Composer, Singer, Musician Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada,
This is an excerpt from my interview with her conducted in 1989 about her music and her deep interest in the music of Miles Davis:
(note – when Larry Abrams and I were working on the scripts for “The Miles Davis Radio Project” with the input of ‘readers’ including saxophonist/composer Jimmy Stewart, Professor Lewis Porter, Professor Charlie Hardy and several wonderful people, we made up categories to help us with the organization. For now, I’m leaving some of those categories in so you can see them. SR)
JONI MITCHELL: Well, I was briefly a folk musician. I’ll just fill you in on my musical background. I came from–I spent part of my early childhood in a small town in Saskatchewan called North Battleford. This town had some pretensions to classical music and annually there were two weeks of adjudicated classical competition; church choirs, little girls in pigtails singing “Hey Nonny Nonny”, piano and trumpet duets and those two weeks you could either attend classes in school and I’m talking first through sixth grade or you could go to the United Church and sit there for two weeks of musical adjudication. So I was never much in love with academia so I opted for the church and I would sit there and it was like a game to me to listen to all these competitors and adjudicate them and see if I would give the same marks as this pigeon-breasted woman that would get up with her glasses you know and ah, seeing where they were flat and sharp and all of the things, so in a way, I had a vicarious musical education two weeks out of the year between the ages of six and eleven in that way and the town that I lived in broadcast on the radio primarily, aside from the pop music of that time, which was the Andrews sisters and Bing Crosby and so on, little Peggy Lee, it was mostly country and western and a lot of classical music, so while I don’t really know the names like Mozart’s style say from Tchaikovsky or something, I can hum a lot of melodies. I’m familiar with a lot of, and standards from the same thing so I was listening to music as soon as I was born and all these melodies, all the jazz standards um, I may not know the name or the author or something, but I know the melodies, born with an interest in melody I was. I studied piano briefly but I was a bad reader. I could memorize quicker than I could read and and the woman wrapped my knuckles for it so it killed my musical interest until rock and roll was born. Then my active interest was not as a player but as a dancer. Um, but partner dancing like we did was like playing with different drummers, every guy you danced with put the time in a different place. Some people dance back on the beat you know so I think that was great training for rhythm, partner dancing in the 50’s. Um, things that really knocked me out with that background were few and far between. One was a piece of music by Rachmaninoff which was in a movie called the Story from Three Loves, a very beautiful melodic piece, very passionate melody. Edith Piaff, I went to a birthday party of a kid named um, Gail LaFranier and she lived in a kind of a tin hut on the outskirts of the city and her mother made a cake out of a–it was the first cake-mix cake I’d ever had. Cake mixes were kind of new and had real gooey pink icing on and in the middle of a slice of this gooey stuff–they were French–and in the French radio station was going on in the background at her party and out of it came bubbling the voice the Edith Piaff and I think that that was the first time that, that I saw the supernatural ability of a singer, you know, that just when, it was a piece called, Three Bells, Les Trois Cloches, with Les Compagnons de la Chanson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm3JigL9_ZY) and there’s this men’s chorus and then she comes boiling up from the bottom like–did you ever hear that piece of music?
STEVE ROWLAND Um-um.
