play ping pong too.

DL Until recently you drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot of cigarettes. You often stay up all night.

JM I’ve always been a night owl. That’s when I get the most done. When no one’s around. It’s quiet. There’s a special solitude and spirit to the night. I’m a child of the night.

[see also: I know the story of Joy Division well – yet I was still moved by a new podcast on the band]

DL Herbie Hancock told me something interesting about the way that Wayne Shorter plays. You know how we both like those short bursts of notes he plays, like a bird?

JM Yes! I love that. He plays figures, these beautiful little figures.

DL Well, you know how he has asthma. Herbie said that Wayne played those little figures because of the asthma – he didn’t have the wind capacity to play long notes and long, legato passages.

JM He played some long notes on my records.

DL Yes, that’s true, but I think that’s because of the asthma, he couldn’t rely on always being able to do that, so he came up with this other way of playing, because of his limitations.

JM Like I do with my singing.

DL Or like you do with your guitar playing. The fact that because of the polio, you can’t use all five fingers of your left hand with equal force and dexterity to play the chords other players do, so you invented your own chords inside your own tunings.

JM You work around your handicaps. Out of handicaps comes style. 

Daniel Levitin is a psychologist, music writer and music producer. His books include “The World in Six Songs” and “The Changing Mind”.

This interview is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring Helen Macdonald, Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Helen Lewis, Armando Iannucci, Ian Hislop, John Gray, Stephen Bush, Jacqueline Wilson, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special