WITH LOVE: Actor John Kelly portrays the singer-songwriter in his tribute… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
"People used to say nobody can sing my songs but me — they're too personal," Joni Mitchell explained last week during a rare interview. Apparently, nobody told John Kelly not to try adapting her songs.
The renowned Obie Award-winning actor and performance artist has been belting out Mitchell's songs for more than 20 years. This weekend, the New York-based Kelly concludes the L.A. run of his acclaimed solo tribute to the iconic, iconoclastic singer-songwriter, "Paved Paradise: The Art of Joni Mitchell," at Renberg Theatre.
Blessed with an elastic voice and androgynous features, Kelly is famed for his chameleonic ability to morph into historical figures of either gender, from famous painters to first ladies. His performance as Mitchell, however, is perhaps Kelly's most enduring metamorphosis. It's downright eerie how he channels her so completely.
Even Mitchell is a fan of Kelly's show, which spans her entire career, from classic "Me Decade" albums such as 1971's "Blue" through her most recent release, 2007's "Shine." That much was made clear in a recent telephone conversation with her and Kelly.
L.A. Times: When did you first become aware of John taking you on as a character?
Joni Mitchell: I saw the show in 1997, at Fez in New York.
John Kelly: I actually had done an early version at Highways in Santa Monica. Joni was going to come, but it leaked to the press.
JM: A friend of mine went. He said, "I don't know if you're going to like it." When I saw it, I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a really fun, unique experience — more homage than a normal drag show. It was like being a ghost at your own funeral: The audience responded to John as if he were me. John actually requested I be seated to the side, so of course Fez stuck me right in front! Only after the last encore, though, did the audience turn around and held their lights to me.
JK: That was so crazy. I lost my nerve backstage: "Oh, my God, what am I doing?" Then I said, "You cannot change a thing." I knew I couldn't.
JM: I liked that when mimicking my between-song meanderings, John does his own personal version that's more kindred than cartoon. While switching between my nearly 40 tunings onstage, I would talk to the crowd. I would digress, of course, and if I ever got back to the point, people were very relieved.
I had my boyfriend at the time with me, and Paul Starr, who did my makeup; there were a couple places where we all got very moved. At the end, my boyfriend yelled out, "We love you, Joni!" [laughs].
JK: This is a different show from that one, but there's still a chronology to it. The first half is early work, and then it gets darker and bluer. When we were talking recently, Joni, you referred to your second five albums as "more philosophical."
JM: My first four albums covered the usual youth problems — looking for love in all the wrong places — while the next five are basically about being in your 30s. Things start losing their profundity; in middle-late age, you enter a tragedian period, realizing that the human animal isn't changing for the better. In a way, I think I entered straight into my tragedian period, as my work is set against the stupid, destructive way we live on this planet. Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.
LAT: John, how do you transform yourself into a real-life person like Joni?
JK: I study and transcribe Joni's interviews and live recordings, but I'm not a stickler. It's more about getting the spirit of her stories down. But if the audience is laughing too much, I'll do something unpredictable to scare them, so they don't know how to react.
JM: That's the Andy Kaufman in us! … The dresses John wears onstage are also really good — right on, period-wise.
JK: I had really good frocks made for these performances. It begins with a white, lacy kind of medieval-meets-hippie, but still kind of couture.
LAT: Joni's whole package — her personal style, guitar tunings, physical mannerisms, vocal phrasings — comes off as so individual, trying to duplicate it seems dangerously tricky.
JK: Doing Joni's music always seemed kind of insane, in the best of ways.
JM: Exactly! I'm a method actress in my songs, which is why it's hard to sing them. What I do is unusual: chordal movements that have never been used before, changing keys and modalities mid-song. But John gets the spirit: You have to go to the brink of sadness but never fall into melodrama, then send in the clowns for a moment.
LAT: Of late, Joni, you've been a major influence on young, current artists with unique voices: Antony Hegarty, Joanna Newsom, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, Rufus Wainwright.
JM: Those are theatrical voices, which is a whole other thing. That's a good game, because it's small. It never gets too lucrative, so those artists never have to see the puke of it all. I didn't really go for the big dog race, anyway.