Both sides now: Joni Mitchell looks back

The singer-songwriter, whose new box set is a reworked retrospective of her career, is still refreshingly out of sync with the times

'Okay, what do you want to know?" Joni Mitchell opens the conversation with a question that would stump anyone. Where do you start? She's in her kitchen in Los Angeles. It's a little overcast, according to the Joni Mitchell weather report. A refreshing winter chill is entering the air. I am wasting time talking to her about the weather. Best move on. Mitchell starts to laugh.

It's 46 years since Mitchell released her debut album, Song to a Seagull. By the end of the 1970s she had released 10 albums, and her songs were the soundtrack to an era: Chelsea Morning (after which the Clintons named their daughter), A Case of You, California, Free Man in Paris, All I Want. Blue, her 1971 album, is almost beyond superlatives.

Pointing out the obvious would mean saying that Mitchell is one of the finest and most significant songwriters of the 20th century. Yet she remains something of an enigma, unattainable, a living icon who recently turned 71, and is reminding the world of her presence with a 53-song box set entitled Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced.

The poetically apprehensive adjunct to the collection's title means that a ballet was the goal, as with The Fiddle and the Drum, a ballet choreographed to her songs, from 2007. She is a painter and also describes herself as a film editor.

"Most of my albums from the beginning are concept albums," she says, describing the process of putting together this latest collection. "Even my first album, right? So I had about 50 songs when I recorded that first album, and I left off Both Sides Now. It didn't fit the concept of that first album. I've always been of that mindset, trying to make a whole of the components, not just the collection. It's something that my head does."

It must also have been a chance for new perspectives on these songs to emerge. “Yes. I even got a tiny thrill out of it. That’s how it worked.”

Mitchell’s answers run to at least four or five minutes each, her voice low, with occasional indiscernible asides and some moments of coughing. A few loose conditions are laid out before the call: no dragging up her quotes about Bob Dylan; no talking about David Crosby. There’s also a note that the musicians she respects include Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and that, although she came up through the ranks as a folk singer, she was rooted in jazz and that’s the genre she drew a lot of inspiration from. No discussion about “her illness” is permitted, either; “Morgellons” is in brackets. This would seem to indicate that she’s somehow difficult, but the conversation is anything but. She’s spritely, funny, fascinating, open and generous with her explanations.

Technical references

Mitchell has produced all of her albums, and she fills the conversation with technical references to rhythm patterns and suspended chords, describes recording environmental sounds like a foley artist, and remembers the drummers who could play her music and those who couldn’t.

In the liner notes for this boxset – all 8,239 words of them, which I am instructed to read before speaking to her – “This is very important to Joni and she will ask you about it” – she writes, “I couldn’t work with a producer. I found that out early. They were tyrannical and trendy. They would have squelched my need for risk and invention. They would have straightened out all the quirks and oddities and steered me towards the dog race where the bigger profits were. I didn’t want to think about music in terms of winning or losing. Music is not a sport.”

Why was she so inclined to go against the status quo and start playing with form? There’s a long pause. “They’re men’s laws. And I’m a woman.” She tells a story about playing a show in Chicago. “The male principle in music is loud, fast. Loud and fast, basically. The feminine principle in music is more sensitive. Sensitivity and feeling are characteristics of the female.

“You have to be able to, as a musician, you have to have some touch. If you’re merely intellectual, you have to have a little femininity in it. I don’t really have a lot of speed. I don’t play fast flurries or anything like that.

“When we were in Europe I used to play spot the critic. He always had a goatee, and he’d always be in the front row. Turn up and play really fast and impress the critic . . . Anyway.”

She returns to Chicago. “I went to sound check and the sound in this hall . . . the music is bouncing off the walls, it’s ricocheting. It’s horrible. I’m not going to be able to enjoy this, so I turn down. It’s still bouncing. I turn down some more, I turn down some more, I turn down some more, right?

“The next day in the newspaper it says, ‘Last night Joni Mitchell did something that nobody else has ever done. She filled the room without bouncing it off the walls.’ No man would ever turn down. You know what I mean? And yet it’s the sensible thing to do. Because all you’re going to hear is noise.

"You know in Spinal Tap when they turn their amps to 11? Did you see that movie? Spinal Tap? You've seen it. Well, there it is. Eleven! The louder the better! You're just hearing noise. That became the way they did it. I don't think a man would ever turn down."

Both Sides Now is a song that re-emerges over time, and one of those tracks with such depth that one's relationship with them changes over time. How does Mitchell relate to that song now? "Well, I wrote it at 21. And I took a lot of flak for" – she puts on a goofy male voice – " 'What do you know about life? You're only 21.' And it's not an ingenue's song. And I think I gave my best performance of that song with the London Philharmonic. It's not an ingenue's role. I grew into that song."

