JM: They’re cutting the budgets in the arts, and I don’t think the arts have been doing their job, either. You have two generations that are into pornography and shock. They’re numb. My generation went numb in the ’70s, and they never recovered. Then they became wildly materialistic, you know? And yeah, they failed. Their rebellion had some intelligence in it, some real beauty and optimism. Then Woodstock came, and the hard drugs, and it was over.

RADIO DAZE

NH: Do you listen to the radio?
JM: I listen, and I hear the most horrible contemporary music—just horribly derivative—and I hear young deejays go, “That’s the best record I ever heard!” And it’s bad, out of tune—it’s tragic! I mean Madonna is not very talented, but she’s a very hard worker. We’re no longer looking for talent—we’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate. Because talent is a pain in the ass. We need to go back and listen to Duke Ellington— his work is where Africa met European classicism. It was one of the most exciting times in the history of music. All those African rhythms started to match up with the polyphonic harmony of Bach. Gershwin came out of that. There was a tremendous amount of degeneration from Gershwin’s generation to my generation.

NH: How have your musical tastes changed as you’ve aged?
JM: Well, you become more dis­cerning. You like less and less because you’re looking for inspiration. Been there, done that, heard that—it takes more to get you off. You know you’re looking for something more spectacular because you’re growing, getting rarefied. I think it’s a natural thing that happens.

NH: So it’s just part of the process of getting older?
JM: Perhaps. Classical music, with its complexity, becomes more satisfying as you get older.

NH: How do you look at the music industry now?
JM: It’s gone, isn’t it? You’re not getting your royalties, so kids are gypping you out of your retirement fund, you know? And the whole thing is a mess. I would like to make another record. I’m loaded with ideas. I’m kind of itching to go, but what do I do with it? Where do I put it?

NH: Are you still writing songs?
JM: I jot all over the place. The last album I wrote in the studio, which is usually what bands do. I never did that before, and I really enjoyed it. I used to write all of the songs and go in and arrange them in the studio, but a lot of the last album was completely invented in the studio, and it’s exciting that way.

POETRY IN MOTION

NH: Do you think songwriting is a kind of poetry?
JM: Well, Leonard Cohen and Dylan tried to make music literate. You know, when the ballet was in Japan, the press said, “Joni, you used to be a poet, and now you’re a journalist—why?” I should have asked them what they meant, but I went straight into the answer and said, “Because America is the land of ostriches, you know? Somebody has to do it.” And then afterward I went, “What do they mean by journalism

NH: Was it a compliment?
JM: [Shrugs.]

NH: What about poetry?
JM: I don’t like it as a rule. Nietzsche and I are on the same page. He says the poet is the vainest of the vain: “All of them make their water muddy that it may seem deep.” To me, a lot of poetry, even the so-called best, is kind of like cracking sunflower seeds with your fingernails—it’s a lot of effort for very little meat. And sometimes there’s no meat at all—like Shakespeare’s sonnets. I can smell the commerce. I can see the poets. I can see the thumbs in their lapels. I can see the pomposity, and yet it’s much ado about nothing. The poet thinks all of nature is whispering to him. It doesn’t have enough humanity in it.

NH: Are you reading anything these days?
JM: I’m reading Emily Carr, a famous Canadian painter who went to art school with Matisse and studied at the Sorbonne. She paints British Columbia forests like I do, which are kind of hard to paint. She’s also a wonderful writer. I’ve been thinking about doing a piece— an album called Emily—and using her writing, which is very kindred to my own. The way she puts a sentence together is similar to songwriting. You have to put a lot of description into a very small space, and she must have felt the same need as a prose writer to get a lot of description into a very small space. Her writing is very visual, because she’s a painter.

NH: Do you think that might be your next project?
JM: Part of it. I have other ideas.

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