***FIRST HEARD MILES / ***MILES AS MUSICIAN
JONI MITCHELL: Anyway, the way I got introduced to Miles–I only had about six records I think at that time–three of them were classical. I didn’t own an Edith Piaff record but it was already stored in the memory files and my reputation was as a dancer and a painter in high school and some of the boys in crowd had gone to New York. This was during the beatnik thing and they came back with striped t-shirts and berets and sandals and, and all kinds of weird records and, and, one of them asked me to paint a mural of a jazz group on his bedroom wall. So I painted this very 50’s looking thing, they had no feet. The feet came to a point like 50’s furniture does you know. All black, white and grey, a bass player, a horn player, very abstract, you know, just modern form on his wall and he paid me in records and among them was a Miles Davis record and that started a shift in me I think musically um, which didn’t come out right away. Then there came the folk era. Well, our crowd needed somebody to back them up with bawdy ballads around campfires. You know, we lived in small towns and our social life took place on the outskirts and out in the bush, drinking beer in the bushes a lot and somebody had to accompany these things and I think it was really just in the spirit of rowdiness that I picked up the guitar and it was very easy you know to learn to move around on it at first but I had, since the age of seven, wanted to compose, but in a town with pretensions to classical music that was called playing by ear and it was considered bad. The idea that a composer would emerge in this thing rather than a performer of Beethoven or–never occurred to anybody and it was discouraged. Um, so it wasn’t until about 1965 when I crossed the boarder into this country that I realized, and all this time I had written poetry but in–secretively and for class projects and so on. All these things could be put together. You would paint your own album cover. You would set your poems to music and finally, there was an arena for composition without censure you know of course, you know, if you could rub two notes together in folk music, it was, it was a fairly, from the time I picked up the guitar to the time that I was making money with it was probably a period of six or eight months. You know, playing in small clubs in art college, pittance, just picking up some side money on the weekend. But, so part of my roots, my intake, those things which thrilled me before I even conceived of becoming a musicians myself was Edith Piaff um McGuire Sister harmonies, classical melody, you know, that kind of organized linear movement, Miles to me is a thrilling spontaneous melodic inventor. Where he enters the pressure points he chooses in a piece of music, the place where he comes in, the place where you know he lays out and what he does in between, is, is, thrilling to me. I also use Miles —- sometimes I have irritatingly fussy pitch. It’s almost like undulating. It’s not always with me. But sometimes it’s excruciating. I hear, like every little discrepancy. During those times I always go and put Miles’s records on, especially It Never Entered my Mind. Do you remember this piece? At the very end of it he draws the flattest note that is so beautiful. It is so right in it’s wrongness. The emotional quality because he flats it so is superb you know I mean if he’d played a nice note all the way out like technically perfect and so on. It wouldn’t have–so Miles has taught me much as a singer. He taught me to, um, he freed me up as singer probably more than most of the singers I’ve absorbed.
STEVE ROWLAND: Because of what?
JONI MITCHELL: Um, the shading of that note in, in that’s not only in, in, the waver, the tambre, but also what I would call creative pitch deviancy. Cause he has beautiful pitch but when he, you know, he uses in this particular case, It Never Entered My Mind at the end the pitch on the note is so sour that it creates the perfect theater for the ending of the song, the bitterness, the tragedy that he creates by um choosing a kind of a theatrical exit. That’s the way I interpreted that, that note on the end of that piece of music kills me. And liberated me. As a matter of fact, at one point, I did a movie. It was a women’s project in Canada and ten women were invited to write a ten-minute screen play. Then we were invited to participate in some other form. I acted in my play and edited it, which I love to do, I love editing film and video and my character was a woman who goes to a Halloween party dressed as a Black man, kind of real downtown pimp. She goes by herself to this part and nobody um, and she’s carrying a ghetto blaster and on it I, is Miles’s music, It Never Entered My Mind, right. And there she runs into her ex-boyfriend with his new girlfriend and they’ve come as father and mother time and it’s about a White woman trapped in a costume that’s too good. I mean, she looks like a Black man and all of the things that it creates at this party, and wishing that she was in something pink and fluffy under the circumstances. (laughter)
STEVE ROWLAND: And you made this into a film?
JONI MITCHELL: It never really, ah, it wasn’t well done. My piece I don’t feel was successful. I tried to bail it out in the editing. I had some conflict with my director. It really should have been done like a video. In other words, I had the ten minutes I had my whole score prepared and it should have been transferred to video and edited like video to it in order to be successful but this was before videos and I couldn’t get them to transfer to video and allow me to edit it in that way, nor could I allow them to play the score on the set so that we could choreograph to it. It was, it was too new an idea and they wouldn’t do it and without doing it, nothing worked because it had to be a gestural piece, you know, every move had to be choreographed to the soundtrack with it running on the set. If you tried to cut it without running it it just didn’t sync up right. You needed, you needed the music for your movies you see?
STEVE ROWLAND: Um-hm.
JONI MITCHELL: As a result of that I think, my none of the pieces really succeeded. Liv Ulman was the only one of the ten that I liked. I thought hers was good. So it didn’t really get exposed. I think it ran on Canadian tv.
STEVE ROWLAND: When was it? When did you do that?
JONI MITCHELL: Late 70’s. I don’t know if you ever–one incarnation of this character was on–I have an album called Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, with this character on the cover. Did you ever see it? So that character was trotted out for this film.
