Iconoclastic and reclusive, Mitchell, who divides her time between Los Angeles and Sunshine Coast, British Columbia, has always fiercely refused to follow trends or conventions. She has explored jazz, become an accomplished painter and made avant-garde recordings. Recently, she collaborated with the Alberta Ballet and Canadian choreographer Jean Grand-Maître on a balletThe Fiddle and the Drum, which is set to her music and artwork and will be making its way to UCLA Live in February of 2010. Its a project that gave her great satisfaction. Ive finally found my niche, she said by phone, as I made my way over to interview her. Of course, what she did before the ballet was pretty good, too.
THE DANCE GOES ON
Nic Harcourt: In the last few years, youve taken a huge creative leap. Your ballet premiered in Calgary in 2007 and then on Canadas Bravo network. Now its a full-length ballet and ready to tour the U.S. in 2010. What inspired you to jump into the world of pirouettes and pliés?
Joni Mitchell: I was pissed off at George Bush, so there was an anger that just needed to be expressed. What I wanted to do was have people confront some of the problems of our times but still leave the theater feeling like they had a good night out.
NH: Initially, the ballet was called Dancing Joni. There were posters made up, and they even cast a dancer who looked like you in your youth. How did it change from something overtly about you into a political treatise on war, politics and the environment?
JM: Jean Grand-Maître presented his concept for my approval, and I said, I think its a little fluffy for the times. I mean, I didnt think it should be a biography about me. So I said, I can give you a war ballet. However, your sponsorsTexas oilmenarent going to like it.
NH: Was there a piece of ballet or classical music that inspired you a long time ago, or is this a new love?
JM: It was Rachmaninoffs Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini [from The Story of Three Loves]. Thats what made me want to be a musician. It was on TV recently, and I stayed up till 6 a.m. watching it. When I first saw it, I said to myself, I want to play the piano and write beautiful music like that, you know? Its the most beautiful melody Ive ever heard.
NH: The ballet is set to your own artwork and songs. How did you go about choosing some of the songs for this project?
JM: I included songs like Sex KillsDylan told me about that song. [Imitates Bob Dylans voice.] That song, Sex Kills, you got to show me those chords. After that, you can go anywhere. That kind of stuck in my head, and actually, it was Bob saying, After that, you can go anywhere. So Sex Kills was in.
REVIEWS ARE IN
NH: Youre used to pop-music criticshow are they different from dance critics?
JM: For the first time in my career, Im working in a fine-arts arena, so Im finally getting some intelligent reviews. Ive been in the wrong arena my whole career. Thats what I felt when I got into this.
NH: What kind of feedback did you get from your peers?
JM: Nina Simone saw me in a shopping center and swept me off the ground kissing me. That was probably the strongest reaction. But I had a lot of negative criticism on the music and harmonies being weird, and even Wayne Shorter said, These are not guitar chords, these are not piano chordswhat are these chords? Hes a very sophisticated genius of a jazzer, so something in the harmony is unusual and irritating.
NH: Anyone else?
JM: Janet Jackson was being interviewed when it first came out and said, Never mind my recordlisten to this! [Laughs.] And she played it for them. It was the only good review at the time, and I was very appreciative. Time magazine said it was sophomoric, because after the first year of college, you should no longer have social consciousness.