Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words

When singer, musician, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom had the opportunity to interview Joni Mitchell in 1973, she was eager to reconnect with the performer she’d first met late one night in 1966 at a Yorkville coffeehouse. More conversations followed over the next four decades of friendship, and it was only after Joni and Malka completed their most recent recorded interview, in 2012, that Malka discovered the heart of their discussions: the creative process.

In Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, Joni and Malka follow this thread through seven decades of life and art, discussing the influence of Joni’s childhood, love and loss, playing dives and huge festivals, acclaim and criticism, poverty and affluence, glamorous triumphs and tragic mistakes . . .

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Malka: I’m intrigued, Joni, with this part of the liner notes to your CD Dreamland: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”
What big questions?

Joni: The Garden. Adam and Eve. Original sin. I’ve been chasing around the story of Adam and Eve and the continuing expulsion from Eden, the planet Eden, earth Eden, which I explored and explored and explored . . .

And just as Eve succumbed
To reckless curiosity
I take my sharpest fingernail
And slash the globe to see
Below me
(“Paprika Plains”)

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
(“Big Yellow Taxi”)

We are stardust,
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

M: So let’s go back to the Garden, to the early days — where did it all begin for you? When you were little, did you dream of singing on the stage, writing songs, composing music?

J: I always had starry eyes, I think. I mean, I always was interested in the glamour of it. Well, glamour for me then . . .

I lived in the tail end of a horse-drawn culture. We still had our water and the milk delivered by horses, and at Christmas a mound of packages would come on an open sleigh. There were only two stores in town. My dad ran the grocery store and Marilyn McGee’s dad ran the general store. She and I called the Simpsons-Sears catalogue “The Book of Dreams.” It was so glamorous when I was a child, four or five. We’d be down on our bellies looking at every page, and she and I would pick out our favourite object from the front page to the back page. We would pick out our favourite matron’s girdle and our favourite saw and our favourite hammer. “I like that one best.” Every page, “That’s my favourite.” So in that way you learned to shop before you have money, you learn the addiction of the process of selection.

You could take me anywhere on any budget level and I’ll go into “That’s a good thing for that much money. That’s a beautiful thing.”

M: Even today?

J: Yeah. The Book of Dreams, when everybody had read it, because we were on rations, it became toilet paper. Even the mayor, if you could imagine, wiped his ass with the Simpsons-Sears catalogue, glossy coloured paper. We, at grocery stores, would try to save the orange tissue. Oranges used to come wrapped in orange tissue. We tried to stockpile that for toilet paper.

There was no sewage system in this town. It was like the Klondike, wooden sidewalks, electricity, but no running water, cisterns, no flush toilets. So you had to empty them. And next to the toilet can, basically, sat the Simpsons-Sears catalogue — the Book of Dreams. Either you ordered something or you just dreamed on it.

M: Was it that Book of Dreams that triggered in you the desire to draw pictures?

J: No, that was brought on by trauma and anxiety. And the trauma and anxiety was Bambi, of all things. The fire scene in Bambi, where Bambi’s mother gets trapped in the fire, was horrific to me, and I couldn’t exorcise the vision. For days, maybe a week afterwards, I was down on the floor drawing fire and deer running, day after day after day.

M: How old were you then?

J: Four or five, or maybe grade one. I’m not sure. I just drew and drew. That trauma and anxiety — the forest burning and the animals getting hurt — sparked an obsessive need to exorcise emotion, by drawing it out, drawing it out.

I think maybe that’s the beginning of my contempt for my species and what it does. How ignorant it is of sharing this planet with other creatures. Its lack of native intelligence, common sense, or spirituality addressed to the earth . . .

I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I just had to draw deer running out of flames, draw it and draw it. It was very disturbing to me.

M: It reminds me of the drawings at the Altamira caves. You know, tens of thousands of years ago they painted on the walls of that cave the animals that terrified them. Perhaps it’s an inborn instinct to exorcise fear. So that’s what started you to paint. Did you continue?

J: Yes. One of the [assignments at school] was you had to draw a doghouse. I did the best doghouse in the class. At that moment, I forged my identity as an artist.

M: And did you like it? Was it a good feeling to be regarded as an artist? 

J: Well, I wasn’t. I was regarded as a dunce. It was either the second or the third grade when [the teacher] graded us and moved us out of our normal spontaneous desk positions into rows. The A students in one row, which she called Bluebirds; the B students in another row, which she called Robins; and C students in another row, which she called Wrens; and the flunkies in another row, which she called Crows. I was in the Wren row, which is like a third-class citizen. I looked at the A row and I thought, “Look at them, they’re all so smug.” Their little hands would clasp and they looked like they won something. “What is the prize here?” I thought. “All you did was spit back what the teacher told you.” I don’t remember the language that I thought at this particular time, but I do remember that I had this thought. 

From here on in, I’m not interested unless she asks us a question that nobody knows the answer to. I had this need to discover in order to learn. There was this compulsion to originality. That’s why I’m self-taught and outside the box in so many ways.

