Joni on Joni: Interviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell

Joni on Joni: Interviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell

by Susan Whitall (Editor)


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Joni Mitchell was a solidly middle-class bohemian; an anti-feminist who loved men but scorned free love; a female warrior taking on the male music establishment. She was both the party girl with torn stockings and the sensitive soul. Her earthy, poetic lyrics and the unusual melodic intervals traced by that lissome voice earned her the status of a pop legend. Joni on Joni is a chronologically arranged anthology of Mitchell’s most illuminating interviews, spanning the years 1966 to 2014. Included are revealing pieces from her early years in Canada and Detroit, along with influential articles such as Cameron Crowe’s Rolling Stone piece. Interspersed throughout are key quotes from dozens of additional Q&As. Together, this material paints a revealing picture of the artist—bragging and scornful, philosophical and deep, but also a beguiling flirt.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641603584
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/10/2020
Series: Musicians in Their Own Words Series
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 408,952
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Susan Whitall was a writer/editor at Creem magazine in Detroit and a music and feature writer at the Detroit News.

Read an Excerpt



A. L. McClain | February 6, 1966 | Detroit News (US)

In the spring of 1965, Joni met Detroit folk singer Chuck Mitchell at the Penny Farthing coffeehouse in Toronto. On June 19 they were married in the backyard of his parents' house in the Detroit suburb of Rochester, as a string quartet played. The couple moved into Chuck's apartment on the top floor of the Verona, a once grand nineteenth-century apartment building on the edge of Detroit's seedy Cass Corridor. The Verona was the "tenement castle" of Joni's song "I Had a King," and Chuck, of course, the king who "carried me off to his country for marriage too soon" (and changed the locks on her later).

In between gigs at Detroit folk clubs including the Chess Mate and the Raven Gallery, Joni sewed curtains and transformed their lair into a medieval green and gold–hued fantasyland. The couple put up visiting musician friends such as Tom Rush, Gordon Lightfoot, and Eric Andersen in their spacious pad. Hosting Andersen was fortuitous; he showed Joni some open tunings on the guitar, which led her music in a new direction. Joni had already written four or five songs before she met Chuck, but it was at the Verona, where she lived with him from 1965 through 1967, that she wrote some of her best-known early compositions, including "Circle Game" and "Both Sides, Now."

There is even a Motown connection. Chuck said he sought out someone to write lead sheets for Joni's songs, and he found a musician he describes as a lean six footer, "definitely from Motown, African American, fortysomething, a reed man," which fits the description of flutist/saxophonist (and, for a time, Motown bandleader) Thomas "Beans" Bowles. The "reed man" trudged up the many stairs to their bohemian pad, Chuck remembered, but was skeptical of Joni's unusual tunings until he watched her hands on the guitar and found himself caught up in the melodies. — Ed.

In this era of computers serving as matchmakers, it seems unlikely that Chuck and Joni Mitchell would have been paired off as matrimonial partners.

But seven months after their marriage, they seemed to have beaten the machines.

Their wedding required more sacrifice than the average couple's. Each was a folk singer. Chuck had played numerous engagements as a single in the Detroit area; Joni filled dates in her native Canada as a soloist.

They decided to combine single acts into one, and the honeymoon took a slight detour. Chuck explained it, "We are both strong-minded people, and we both had our own ways of doing a number. There were some hectic times until we blended our styles."

Joni's disposition also suffered when he took her home to his apartment in the Wayne State University area. They had to climb five flights of stairs, and he was too exhausted to carry her across the threshold. Joni walked in herself.

"But I carried her the last flight of stairs," laughed Chuck.

Chuck grew up in the Rochester area. Joni was used to Canadian customs. She had wanted to be an artist and had gone to school to study art.

The girl who bears a striking resemblance to Mia Farrow, of TV's "Peyton Place," explained it:

"I got interested in a ukulele, and from there I turned to the guitar and folk singing. Thirty-six hours after I met Chuck, he asked me to marry him. But we waited two months."

Now their marriage and careers are on firmer ground. They recently finished an engagement together at the Chess Mate, and hope to get a tryout at the Playboy Club in Detroit.

Occasionally, they break up the act for separate engagements. This weekend, Joni backed up blues singer Jesse Fuller at the Chess Mate and Chuck sang at the Alcove on Woodward.

