The Music Midnight Makes: In Conversation With Joni Mitchell The legendary composer and singer showed up at NPR's Culver City studios just before the dead of night to talk about her "helium voice," overcoming polio and painting songs with Bob Dylan.

The Music Midnight Makes: In Conversation With Joni Mitchell

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I'm Renee Montagne. And, Steve, it turns out that Joni Mitchell keeps the same hours we do.



MONTAGNE: Yeah, really. She showed up at our studio here in Culver City just before midnight recently. We were a couple of night owls talking about her new collection of songs going back to the '60s. It's called "Love Has May Faces," as does Joni Mitchell. She's written and sung of loss and love and longing. She's collaborated with jazz greats. And she's luxuriated in a voice that got deeper with age. Plus, she sees herself not as a musician but as a painter who happens to write songs rich in imagery. So I ask her to tell a story I'd heard about an LA moment back in the '70s. She was sitting with her friend Bob Dylan

JONI MITCHELL: Oh, yeah. That was - what was McCartney's band? Wings. Wings was in town, and they rented the Queen Mary. And in the middle of the ballroom was one of those mirrored balls that twinkle - you know, that through sparkly lights on the floor.

MONTAGNE: Sort of like a disco ball.

MITCHELL: So everybody got up to dance, and they're all bobbing. And he always liked to talk about painting. Like, (impersonating Bob Dylan) if you were going to paint this room, what would you paint? So I looked at it, and I said, I'd paint the mirrored ball and all the dancers. What would you paint? He said, (impersonating Bob Dylan) I'd paint this cup of coffee. And in the next batch of songs, I put in an image in Paprika Plains. You see the mirrored ball begin to sputter lights and spin dizzy on the dancers. And he wrote, one more cup of coffee until I go to the valley below.


MITCHELL: (Singing) You see that mirrored ball begin to sputter lights and spin.

MONTAGNE: It's such a vivid illustration - along, apparently, with Bob Dylan where...

MITCHELL: He's a painter.

MONTAGNE: A painter who writes songs.

MITCHELL: Yeah. Well, he's a songwriter who paints.

MONTAGNE: Songwriter who paints.


MONTAGNE: What is the difference?

MITCHELL: Well, I've always been a painter. I didn't come to it late. You know, I was always the school artist. I came to music late. I tried it at 8. I took a year piano lessons and wrote my first song when I was 8. And my teacher hit me over the knuckles with a ruler and said, why would you want to play by ear would you could have the masters on your fingers? So I quit. And my love of music went under until I was 13. And then I became a rock 'n roll dancer. I lived to dance. I've got rhythm in my body. When I play, I'm always, like, hoofing it, you know.

MONTAGNE: This is a story some people will know, but I think many won't. When you were a child, you had polio.


MONTAGNE: So talking about that you lived to dance. Now thinking about yourself that way.

MITCHELL: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Getting my legs back - you know, I really celebrated them.

MONTAGNE: What happened, though? As I gather it, it was Christmas season that you ended up in the polio ward.

MITCHELL: I went in in October. And, you know, and it was a 100 miles away from home. My mother came to visit me once with a mask over her face and a haunted look in her eye.

MONTAGNE: Part of your time in the hospital - 9 years old? Was it 9 years old?


MONTAGNE: Was being told you could never walk again. So...

MITCHELL: Well, not exactly told but intimated. Here's the way it went down. It's coming close to Christmas. I got my tree in my room and everything. And a doctor - a young doctor who got polio, so he's in a wheelchair - comes into my room. And I say to him, I want to go home for Christmas. And he says, you can't because you can't walk. I said, well, what if I walked? And he looked at the ceiling. He heaved a big sigh, looked at his knees and rolled himself out of the room. He's, like, I'm not going to argue with this kid, you know - you know, because he was never going to walk again. So - and my back was severely twisted. And, you know, I had no balance, so he's right. I was a broken doll. So anyway, they came in. They pin these rags on you. And they bring you right up to just before blistering. And then they send you in the therapist. And that is very painful. Touch your toes - well, I couldn't even get - my hands wouldn't even go down to my knees let alone to my toes, right. They didn't stick with the therapy very long. They didn't have the patience or the belief. But after lights out, I did it.

MONTAGNE: You did it on your own as a kid?

MITCHELL: On my own with just my Christmas tree light on. And I have two ornaments off that polio tree left from the original ones. They're paper-mache, and so every year, they fall apart more. But I've got two left. To me, that's the best part of Christmas - is the tree. And I just kept working my legs, working my legs. And then one day, I said to them, I want to try and walk. So they wheeled me into this corridor, and I put my arms on these chrome bars. And I pulled myself along to the end. I turned myself around. I came back, and I said, now can I go home? You know, it's the fighting Irish, eh? But that's another thing that made me more of an artist. So, you know, no doubt in the universe is unfolding as it should be.

MONTAGNE: One of your classic songs - and filled with a certain melancholy - is a song that does take place at Christmas time - "River."


MITCHELL: (Singing) It's coming on Christmas. They're cutting down trees. They're putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

MITCHELL: We needed a sad Christmas song, didn't we?


MITCHELL: In the bah humbug of it all.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) Yeah.


MITCHELL: (Singing) I'm so hard to handle. I'm selfish, and I'm sad. Now I've gone and lost the best baby that I ever had. Oh, I wish I had a river.

MONTAGNE: May I quote you to yourself?


MONTAGNE: You told a newspaper in Toronto, I sing my sorrow and paint my joy.

MITCHELL: Well, generally speaking, that's true. You know, because I'm going to hang in my house the paintings of my grandson. My last lover, you know, is over the fireplace. He was a good subject. Landscapes that I love - people that I love or loved. But I don't really want to paint sorrowful stuff, you know. Like, I get that out of my system - I guess what I was trying to say - in the writing.

MONTAGNE: Have you given up, then, song? Have you given up sorrow?

MITCHELL: I kind of have given - I've been through so much really hard stuff. And I've come through it kind of - oddly enough, kind of in a good mood. I can't explain it. I'm a tough old cookie. (Laughter).

MONTAGNE: Joni Mitchell, thank you for coming in in the middle of the night to have this conversation, fellow night owl.

MITCHELL: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: And her new box set is called "Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced."

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