Joni Mitchell was as colorful, complex and engaging in conversation as she is in her songwriting during a rare 90-minute chat with New York Times chief music critic Jon Pareles as part of Luminato festival's TimesTalks in Toronto last evening.
"Music, like my life, didn't want to stay in one key," she said at one point.
"My songs don't adhere to one emotion," she said at another. "They're more like Fiddler on the Roof – 'on the other hand . . . '"
Sitting in large leather armchairs onstage at Isabel Bader Theatre, the Canadian-born composer of such classics as "Help Me," "Big Yellow Taxi," "Free Man In Paris" and "Both Sides Now" looked bohemian-elegant with her long hair pinned up, wearing a dark blouse, trousers and buckled boots. She was supposed to be interviewed with her drummer/bandleader Brian Blade – his name was listed alongside hers in the billing – but he sat quietly next to her, adding just a few words. He likely didn't mind listening.
The interview was topped by her fabulous stories about the 20th century Canadian post-impressionist painter and writer Emily Carr, told with such authority that her fascination and admiration was instantly clear. Mitchell is also a painter who once said, "I'm a painter first, and a musician second."
The talk with Pareles, like her music and her life, did not stay in one key. Mitchell regaled the audience with personal, detailed stories, from hearing Rachmaninoff when she was eight to her "tricky knuckles," which influenced her playing style, to how polio affected her turn to music. She quoted Nietzsche and talked about Jaco Pastorius, David Geffen and her mother, landing in a hospital with abscessed ovaries, and how she "squelched" a biopic by telling the director it would be "a piece of shit" because he didn't have the details. And there was so much more.
What was evident is that Mitchell is a great self-analyzer. She has perspective on her own work – how it arrived and was executed, and ultimately how it is perceived and why. She had no problem disagreeing with Pareles on a number of points, including his assessment of her paintings and Carr's influence and his conclusion about her album Blue.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Mitchell is being honored by Luminato, a festival of arts and creativity, for her artistry and her upcoming 70th birthday in November. "Joni: A Portrait in Song – A Birthday Happening Live" takes place at the venerable Massey Hall. Among the cast of performers will be Kathleen Edwards, Herbie Hancock, Glen Hansard, Esperanza Spalding, Cold Specks, Liam Titcomb, Rufus Wainwright and Lizz Wright. The house band, led by music directors Blade and Jon Cowherd (keys), also features Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Melvin Butler (saxophone), Bill Frisell (guitar), Jeff Haynes (percussion), Marvin Sewell (guitar) and Christopher Thomas (bass).
Mitchell will be reciting a new poem based on a passage from Carr's 1966 book, Hundreds and Thousands, accompanied by Blade and Akinmusire. "A page and a little bit are the basis of this thing that I wrote in empathy of her," said Mitchell.