Here is the second half of the Joni Mitchell interview by Malka Marom from Both Sides Now: Conversations with Joni Mitchell, published by Omnibus Press last month. The photograph below was taken in Joni’s backyard in Saskatoon and shows teenage Joni with her friend Anne Bayin (then Anne Logie). The two girls swapped clothes before the shot was taken. “Joan was the most original person I knew,” says Bayin. (Photo courtesy Anne Bayin)
M: What encouraged you to do it, then? How did the spark come to marry the paintings with the words and the music?
J: It all happened later. High school hit, and I used to do the backdrops for school plays. I did a lot of large paintings – a 36-foot painting for my French teacher as an apology that I was such a shitty French student, because I was just a lousy student. All I was interested in was art. I should have been in a special school, really. I was wasting my time in there, other than socialization. I lived for dances. My teens were pretty much obsessed with dancing, but I did one good poem in high school about celebrities – feeling sorry for them. At 16, we had to write a blank verse poem, it was on a Friday and I had to get this poem in on Monday. [That weekend] I was gonna be at one of the dances, so I was getting my hair done at a beauty school. A beehive with sparkles. I’m sitting there and stacked around me are Silver Screen and all these movie magazines. And on every cover, Sandra Dee is crying. She and Bobby Darin were breaking up and there were all these candid paparazzi shots of her and I thought, “That’s horrible. Imagine if you were breaking up with your boyfriend and people are snapping pictures and putting them on the school cover!” I thought that would be unbearable to me – to be looked at like a bug.
That was the spark or the inspiration. Sympathy for Sandra Dee being photographed with her mascara running. It all just poured out this poem I called “The Fishbowl”. The fishbowl being Hollywood. I can pretty much remember it, although I did it in high school.
“The fishbowl is a world reversed
“Where fishermen with hooks that dangle from the bottom up
“Reel down their catch without a fight on gilded bait
“Pike, pickerel, bass,
“the common fish all go through distorting glass
“see only glitter, glamour, gaiety
“Fog up the bowl with lusty breath
“Lunge towards the bait and miss
“And weep for fortune lost
“Envy the goldfish?
“His bubbles breaking round the rim
“While silly fishes faint for him and say
“Oh my God, I think he winked at me”
M: I’m totally amazed that you remember this poem also, especially when you consider the body of work you composed since high school. And it’s almost as if you had a premonition that you would be in that same sort of fishbowl.
J: There were things that I worked out at 16. Like, I had a column in the school paper called “Fads and Fashion”. And I started fads and stopped them. I knew the mechanics of hip. It’s hip to wear your father’s tie to school. Ugh, it’s uncool, we did that last week. So by the time I was 16, I knew that hip was a herd mentality, certain people would do it, they’d follow you, and you could embarrass them easily by saying, “Ewww, that’s not hip now.” And they would stop.
M: Music-making was dormant in you then?
J: Hitting me with a ruler during those piano lessons sent my love of playing music underground for ten years or so. When I wanted a guitar, my mother said, “Oh, no, no. You’ll buy it and you’ll just quit. You’re a quitter.” I couldn’t afford to buy it on my own. So I saved up 36 dollars, and on the day when my wisdom teeth were pulled, with bloody sutures in my mouth, I went in and plunked down the 36 dollars, bought this ukulele, and just hunkered over it everywhere to the point where my friends said to me, “Anderson, if you don’t put that goddamn thing down, I’m gonna break it in half.”
I was just obsessed with it. And in six months, I could play and sing well enough. Some kids heard me play at the lake and they said, “You’re good,” and they put me on a late night [TV] show. It replaced a hunting and fishing show. I always think they took off the moose and took me on [laughs]. They gave me half an hour to play these little folk songs – after I had only been playing for only six months. My mom and dad went to the top floor of the Bessborough, which was the highest building in town, and looked at the snowy image of me in this neighbouring town about a hundred miles away playing. Anne’s mother saw it also. She was in charge of the adjudicated music festivals of the United Church, and she said to Anne, “Joni is pretty good.” So that was the beginning. I took it as a hobby at art school. I got into playing just for spending money, for smoking money and movie money. And for fun; it was just fun when you got a room full of people playing, you know. That’s the way I started and it really was to be no more than that. My ambition was to be a painter.