But at that time, I remember that the thing that gave me the strength and the confidence to be basically a sort of dodo bird was that I drew the best doghouse. It was then that I noticed my skill. And I said, “I’m an artist.” I forged that identity so that later when they put me in the corner with a dunce cap and tried to ridicule me, I managed to make it into something sort of glamorous. It didn’t make me put my tail between my legs. It made me kind of proud. 

M: You were courageous already at that young age. 

J: Well, I had to be really courageous because the following year I got polio, and when they found out what I had, they shipped me out of town, a hundred miles away.

When it was intimated that I would never walk again — it was never directly said, it was implied by a man who would never walk again, a man in a wheelchair — I couldn’t accept that destiny and I said, “I am not a cripple. I am not a cripple.” 

M: Like a mantra. 

J: Out of the question. By God, I was gonna get up and walk. “I am not a cripple . . . not a cripple . . .” I said to a Christmas tree, which my mother had placed in the room — the only time she came to visit me. She brought me that little Christmas tree and left. My father never came to visit me when I was in the hospital.

In the meantime, I was stuck there with Christmas coming on. Someone sent me a Christmas carol book, a Good King Wenceslas colouring book, which was Dickensian images of carols, for the most part with mutts, you know. No crayons. But I had ulcers in my mouth, which they would paint with Gentian violet, and sometimes they’d leave the swabs behind. So I would colour everything in this colouring book light purple, dark purple, purple dots, purple stripes — to get the different shades. But everything was purple. So it wasn’t very exciting, one colour.

I was sharing a room in this trailer annex that was outside the hospital, because we were so contagious, with a six-year-old boy who was very sullen and picked his nose all the time.

On this particular day, they had given me some kind of therapy and left me sitting up at the edge of the bed, all kind of warped with my paralyzed legs dangling over the edge. A nun had rushed in and called me a “shameless hussy,” and pushed me to the back and covered my legs. And I thought, “I’m nine and he’s six. What’s wrong with my legs?”
Anyway, I’m sitting at the back of the bed and I’m still kind of propped up, and I started singing these Christmas carols, and he picked his nose and told me to shut up.

“SHUT UP!” he kept saying. That was my first audience, right? [laughs]

They let me keep the Christmas tree that my mother brought with some reflectors and a few ornaments. That night or one night near it, after the lights-out, I said to the tree, “I’m not a cripple, I’m gonna get out of here . . . I’m not a cripple, I’m gonna get out of here . . .”

It was a private ritual praying for my legs back. And because I broke with the church the year before — church was interesting, still I broke with it because when I asked questions, they looked at me and their eyes called me a bad girl. “Adam and Eve were the first people on earth, and they had two sons, Cain and Abel, and Cain killed Abel, and Cain got married. Who did he marry? Eve?” “Bad girl.” So it wouldn’t be Jesus or God [I prayed to]. 

“I’ll make it up to you,” I said to someone. I don’t know who. Maybe it was the Christmas tree? “I’ll make it up to you. Just get me out of here. Give me back my legs.” 

A year later, I did finally stand up and walk well enough that they let me go back home. I was good to my promise. When they asked me to join the church choir, I said yes. I took the descant part, which most of the kids couldn’t follow because it had very radical intervals. It rolled over and under the tighter harmonies, which were easier for kids to learn. I thought descant was quite adventurous, very exciting, and that’s probably why it has been a major influence on my melody, why I like odd intervals too. 

Well, I’d only been to about three choir practices when a girl bought a package of cigarettes and we all went down to the empty church pond, passed the cigarettes around. One girl threw up. There was a lot of coughing. I took one hit and went, “This is great.” 

M: You were smoking since then? 

J: Yes, since I was nine. 

M: Was it at that time that the minister of your church became your hero? 

J: Yeah. I was in the fourth grade when my friend, Anne Bayin, and her father, Allen Logie, who was going to be the minister, arrived. He didn’t call me a bad child when I asked him questions. He was one of my early heroes. Thank you for respecting my questions.

He told me . . . what was the word he used . . . symbolic. Never heard that word before but I understood it. “Oh, that’s just symbolic. Adam and Eve weren’t really the first man and woman. It’s symbolic.” He dared to tell me it was myth. 


M: Was it from then that your fascination with the story of the Garden started? 



J: Right. This story has been a favourite of mine since I was a child. Adam and Eve were living happily off the land in harmony with nature. So there they are. And, according to the story, what happens is, Eve gets curious, right? And the snake, seeing her curiosity, sticks it to her, so to speak. He says, “Ah, this chick’s curious.” He makes it even more enticing.

Symbolically, she makes the mistake of eating. She’s curious for knowledge. She eats from the tree, but she doesn’t eat from the tree of immortality first. There’s the curse. If you had the immortality, my interpretation is you would have the foresight. If you had immortality, you would have a God-vision. You would be able to withdraw and see far into the future. But unfortunately, they just chose knowledge and it’s a little knowledge in the hands of fools.





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