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Q&A: Joni Mitchell

The singer talks about making a record with her ex-husband and the dark side of the music business

Joni Mitchell

Joni MITCHELL, circa 2000.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

Joni Mitchell’s latest album, Both Sides Now, finds her exploring what Paul Simon once called “the arc of a love affair” with the aid of a full orchestra and a collection of classic American torch songs associated with the likes of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. She also reinterprets two of her own twentieth-century standards, “A Case of You” and “Both Sides Now.” It’s a romantic, exquisite change of pace, but if you somehow imagine that Mitchell has lost any of her famous edge singing a bunch of old songs about this thing called love, by all means, read on.

What the hell is it like trying to make an album that gets to the heart of romantic love with your ex-husband Larry Klein as your co-producer? Did it help?
It did, because, crying or not, we separated and then made an album that we won a Grammy for, 1994’s Turbulent Indigo. That process was difficult because in pulling apart, although there was no violent parting, there was kind of a cold war. Like, I don’t know the proper names of pieces of equipment, things like that. I have to give them nicknames, or call them “that gizmo,” or point. And before, Larry never had problems deciphering what I meant by these things. But now, this perverse withholding of understanding went down, and we had a little bit of friction on this project. I was always looking at the problems; he thought I was being negative. He wanted me to praise him for a job well done, and then I said, “That’s a little premature, you know.”

Joni, men don’t like being called premature. It’s a sensitive word.
I never thought of that. And little, too.

True enough.
Anyway, we worked through it beautifully, and our friendship has blossomed on the other side of this. We intend to do two more — this is the first part of a trilogy. The next one, we’re going to do twelve of my songs. And the third one, I want to do my morbid little Christmas record.

Why did you decide to do a collection of torch songs now?
There was no point in doing them any other time. It was the end of the century. It was time to reflect on the music that went before. It was good for culture and music to revisit this, because we have gone so far from a melody, you know, and genuine musical ability. You’ve got an appalling amount of mediocrity and amateurishness in the foreground now. Because nobody cares, as long as it sells. It’s not music anymore, it’s just ick. There’s no muse in ick, you know. There’s no muse to it.

Singing in front of an orchestra, was there ever a temptation to throw in something silly between “Stormy Weather” and “At Last,” like “Louie Louie”?
There wasn’t much time for levity. I’m paying the bills. The clock was running, and it was right down to business, you know.

Did you notice any difference between the usual rock & roll riffraff and the orchestral types that you encountered?
To tell you the truth, I haven’t really had much to do with rock & roll in my life. Most of the people that I hang out with have been, like, Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter. I’ve spent more time at jazz clubs, and I’m not a rock fan. I really loved Chuck Berry and Louis Jordan, way before rock & roll. White rock & roll, generally speaking, was never appealing to me. The stances of little white boys never really did it for me.

What a great title for a book about rock & roll: “The Stances of White Boys.”
I was just always, like, please. Even when I was young. The smallness of the men in rock & roll — the pettiness — was appalling to me.

Most artists say all their songs are their children and they love them all equally. In retrospect, is there a record that is closer to your heart?
This is the only one that I have listened to after I finished it. Ever.

Did you watch the footage of the riots at the last Woodstock?
Caught a glimpse of it. It is just par. The world has gone mad, you know. It’s just junk. People’s values are junk. What they spend their money on is junk. What they do to get their money is junk. They are junking the planet, basically.

Besides that, you’re optimistic.
Yeah. Yeah, I am. I want to try and build some chi and some strength so I can ride this dark current that we are entering into.

Back at the beginning of the Nineties, I got a call from you while I was at a Paula Abdul tour rehearsal; you claimed you were quitting the music business.
Well, I’ve been saying that since I got in. I called them up and begged them to fire me. When Rickie Lee Jones left my label [Warner Bros.], I called and said, “Fire me. If you are clearing house, fire me.” They said, “Well, we can’t do that, Joni.” The music business just makes me sick. It’s just a joke. Can you sit and enjoy any kind of music or awards shows? Where are the adults? Where is the class? This is whiners and screamers and screechers, and they’re all full of themselves over nothing, you know, just like the scum that populates this business. I’m ashamed to be a part of it. I hate it with a passion. The only song I have liked in a long time is the New Radicals’ song. I love that song. That’s the first song since I was a teenager that I rushed to the radio to turn up. I like the harmony, I like the passion in his voice. I love the song, you know, “You got the music in you,” and I love the punk irreverence of it. Now, that’s my kind of punky white boy.

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