"I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate," Joni Mitchell says, summarizing just about everything she feels is wrong with the pop world these days.
"I thought, that's interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist -- not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music. That's why I spend my time now painting."
Mitchell is standing in the painting room of the Mediterranean-styled place in Bel-Air that has been her home for 30 years. Her face is aglow and her manner chatty as she points to the scores of paintings on the floor and walls. There are works, from portraits of Gauguin and Van Gogh to landscapes, to fit every mood -- some tranquil, some tumultuous -- and she seems as proud of them as the intimate, insightful songs from the '70s that made her a patron saint of romance for young women (and men) everywhere.
In such albums as "Blue," "Court and Spark," "For the Roses" and "Hejira," she wrote about matters of the heart with grace and unflinching detail, helping launch the confessional school of pop music. It was music fueled by pain -- the pain of a young girl spending months in isolation because of polio and the pain of a young woman forced to give away her only child.
"I lost my daughter at 21. I had to give her up because I was broke, no place to take her, no money to take her," she says. "That was very traumatic. So my gift for music was born out of tragedy, really, and loss."
Yet despite the anguish beneath the songs, the music was never morbid. In fact, it was often jaunty, worldly, witty and, above all, honest. In a time of rising feminism, she never made romance into dogma.
She's still trim and you can see in her eyes and cheekbones the features that caused her photo to be on thousands of dorm walls. The glow leaves her face, however, when asked if she plans to display or sell the paintings. She might show them in a museum at some point, but that's it.
"I don't want to get into merchandising them," she says sharply. "I want nothing to do with galleries, even in terms of exhibitions. When money meets up with art, there is a lot of pain, and it's the pain of ignorance, and I don't want to meet up with that ignorance again. My work is personal, too vulnerable. That's why I quit making records."
Though invariably labeled folk ("because I was a girl with blond hair and a guitar," she snaps), Mitchell traces her own influences to the classical music she adored as a youth and, later, jazz.
On this afternoon, she talks about how she developed her style, but the most essential quality of a songwriter, she suggests, may be mental toughness. Like Dylan, and fellow Canadian Neil Young, Mitchell has fallen in and out of favor over the years. She has been revered, imitated -- and ridiculed for being esoteric and out of touch.
Ultimately, she was not tough enough. "Everything in my later career, with few exceptions, has been compared unfavorably to my early work," she says matter-of-factly. "I've done 16 records hearing people say, 'You're not as good as you used to be. Finally, I said, 'OK, I agree with you.' "
Mitchell announced she was leaving the music business in 2002 and hasn't looked back. "My goal as a writer is more to comfort than to disturb," she says, explaining her decision. "Most of the art created in this particular culture is shallow and shocking, and I can't create music for this social climate."
She pauses. In conversation, she is outspoken, funny, self-deprecating and stimulating. But she doesn't find anything funny about the topic at hand. "There's not much room for subtleties today. It's the shallow, flashy heart that grabs the attention; chase scenes, atrocities. Mass murder is probably the favorite entertainment of the American culture at this point."
At 60, Joni Mitchell is a fascinating jumble of confidence, crankiness and vulnerability. She claims that the grossness of the business led to her retirement, but, hours later, you realize the real explanation is more complicated.
The 'overactive mind'
Independent as a rodeo bronco, Mitchell is hard to corral on the subject of songwriting. She didn't start out to be a writer (painting was her first love) and never saw much mystery in it. She'd rather talk about psychology, Eastern culture, nature, politics, her grandchildren and painting. Nowadays, she gets so absorbed in her painting that she often spends all night in the studio, her Jack Russell dog or three cats her only companions.
Her two arts, painting and songwriting, happen in almost opposite ways for her. "In painting, you're brain empties out and there's not a word in it; it's like a deep meditation, like a trance," she says. "I could step on a tack and probably wouldn't know it when I'm painting. In writing, it's kind of the opposite. That's why some people take stimulants.
"You stir up chaotic thoughts, then you pluck from this overactive mind. It's part of my process as a writer, being emotionally disturbed by something exterior someone said or something that is happening in society. It's on your mind, and it won't go away until you deal with it."
Her fans may be shocked to hear how little she thinks of many of her most celebrated songs -- songs that established her almost overnight as the first important female songwriter-performer in pop. Her style was greatly influenced by Dylan's emphasis on poetry, but she also wrote melodies as ambitious as Dylan's words. Drawing from classical composers and the great pre-World War II pop songwriters such as Gershwin, she came up with original and complex chord structures.
In "Both Sides Now," a hit for Judy Collins in 1968, the words and the music came together gloriously as she paints alternating pictures of the romantic cycle.
