Later, you know, Neil abandoned his rock & roll band and came out to Toronto. I didn't know him very well at the time we were there. I was just leaving for Detroit. We didn't connect then. It was years later, when I got to California – Elliot [Roberts] and I came out as strangers in a strange land – and we went to a Buffalo Springfield session to see Neil. He was the only other person I knew. That's where I met everybody else. And the scene started to come together.
By this time, David Crosby had "discovered" you singing in a club in Coconut Grove, Florida. What was he like back then?
He was tanned. He was straight. He was clearing out his boat, and it was going to be the beginning of a new life for him. He was paranoid about his hair, I remember. Having long hair in a short hair society. He had a wonderful sense of humor. Crosby has enthusiasm like no one else. He can make you feel like a million bucks. Or he can bring you down with the same force. Crosby, in producing that first album, did me an incredible service, which I will never forget. He used his success and name to make sure my songs weren't tampered with to suit the folk-rock trend.
I had just come back from London. That was during the Twiggy-Viva era, and I remember I wore a lot of makeup. I think I even had on false eyelashes at the time. And Crosby was from his scrub-faced California culture, so one of his first projects in our relationship was to encourage me to let go of all of this elaborate war paint [laughs]. It was a great liberation, to get up in the morning and wash your face . . . and not have to do anything else.
Is there a moment you can look back on when you realized that you were no longer a child, that you had grown up?
There's a moment I can think of – although I'm still a child. Sometimes I feel seven years old. I'll be standing in the kitchen and all of a sudden my body wants to jump around. For no reason at all. You've seen kids that suddenly just get a burst of energy? That part of my child is still alive. I don't repress those urges, except in certain company.
My artwork, at the time I made the first album, was still very concerned with childhood. It was full of the remnants of fairy tales and fantasia. My songs still make references to fairy tales. They referred to kings and queens. Mind you, that was also part of the times, and I pay colonial allegiance to Queen Lizzy. But suddenly I realized that I was preoccupied with the things of my girlhood and I was twenty-four years old. I remember being at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and having this sensation. It was like falling to earth. It was about the time of my second album. It felt almost as if I'd had my head in the clouds long enough. And then there was a plummeting into the earth, tinged with a little bit of apprehension and fear. Shortly after that, everything began to change. There were fewer adjectives to my poetry. Fewer curlicues to my drawing. Everything began to get more bold. And solid in a way.
By the time of my fourth album [Blue, 1971], I came to another turning point – that terrible opportunity that people are given in their lives. The day that they discover to the tips of their toes that they're assholes [solemn moment, then a gale of laughter]. And you have to work on from there. And decide what your values are. Which parts of you are no longer really necessary. They belong to childhood's end. Blue really was a turning point in a lot of ways. As Court and Spark was a turning point later on. In the state that I was at in my inquiry about life and direction and relationships, I perceived a lot of hate in my heart. You know, "I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some, I love you when I forget about me" ["All I Want"]. I perceived my inability to love at that point. And it horrified me. It's something still that I . . . I hate to say I'm working on, because the idea of work implies effort, and effort implies you'll never get there. But it's something I'm noticing.
Having laid so much of your life out for public ears, do you now look back on some things and wince?
The things that I look back on and sort of shrug off, maybe in a weak moment grimace over [smiles], are the parts when I see myself imitating something else. Affectations as opposed to style. It's very hard to be true to yourself. For instance, I don't care too much for the second album I made [Clouds]. I like the first one, the first one's honest. Blue is an honest album. Clouds has some honest moments on it, but at the time, I was singing a lot with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and they had a style, out of necessity, to blend with one another. They had a way of affecting vowel sounds so that when they sang together, they would sing like a unit. I picked up on that and there's a lot of that on the album. I find it now kind of irritating to listen to, in the same way that I find a lot of black affectations irritating. White singers sounding like they come from deep Georgia, you know? It always seems ridiculous to me. It always seemed to me that a great singer – now we're talking about excellence, not popularity – but a great singer would sing closer to his or her own speaking voice.
I think Billie Holiday was a very natural singer. In the context of opera, Maria Callas was an excellent singer. I think the lead singer from the Doobie Brothers [Mike McDonald] is a very natural singer.
["I think Bob Dylan had the right idea when he wore the same leather jacket for ten years," Mitchell says on the way back to her Bel Air home to pick up several changes of clothes. "Georgia O'Keeffe has got it down to a uniform she wears every day."
She buzzes open her gate, whips her Mercedes sedan into the garage and disappears into an upstairs bedroom. Her home is spacious, filled with plants and with her own paintings. The Mingus oil works – done at the Regency during her worst periods of writer's block – lie stacked in the hallway just outside the kitchen.
A few minutes later, Mitchell comes bustling into the living room with a small wardrobe, and it's back down Sunset Boulevard to Norman Seeff's studio. It's her fourth session in as many years with the photographer, and they work well together. Both coach each other. Mitchell lectures him on how "you try celebrities here, you push them to the limit, test them against your zen training." Seeff shouts at her to be quiet and "transcend yourself." Every now and then Seeff puts down the camera and they have a brief cross-fire philosophical discussion. They continue working all night.
The interview continued the next afternoon by Mitchell's pool. We sat in a small nook under the scorching sun, and for several hours, she talked with unflagging energy.]
Ten years ago, you had begun to represent the Woodstock ethic. Someone could say, "There is a Joni Mitchell type," and you would know exactly what he meant. Was that a concern of yours?
Very much so. I remember showing up at a Carole King concert in Central Park in a pair of Yves St. Laurent pants. And a good shirt. They were simple clothes, but they were of a good quality. And I felt . . . really uncomfortable. I felt there were certain things that I liked, that were a part of me, that were outside the hippie guard. Things that were a part of me from before this delicious period in the Sixties when we were fresh and were thinking fresh things . . . . It was a good time period. It was a healthy idea that we were working toward, but there came a time when it had become a ritual, a flat-out style.
I began to make this transition, under a lot of peer pressure. I remember seeing, even when I went to The Last Waltz, "Miss Mitchell showed up looking like a Beverly Hills housewife." I was outside the uniform of rock & roll and it was annoying to some people. And as a reply to this prejudice, I wrote that song, "The Boho Dance": "Nothing is capsulized in me/In either side of town." As a demand for liberty.
There was a time when you and Laura Nyro were considered to be the two purveyors of female singer/songwriting. Now it's all but taken for granted that Laura Nyro wasn't "tough enough" to survive in the business. Do you think that your own survival has meant a certain toughness?
Gee, I don't know if that's the case. Inspiration can run out, you know. Laura Nyro made a choice that has tempted me on many occasions. And that was to lead an ordinary life. She married a carpenter, as I understand, and turned her back on it all. Which is brave and tough in its own way. Many, many times as a writer, I've come to a day where I say, "None of this has any meaning." If you maintain that point of view, if you hold onto it and possess it, that's it for you. There's a possibility that you can come firmly to that conclusion, as Rimbaud did, and give it up. I've always managed to move out of those pockets.
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