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Q & A with JONI MITCHELL : ‘Your Life Should Affect Your Direction’

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

You have to be careful when congratulating Joni Mitchell on her latest album. If she thinks your enthusiasm is based in part on the belief that she has finally “returned to form,” sparks are likely to fly.

Words such as jackasses and idiots can surface when she talks about critics who largely wrote off her late - ‘70s and ‘80s albums as lacking the insight and warmth of her early-'70s collections--works that established her as one of the most gifted songwriters of the modern pop era.

Mitchell’s outbursts are likely to be followed by disarming giggles--as if she’s surprised and amused at her own bratty language.

The critical complaints began when Mitchell moved from the folk-tinged chronicles of relationships in albums such as “Blue” and “Court and Spark” to explore other themes and textures.

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But like fellow Canadian-born musician Neil Young, who is also back in critical favor after having been attacked in the ‘80s for experimenting with various musical styles, Mitchell is enjoying the last laugh. Both are currently Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees.

The praise returned four years ago when her “Night Ride Home” album was widely cheered, and the new “Turbulent Indigo"--which speaks about betrayal and compromise on various levels--is winning even more acclaim.

With the album just in the stores, Mitchell, 50, spoke about the new songs, changes in her life (including the separation from her husband, musician Larry Klein, who co-produced the new album) and the impact of the renewed critical acceptance.

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Question: You have gone through a lot of changes since the last album, including the separation from your husband. How close was that to starting the new album?

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Answer: We separated the day before we started.

Q: Didn’t that make things difficult in the studio?

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A: People don’t even like to work with a married couple, let alone a separating couple, so it was a little difficult. When you are separating like that . . . it is the opposite of the beginning when everything is synchronistic and you are thinking identically. There is an emotional withholding as you are pulling apart or changing your relationship.

But Klein and I had a good friendship to begin with and a good musical relationship. For mutual personal growth, I just think that the separation was a good idea. We are working together on two more projects.

Q: Another change was your return to Warner Bros. Records after 20 years. Was it your decision to leave David Geffen’s labels after all this time?

A: I asked David to let me go, please , because I felt I was just on the shelf over there and had been for many years. It was time for a change. David offered me a new contract, but it was not attractive to me.

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Q: Justice, or the lack of it, seems to be a major theme of the album--from the subject of wife-beating in “Not to Blame” to the social divisions outlined in “Borderline.” How did that theme emerge?

A: The album isn’t about justice. It’s about a quest for justice . . . understanding what justice is. I pulled up behind a Cadillac while I was waiting for the traffic light and the license plate said, “Just Ice,” and I started thinking about that:

Is justice . . . just ice? Governed by greed and lust ?

Just the strong doing what they can

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And the weak suffering what they must?

Q: There has been speculation that “Not to Blame” was inspired by specific incidents, possibly the O.J. Simpson case or the allegations about Jackson Browne and Daryl Hannah. Any comment?

A: Let’s not go gossipy on any of these songs. . . . I should have put a disclaimer. . . “Any resemblance to any people living or dead is merely coincidental.” This is a song about batterers of women. It’s dumb to reduce the song to a portrait of an individual.

Q: As someone who experienced enormous success at a young age, can you identify with the pressures on someone like the late Kurt Cobain?

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A: Are you kidding? Listen to (her 1972 song) “For the Roses”:

Remember the days when you used to sit

And make up your tunes for love

And pour your simple sorrow

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To the sound hole and your knee

And now you’re seen

On giant screens

And at parties for the press

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And for people who have slices of you

From the company . .

People don’t understand how distasteful it is to the artistic temperament to be pulled through the business like we are forced to. . . . It threatens the creativity. It cheapens. It slanders. It assumes. . . . You are subject to the printed opinions of jackasses. You put your work up and some idiot comes up, like some guy wrote after (1976’s) “Hejira” how I completely lost perspective on my music and didn’t know who I was anymore. . . . It is a heartbreaking gantlet young artists have to run.

Q: How does it feel to have so many people calling the last two albums your best in years? Is there part of you that resents it when critics say this is your best since the “Court and Spark” days?

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A: It just shows me the person who is writing that has a very limited perception of my work. I think I have done some of my best work out of favor, between “Night Ride Home” and “Court and Spark.” It’s not the most commercial, but it is the most emotionally adventuresome.

Q: What is the impact of critical reaction on your direction as an artist?

A: It’s nice when a project is well received, but it shouldn’t affect your direction at all if you are a genuine artist. Your life should affect your direction. I’ve got two songs now that I need to get in and start recording, and they are different from the songs in this album. One’s titled “Happiness Is the Best Face Lift.”

* ‘TURBULENT INDIGO’

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Mitchell’s latest is her best in years, reviewer Chris Willman says. F11


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