First, the celebration and joy of love:
Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
And ev'ry fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way
Then come the disappointment and resolve:
But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away.
She started writing the song after reading Saul Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King" on a plane. In the book, Henderson was also in a plane, on his way to Africa. He was looking down and observing the clouds. Mitchell looked out the window and the idea came to her.
Even after all this time, she doesn't understand all the excitement over the song. "I thought 'Both Sides Now' was a failure, so what do I know?" she says, smiling. "I was not a good judge of my early material; none of it sounded all that good to me. That's why I wanted to keep moving forward."
As she often does during the hours together, Mitchell pauses, as if she's ready for another topic, but either adds to it or amends her comment.
"I was born the day of the discoverer," she says finally. "I have a need to find things out for myself, hopefully discover something new. I don't have a great deal of tolerance for copycats. Neither did Mingus. He had this one song called "If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There Would Be a Lot of Dead Copy Cats."
Walls and bridges
Pain and toughness came to Roberta Joan Anderson at an early age. The Fort MacLeod, Alberta, native, whose father was a grocery chain manager and mother taught school, was struck by polio so severe during grade school that there were fears she wouldn't walk again. She believes that some of that isolation stimulated her imagination. Being so confined, she would imagine all kinds of stories and pictures and scenes.
Her early musical appreciation was tied more to the beauty and structure of classical music. The first singer who excited her was Edith Piaf, whose voice "thrilled my soul." She also speaks excitedly about hearing Rachmaninoff for the first time. At college, she studied commercial art, not music. But she sang folk music in clubs for fun and for pocket money. Everything changed when she got pregnant.
"Immediately my life was in shock," she says. Having a baby when unwed was the "worst thing you could do" at that time. So she told her mother she was quitting art college to become a musician.
She and the father, a fellow student, soon parted and Mitchell struggled to make a living singing in folk clubs in Canada. Hoping to provide a home for her baby, she says, she married American folksinger Chuck Mitchell, but the marriage was short-lived and she put the baby up for adoption. The move left her with a sadness and guilt that colored her songwriting.
It was the heart of the folk explosion and Mitchell kept running into other singers as she moved to New York and eventually Los Angeles. She found they were drawing from the same material, so she began writing. She had always been good at poetry and had been able to make up melodies on the piano as a child.
She cites Leonard Cohen as an early influence. "I just thought he was worldly and made my work seem naive," she recalls.
"I was a Dylan detractor at first," she says, bemused at the thought. "I was intolerant of copycats and I thought, 'Woody Guthrie copycat. What's the big fuss over that?' Then I heard songs like 'Positively Fourth Street,' and thought, 'Ah, now we can write about anything.' "
Mitchell's debut album attracted some critical attention in 1968, but it was "Ladies of the Canyon" two years later that confirmed her artistry and "Blue" in 1971 that certified her greatness.
To understand the honesty and depth of emotion of "Blue," Mitchell says, you have to understand her frame of mind.
Part of the album's introspection and vulnerability grew out of her own conflict of carrying "this guilty secret of having a child out of wedlock" and "not having been able to bond with her" and the sudden "elevation of public attention." One song, "Little Green," was written as a message to her lost daughter.
But she also wanted to be truthful because she felt there was a danger in letting the public pick your persona for you -- a trap that she felt both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin fell into, contributing to their self-destructiveness.
"Jimi was a very genuine person, but doing all this theatrical stuff was humiliating to him," she says. "I didn't want a huge gulf between who I was offstage and who I was onstage. I didn't want to be a phony. Basically, what I thought at the time was: 'You are worshiping me. Let's see if you can worship me if you know who I really am.' "
The result was some of the most captivating music in American pop, songs with a diary-like intimacy and poetic grandeur, songs like "A Case of You," which is blessed with a melody as bright and elastic as Mitchell's soprano voice. In today's world of pop exclamations, the album's gentle, almost understated feel seems all the more convincing and honest.
In "A Case of You," she wrote:
I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours
She knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds
And she said, "Go to him, stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed."
The chorus defined Mitchell's ability to look at herself with dark whimsy:
I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet.
Like the rest of "Blue," the song made you feel as if you were listening to someone who had been through and understood the joys and despair of finding love without losing yourself. Beyond the craft, the music seemed almost effortless in its articulation of some of life's deepest and most complex emotions. "Blue" represented the point where passion meets art.
About the lack of accusation and retribution in the songs, she says, now warming to the subject: "I think men write very dishonestly about breakups. I wanted to be capable of being responsible for my own errors. If there was friction between me and another person, I wanted to be able to see my participation in it so I could see what could be changed and what could not.
"That is part of the pursuit of happiness. You have to pull the weeds in your soul when you are young, when they are sprouting, otherwise they will choke you."
