“People used to say nobody can sing my songs but me — they’re too personal,” Joni Mitchell explained last week during a rare interview. Apparently, nobody told John Kelly not to try adapting her songs.
The renowned Obie Award-winning actor and performance artist has been belting out Mitchell’s songs for more than 20 years. This weekend, the New York-based Kelly concludes the L.A. run of his acclaimed solo tribute to the iconic, iconoclastic singer-songwriter, “Paved Paradise: The Art of Joni Mitchell,” at Renberg Theatre.
Blessed with an elastic voice and androgynous features, Kelly is famed for his chameleonic ability to morph into historical figures of either gender, from famous painters to first ladies. His performance as Mitchell, however, is perhaps Kelly’s most enduring metamorphosis. It’s downright eerie how he channels her so completely.
Even Mitchell is a fan of Kelly’s show, which spans her entire career, from classic “Me Decade” albums such as 1971’s “Blue” through her most recent release, 2007’s “Shine.” That much was made clear in a recent telephone conversation with her and Kelly.
L.A. Times: When did you first become aware of John taking you on as a character?
Joni Mitchell: I saw the show in 1997, at Fez in New York.
John Kelly: I actually had done an early version at Highways in Santa Monica. Joni was going to come, but it leaked to the press.
JM: A friend of mine went. He said, “I don’t know if you’re going to like it.” When I saw it, I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a really fun, unique experience — more homage than a normal drag show. It was like being a ghost at your own funeral: The audience responded to John as if he were me. John actually requested I be seated to the side, so of course Fez stuck me right in front! Only after the last encore, though, did the audience turn around and held their lights to me.
JK: That was so crazy. I lost my nerve backstage: “Oh, my God, what am I doing?” Then I said, “You cannot change a thing.” I knew I couldn’t.
JM: I liked that when mimicking my between-song meanderings, John does his own personal version that’s more kindred than cartoon. While switching between my nearly 40 tunings onstage, I would talk to the crowd. I would digress, of course, and if I ever got back to the point, people were very relieved.
I had my boyfriend at the time with me, and Paul Starr, who did my makeup; there were a couple places where we all got very moved. At the end, my boyfriend yelled out, “We love you, Joni!” [laughs].
JK: This is a different show from that one, but there’s still a chronology to it. The first half is early work, and then it gets darker and bluer. When we were talking recently, Joni, you referred to your second five albums as “more philosophical.”
JM: My first four albums covered the usual youth problems — looking for love in all the wrong places — while the next five are basically about being in your 30s. Things start losing their profundity; in middle-late age, you enter a tragedian period, realizing that the human animal isn’t changing for the better. In a way, I think I entered straight into my tragedian period, as my work is set against the stupid, destructive way we live on this planet. Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.
LAT: John, how do you transform yourself into a real-life person like Joni?
JK: I study and transcribe Joni’s interviews and live recordings, but I’m not a stickler. It’s more about getting the spirit of her stories down. But if the audience is laughing too much, I’ll do something unpredictable to scare them, so they don’t know how to react.
JM: That’s the Andy Kaufman in us! … The dresses John wears onstage are also really good — right on, period-wise.
JK: I had really good frocks made for these performances. It begins with a white, lacy kind of medieval-meets-hippie, but still kind of couture.
LAT: Joni’s whole package — her personal style, guitar tunings, physical mannerisms, vocal phrasings — comes off as so individual, trying to duplicate it seems dangerously tricky.
JK: Doing Joni’s music always seemed kind of insane, in the best of ways.
JM: Exactly! I’m a method actress in my songs, which is why it’s hard to sing them. What I do is unusual: chordal movements that have never been used before, changing keys and modalities mid-song. But John gets the spirit: You have to go to the brink of sadness but never fall into melodrama, then send in the clowns for a moment.
LAT: Of late, Joni, you’ve been a major influence on young, current artists with unique voices: Antony Hegarty, Joanna Newsom, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, Rufus Wainwright.
JM: Those are theatrical voices, which is a whole other thing. That’s a good game, because it’s small. It never gets too lucrative, so those artists never have to see the puke of it all. I didn’t really go for the big dog race, anyway.
LAT: John, when did Joni become an influence?
JK: Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to classical music, literature or wanderlust; my sisters listened to Joni, however, and I found refuge in her music. The lyricism of “Rainy Night House” and “For Free,” the piano songs from “Ladies of the Canyon” — those were miraculous for me, and got into my bones.
LAT: John, when did you decide to begin performing as Joni?
JK: When I started singing, I always knew I wanted to do Joni’s music. So when the first Wigstock [New York’s annual drag festival] happened in 1985, a light went on: “Now’s your chance.” It came from love, really — you can’t sing something you don’t love.
