Joni Mitchell on Freedom, the Source of Creativity, and the Dark Side of Success
“How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open… to encounter and to… be in touch with the miraculous.”
By Maria Popova
At the age of eight, Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943) contracted polio during the last major North American epidemic of the disease before the invention of the polio vaccine. Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home. And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. The liner notes of her 2004 compilation album Dreamland capture with elegant precision her tenacious spirit and creative restlessness: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”
When musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom chanced into a dark hole of a coffeehouse one November night in 1966, it was this explorer’s soul that she felt emanating from 23-year-old Mitchell, who was quietly tuning and retuning her guitar onstage. Marom knew that she was in the presence of genius. Over the decades that followed, she would interview Mitchell on three separate occasions — in 1973, in 1979, and in 2012. These remarkably wide-ranging conversations are now collected in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library | IndieBound) — an effort “to crack something so mysterious … the creative process itself, in all its fullness,” over the course of which Mitchell, with equal parts conviction and vulnerability, tussles with those “big questions.”
One of Mitchell’s most defining characteristics and a pillar of her artistic success is her unflinching integrity of vision — a creative compass that seems to always be oriented to her own true north and nobody else’s. Her own standards are the only ones she ever heeded and her own values the only ones she ever sought to measure up to. When Marom asks what gave Mitchell confidence through the ample rejection she faced early in her career, she speaks beautifully to the idea that the best art comes from a place of self-transcendence and is created for an audience of one:
I’ve never thought of that. I guess the only thing was being witness to my own growth. You know, I would suddenly see that, yes, the music was getting better, and the words were getting better. Just my own sense of creative growth kept me going, I guess.
Tuning into that inner voice, Mitchell suggests, was just as vital in her journey as tuning out the external noise that tried to drown it out — a practice arguably even more important, yet more challenging, for artists today, whose work is constantly offered up for external scrutiny online and off, through exponentially multiplying channels of exposure. Mitchell tells Marom:
My growth has been slow, like a crescendo of growth, based on my dissatisfaction with the previous project, where I thought was weak, not what the critics thought. The critics dismissed a lot of what I thought was my growth and praised a lot of what I thought common about my work. I disagreed with most of them. So I had to rely a lot on my own opinions, not to say that I wasn’t constantly asking them for advice and mulling it around, not dismissing it.
She revisits this notion of creating from a place of freedom rather than normative restriction based on the ideals and shoulds of others:
Freedom to me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.
Mitchell’s creative source springs from precisely this feeling of miraculous, wholehearted aliveness. She tells Marom:
How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open, I think, to encounter and to, in a way, be in touch with the miraculous.
Much of what we call “inspiration,” Mitchell suggests, is really the active practice of finding oneself by getting lost:
I think that as long as you still have questions, the child questions, the muse has got to be there. You throw a question up to the muse and maybe they drop something back on you.
But Mitchell’s most salient reflection is also her most vulnerable. Looking back on her journey from poverty to affluence, from critical derision to acclaim, she speaks to the rather conflicted relationship many of us — especially artists of all stripes — have with success and its outward expressions, a tension predicated on the toxic myth that there is a nobility to poverty and that financial success necessarily detracts from the authenticity of the work.
When Maron notes that “once you’ve known poverty, it digs into you no matter how successful,” Mitchell agrees and admits to being “suspicious of wealth” because she had come from destitution. Looking back on that tipping point when she went from struggling artist to star, with the affluent lifestyle to boot, she contemplates the inner tussle of values:
I had difficulty at one point accepting my affluence, and my success, even the expression of it seemed to me distasteful at one time, like to suddenly be driving a fancy car. I had a lot of soul searching to do. I felt that living in elegance and luxury cancelled creativity, or even some of that sort of Sunday school philosophy that luxury comes as a guest and then becomes the master. That was a philosophy that I held onto. I still had that stereotyped idea that success would deter it, that luxury would make you too comfortable and complacent and that the gift would suffer from it.
But I found that I was able to express it in the work, even at the time when it was distasteful to me… The only way that I could reconcile with myself and my art was to say, “This is what I’m going through now; my life is changing. I show up at the gig in a big limousine and that’s a fact of life.”
I’m an extremist as far as lifestyle goes. I need to live simply and primitively sometimes, at least for short periods of the year, in order to keep in touch with something more basic. But I have come to be able to finally enjoy my success, and to use it as a form of self-expression.
Leonard Cohen has a line that says, “Do not dress in those rags for me, / I know you are not poor.” When I heard that line, I thought to myself that I had been denying, which was hypocritical. I had been denying, just as that line in that song, I had played down my wealth.
Many people in the rock business [have] their patched jeans and their Levi jackets, which is a comfortable way to dress, but also it’s a way of keeping yourself aligned with your audience. For instance, if you were to show up at a rock and roll concert dressed in gold lamé and all of your audience was in Salvation Army discards, you would feel like a person apart.
Despite how gradual her rise had been and how emblematic of the idea that the myth of the overnight success is indeed a myth, Mitchell recalls the hollowing feeling of beginning to feel separate from her audience by a magnitude of wealth. And yet she finds her peace in a rather Zen-inspired perspective, one where everything that is is welcome as it is, allowing experience to unfold without the layering of judgment. Seen that way, poverty and affluence, like meeting and separation and like most seeming polarities in life, are two sides of the same coin, two dimensions of the human experience, riddled with many of the same anguishes and anxieties. (Henry Miller touched on this beautifully in his 1935 meditation on money, through the parable of the factory owner’s predicament.) Mitchell tells Marom:
I’m still searching for meaning and purpose. You know, people have a funny idea that success, [that] luxury is the end of the road. That’s not the end at all. As a matter of fact, many troubles begin there. They’re just of a different nature.
I’ve had the experience of poverty, middle class, now extreme wealth and luxury, and that’s difficult too.
Echoing Georgia O’Keeffe’s ideas on mental toughness, she adds:
I live in a beautiful place, like it would be a dream place. Many a day I walk through it and don’t see anything… If I have to live with less, I can do it easily. I can live with much less. As a matter of fact, for my nature, it’s too complicated to have so much because I can never find anything. [laughs] That’s a silly little problem but you don’t need that much. It’s a big headache… I like the luxury of having a swimming pool. But if I could have a shack or a tent down there next to my swimming pool, I’d be very contented. [laughs]
But her most eloquent and sensitive articulation of these ideas, fittingly, comes from one of her songs — “The Boho Dance” from her 1976 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns:
You read those books where luxury
Comes as a guest to take a slave
Books where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to the grave
Don’t you get sensitive on me
’Cause I know you’re just too proud
You couldn’t step outside the Boho dance now
Even if good fortune allowed
Like a priest with a pornographic watch
Looking and longing on the sly
Sure it’s stricken from your uniform
But you can’t get it out of your eyes
Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is a magnificent read in its entirety — a rare glimpse into the inner world of a rare kind of genius. Complement it with Leonard Cohen on the key to the creative life, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, Pete Seeger on the myth of originality, and Carole King on overcoming creative block.
Published September 22, 2014