M: How did it switch to music?
J: Well, in Saskatoon there was a coffeehouse, which I was kind of involved with in the beginning. Some friends of mine were doing the carpentry and I was hired initially to be kind of a resident artist. There was some talk of me doing portraits of people as they came in and I ended up waitressing.
I came there with an interest in jazz, which I was starting to get into at that time. Folk music didn’t excite me at all.
M: Did someone or something give you the impetus to start performing on stage, or was it an accident, as it was in my case?
J: It was an accident, in a way... My mother said to me, before I went to art college, that my stick-to-it-iveness at certain things was never that great. She said, “You’re gonna get to art college and you’re gonna get distracted.” She said this very prophetic thing. But I said, “Oh, what could possibly detract from my art.” This is what I always wanted to do. I doodled through French and history and biology. I’d failed mathematics but I had done drawings of mathematicians for the math room. So finally, here I was in a situation where it was all drawing. But when I got there, the same thing happened to me. A lot of the courses were meaningless to me and not particularly creative. I had no money, so I thought I could pick up some – to smoke and to bowl and to go to a movie and eat a pizza. So I went and auditioned for the coffeehouse in town. I said, “Look, I play this ukulele...”
I think I had a guitar at that point. Yes. A Martin tiple, which is a glorified South American 10-string ukulele. It has more sound because of all the strings. It was sort of a novelty item, and I began to sing in this little coffeehouse [in Calgary], called The Depression.
An English kid had gotten there a day before they hired me. He said to me, “What is your repertoire?” I said, “Well, ‘Crow On The Cradle.’” “You can’t sing that. That’s my song.” And I named another one. “You can’t sing that. That’s my song.” This is my introduction to territorial songs. I ran into it again in Toronto. The territorial thing in the folk scene was part of why I began to write my own songs.
In that coffeehouse, and another one in Edmonton... I forget the name of it, but they wrote me up in the local newspaper: “two-career girl.” When I saw it, I thought, “Two career? I’m a painter. I don’t have two careers.” “Winged words fly from her pen,” they wrote in the yearbook. So I was acknowledged in high school as a writer, but I never acknowledged myself as a writer. That gift had to be drawn out by tragedy, it seems.
The writing of my own songs came out of the trauma of my being an unwed mother and being destitute. I mean destitute in a strange city and pregnant, and living in a 15-dollar-a-week room. It was the attic room, and all the railings... there was one left out of every four because last winter, the people burnt them to keep the room warm. It was run by a Chinese guy that they said was waiting for my child to be born and then he’d ship me off to Shanghai or something.
M: I can’t imagine writing or painting, or playing guitar and singing in these conditions, but maybe you did.
J: No, no, no. I was in the middle of this trauma.
M: Where did you live?
J: In Toronto, on Huron Street, in a house full of artists, starving artists.
M: Why not in a shelter for unwed mothers?
J: Couldn’t get in. They were flooded. I tried to. I tried to spare my parents by going to the anonymity of a large city, under the ruse that I wanted to be a musician. Because my mother already thought I was a quitter, so I thought, “Okay, she thinks I’m a quitter, so she’ll believe it.” “I want to be a musician.” “Oh, I knew you’d be a quitter.” That would get me out of town.
And in Toronto I had, I think, 60 dollars, maybe, with me in a town where the cheapest room was 15 dollars a week. And I had six months ahead of me, no work. You had to be in the union to work all the clubs. It took 160 dollars to get in [but] I couldn’t earn the money to get in. It was a catch-22. You had to work to get the money to get in the union. And you couldn’t work until you got in the union. So I worked at a scab club called the Purple Onion till my sixth month. We did good business because I was a good scab act.