Her next two albums, "For the Roses" in 1972 and "Court and Spark" in 1974, were equally embraced by critics and her fans. Mitchell, however, was far from satisfied. She yearned for more ambitious musical statements, ignoring complaints from old fans who sometimes found themselves alienated by the new works.
The move began raising eyebrows in the 1975 album "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" with its more challenging chord progressions and jazzier, free-form arrangements.
Actually, her drive for original sounds began way back in the early clubs days. She credits singer-songwriter Eric Andersen with first helping expand her musical horizons.
"Eric was an important catalyst because he showed me open-G tuning on the guitar," she says. "That opened a whole world for me because standard tuning was hackneyed. Everything was mined out. But open-G tuning, which is what Keith Richards plays in, opened new doors. It coughed up a possibility for chordal music I hadn't heard before.
"Immediately, it gave me a sense I could get at the melodies I heard in my head. I only wrote two songs in standard tuning in my whole life. If I didn't learn that tuning I probably would have quit or I would have gone to the piano."
Between the unusual tuning and chord changes, Mitchell has proven frustrating to musicians who wanted to copy her style or play her songs. As a writer for Acoustic Guitar magazine once noted, her guitar playing doesn't really sound like a guitar. "What she plays, from the way she tunes her strings to the way she strokes them with her right hand, is utterly off the chart of how most of us approach the guitar," the writer noted.
It was during the '70s transition period that Mitchell recorded "Hejira," another masterpiece. It's a demanding album whose restless alienation was captured brilliantly in "Amelia," which added a rich layer of symphonic color to her storytelling.
"Hejira" was written while driving cross-country alone, Mitchell finding a parallel in her solitary mood with the doomed aviator Amelia Earhart. She considers it one of her most inspired works, and it gets her to talking about process.
"I usually work from music first," she says. "One, it's harder, which I like, and it's more challenging. Two, it's kind of like writing the score, then making the movie, which is kind of ass-backward. I was choosing hard subjects and demanding a lot of honesty of myself. That forces you to spend a lot of time exploring who you are because the more you know about yourself, the more you know about human nature."
Once she got the idea for a song, the rest came quickly. "It has to be immediate with me. If I wait, everything is lost." She also rewrites a lot, "demanding greater and greater clarity. I get the gist and then go for the language. I polish. Lots of editing and switching around. More like making a film."
She scoffs at the claim of many songwriters that songs just come to them whole, flowing through them almost as if they are innocent bystanders.
"Mostly when they say the song just came through me, it means the song doesn't make any sense to them, either," she says with a laugh. "I throw most of that kind of writing out. I am always trying to get at something in myself that is buried deep."
When asked for specifics about "Amelia," she expresses surprise that someone could be interested in a songwriting process she feels is so obvious. She then goes through the steps in an elementary fashion that underscores her impatience.
"When I hear these questions, I realize how simple I am," she says. "But OK, here we go: I checked into a motel, read for a while, move over and play guitar for a while. Then, I switch to another guitar tuning. 'Oh, that sounds fresh. That's nothing I've heard from someone else, nor have I stolen from myself.' Then I find a melody and a bridge. Then, I ask myself, 'What's in your mind, Joan?'
"Well, I think: I've been driving across the burning desert and I think about what I saw. I looked up in the sky, six jet trails hanging overhead. I go, 'Oh, it's like the first change in the I Ching and there are six strings on my guitar.' That's interesting. So I start writing."
I'm driving my car across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails
Across the bleak terrain
Like the hexagram of the heavens
Like the strings of my guitar.
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.
"Basically the false alarm was the end of a relationship," she says. "Two Scorpios couldn't let each other go. It was done, but we couldn't let go; we belonged to each other. It was winding down and I am driving solo without a driver's license across the country. I think of Amelia. I think solo flight. I can't remember how many hotel rooms later it was complete."
Her search for new musical textures reached a flashpoint four years later in "Mingus," a collaboration with celebrated jazz bassist Charles Mingus that many fans point to as when they lost interest in her music.
But she has no regrets. "We grew up in a very dissonant time, the Cold War, tension of impending disaster," she says of her drive for more complex sounds. Conventional pop chords seemed incapable of describing either her loss or the tension of living in a society with the bomb hanging over its head.
"Americans are simplistic musically," she says. "It's always been kind of dumb musically relative to Brazilians, for example, who are very, very sophisticated in acknowledging that emotions are complex. Americans like their happiness in major and their tragedy in minor."
Letting it go
The sun is setting and Mitchell's mood is upbeat despite her frequent outbursts against the music industry.