On Feb. 15 they join forces again for a week's stand at the Chess Mate, and on Feb. 22 they appear together at the Living End, a nightclub.

Chuck said, "Joni and I have developed our act. We are not just folk singers now. We do comedy, sing some ragtime and do folk-rock. We're ready for the big clubs now."

Joni nodded her approval, as any dutiful wife would do.



Jo Ann Mercer | March 20, 1966 | Detroit News (US)

This follow-up Detroit News story puts the Mitchells on display as the bright young things of the time, living in an edgy neighborhood in the Cass Corridor and evincing boho chic before it was a thing. It's also instructive to see how women artists were portrayed in 1966 — creative, but mostly within the confines of domesticity, expected to be quiet and supportive of the artist husband. Joni spoke to both reporters, and her information is used on background, but there is just one quote used — one! Joni made up for it later.

Joni was, of course, a songwriter who was the equal of any man, but she was also skilled in the traditional home arts such as sewing, and in fact later dismissed feminism in part because she felt the domestic arts were unfairly denigrated.

At twenty-two, her complex nature was already evident. Chuck described their marriage as an "Irish marriage," full of fun but also tumultuous — they would smoke and play gin rummy all night and argue. Joni's decision to give up the daughter she bore out of wedlock in 1965 was a cloud over the marriage. It was also a sorrow that bubbled up frequently in her lyrics, most notably in "Little Green" on Blue but also in "Chinese Café/Unchained Melody," with its line "I bore her but I could not raise her."

In some interviews, Joni blamed Chuck for not encouraging her to reclaim her baby. But Chuck points out: "That was pretty much a fait accompli by the time I arrived. When she would ask me what she should do, I said very calculatedly that it was her choice."

As other artists started to have hits with her songs — Judy Collins with "Both Sides, Now," particularly — and the money started rolling in, Joni was primed for flight. The affair documented in her song "Michael from Mountains" prompted one last fight with Chuck.

"She tried to brain me with a candlestick," he said. She missed but took off anyway.

Note: Chuck Mitchell says the rent on their Verona pad was $75 a month, not $70.

A bargain, still. — Ed.

A walk-up apartment in the city is mod — it's camp — but a fifth-floor walk-up is something else. For Chuck and Joni Mitchell, it is many things.

It's a walk in the park ... a browsing session in a library ... a midnight view of the city ... a stroll through an art gallery.

These are just a few of the reasons this young couple, appearing in Detroit-area nightspots as a folk-singing duo, chose an inner city apartment.

For them, the setting is perfect. Located at the corner of Cass and Ferry, close to the campus of Wayne State University, they are near the heart of the city, its people and its culture. And the city is their life.

They thrive on excitement, the fast pace. Young intellectuals, entertainers and artists are their friends.

Although they dream someday of having a second home in the country, modern suburbia does not now fit their needs. Because their rent is low (only $70 a month) they can do many things which would be "impossible" were they living in an expensive suburban project.

With a little ingenuity, design and splashes of paint they have transformed their half of a dark, drab fifth floor into a bright, gay home which reflects their personality, their lives and their era.

But "living at the top" of an old urban building has its disadvantages. For instance, the elevator has not been in operation since 1942.

Sprinting up five flights of stairs can sometimes be quite an ordeal for friends of the couple. One acquaintance, who Chuck says is somewhat overweight, is able to survive the climb. But when he reaches the top, he is barely able to announce his arrival with one short rap on the door before collapsing on a nearby bench.

"But this is a good way for them to get rid of their aggressions," Chuck says of their friends.

The steep climb no longer poses a problem for Chuck and Joni, who feel the daily exercise is good for keeping in shape. But Joni admits that on a trip to the grocery it is wise not to forget anything.

Chuck moved in three years ago, in his bachelor days, but when he and Joni were married eight months ago, things began to take shape and the apartment turned mod. "Now," says Chuck, "it's camp."

Working together in the afternoons and between shows, they started out on what friends considered a "hopeless cause." Chuck is manager, organizer and chief construction expert, while Joni is in charge of ideas, painting and decorating.

When they first began, Chuck considered writing a book on repairing and modernizing an urban apartment. But now it seems that the job itself demands his undivided attention.

