After Decades Of Success, Joni Mitchell Is Still Just 'A Painter Who Writes Songs'

Dec 8, 2014
Originally published on December 8, 2014 8:38 am

"It took a mature woman to bring it to life. I grew into that song."

Joni Mitchell on re-recording "Both Sides Now," a song written after she'd chosen adoption for her daughter 54 years earlier. She talks about her new four-disc boxed set, Love Has Many Faces, and the different colors such a collection can reveal in a lifetime of work.

For more conversations with music-makers, check out NPR's Music Interviews.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Joni Mitchell has always thought of herself as a visual artist. She went to art school in Canada. Even now at the age of 71, she describes herself as a painter who writes songs, like the song "Carey" from her album "Blue."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAREY")

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) The wind is in from Africa. Last night I couldn't sleep. Oh, you know, it sure is hard to leave here, Carey, but it's really not my home. My fingernails are filthy. I've got beach tar on my feet. And I miss my clean, white linen and my fancy French cologne.

INSKEEP: Renee Montagne sat down with Joni Mitchell to talk about her new project - a compilation of songs that go back 45 years.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Joni Mitchell's paintings illustrate this four-disc set as they have since her very first album. Still it was her songs that made Joni Mitchell famous, first, with an acoustic guitar, singing confessional scenes of love and loss, then later adding other musical colors - jazz, American standards, denser arrangements sometimes involving a full orchestra. That range is on display in "Love Has Many Faces." Joni Mitchell joined me in our studio as we were preparing for this program just before midnight. Welcome to the studio.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: It's so great to have you in here in the middle of the night.

MITCHELL: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: But you're a night owl, that's...

MITCHELL: Yeah, I'm a night owl. This is noon for me. (Laughter) Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Well, good to have you here. These are not new songs, newly recorded songs. This is, in fact, work of your entire life.

MITCHELL: Pretty much.

MONTAGNE: But it is a collection that you curated.

MITCHELL: On a theme, "Love Has Many Faces."

MONTAGNE: Yeah. How you worked that out is pairing songs from different times in your life.

MITCHELL: Well, I started initially to try and condense all of my work down to two discs. And they were going to do it in chronological order, which I thought was a terrible idea, you know, because the reviewers over the course of my career have been kind of unkind to my later work. Where I see it as growth, you know, they'd say, her voice weary from years of smoking, which isn't true. I mean, I had been smoking for - how many years when I made my first record? - about 16. And I could still hold a note, you know, for - until the cows came home kind of, you know. That's youth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CASE OF YOU")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine. You taste so bitter and so sweet. Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling.

Really I'm an alto. But for some reason, I had this little helium voice and, you know, I started singing folk songs in 1964 and '5 for smoking money really, you know, at art school.

MONTAGNE: And you call that a helium voice in your famous voice.

MITCHELL: Right, it was like I sucked on a balloon or something. It was very high, and so was my speaking voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTH SIDES NOW")

MITCHELL: (Singing) I've looked at love from both sides now, from give and take, and still somehow it's love's illusions I recall.

MONTAGNE: On this new collection, Joni Mitchell chose to feature not this classic, early version of "Both Sides Now" but a much later recording where her piercing soprano has been replaced by a rich alto.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTH SIDES NOW")

MITCHELL: (Singing) I've looked at love from both sides now, from give and take, and still somehow it's love's illusions I recall.

I really think it took me until that was done in my 50s to, you know, it took a mature woman to bring it to life. I saw Mabel Mercer in her 70s perform, and I went backstage and I said to her, you know, you - you know, it takes a woman your age to bring that song to life. I didn't tell her I was the author, and she went huh? You know, so you don't tell a 70-year-old woman your age. She was completely offended, and I slunk out, you know. I meant to pay her a compliment. But I - you know, I grew into that song.

MONTAGNE: My thought was, how did you write that at 21? It seemed almost like...

MITCHELL: I had gone through some bad stuff already, you know, the loss of my daughter, you know?

MONTAGNE: Your daughter who you...

MITCHELL: I had to give her up for adoption, you know, like, 'cause I couldn't get enough money together, like - don't want to bring - she's better off elsewhere.

MONTAGNE: You were an unwed mother in a time when that really that wasn't...

MITCHELL: Right when - and there were so many in 1965, you have no idea how many unwed mothers there were. You know, suddenly the pill wasn't available, but movies had gotten sexier and sexier and all of these girls got caught out. You know, there was - it was really rough going. And there was so much prejudice. It was like you killed somebody. You know, so, yeah, I'd been through some pretty - I'd seen some bad human nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHINESE CAFE")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Now your kids are coming up straight, and my child's a stranger. I bore her but I could not raise her. Nothing lasts for long. Nothing lasts for long. Nothing lasts for long.

INSKEEP: Tomorrow we'll hear about an even earlier tough break for Joni Mitchell. As a young girl, she was struck with polio and she ended up in the hospital ward 100 miles from home. The disease left her body, as she puts it, like a broken doll. And she was never expected to walk again.

MITCHELL: It's coming close to Christmas, I got my tree in my room and everything, and a doctor comes into my room. And I say to him, I want to go home for Christmas, and he says you can't. I said why not? Because you can't walk. I said, well, what if I walked.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIVER")

MITCHELL: (Singing) It's coming on Christmas. They're cutting down tree. They're putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on. But it don't snow here. It stays pretty green. I'm going to make a lot of money, then I'm going to quit this crazy scene. Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on. I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly. I wish I had a river I could skate away on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.