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The Songwriters | Joni Mitchell

An art born of pain, an artist in happy exile

Joni Mitchell wields a brush instead of a guitar today, but her singular vision and complex pride remain undimmed.

September 05, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

"I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate," Joni Mitchell says, summarizing just about everything she feels is wrong with the pop world these days.

"I thought, that's interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist -- not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music. That's why I spend my time now painting."

Mitchell is standing in the painting room of the Mediterranean-styled place in Bel-Air that has been her home for 30 years. Her face is aglow and her manner chatty as she points to the scores of paintings on the floor and walls. There are works, from portraits of Gauguin and Van Gogh to landscapes, to fit every mood -- some tranquil, some tumultuous -- and she seems as proud of them as the intimate, insightful songs from the '70s that made her a patron saint of romance for young women (and men) everywhere.

In such albums as "Blue," "Court and Spark," "For the Roses" and "Hejira," she wrote about matters of the heart with grace and unflinching detail, helping launch the confessional school of pop music. It was music fueled by pain -- the pain of a young girl spending months in isolation because of polio and the pain of a young woman forced to give away her only child.

"I lost my daughter at 21. I had to give her up because I was broke, no place to take her, no money to take her," she says. "That was very traumatic. So my gift for music was born out of tragedy, really, and loss."

Yet despite the anguish beneath the songs, the music was never morbid. In fact, it was often jaunty, worldly, witty and, above all, honest. In a time of rising feminism, she never made romance into dogma.

She's still trim and you can see in her eyes and cheekbones the features that caused her photo to be on thousands of dorm walls. The glow leaves her face, however, when asked if she plans to display or sell the paintings. She might show them in a museum at some point, but that's it.

"I don't want to get into merchandising them," she says sharply. "I want nothing to do with galleries, even in terms of exhibitions. When money meets up with art, there is a lot of pain, and it's the pain of ignorance, and I don't want to meet up with that ignorance again. My work is personal, too vulnerable. That's why I quit making records."

Though invariably labeled folk ("because I was a girl with blond hair and a guitar," she snaps), Mitchell traces her own influences to the classical music she adored as a youth and, later, jazz.

On this afternoon, she talks about how she developed her style, but the most essential quality of a songwriter, she suggests, may be mental toughness. Like Dylan, and fellow Canadian Neil Young, Mitchell has fallen in and out of favor over the years. She has been revered, imitated -- and ridiculed for being esoteric and out of touch.

Ultimately, she was not tough enough. "Everything in my later career, with few exceptions, has been compared unfavorably to my early work," she says matter-of-factly. "I've done 16 records hearing people say, 'You're not as good as you used to be. Finally, I said, 'OK, I agree with you.' "

Mitchell announced she was leaving the music business in 2002 and hasn't looked back. "My goal as a writer is more to comfort than to disturb," she says, explaining her decision. "Most of the art created in this particular culture is shallow and shocking, and I can't create music for this social climate."

She pauses. In conversation, she is outspoken, funny, self-deprecating and stimulating. But she doesn't find anything funny about the topic at hand. "There's not much room for subtleties today. It's the shallow, flashy heart that grabs the attention; chase scenes, atrocities. Mass murder is probably the favorite entertainment of the American culture at this point."

At 60, Joni Mitchell is a fascinating jumble of confidence, crankiness and vulnerability. She claims that the grossness of the business led to her retirement, but, hours later, you realize the real explanation is more complicated.

The 'overactive mind'

Independent as a rodeo bronco, Mitchell is hard to corral on the subject of songwriting. She didn't start out to be a writer (painting was her first love) and never saw much mystery in it. She'd rather talk about psychology, Eastern culture, nature, politics, her grandchildren and painting. Nowadays, she gets so absorbed in her painting that she often spends all night in the studio, her Jack Russell dog or three cats her only companions.

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