Occasionally friends come to their rescue, but mostly they do everything on their own — from manipulating long sections of plywood up the narrow, treacherous stairway to shingling the bathroom wall to cover up the falling plaster.

They haunt estate sales and prowl through antique shops. Often when they leave work at 3 or 4 a.m., they windowshop for bargains in out-of-the-way places. "The next day," Chuck says, "if we feel affluent, we go out poking around and buy some things."

These nocturnal quests have yielded such goodies as a black bear rug (for only $5) which now sprawls in front of a couch they bought for $15. They bartered for the couch and Joni found this much more exciting than just straight buying.

They like to experiment for special effect. Trunks intrigue them. They boast three such accessories. Two were gifts and one they found abandoned in an alley. One claims both gift and heirloom status. It originally belonged to Chuck's grandfather, who used it when he was in college.

Another item which rates high on their "special effect" list is a set of stained glass windows depicting a pastoral scene in brilliant blues, reds and greens. This specialty, a birthday gift for Joni, is destined to become part of their bathroom shower partition.

Joni, who once studied art, has her decorating department well in hand. Because they like country colors, she has carried the antique golds, reds and greens throughout the decor. From the glazed trunk tops to the Oriental paintings, design and planning is evident.

A whisky advertisement, antiqued and framed in red, is one of Joni's favorite objets d'art. "I hung this in protest of the rising tide of conformity," she says with a sparkle of rebellion in her large blue eyes.

Their private "urban renewal" project has meant a lot of hard work, but they've "loved every minute of it." And it hasn't been a haphazard operation. They take one room at a time and work there until they finish.

What do their friends think of this "kookie" dream? Chuck says they reveal their attitude the minute they walk in. Their reactions vary from "It's a gas!" to "You did this ... and you're only renting!"

But most of their guests marvel at the change. There's something different to investigate on every visit.

As for Chuck and Joni, they are optimistic. Although the building is located in a section that is destined to be torn down for urban renewal, and they don't hold a lease, they believe it will stand for at least 10 more years.

"In the meantime," Chuck says, "maybe we'll get rich and buy the building."

But for the present, they concentrate on their assets and dismiss the elements of insecurity. "This is the chance one has to take in renting in this area," says Chuck.


On Her Favorite Club, in 1967

"A place called the Sippin' Lizard in Flint, Michigan. ... It began with this family's sons being interested in folk music and having friends over on the weekends, and soon they had 150 kids in their basement. ... So they moved the club into a pool hall. And it's marvelous, it really is, the enthusiasm. And the thing that's great about it is the age breakdown, because you get college professors and you get young kids and you get whole families. ... So I have a following from seven to seventy in Flint."

— to Ed Sciaky, WRTI-FM

Philadelphia, March 17, 1967


On Her Music Lacking Depth

"Well, I started out doing traditional ballads, which were these long English things about Lady So-and-So whose husband killed her while her lover was standing at the foot of the bed, and 'House of the Rising Sun' about a girl that's been led astray, and I think maybe that's why my songs are so happy, because in the beginning they were all so dreary. They're beautiful, but just very miserable songs."

— to Take 30, CBC-TV, 1967


On Openings for Women Artists

"I spent months knocking on record company doors, but suddenly music is accepting so much more. There is now an accepted female point of view. And my problem now is that I have to decide on an image that I have to fill."

— to Peter Goddard, Globe and Mail (Toronto), July 27, 1967



Dave Wilson | February 14–27, 1968 | Broadside (US)

Dave Wilson interviewed Joni for Broadside, the Boston folk publication, in February 1968 — one of the busiest years of her early career. Joni had split from Chuck, whom Wilson knew and liked from the Mitchells' previous visits. Her first album, Song to a Seagull, would be released in early March, and she played well-received sets in the spring and early summer at the Bitter End in New York and the Troubadour in Los Angeles.

Because engagements at area clubs stretched to a week at least, the Mitchells — and later, Joni — would often stay with Wilson at his small Cambridge apartment rather than at a motel. "It was a very rich time, a magic time. We lived in poverty through it," Wilson said.

He always figured on Joni making it. "She just had it. It was palpable." What was also already evident was that quintessential Joni mixture of bravado and insecurity. There was no reason for doubt, Wilson believed — for him, she was at least as important an artist as Dylan. "She was much better at melodies, her poetry was much better ... Joni's lyrics have always touched me, right to the heart," he said.

