Joni Mitchell Gets Angry, Hugs It Out

Photo: Wireimage

Here at Vulture, we've spoken to our fair share of famous people, but that doesn't mean we don't still get nervous sometimes. Last night at Soho's Violet Ray Gallery, at the release party for Joni Mitchell's first album in ten years, Shine (out via Starbucks' Hear Music), we'll admit we were a little anxious before our interview with the legend herself. Luckily Rosie O'Donnell was on hand to calm us down. "It's hard not to be starstruck by the breadth and scope of her work," Rosie told us. "She can articulate feelings you didn't even know you had in six or seven words that can make you weep. She's really the best artist around." True that! A few minutes later, a kindly publicist ushered us into a back room where Mitchell sat chain-smoking and quaffing bottled water.

When you were a teen, did you have a Joni Mitchell, an artist who…
That touched me? No. Chuck Berry, but he just made me happy. Music wasn't that touching back then — it was happy music.

Not Patsy Cline or Edith Piaf?
Edith Piaf knocked my socks off when I was 8, but I didn't know what she was singing about.

So where have you been these past ten years? We haven't heard much from you.
I was angry at the politics.

At Bush?
Especially. Angry at the American people. At Christians. At theology — the ignorance of it. And I didn't want to write about it. I removed myself from society and painted. It was a method of avoiding the anger, not addressing it.

And with the album…
I confronted a lot of it and worked it out to a point. I read the Koran, I started Genesis, Augustine, did a lot of theological research.

Are you religious?
I'm a Buddhist. It's not theological. You have to work on yourself — you don't have a savior. It's self-study. The God of the Old Testament is the depiction of evil. Original Gnostic Christianity is very compatible with Buddhism, very smart.

Is there anybody else's music you're really enjoying right now?
No. [Laughs.] I couldn't listen to music for ten years, I hated it all. It all pissed me off.

One artist in particular?
No. Music just became grotesquely egocentric and made for money. It wasn't music — there was no muse. Music requires a muse. The producer is not a muse. He's a manufacturer. Contemporary music made me want to punch people. I couldn't stand any of it. The whoring, the drive-by shooting of it all. I don't care how well crafted it is. America is in a runaway-train position and dragging all the world with it. It's grotesquely mentally ill.

Switching gears, do you get recognized on the street much?
I can't believe how often people recognize me. They're cool; they're really nice about it.

What's the right way to approach a famous person?
I don't think there is such a thing. Sometimes I have to hug people if they get emotional. I've had amazing experiences. A young mother with a baby came up to me, and she was very emotional. She was trying to express gratitude, I guess, but she couldn't articulate it. I'm always curious — like, what song? But she didn't get a chance because her mother came out of the drugstore and sees her daughter kind of emotional. And mother says, "For God's sake, get yourself together." Girl looked like she was going to cry, so I grabbed her hand and said, "No, she's entirely appropriate, the music has been very moving to her." And then the mother, who was hard as nails, started to quiver. So I had to jump up and hug them both. It was beautiful.

Did the mother know who you were?
It doesn't matter.
—Tim Murphy