ICON - Joni Mitchell

Posted on 01. May, 2008 by in Music, Profiles

words by Devoe Yates, photos by Henry Diltz

Considered by many to be the fairy godmother of the Southern California folk rock scene, Joni Mitchell is arguably one of the most important and influential female recording artists ever to grace the world’s ears. She’s also an accomplished visual artist who once described herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance.” 

As odd as it may seem, the native Canadian took up singing while hospitalized for polio at the age of nine. As she puts it, “They said I might not walk again, and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn’t go for it. So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. The boy in the bed next to me, you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham.” Also at the age of nine, she picked up the art of smoking, a skill that many associate with her as well as her husky singing. 

From there, she taught herself the guitar and began playing at parties and eventually coffeehouses up and down the North American East Coast. It was in such a place that David Crosby happened upon her in 1967, and convinced her to travel to Los Angeles where he produced her first album, Song to a Seagull, which showcased her poetic voice and highly rhythmic picking / strumming guitar style with odd non-standard tunings. 

What followed has been a legendary career as a singer / songwriter and visual artist. She’s won many Grammys and collaborated with the likes of Charles Mingus, Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, and Tom Petty and performed with everyone from Bob Dylan to Van Morrison. Queen Elizabeth herself even made a point to check her out live. But perhaps what is even more remarkable about Joni is the influence she’s had on some of the greatest musicians of our time: Led Zeppelin sang about her, Madonna’s memorized the lyrics to whole albums, and Prince drew her name in flowers. 

These days she rarely performs, though occasionally she takes the time to speak publicly about the environment. Recently an original ballet, “The Fiddle and the Drum”, was choreographed and performed to her songs in Calgary. Last year she released her first album in nine years, Shine, an album she says was inspired by the war in Iraq and “something her grandson had said while listening to family fighting: ‘Bad dreams are good—in the great plan.’” She continues to dabble in photography and painting though she never sells any of her paintings and rarely exhibits them. Also in the works is a multi-volume autobiography and a documentary about her life these days. 

As an added bit of insight, below are thoughts from legendary music photographer Henry Diltz about Joni as he takes us back to the early days when she first arrived in Los Angeles and discusses his visits with her over the years. 

“When I first met her, David Crosby brought her up to Mama Cass’s house and Mama Cass, being the earth mother that she was, was always meeting musicians, specifically English musicians that had never been to L.A. and introducing them around. So, she’d met Eric Clapton at a show when he was in Cream, and he didn’t know anybody in town, so she invited him up to her house one afternoon to have a little backyard picnic and she invited a few friends, including David Crosby. Micky Dolenz was there and I was there and David brought Joni, she was kind of his protégé. He was having great fun taking her around to different places and having her sing to people and it always blew their minds, and man, she blew our minds that afternoon. Eric Clapton was just sitting there, staring at her fingers playing guitar. 

At a party, she loves to talk to people and she smokes a lot (laughs), so she’ll sit there chain smoking and talking to a little group of people sitting at her feet, it’s very interesting to see. She tells some great stories and everyone’s just riveted, first of all because it’s Joni Mitchell, but also because what she’s saying is so amazing. I’ve done the thing where I’ve gone to her house to bring her some proof sheets and I ended up sitting there for five hours talking to her. I mean it’s mostly her talking, but it’s so damn interesting, you just wish you were writing it all down or something (laughs). 

A little while back, she did an art show which was a series of photos she’d taken off of her broken TV set. It showed a negative image rather than a positive picture, so all the blacks were white and all the whites were black, except in this case, everything was pastel, pink, and green. But it was so fascinating because of the colors and the patterns she had from these old Busby Berkeley movies with these little cardboard disposable cameras. She’d spend all night photographing her TV because that’s when the good old movies would come on. And then she would blow them up in triptec, one on top of the other about the size of a door and they were amazing. 

Last time I sat down and talked to her, she had just started writing a song. She hadn’t written a song in years and years, and she’d written a little haiku about her cats playing in the garden and that started her off, it got her impulses going again and she went on to record a whole album which came out last year (Shine). 

She flows in all directions, whether it’s painting or photography or music or the ballet. She’s very deep and caring and just a true artist, in the sense that the songs and the paintings and things that she produces are emanating from within her. She’s certainly not copying anybody, she’s an original. A true artist is sort of that way. The true artists come along and then everyone copies them and then it goes off in one direction, but she’s a real true artist.”

Share this story with your friends:
  • facebook ICON   Joni Mitchell
  • twitter ICON   Joni Mitchell
  • digg ICON   Joni Mitchell
  • stumbleupon ICON   Joni Mitchell
  • delicious ICON   Joni Mitchell
  • blinklist ICON   Joni Mitchell
  • googlebookmark ICON   Joni Mitchell
  • email link ICON   Joni Mitchell

Related Posts

Tags: ,

No comments.

Leave a Reply

Get Adobe Flash playerPlugin by wpburn.com wordpress themes