Wilson lost touch with Joni over the years but kept up with her music. Still, he was "stunned" when he heard her sing "Both Sides, Now" at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2012. Wilson exclaimed at how different she sounded, "how marvelous it was. It brought tears to my eyes, that she's continued to grow. I like her more alto voice. She probably could have done a lot of things in a lower register back in the '60s. The purity of that [earlier] soprano kind of obviated exploring any of her other ranges."

Note: The spelling of Joni's birthplace has been corrected to Fort Macleod, Alberta, not Fort "McCloud."

The Kurt Weill song has been corrected to "Mack the Knife" (not "Mac").

Joni's song "Nathan LaFinire" has been corrected to "Nathan LaFaneer."

The Leonard Cohen song transcribed as "Susan" has been corrected to "Suzanne."

The character in the Bob Dylan song "Hattie Carol" has been corrected to "Hattie Carroll." — Ed.


Excerpted from "Joni On Joni"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Susan Whitall.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Susan Whitall xi

Part I We Are Stardust

Two Single Acts Survive a Marriage A. L. McClain

February 6, 1966 | Detroit News (US) 3

Urbanity Revisited: Mode Is Mod for City Living Jo Ann Mercer

March 20, 1966 | Detroit News (US) 6

An Interview with Joni Mitchell Dave Wilson

February 14-27, 1968 | Broadside (US) 11

Part II Stoking the Star-Making Machinery

Joni: Let's Make Life More Romantic Jacoba Atlas

June 20, 1970 | Melody Maker (UK) 27

Joni Mitchell: Glimpses of Joni Michael Watts

September 19, 1970 | Melody Maker (UK) 34

Joni Takes a Break Larry Leblanc

March 4, 1971 | Rolling Stone (US) 38

Joni Mitchell: An Interview, Part One Penny Valentine

June 3, 1972 | Sounds (UK) 50

Joni Mitchell: An Interview, Part Two Penny Valentine

June 10, 1972 | Sounds (UK) 57

The Education of Joni Mitchell Stewart Brand

Summer 1976 | CoEvolution Quarterly (US) 64

Joni Mitchell Defends Herself Cameron Crowe

July 26, 1979 | Rolling Stone (US) 75

Part III Sweet Bird of Time and Change

Joni Mitchell Is a Nervy Broad Vic Garbarini

January 1983 | Musician (US) 111

Joni Mitchell Alanna Nash

March 1986 | Stereo Review (US) 137

An Interview with Joni Mitchell Sylvie Simmons

1988 | Musik Express (Germany) 143

Joni Mitchell: Don Juan's Reckless Daughter Phil Sutcliffe

May 1988 | Q (UK) 155

Joni Mitchell Jeff Plummer Marty Getz

1989 Quintessential Covina Cable Access Interview (US) 174

60 Minutes with Joni Mitchell Vic Garbarini

September 1996 | Guitar World (US) 197

Alternate Tunings John Ephland

December 1996 | Down Beat (US) 202

The Unfiltered Joni Mitchell Dave Dimartino

August 1998 | Mojo (UK) 213

Radio Interview Jody Denberg

September 8, 1998 | KGSR-FM, Austin (US) 242

Jazz Romance Jason Koransky

May 2000 | Down Beat (US) 266

Part IV A Defector from the Petty Wars

Heart of a Prairie Girl Mary S. Aikins

July 2005 | Reader's Digest (Canada) 279

Joni Mitchell's Fighting Words Doug Fischer

October 7, 2006 | Ottawa Citizen (Canada) 300

The Trouble She's Seen Doug Fischer

October 8, 2006 | Ottawa Citizen (Canada) 306

TV Interview Tavis Smiley

November 9, 2007 | Tavis Smiley on PBS (US) 315

Music and Lyrics Geoffrey Himes

December 2007 | JazzTimes (US) 328

Film Interview Michael Buday

August 20, 2008 | Grammy Museum (US) 346

TV Interview Tavis Smiley

November 25, 2014 | Tavis Smiley on PBS (US) 362

About the Contributors 375

About the Editor 379

Credits 381

Index 385

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