Real Arrogance Over False Humility: The Beautiful Honesty of Joni Mitchell
In the summer of 2013, CBC broadcast an interview with Joni Mitchell that stands as the Canadian artist’s most revealing and in-depth. Sat opposite Jian Ghomeshi, Mitchell waxes lyrical for nearly two hours on the ups-and-downs of her legendary life.
My deep love and respect for Mitchell’s music is known by most of the people I’m closest to in my life and I have watched this particular interview perhaps more times than is healthy, but it’s only recently that I began to find Mitchell’s quotes and phrases replaying in my mind when in completely unrelated situations. In my cyclical re-examining of the interview, I found myself hoping to uncover more about Mitchell’s not so subtle hubris.
At the time of its broadcast (the interview appeared online exactly five years ago tomorrow, June 11th 2013), I remember being surprised to see the famously private Mitchell talk with such frankness — from the company of her own home, no less. She appears relaxed throughout, sipping tea and lighting cigarettes at regular intervals. One had to wonder what compelled Mitchell to agree to the interview. Renowned for speaking her mind, Mitchell doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to, so why would she agree to speak with such candour and at such length? Indeed, why at all?
My interest in Joni’s music was sparked at the age of 18 in the summer of 2005 by her fourth album Blue, the most famous of the lot, purchased on a whim I realise now – quite possibly – due to the idea that her music was something I ought to be listening to based on my previous purchasing history (thanks for the tip, Amazon). What started off as a passing admiration soon took hold as a serious passion and led to years of purchasing all her other albums.
It’s often said that people are at their most impressionable in their teenage years. I believe it’s highly likely that had I not purchased Blue some thirteen years ago, my experience of discovering Joni Mitchell at any later point in my life would be nowhere near as intense as it was back then.
To clarify, Mitchell remains the most important music artist in my life. Her body of work from 1968 to 1979 remains a tough run to even remotely compare to, never mind challenge in any serious way.
Mitchell was musically inactive throughout most of these formative years of mine, so to see her “re-appear” in this 2013 interview almost ten years after I discovered her music was like meeting a distant pen-pal after many years of transcribing one-way love letters. I sat transfixed by an artist who bestowed upon me such rich musical gifts and contributed in many ways to my thoughts on popular culture and the world at large. As much as the modern day interview format can be, its impact upon me was both unexpected and thrilling.
Mislabelled a recluse over the years, Mitchell has earned a reputation that is perhaps best described as cantankerous, voicing opinions on wide-ranging, sociopolitical issues that many millennials wouldn’t give a second thought. Anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of her social commentary (particularly in her musical output and interviews from the mid-eighties onwards) would agree that this is an interview on which you might form a decisive opinion on the person and not necessarily the music. It’s easier to take issue with some of Mitchell’s more controversial statements yet less so with her music, that by this stage is arguably more revered than that of any other female recording artist in history.
One might take the view that Mitchell would graciously accept the glut of endless praise, awards and honours that are constantly heaped upon her. Tribute concerts and folk festivals in her name are regular staples at local bars and theatres across much of the United States and Canada; indie movies make reference to her life-altering words; Mitchell’s hometown of Saskatoon unveils Joni Mitchell Promenade today (June 10th 2018).
Yet Mitchell does exactly what someone less versed in her music might not expect: she beautifully and unapologetically owns her talent. In fact, she’s willing to go further and claim she’s never been given her dues. She compares herself to Picasso at one point in CBC’s interview before apologising for “putting herself in such lofty company.”
To clarify, the comparison is made through a discussion that arises surrounding the inability an artist might have with viewing a painted artwork of theirs as complete, and how that compares to music recordings that cannot be changed once they’re released (and thereby assume public status). Whether she’s proselytising or not, the comparison stimulates the allusion of both artists as pioneers and tells us more about Mitchell’s own opinion of her talents as a groundbreaker and leader in her field. Later, Ghomeshi asks pointedly, “Do you accept that you were a pioneer?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Mitchell responds, “Oh yeah, I blazed a lot of trails.” What’s so brilliant about her admission is that she’s not wrong. She couldn’t be more right and it’s only the passing of time over decades of cultural shifts that has allowed these societal realisations to come into sharp focus.
