6.15.2013

my role model, joni mitchell

Next week, Toronto's Luminato arts festival will present "Joni: a Portrait in Song," various musicians performing and celebrating the work of Joni Mitchell. For months, speculation flew about whether or not Mitchell herself would attend, and if she did, whether she would perform. Finally, a few weeks ago, it was announced: Joni will appear at the Massey Hall event; she will recite a new poem with musical accompaniment.

In the lead-up to this rare public appearance, Mitchell - who, of course, is Canadian, and who turns 70 this year - gave a few interviews to Canadian media. Mitchell rarely grants interviews - having long ago detached herself from the "star maker machinery" - but when she does, they are usually candid and enlightening, and often a bit unsettling.

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I often refer to Joni Mitchell has my idol. That's no less true now than it was 30 years ago.

I've been listening to Joni's music since the age of 10, when I discovered her through my older sister, and I continued listening through all her musical changes, as droves of fans turned away. Sometimes I didn't understand her music at the time it was released, only to fall in love with it years later. I've been fortunate to see Joni perform a few times, each concert an incredibly meaningful experience for me.

I regard Joni Mitchell as an artistic genius, a category that very few people inhabit. I rankle when she is compared to competent but pedestrian "singer-songwriters", or pigeonholed based on one phase of her long and varied career. It isn't that everything Joni composes is great. How could it be? It's the expansiveness of her vision, her constant movement into new territory, her restless need to explore. She is a songwriter of unparalleled talents, a brilliant composer and arranger, and a talented and noteworthy painter.

But although I love Joni's music, that's not why I call her my idol. What I admire is her uncompromising vision - her decision to detach herself from popular acclaim or approbation - her insistence on traveling her own path. She doesn't self-consciously display herself as different, as an angle for attention. She is just herself, and you can take it or leave it.

Reading Joni's interviews over the years, I came to understand (as much as she made public) how she feels about her life and her art. And Joni's profound need to forge her own trail, to follow no predefined path, least of all the path of other people's expectations, became a profound influence on my own life. In that sense Joni Mitchell has been my role model.

Joni's latest round of interviews upset many people, especially women who identify as feminists. Her comments about feminism are difficult to understand, given what we know about her life and her career. But the way I see it, I don't have to agree with all of Joni's opinions, or share her vision of the world. I don't call her "my hero," the way I do, say, Howard Zinn or George Orwell. Other people have been a greater influence on the development of my identity and my political thought. Joni taught me how to live.

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Joni Mitchell interview in Toronto Star

Joni Mitchell interview and links from CBC

Joni Mitchell speaks with CBC's Jian Gomeshi, one-hour audio. Many, many thanks to my old blog-friend who remembered both my love of Joni Mitchell and that I don't listen to the radio.

Also:

Why Joni Mitchell's rejection of feminism broke my heart a little (and why I'm tired of talking about Beyoncé) by Meghan Murphy
(This would be a much better story if it were only about Joni Mitchell and feminism. I didn't know anyone was talking about Beyonce, but if you're sick of talking about her, then don't.)

Ani DiFranco interview with Joni Mitchell from 1998