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INSIDE STORY : Court and Spark

Folk Troubadour Ani DiFranco Chats With the Iconic Joni Mitchell About Her Legacy, Her Life--and the Current State of Feminism.

September 20, 1998|ANI DIFRANCO | Ani DiFranco is a songwriter, musician and CEO of Righteous Babes Records. Her next album, "Up Up Up Up Up Up," will be released in January of next year

Interview - 1. A meeting of people face to face to confer about something 2. A meeting between a reporter and a person whose activities, views, etc. are to be the subject of a published article. 3. A journalistic article giving such information

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When I was asked to write an "appreciation piece" about Joni Mitchell and chat with her to flesh it out, I thought, "Sure! Why not? I appreciate Joni Mitchell. That sounds cool."

I pictured our interview to be the sort where two people's faces are meeting and conferring about stuff (thank you Webster's Unabridged) but soon realized that another, more conventional model was to govern our conversation. Because she has never heard my music and underwent the usual struggle just trying to pronounce my name, I was thrust, by default, into the role not of fellow songwriter, but of journalistic interviewer.

Considering that I generally dread doing interviews myself, it's a strange and dubious sensation to be a stop on some other poor artist's press junket. She too, has known the horror of being misquoted, condescended to, taken out of context, framed the wrong way and hung crookedly on a wall not of her choosing by an ill-suited, or simply unprepared, media, for many more years than I have. Joni even described her relationship with the media at the time of her last album as a "big fight." "They treated me like a hostile witness," she told me, "and I kept saying, 'I didn't kill anybody!' " Luckily, the media have been more supportive with her new record, and she's been doing a little less fighting.

"Why do you do it?" I asked her. "Why do you even bother trying to talk to people?" In my head I heard my own answers to those questions: If you have a political or artistic purpose, a vision, then part of the down-and-dirty work of realizing it is to attempt communication not just with your own audience, or the people who choose you, but with everyone. I fear the laziness or false security of just preaching to the converted and periodically accept the position of trying to explain myself to the society at large. It's usually such a futile and exhausting proposition, though, that I wonder what any artist is thinking when they do it.

"Well, you have to let people know you have a new product out there," Joni told me. "Oh," I said, "right." This is a much more practical and understandable industry model for "doing" press. Plus, she reminded me, when you're working with a record company, you have to get behind your record and help promote it, in hopes that the company will reciprocate by using everything in its power to do the same. Good idea, I suppose, given the music industry's awkward partnership of businesspeople and artists, but it's not really an area I feel capable of, or qualified to, write within.

What follows is not an interview with Joni Mitchell or an article about her new album, or even an appreciation piece. The album is called "Taming the Tiger," and if you're interested in songwriters, or if you appreciate Joni's great importance to American popular music, you'll go get it to hear what she's up to these days. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you this. I'm sure you don't need me to blather on about the state of contemporary feminism either, but that's unfortunately what I feel compelled to write about.

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Feminism: 1. (a) The theory that women should have political, economic and social rights equal to those of men.

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What intrigues me most about joni mitchell is that she is such a notable feminist in terms of her own life, yet she refuses to publicly support feminism and would dispute my, or anyone else's, use of the word in reference to her. She has, in fact, nothing but disparaging words for "the feminists," describing "them" as a militant political faction that only "made things worse." OK. Let's rewind a little.

Joni has insisted on retaining the publishing rights to all of her songs since the beginning of her recording career. This may not sound special, but it is an astounding

accomplishment, especially for the time, and has meant a huge difference in the income she enjoys in her career maturity. Now, when Janet Jackson samples "Big Yellow Taxi," the money goes to Joni, thank goodness. If only Bo Diddley had been as savvy about his fair share.

Another thing Joni has retained is complete control over the artistry of her albums. She has used her own paintings or designs for each cover (with the exception of the "Blue" album) and has produced most of the music herself. As someone who also wears many hats, I was curious: "Is it difficult for you to be music maker and producer simultaneously?"

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