STEVE ROWLAND: Do you remember which Miles album it was that this guy gave you for painting his wall?
JONI MITCHELL: You know, I can remember the picture. It’s a color photograph, it’s a closeup and the horn is in it.
STEVE ROWLAND: It has a picture of Miles?
JONI MITCHELL: Yes, a picture of Miles. So it’s a chocolaty cover with with a bit of the horn in it. If I was to see a layout of a, what did Kind of Blue look like?
STEVE ROWLAND: Kind of Blue was a blue cover.
JONI MITCHELL: It was. So it’s not that. See I know most of them. I, I, it’s funny that that one I don’t remember what it was. It wasn’t an album that I, it was just my introduction to him. I wasn’t quite ready and I don’t think it’s one–it’s not like Nephertiti or In a Silent Way, which I adore, you know, but it was of that period I would say, 50’s, mid-50’s.
STEVE ROWLAND: Yeah, well those were a little later.
JONI MITCHELL: this would be about ’58 or ’59.
STEVE ROWLAND: I don’t, it doesn’t matter. I was just wondering.
JONI MITCHELL: That’s another piece I used in this film. I used–see, what were the pieces. Never Entered My Mind, Someday My Prince Will Come and Nights in Tunisia. And I, and the other piece of music was, was by Devo, Swelling, Itching Brain. When I get to this party and this Swelling, Itching Brain is playing and everybody’s dancing and I walk over and I lift the needle off and I turn Miles on real loud (laughter). Blast the party it’s like I’m in like a terrorist
STEVE ROWLAND: That’s funny. So, ah, but what, what happened when you first became a singer, I mean, so you were joining the folk movement?
JONI MITCHELL: Well, the way I started in, gee, I had no, I had no longing for show business. No inclina–where I come from, you know, like, no. And, and I actually had a kind of a prejudice against folk music from all of these, these years at the United Church (sings) you know all this stuff in adjudicated competition to me, but it finally got me on it’s wavelength in that there was a camaraderie to it. In that people sat around.
We went from, from kind of sock hops, which was a certain kind of partici–you know hand-on participation to something good about the movement at that time see cause rock and roll was second generational, they were just sending up cute boys, no talent need apply. Just they need to–Fabian–it was that watered down, post-Doo-Wop kind of era. There was a blank spot in pop music. It was just dead. It was a doornail you know and folk music rushed in to fill the gap, as it’s doing again at this moment. You know, it seems that once music has been commercialized to death there comes a craving for some simplicity again and some sincerity and some verbal communication.
So on the tail-end of a dance era which I was very active in, um, there came this kind of passive we are gathered together now in circles, you know, like in, it didn’t have any initially any political overtones as I entered whereas in New York it was very political happening simultaneously you know. I entered into well Canadians are sort of apolitical I think to begin with. Um, and I did sing folk music I would say for one or two years, but when I began to make my own, while a girl with a guitar looks like a folk singer, I would not call that early music folk music.
***JONI AND JAZZ
My first album, only that it’s a voice and guitar, it’s composition for voice and guitar but it has a lot of, by that time I had moved out of standard tuning into a system which is a blessing and a curse. It’s a great compositional tune. It’s a pain in the ass for a performance because I have to keep a lot of different guitars strung up in different family sets of tunings. I have 40, 50 different tunings that I use. Um, I need about ten guitars now to do a show set up and strung to hold those appropriate tensions because you’re slacking um, this gives a different, produces a different kind of harmonic movement than you can get out of the logical movement of standard tuning. You get–Wayne Shorter said to me in this last project, no, not the one we’re working on now, because he’s played already on some things, but the one before he said, these, these are not guitar chords and these are not piano chords, what are these chords? Because it produces a chord which doesn’t, while it’s a wide chord like a jazz chord in that maybe on the scale there’s only one note that’s gonna be outside the chord, it’s that wide, maybe it’s a, I’m a kind of a musical illiterate. I’m a high intuitive so I, only when you write these things out they’re like, sometimes you’re playing in two keys at once with strange inversions, things taking place in the middle as it’s explained to me, but to my ear, what I’m creating then is, is a new kind of harmonic movement. Now, jazz purists, people in pop music, because the music that I produce is a little more sophisticated than major minor 7th chords assume that I’m a jazzer because I had to play with jazz musicians because major minor 7th chord players and boom boom pachyderm drummers couldn’t follow the intricacy of the pressure and release and the harmonic movement so I had to move to jazz players, but if they were to impose their, their logical jazz chords against it, would break my heart too because it kills all the uniqueness in it see. So there are only some players even within that context that don’t just turn it back into an idiom. It’s not an idiom, it’s like it’s wider, you know, it’s like a mutt like we were talking about earlier. It’s a hybrid of all kinds of music that that of everything I’ve ever loved which is very eclectic, extremely eclectic, Patsy Kline, Edith Piaff, you know, dramatic singers, country singers, um, classical composition, um, you know, with the dynamic tension and release that that has which is unusual with some exceptions to pop music, not to jazz, um. Oh, oh, jazz can get very horizontal, you know, with everybody blowing you know, and lean down, a guy takes a solo. You know, all that stuff gets kind of dull. Um, but interesting, a great experiment it certainly was, you know.
