Growing up listening to Joni Mitchell sing Woodstock, Both Sides Now, Big Yellow Taxi, Help Me, Twisted, In France They Kiss on Main Street, Ray's Dad's Cadillac and so many other songs, I never imagined that one day I'd be talking to Joni let alone writing about her. But there I was a few weeks ago on her patio in Los Angeles, waiting for her to finish up some business inside the house. Suddenly, from behind me, I heard a husky voice: "Hey New Yorker." I turned around and there she was. Joni's hair was down and her hand was clutching an ochre-hued pack of what appeared to be Natural American Spirit cigarettes. Wearing a gauzy, free flowing colorful top covering a dark shirt and slacks, her smile was unmistakable. It was an unusually warm afternoon, so we sat at a table on her patio as her Jack Russell terrier was ushered away.
I was in L.A. to interview Joni for the Wall Street Journal's "Anatomy of a Song" column. The song was the mysterious "Carey," which appears on "Blue," an emotionally jarring album from 1971 that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. She wrote the song about a guy she had met in Matala, Crete, whom she referred to in the song as "a mean old daddy." The song clearly had plenty of baggage. Why was she in Matala? What was the backstory? And who was this guy Carey? You can read my interview with Joni on "Carey" here. I also tracked down the real Cary, who spells his name without an "e." You can read my Q&A with him here. In case you've forgotten the song, here's Joni performing "Carey" in London in 1983...
As Joni and I spoke, what struck me most was her intensity and directness. She's part cerebral soul who thinks and analyzes carefully and part barefoot girl who still loves to laugh. What's more, her perspective is sharp and her articulation is clear. On the Saturday after my return, Joni called and we spent another two hours talking about her experiences in Matala and clarifying the events that took place when she wrote and recorded the song.
Unlike most musicians from the period, Joni was from the start an album artist. I know that sounds obvious, but there's a fine distinction here. When she began recording, she was a painter who thought in terms of filling large canvases. Most other artists from the 1960s, including the Beatles, were really short-form singles artists who at first didn't fully grasp the artistic breadth and scope needed for albums. That's why when you import albums by many of the artists who came of age in the '60s into your iTunes and shuffle the tracks, what you hear often sounds like songs from albums all mixed up, not a completely new form.
By contrast, when you shuffle Joni's material in iTunes, completely new albums emerge. The material is that expansive and dimensional. In fact, she did just that for her new boxed set—Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced (Rhino), which will be out November 24. She personally curated the set, carefully chosing 53 tracks from her 19 albums between 1968 and 2007 and re-organizing them into a ballet that was never performed. When you listen to the material, which has been gloriously remastered, it becomes a completely new concept album. Interestingly, there's no entering the set from the side. You really have to start from the top and listen down as far along as possible. That's the only way the box will make complete sense.
After the interview, Joni gave me a tour of her house, showing me her many paintings that hang on her wood-paneled walls. Her ability to capture a likeness is remarkable, and you can feel the weather in her landscapes. As I was about to leave, Joni said she hoped to see me again and gave me a hug. Outside, it was dusk. As I walked to my car on her driveway, all I could think about was that hug.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Joni's new four-CD set, Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced (Rhino), here. It's one of the most rewarding boxed sets I've heard this year. If you know her work, you'll be overjoyed. If you don't, you'll find it a startling awakening to her music and voice. There's plenty of jazz and soul in her sound. And I know you'll love it as much as I do.
JazzWax notes: For more on Joni, grab Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (ECW) by Malka Marom—a singer, novelist and friend of Joni's who conducted three lengthy interviews over time that are included here. The book just came out. You'll find it here.