She had warned of her discomfort with the marketing side of the record business as far back as such '70s songs as "For the Roses" and "Free Man in Paris," and she still shudders at the idea of putting your heart into music and having businessmen only say they don't hear a hit.
Still, her withdrawal from the music scene was surprising because she had enjoyed a critical and commercial resurgence in recent years. Her "Night Ride Home" album in 1991 especially was hailed by many as a return of the accessibility and warmth of her early albums. "Turbulent Indigo" in 1995 won a Grammy for best pop album and 2000's "Both Sides Now" won a Grammy for best traditional pop vocal album. Mitchell was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
There was obviously something more going on. Maybe it was just that she had finally moved beyond the old anguish, which had been her creative spark. Crucially, she was reunited with her daughter, Kilauren, in 1997 and found joy in the simple pleasures of being a grandmother of a boy, 11, and a girl, 5. Now, the family spends time with her in Bel-Air and she spends time near them in Canada. And no, the restless chronicler of romance, whose 12-year marriage to bassist Larry Klein ended in 1994, isn't in a relationship.
"I'm so happy," she says. "Such good friends. So much in love with life, but romantic love is over for me. I'm very happy about this leg of my life. I wish I were better at painting. Great thing, though, having a challenge -- painting personal things, which have their own validity."
Like other artists before her, such as one of her heroes, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, Mitchell sees no need to put herself on display for a public that only wants to hear the greatest hits over and over.
"Miles was like that at the end," she says. "He wasn't trying to be rude on stage when he would wait for an hour and a half to find someone who inspired him to play two notes. His golden age and his period of exploration was behind him. I just don't want to do it anymore. So I'm painting privately with my private adjudication."
Yes, she confides, she still strums the guitar and noodles with new melodies, but no more lyrics for her. In the end, her personal contentment and her silence seem to be interlocked.
"In some ways, my gift for music and writing was born out of tragedy, really, and loss," she says softly. "When my daughter returned to me, the gift kind of went with it. The songwriting was almost like something I did while I was waiting for my daughter to come back."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Five albums for the ages
From the honesty of "Blue" to the warmth of "Night Ride Home," these albums, listed chronologically, best capture the arc of Mitchell's craft.
1."Blue" 1971. Stunning in its time for its simple yet thoughtful reflections on the various sides of the romance game, the album is still a study guide for songwriters in just how to look deep inside for your inspiration and ideas.
2."For the Roses" 1972. Mitchell had fun with the music ("You Turn Me On I'm a Radio") and reflected, in the title track, on the struggle to maintain your innocence and vision in the record industry.
3."Court and Spark" 1974. This album exuded the confidence of someone who was blossoming as a musician and a person. There was rock 'n' roll ("Raised on Robbery"), more thoughts about the record business ("Free Man in Paris") and a biting look at Hollywood vanity ("The Same Situation").
4."Hejira" 1976. The album feels as deep and true as "Blue," yet the themes and the sounds seem at times more eloquent and, occasionally, profound. The music is gently symphonic, jazzy and free.
5."Night Ride Home" 1991. This CD combines the accessibility of the early Mitchell with the artistic maturity of her later years. Longtime fans hailed it as a return to form, but, more accurately, it was simply another step forward. Comforting and refined.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Five songs for the ages
These songs touch on Mitchell's various moods:
1."Amelia," 1976. The music on this song from "Hejira" is slow, unhurried, a bit desolate, but also self-affirming. The image of doomed solo aviator Amelia Earhart suggests a woman's effort to find courage on her own journey.
2."A Case of You," 1971. If you've ever been helplessly in love, this song is for you. It injects in "Blue" the hope that everything can turn out OK, especially for a strong woman.
3."For the Roses," 1972. It's not surprising that Mitchell's first love is painting because many of her tunes are filled with bright colors. Even in this downcast tale about record industry marketing, the music often sparkles. Key line: "In some office sits a poet/ And he trembles as he sings / And he asks some guy / To circulate his soul around."
4. "Big Yellow Taxi," 1970. The smart, perky song is about ecology, yes, but mostly human nature. Key line: "They took all the trees / And put them in a tree museum / And they charged the people / a dollar and a half just to see 'em."
5. "Two Grey Rooms," 1991. A compelling tale of obsession drawn from something she read: an aristocrat had a lover in his youth he never got over. He rents a shabby apartment overlooking a street so he can watch the man walk to and from work. The mood is, fittingly, grey. Key line: "Tomorrow is Sunday / Now there's only one day left to go / Till you walk by / Below my window."
On the Web: For a multimedia presentation featuring music and images from Mitchell's career, with comments by Robert Hilburn, go to calendarlive.com/songwriters.
Next: Jack White and Conor Oberst, two of the most distinctive voices of the new rock generation.
Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org.