STEVE ROWLAND: Well, that’s I mean that’s a real interesting thing. I mean, in, in, in this project, you know, one of the things that really interests me about music is how do people come to a decision about what they’re gonna play. I mean, you have a lot of great musicians, and in fact I sort of an obvious example of this to me is Wynton Marsalis, who’s an extraordinary trumpet player. But he’s, he’s not added anything new. He’s playing what Miles and Lee Morgan were doing in the early 60’s.
JONI MITCHELL: He’s going over old territory.
STEVE ROWLAND: Yeah, and and he’s doing it well and he’s sort of re-popularizing it which is kind of interesting and not unimportant but, but the record companies or somebody, something is making him to be more important that he really is musically.
JONI MITCHELL: Oh, yeah, well that’s true. That’s true. Everything gets hyped.
STEVE ROWLAND Yeah, so, you know, one of the things that I you know, always trying to understand, you know, is I guess, you know where, where does art come from. Where, how do people decide on what it is that they’re gonna play or what they’re gonna do and why is it that some people are just sort of hit on it or get it, they work and work and work and they’re able to put that out and that’s, and some people, they sort of miss it. You know, they’re I mean everything is there
JONI MITCHELL: Well, I think it depends.
***MILES AS INNOVATOR / ***MILES AND CHANGE / ***MILES AND PICASSO
I went through an imitative period. Um, but I’m too much of a loner to be a copy cat. For one thing, I crave, I’m a restless spirit. That’s why my two patron saints are both monsters but I love them to death you know are Miles and Picasso because they are restlessly creative. They can’t, they can’t stay put. They can’t steal from, you know, if they steal from others they make it so their own you know, you know, like you know they dance circles around, you know what I mean and then they incorporate it and it comes out to something of their own. You know, even when Picasso and Braque did twin paintings and so on, still it was you know, it was Picasso who took cubism to the next step and then took that to the next step. I mean, he kept going with it and Miles is like that. You know, he um, you know, I wish sometime that for greater fuel for Miles, you know, I mean, ok, tone, the, I happen to like a particular period of his music. I like, I like it all, but because the place, the place that you discover an artist is where it stays so where Miles kind of bloomed in my heart, which is important to me, if I love any music that I love, which gets harder and harder as you get older, creates an organic growth in me, the act of admiration and loving a piece of music, like (sucks in breath) you know, feeling that for it is automatic growth for me.
As long as I can keep finding things that I love, I will keep growing, you know, either if I have to go back retrospectively and discover things that already exist if nothing new because it seems like in all fields that we have, be it fashion, that we’re recycling now, that this–the 80’s was the era of the, of the great imitators. Even you take Madonna who was kind of a female impersonator, who is she? She doesn’t really have her own persona, you know, so much as that she evokes Marilyn Monroe and she evokes Marlena Deitrich and she evokes great stars. It’s her ability to evoke the great stars that has made a great star out of her, whereas they were all originals you know.
