Joni Mitchell doesn’t get out much these days — aside from the occasional benefit in her honor or Clive Davis party, she travels away from her Los Angeles home once, maybe twice a year. And even then it’s usually to her native country Canada, where she’s been eager to mount her next big project: a four-part ballet culled from her 40-year-plus catalog, whose music was curated and remastered by Mitchell herself for the recently released boxed set Love Has Many Faces, A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced (Rhino).
It’s a project that’s had a journey nearly as complicated as the different phases of love described in Mitchell’s songs, both beloved (“A Case of You,” “Both Sides Now,” “River,” “Blue”) and more obscure (“The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey,” “My Best to You”), all restored from 16 of her 19 studio albums (Mitchell omitted songs from her first three records because, she says, “I don’t like my singing”). Originally, the compilation was intended as a 75-minute, one-disc collection that would accompany a ballet to be danced in early 2014 by the Alberta Ballet — her first production since 2007’s Shine — but Mitchell pulled it at the last minute to expand the piece.
Of course, there’s reasons more serious for Mitchell’s lack of travel these days — the increasingly difficult impact of Morgellons Disease, a rare skin condition she’s had for years, which makes plane travel nearly impossible for the singer and has effectively rendered her unable to sing, perform or record ever again (making Shine‘s accompanying album her last “new” release). But in a wide-ranging discussion with Billboard recently, Mitchell, 71, bears no regrets about her current condition and instead still finds all sorts of new pleasures in the creative process — whether it’s painting, revisiting her music, prepping a four-act ballet or an upcoming collection of short stories — that go far beyond her beloved voice. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
Love Has Many Faces, A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced is a four-disc, remastered retrospective spanning your entire career. All the songs characterize love in its different phases, yet the boxed set doesn’t include any songs from your first three albums, most notably Ladies of the Canyon. Why is that?
I don’t like my singing on my second and third albums. My first album was just natural, I’d been singing and playing in clubs and that’s the way I sang and played. But I began to have what I considered to be a bad influence on my music, which leaked in on the second and third albums and I just find it hard to listen to personally. Other people like it, and I’m sure if I went back I’d find that I’m wrong. I also produced myself, so it took me until Blue to [sing] well, I’m sure.
Even “Big Yellow Taxi,” which is arguably your biggest hit, isn’t part of this.
Well that song’s got nothing to do with the theme of this boxed set, and that was in the last ballet, which was about an ecology war. This was about love and the lack of it. “Cool Water,” which is about love of earth and water and love of land, that’s a loose connection to the theme — but other than that it starts in the ’50s, which is Chuck Berry time, kissing and going to dances, that’s basically what the theme of ’50s music is, those are my ’50s memories. That’s how Act 1 begins back in the ’50s, kissing in cars, right? And going to dances. So no, “Big Yellow Taxi” does not belong to this collection.
The boxed set began as a one-disc compilation to accompany a 75-minute ballet. Now it’s four discs, which means the ballet has to be a five-hour production.
Yeah, but “Einstein on the Beach” was eight hours. I’ve played different versions for test groups — like a playwright, actor, actress, jazz musician, punk musician, a girl whose boyfriend dumped her after 17 years — and all their needs were different, so my little sample audience didn’t have time to develop thematically. It was going up, down, up, down, it was just a collection of songs. To me, having time to develop more than a collection of songs is a journey.
How did the project evolve once you expanded it from one disc to four?
It was supposed to be danced in Alberta in February, and I got it down, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. And in the last minute in my dissatisfaction I bailed on it, money had to be refunded some people had bought tickets in advance. I just thought, “I can’t see it as a play, it’s just a collection of songs. I can’t see how one leads to the other.” They’re just changing moods. Those 75 minutes, those songs those 13 songs are dispersed all the way through it. But you can put a song to connect all the way through it.
I had one song, “Nothing Can Be Done,” the jazz musician was [at the ballet workshop] with his wife of seven years, and that song made him jump up. I found a cover version I did of a Billie Holiday song [“Comes Love”] that also says, “nothing can be done” — but in a funny way. In the play, she’s saying, “Look, I forgive you, you’re screwing up, and obviously their relationship is a wreck.” But in the next song it’s a different approach, it’s like an aside, another character steps in and says, “Comes the measles you can quarantine the room…comes love nothing can be done.” You didn’t have the luxury in the short version to send in the clown, and now I’m thinking of this one man. If that had followed it, he would have had a good laugh. You’ve got a ballet audience, you’re gonna have a whole room full of people in different phases of relationships. This girl who got dumped by her boyfriend, she loved the “Hana” song because it’s a pep talk — “don’t be a victim, get back on track.” “Hana”‘s got a knack for getting people back on track because she knows they all matter. This girl who was leaving at the time, she loved that and she loved “Hejira” because that’s when the healing begins — it enabled her to see her way out of the hole that she was in. But she was the only one in the group who had that response. So everyone in the audience is going to be responding to different aspects because they’ll all be at different places in their life. At 75 minutes, the places I could go were too limited.