JM: That’s the thing about the show that’s so special. I could tell John loves the music: He did all these little, Joni-esque vocal things that brought giggles from the audience. And it’s an actual performance. Lots of drag is lip-synced, which makes for a lesser degree of theater.
JK: Drag does have a power, though — that netherworld of a thing you can’t quite know, which makes people nervous.
JM: Drag wasn’t always counterculture. In his memoirs, Nixon talked about the Harvard and Yale men in power who would put on these plays where they dress like women, and Milton Berle did a kind of “hairy drag.” Becoming a gay thing made drag go underground.
JK: My drag choices have been Mona Lisa, Pina Bausch, Jackie Kennedy, Joni Mitchell, and the cross-dressing trapeze artist Barbette. That’s an obtuse family; I’ve done Egon Schiele and Caravaggio too! The whole problem I have with drag is how it focuses on the dress or wig, but when Cate Blanchett played Dylan [in the 2007 film “I’m Not There”], it was considered acting. I may stop doing performing “Paved Paradise” in drag, actually.
JM: It was an interesting way to establish it, but at a certain point it’s not necessary. Just before he died, Jimi Hendrix, his drummer [Mitch Mitchell] and I would sit up all night listening to tapes of our shows. Jimi was the sweetest guy. He made his reputation by setting his guitar on fire, but that eventually became repugnant to him. “I can’t stand to do that anymore,” he said, “but they’ve come to expect it. I’d like to just stand still like Miles.” Transitions aren’t easy. After I took a jazz band into the Grand Ole Opry, they never invited me back!
LAT: As well, you’ve had experience becoming a character outside yourself [Mitchell caused controversy when she appeared as an African American male on the cover of her 1977 album, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter”].The folk scene you came out of had fun creating personas. You were born Roberta Joan Anderson, and someone named Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.
JM: Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.
As for my name, my parents wanted a boy, so they called me Robert John; when I came out a girl, they just added two letter A’s to that. Then I married Chuck Mitchell; I wanted to keep my maiden name — I had a bit of a following as Joni Anderson — but he wouldn’t let me.
LAT: When John performs Joni’s early songs, it really takes the audience back to the dawn of women’s liberation. There was a double standard back then: John Lennon singing about sex was one thing, but if Joni did the same, it proved controversial.
JM: It was very shocking; even Prince said that to me. I first saw him in the audience of one of my Minneapolis shows. He was the only person of color in the front row — he concentrated on me for the whole show with his big eyes. When Prince later became a star, he told me, “You used to be shocking, but I can cut you now!” I never actually tried to be shocking — I was shocked that people were shocked. The madonna-whore thing was very prevalent, though, even in the “Summer of Love.” Rolling Stone even called me “Old Lady of the Year,” and made a graph of all these hearts I’d theoretically broken — if I did someone’s radio show, they had me sleeping with them.
Grace [Slick] and Janis Joplin were [sleeping with] their whole bands and falling down drunk, and nobody came after them! The ad for my first album said, “Joni Mitchell is 100% virgin”; the ad for the second one was “Joni Mitchell takes time,” which was also nod-nod, wink-wink in a way my material didn’t call for.
LAT: You’ve come out in the media as a sufferer of a controversial condition known as Morgellons. How is your health currently?
JM: I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space, but my health’s the best it’s been in a while, Two nights ago, I went out for the first time since Dec. 23: I don’t look so bad under incandescent light, but I look scary under daylight. Garbo and Dietrich hid away just because people became so upset watching them age, but this is worse. Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral. Morgellons is a slow, unpredictable killer — a terrorist disease: it will blow up one of your organs, leaving you in bed for a year. But I have a tremendous will to live: I’ve been through another pandemic — I’m a polio survivor, so I know how conservative the medical body can be. In America, the Morgellons is always diagnosed as “delusion of parasites,” and they send you to a psychiatrist. I’m actually trying to get out of the music business to battle for Morgellons sufferers to receive the credibility that’s owed to them.
LAT: Your music resonates because it’s so personal, yet you resent being called “confessional.” Why?
JM: It’s an ugly term — it’s “confessional” if you don’t get it; if you do get it, you see yourself in the songs. I usually use “I” as the narrator in my songs, but not all the “I’s” are me; they’re characters. It’s theater. Tennessee Williams’ plays are drawn from personal experience — does that make him “confessional”? If I’m playing Joan of Arc, you wouldn’t tell me, “That performance was very confessional.” I’m usually the playwright and actress — but in this case, with John, we now have a new actress! Right?