***MILES AS INNOVATOR
It seems to me that in all fields that that–Miles, you know, the moment you put a harmon–he claimed the harmon–you know, a guy puts a mute in his horn you know and man he’d better play something you know like and what is he gonna play that Miles hasn’t already played cause I believe Miles is, his taste is so beautiful, you know, it’s just elegant. Like I say, you know, where he, the economy of it, where he gets in, where he gets out, you know, the line, just the line drawing of it is like Matisse or Picasso. The line is beautiful. You know, maybe it’s because he draws. Maybe, maybe that added interest creates a dimension to his playing. To see the line before your eyes as it comes out to say, oh, you know like I’ll wiggle there instead of there you know instead of like an imitator of his wouldn’t have that fountain would he. I mean he’d be thinking, well, he’d be thinking of the territory of Miles’s line, you know, Miles drew it like this and therefore–you know?
STEVE ROWLAND: Um-hm. No, it just made me think of ah, what we were talking before about Coltrane, why the imitators, what, you know, what it is, I mean obviously they’re missing something, but what are they missing?
***MILES AND TRANE
JONI MITCHELL: With Coltrane I can’t tell, cause I can’t, I can’t see the seed yet. I’d have to go, to get Coltrane I would have to go back historically and hear what the saxophone sounded, what the guy before him that he’s standing on the totem pole sounds like and take it from there, because I’ve heard just so many guys standing on his shoulders. Now, he’s imitable, is that the–imitatable, he’s imitable. I mean, he, you can cop his stuff easier than you can cop Miles for some reason. Miles almost seems like sacred terrain, you know nobody seems to get mad that that people rip off Coltrane but it seems like a sacrilege to rip off Miles. It sticks out like a sore thumb. You’re a second rate Miles as soon as you put a harmon mute. So far, unless some guy puts it in and pushes air through it and some–I don’t know in some like new way,
STEVE ROWLAND: Yeah, no, that’s true, cause the thing with Coltrane, was, that was what happened to me. I heard him. I didn’t like him, but then I heard Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and Johnny Hodges and Sonny Rollins, who were among the group of people that he was drawing on. Then you hear the language. You can hear, it’s like learning a language in a way. And you could hear him speaking it. But what happens is then you also to me I think you have to understand who he was, what he was doing, what he was about, what his idea, what his connection to life was. Because he, see the thing about Coltrane that’s so interesting, it’s almost extra-musical, is that he, he was able to do something in life that that seems really hard in most people don’t aren’t able to get to that and it’s sort of like this pure, he wasn’t pure, but it was like this sort of complete dedication to, to his art and to talking about what God was to him.
JONI MITCHELL: Well, see that’s what it is. There’s something, you know, I think, I think a lot of people, especially in pop music for instance, like pop music is not a serious idiom by the very nature, it’s pop, right? The moment you get into the pop rat race, public appeal, popularity, you are off the bean, you know, the musical gift has nothing to do with popularity. It’s the antithesis of popularity. You have to stick your neck out you know like, like, um, for instance, you know, there was a time period–
**MUSIC AND AFRICA/
I loved rock and roll when it was born. I loved the roll in it, the spirit that it brought out was extension of boogie woogie you know like (sings) the push beat, that’s rock and roll. So by the time Whitey got in on it, you know, there was no roll, cause there’s no history in the White culture. The drum is, is, is funerals, the drum is war, you know, that’s it. You know it’s not coming from a culture where there were as many rhythmic figures as there were Chinese calligraphy where it’s an alphabet for God’s sake. You know like if you get into the Bata, or you know where it becomes a language and the figure, like a riff evokes a deity, evokes a spirit and you get into the language of evoking spirits and now you got a whole other thing. The White culture doesn’t comprehend the rainbow of spirituality because of all this, because of monotheism and you know like um, de-pagan-izing and all of that, too civilized you know so all they drum for is like minerals and you know bloody dirges.
**FUNCTION OF MUSIC/MUSIC BUSINESS
So when the roll went out of rock and roll and it became rock and yet still the rock and roll lyricists were saying rock and roll will never die. You want to say, it died, it died, you know. It’s already dead you know and it’s even, it’s getting worse again. Because every time it gets hot, along comes the next wave you know which is the exploitive, the record company says, get me a look alikes, they start looking for the look alikes and they hype them. The new, you know they put, you know, like I’m getting that now. Suddenly I have imitators. “The new Joni Mitchell.” There’s all these “new Joni Mitchells” all over the place. I say, well why don’t you wait till I die, you know? Wait till I die and then you can have all the “new Joni Mitchells” that you want, but I’m still in the game right?