Mitchell is relatively unique because she was never inspired by any musician so directly that she emulated their sound in order to then kick start her own. Her sense of musical identity was shaped by circumstance; her open tuned guitar playing a result of her contraction of polio as a child. Everything that Mitchell stands for musically, lyrically and even politically comes from the heart. When this much energy and passion is coming from that central source, it’s hard not to feel frustration when people abuse that energy and try to twist it to their means. Whether that be people in her personal life, the music industry, or her fans, everyone wanted to have a piece of Mitchell in the beginning. Yet listeners began to recoil and turn their backs as the seventies wore on when she refused to remain the winsome blonde waif that they originally fell in love with.
Mitchell’s originality goes some way to explaining the frustrations that beset her ever so slowly with each passing year. The sunlit innocence of early compositions like Chelsea Morning and Morning Morgantown give way to ever more critical, sociopolitical portraits. By the time we reach Night Ride Home and Turbulent Indigo more than two decades later, Mitchell is a completely different artist both vocally and lyrically. None of this was calculated or manipulated to ‘reinvent’ her image. It was the reactionary result of a lived life that came to mould and shape her as both artist and human being.
Watching interview footage from the eighties and nineties, she seems almost unsure of how to hold herself, her fashion sense and hairstyles flirting ever so gently at the water’s edge with what was cool and chic at the time.
In early 2015 Mitchell was interviewed by New York Magazine and accompanied by a memorable front-page cover photoshoot. The article opens with her wanting to set the record straight; “Basically, at this time, I’m trying to fix my legacy. It’s been butchered. It’s been panned, and scanned, and colorized.” It’s yet another statement that her audience might struggle to reconcile. In the annals of history, Mitchell is universally respected and lauded, held in high-esteem as a female singer-songwriter par excellence. She achieved global success in the early seventies and subsequently kept her head throughout personal, physical and critical upheavals that threatened to derail her career on numerous occasions.
If the rules of the music industry were to judge, Mitchell would be the only one responsible for the decline in her record sales from the mid-Seventies onward (her bold forays into the world of jazz still stand as the apex of her career and its deciding wind change, despite her record label pleading with her to drop 1979's Mingus project). Influential to generations of musicians who followed in her footsteps (many of whom she holds in contempt), Mitchell’s legacy grows with each year. Yet upon closer inspection we may unearth the real reasons behind her dissatisfaction surrounding it. To understand her point of view, we must see things from her perspective and confront some ugly truths that may not be fitting to society’s projected image of Mitchell as a Hippie Folk Goddess.
Gender obviously plays out as the biggest reason for some of the disadvantages that have held Mitchell back.
There’s no doubting that she would’ve had an easier run were she a man. Mitchell appears unconcerned with how people often misunderstand her, yet in the interview with CBC she takes issue with how she’s been sidelined through the years and makes it clear that she didn’t have any musical contemporaries. That issue seems more focused with not being credited on an equal or even greater footing as the era’s most revered male artists (Dylan, Cohen).
If Mitchell were attempting to fix her legacy, as she suggested to New York Magazine, it’s highly debatable just how much of this was ever achievable and to what degree. Mitchell “doesn’t belong to this modern world,” so it’s plausible that her attempts to alter her history might not resonate with the world at large. In a time of mass media where an artist’s public image is controlled so fastidiously in order to maximise profit and saturate exposure, it seems impossible that Mitchell could turn the tide at this stage in her life without devoting hefty financial resources to a hot-shot PR firm and a slick marketing campaign.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect in understanding Joni’s self-reverence comes when Ghomeshi poses a question that she pounces on like a lioness: “Do you feel too many artists engage in false humility?” Mitchell responds: “Yes! It’s disgusting! I’d rather have real arrogance than false humility!”
From here, the curtain is drawn back ever so slightly, making it easier to understand why Mitchell feels misaligned. She spent her entire musical career studying the human condition and its egos. A friend of hers referred to her as an “emotional scientist.” Moreover, to study Mitchell’s lyrics is to also recognise human traits and frailties that are common not only in her character studies, but also in ourselves. Romantic love, its joys and disillusions, as well as dissatisfaction in both relationships and work feature broadly throughout her music. In one fell swoop, Mitchell cites everything from fashion, politics, baby-kissing and also Christian training for her reasons as to why artists engage in false humility; “It’s considered appropriate conduct so therefore that conduct is emulated.”
Beginning with fifth album For The Roses, Mitchell turned her introspection outward; her lyrics became ever more observant and critical, a watchful eye amongst the masses, its ultimate goal to seek honesty and insight into the human condition, to harness it and turn it into deeper knowledge in the hopes of enriching both her and her listener’s lives. This is one reason her fanbase is so devoted and it’s partly the reason that Mitchell owns her immense talent: from Court And Spark through The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira and on through Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, she was serving up social commentary with the most sophisticated, collaborative music arrangements in popular music.
