WHEN JONI MITCHELL RECENTLY DESCRIBED the music industry as “a cesspool” in the pages of Rolling Stone, her remark showed up on CNN. This was shortly followed by the news that Mitchell intends her latest collection, the double-CD Travelogue, to be her last. Travelogue is Mitchell’s second orchestral album. Unlike 2000’s Both Sides Now, which found her interpreting standards such as “Stormy Weather,” the new album revisits Mitchell’s back catalog — from her well-known songs including “Woodstock” to lesser-known gems such as 1982’s “You Dream Flat Tires.” She’s joined up again with her ex-husband and co-producer, Larry Klein, and jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, both of whom remain on Mitchell’s list of musicians she’s still excited about these days — a list that is quite short.
What’s the first record you ever bought?
Well, not everybody had a record player when I was a kid. It was a relatively poor community, so it was considered a luxury item that we had a record player. My father was a trumpet teacher, so he had one Leroy Anderson record and one Harry James record. And my mother had [Beethoven’s] “Moonlight Sonata” and all the rhapsodies. So the use of the trumpet and my penchant for classicism, that comes more from my parents’ collection. I had Alice in Wonderland and Tubby the Tuba. And if you listen to this new record, the tuba is way up loud on the record. So that family record collection — my mother’s, my father’s and my two childhood records — shows up in this collection.
What kind of music do you play if you’re going through a blue period?
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Some Billie Holiday, or Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way or Nefertiti. I love that pocket of Miles’ music. But it depends on which way you want to go. If I wanted to dig out of feeling blue, Thelonious Monk.
What is the strangest record in your collection?
There was a society woman in New York in the Twenties, Florence Foster Jenkins. She played Carnegie Hall, and her piano player had a really funny name, and she would have these weird dresses, like Laura Nyro did later, with wings with wires that would collapse. This woman sang really funny, and she said, “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.”
You’re such a distinctive vocalist. Are you still influenced by other people?
Rerecording “Chinese Café” for Travelogue, I just couldn’t find the pocket in the performance, the character. The character was almost right, but there was something missing for me to deliver that particular song with sincerity, and I tried to think of a role model. I tried to imagine an actress delivering those lines spoken, and I couldn’t think of a female. You know who I ended up thinking of? Jimmy Stewart. Because no matter how impassioned or angry Jimmy got, he always seemed to be on his center. He never was melodramatic. He was always light, even when he was heavy.
You’ve made it clear that you’re not thrilled with music today.
You’ve got all these assorted divas, like these sappy, romantic singers. They are not tender like Nat “King” Cole — they are overwrought. And it’s very flashy, but it’s soulless. You look into the eyes of these people, and you know they are looking at themselves in the mirror. There is nothing to them but their own image. There’s just nothing — the only thing I heard in many years that I thought had greatness in it was the New Radicals. I loved that song “You Get What You Give.” It was a big hit, and I said, “Where did they go?” It turns out the guy [Gregg Alexander] quit. I thought, “Good for him.” I knew he was my kind of guy. I’ve been wanting to quit for all these many years. But I still stayed curious with it. I’d always feel I had another one in me.
Why are things so bad?
We are drowning in images. We don’t know fantasy from reality. Especially the generation coming up. Something happened. Anything that is so accessible becomes disposable: You sit in your living room and you drink your cola and you eat your pizza, and you just watch all of this, you know, pornography. It’s not even music.
The title of the new album, Travelogue, reminds me of 1976’s Hejira, which you named after Mohammed’s trip to Mecca.
When I don’t have a title, I always go back to The Songs of the Sunday Painter. Somebody said, “Joni, you’ve had that title for the last five albums,” and I said, “OK.” I had trouble getting to the essence of it, and it was really last-minute when I did. Making an album like this, it’s like unloading the car on a holiday. You now, if Hejira hadn’t already been used as a title, it would have been a good title for this, too.