Was there anything you tweaked or adjusted once you revisited the masters?
The masters have been irresponsibly maintained, a lot of them were corroded, so I had to go a different way. I remastered from my own record collection, so it was generational, on Pro Tools which is all digital. And digital has done horrible things to music. But using digital, the enemy, with analogue-y cues on some of these programs, I put some of the warmth back in as best I could. But [mixer] Bernie Grundman went back to the masters and found they weren’t in good shape. So he remastered side 3, and I remastered sides 1, 2 and 4. Henry and I made 14 albums together and the sound of those was pretty consistent. It was when Larry Klein pulled me away and Mike Shipley in the ’80s, and that appetite for “sizzle and fry” as I call it. It’s a very unattractive sound, and it dates. But that was only one album, and there was some imposition of trendy stuff. But even in the remastering I was able to clean some of that junk off of it.
Now that the original production was shelved, do you still hope to produce a four-act version?
I hope so. We’ve got to find a good company with a lot of dancers. The Alberta troupe’s got 25 dancers, so we need about 100 dancers if we’re going to do this all in one night – they can’t dance more than 75 minutes without injury. We’re playing around with a bar format that would mean they’d be getting lots of rest onstage – people are seated, then they spring into action, so they don’t burn out so quickly. But this [boxed set] is step one of a dream that may not go any further. We live in fascist times, and money goes to blood sports not the arts. I don’t know if there anyone who will support this, it remains to be seen.
Will you be spending more time in Canada to get this off the ground?
No, I can’t travel. That was one of the problems with the last ballet, they didn’t want to take it unless I came along. And at that time I was very ill and I couldn’t leave the house. So we toured it on the road very limited, because most people wouldn’t take them unless I came, and I couldn’t travel. I can’t fly without consequences at this point – I can fly off to Canada, that’s about all I can handle. And I’m sick on both ends for about 10 to 12 days. It’s all that heavy metal in the air, and also viruses. My immune system is also very taxed, and the metal that comes off the exhaust and gets into the cabin and gets into my system…just being delicate. I’m always jetlagged so touring was always hard for ne. And now it’s kind of impossible.
You haven’t been able to perform or tour in years, due in large part to your suffering from the rare skin condition Morgellons Disease. Is there anything you miss about touring?
No I’ve had a very full life. I don’t miss much of anything. I can’t sing anymore – don’t miss it. I can’t play anymore – don’t miss it. I’ve got all these instruments laying around and hopefully one day I’ll pick them up. But I do want to start writing my short stories, that’s what I want to do after I get this ballet out of the way. If it can happen, great — if it becomes apparent it’s not gonna happen, alright, I’ve got plenty to do. And I’ll still paint.
You keep a low industry profile these days, but did re-surface last year to appear at Clive Davis’ annual Grammy party. Is being in those rooms the only way you stay in touch with current music?
I’ve tried to stay in touch with it on the radio. I don’t find much of it very interesting. I need innovation. And if somebody’s working in a tradition, it doesn’t excite me. Like hip hop. I’m sick of hip hop.
Can you remember the last new piece of music you connected with?
No, but some music is forever new — Duke Ellington, “Subtle Lament”? That piece is progressive to this day. Harmonically, just totally original piece of music. “Kind of Blue,” Miles [Davis] – that’s a magnificent piece. There are some things that are magnificent that are always new, it doesn’t matter when they were made. I just don’t see much that’s made that isn’t derivative. There’s no Charlie Parkers, nobody coming out of the blue. I listened to this one radio station out of Vancouver, and they played this horrible piece of music – these girl DJs said it was the best piece of music they’d ever heard. It was a bad garage version of the Beach Boys, and I’d never heard such horrible music played. I thought, “I’d rather listen to something that was made before your generation.” Because the generation isn’t concerned with talent, they’re too busy twiddling their thumbs and pushing buttons on their computers.
You don’t own a computer, you don’t email, but you do have an iPhone, I understand.
I use it as a camera. And I also carry some Duke Ellington on it.