No other popular recording artist was doing this so effectively.
On People’s Parties, she attends a high society social event and observes the scene, outlining characters (Eddie, Jack, stone-cold Grace) and critiquing their actions and reactions. Some are friendly, some are cutting, some are watching it from the wings, some are standing in the centre giving to get something. The track plays out in a cacophony of crying vocals, part sadness tinged with happiness, before segueing perfectly into the plaintive piano chords of Same Situation. Here, the scene is flipped; Mitchell reverts to former introspection, crippled by self-doubt and worry. The people’s party left a fleeting impression and she’s now questioning everything in a much wider context. “Caught in my struggle for higher achievements and my search for love that don’t seem to cease,” she cries out in conclusion, acting as a perfect summary of her life’s work thus far.
Mitchell is an austere critic (observing that honour died in World War II) but it’s important to remember that her mindset from childhood has always been one of the observer, rejecting fame and avoiding herd mentality. One thing that really opened my eyes to the relationship between all artists and their audience in general is when Mitchell explains that no sustenance can be gained from her music if all one does is elevate her by placing her on a pedestal. Coupled with her heartbreak at the time, it’s the defining reason for Blue’s emotional nakedness. Her meteoric rise to stardom shocked and startled her, so she wrote Blue in an attempt to give listeners the realest, most truthful distillation of her soul. In her own words: “You have to see yourself in it, otherwise it has no value.”
For an artist of Mitchell’s stature and era to reject this adulation feels rare. It seems inherent in our culture to cradle this worship reserved for so very few of life’s “lucky” ones, even more so now than it was during the years when Mitchell’s star was on the rise. Yet we also learn through the interview that Mitchell never wanted fame. To her, it was merely an inconvenient byproduct of her attempts to create the most honest music she could, to “paint with words,” as her seventh grade school teacher Mr. Kraztman told her. Her approach to music to be like a painter, with a painter’s need to be an original is an approach so refreshing that it’s almost unbelievable by today’s standards. In her self-professed inability to invent a character to deliver her songs (a mild criticism she levels at Dylan later in the interview), it’s entirely commendable that Mitchell is too real, too raw, too honest to be anything but herself. Perhaps this is why she can’t engage in false humility. How can you fake a public persona when you’ve poured your heart into a body of work as vast and uncompromising as hers?
Over the years I have concluded that what we’re left with by the interview’s end is a heavily-controlled representation of how Mitchell wishes to be viewed. Yet this doesn’t mean she’s faking anything. Mitchell controls the flow of information from the start and reveals her body armour with knee-jerk precision. There are anecdotes and philosophies that I have heard her reel off in interviews dating back to the late eighties, although this suggests that not much has changed her outlook over the decades. Her remarks on the state of popular culture in the eighties as all fluff and no substance takes a misguided aim at Michael Jackson’s Bad by way of explaining how the game was “to make yourself larger than life.” Remarkably, in a recorded television interview from 1988 less than a year after Bad’s release, Mitchell uses the same analogy, even mimicking the chorus and calling the culture that enables it “a lot of posturing and posing.”
Almost 70 at the time of interview, Mitchell appears keenly aware of her declining health (“I’ve been sick all my life,” she muses at one point) and in a state of deep, personal reflection on her achievements. Towards the end of the interview, she displays an unbridled and rare moment of genuine vulnerability when discussing her own mortality. This moment feels particularly prescient when we consider the brain aneurysm that she suffered in early 2015 less than two years after the interview. Mitchell was found days later, unconscious, with the news making global headlines and triggering an outpouring of love. It was a further indication that her influence and impact on music is even greater than anyone might have previously thought.
Save for a handful of public appearances since, little is known about her current health. We can only hope that she is in good spirits because, as Mitchell might be the first to say, her wellbeing is none of our business. This is no doubt difficult for some people to come to terms with, but it confirms a harsh truth that many of us aren’t ready to accept.
She owes us nothing.
To demand news and tidbits about her life only serves to confirm how frighteningly normal our social media-indebted lifestyles have become. Mitchell will never come out with a statement telling us everything is okay or to keep us in her prayers. She doesn’t engage in false humility, after all. Regarding her ego, one hopes that is still as bold, brilliant and as strong as ever.