‘Menacing outlook’

Could she have foreseen the depths of that song emerging? “Well, you know how hard my life is. You know how much crap I went through by the time I was 21. How much bad behaviour I witnessed in people by the time I was 21. I had a menacing outlook, kind of unthinkable. I managed to ride through a lot. I knew, oddly enough – I don’t know if I was older than my years – I think it’s farsightedness rather than anything else.

“If you see sprouts coming out of the ground you can tell what kind of weed they’re going to grow into. You know? But people don’t even see the sprouts coming out of the ground. People aren’t very aware. We live in a shortsighted culture. You’re generally viewed as an alarmist until it’s proved in the future that you were right.”

Mitchell has little time for the contemporary music industry. “I’m totally out of sync with these tragic times,” she writes in the liner notes. “There’s not much talent in it,” she says. “There’s so little that, you know, the record companies say they’re no longer looking for talent.”

She implies that the potential energy for musical creativity has been channelled instead into an addiction to technology. “The energy all went into some activity, twiddling their thumbs and their heads bowed in prayer. You go to a restaurant and families are sitting there with their heads bowed, all in their own little video world, fiddling with some kind of computer. They’re ostriches. They duck reality. They’re not noticing.

“Maybe it’s too tragic to notice how the planet is dying, but, you know, face it. Don’t escape it. The web and the net are well named, because like flies you’re trapped. You’re trapped.”

‘Wonky tape recorder’

Mitchell's legacy is vast. How does she feel about it? She draws on an individual story. "I got a letter from an Irish girl who lived in Northern Ireland" during the Troubles. Someone had pointed her to Mitchell's music, she says. "He gave her The Circle Game and said, 'This is a good song for a child like you to learn,' and he gave her what she described as 'a wonky tape recorder'. And when she pressed it against her chest it would slow down, like . . ." Mitchell drops her voice as if a recording has slowed down.

"Where she lived, at night, the helicopters would shine floodlights into the rooms of the children at eight o'clock at night, as a fear tactic. Her only defence against it, which went on for years, was from another neighbour's extra pillow, and this wonky tape recorder with The Circle Game on it. They would fly over and shine their floodlights; she would turn it on and push it against her chest, and that was her protection. I thought that was fascinating.

“The songs are like children. They go out into the world and they have relationships with people and, you know, you don’t even know about it unless somebody reports in like that. I find it very comforting and rewarding that I’ve communicated.”

I ask her what’s the worst advice she’s received. “I’m not one to take advice,” she says, laughing. “More like, what was the worst advice I ever gave myself? I’ve chosen some strange ways to go.” Later, she concludes, “I’ve just had a very complicated life. And I have had to be my own guide.

“I’ve a chunk of Irish in me,” Mitchell says, by way of signing off. “The fighting Irish, right?”

The next day she graciously sends a thank-you note via the record label, a polite anachronism that confirms that Mitchell is indeed out of sync with these tragic times. And thank God for that.

Kinds of Blue: The ultimate Joni Mitchell playlist

Mitchell watched the Woodstock festival from afar, as it clashed with a television appearance. She may not have been there, but she summed it up perfectly.

Free Man in Paris
One of Mitchell's finest songs was written about David Geffen, and it's probably the best song ever about work-life balance, long before the term was popularised.

A Christmas classic that riffs on Jingle Bells, River is probably one of Mitchell's best-known songs, although it nestled far down in the track listing of Blue and wasn't released as a single.

One of the great odes to the US west coast, and simultaneously nostalgic for a missed opportunity of countercultural politics: "They won't give peace a chance, that was just a dream some of us had."

Both Sides Now
Mitchell's best track? Hard to pick one, but this is one of those rare songs that almost instantly wrench tears from one's eyes.

Trouble Child
Mitchell's progression towards jazz makes Court and Spark a fascinating transition album. Trouble Child has woozy, complex tones and harmonies that demand concentration.

Chelsea Morning
Like several of Mitchell's songs, Chelsea Morning was famous before she released it herself, with Judy Collins singing a version of the track.

You Turn Me On I'm a Radio
"You don't like strong women because they're hip to your tricks." Bet Beyoncé would love to have written that.

Geography and travel play a key part in Mitchell's music, and Carey comes from her time in a hippie commune in Crete.

Little Green
Mitchell wrote it about her daughter whom she gave up for adoption in the 1960s. She met her daughter again in the late 1990s. Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced is on Rhino

Read More