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Music

Joni Mitchell on why audiences hated her experimentation

Joni Mitchell is one of the most revered artists of all time. Always true to her own artistic convictions, Mitchell has enjoyed major commercial success – along with artistic enlightenment – when she forewent commercial viability in order to seek fulfilment as an artist. Not many artists can say they’ve truly experienced both sides of the coin.

In terms of dedication to art, Mitchell ranks in the highest echelons, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the two other premier polymaths of the countercultural period. 

Mitchell is an iconoclast in art and in life. Everything she does, she does in order to follow her own free will, owing to the appropriation of the countercultural idea of freedom and possibly a predilection for Ayn Rand. Regardless of her politics, you cannot question Mitchell’s dedication to her art, it is remarkable. The singer-songwriter has never been a sell-out, and given that she’s such a massively influential artist, this can’t have been easy. 

One thing that Joni Mitchell is, however, is a realist, and her sense of uber-realism has given her art endurance and a quality that surpasses that of most of her peers. In a 1991 interview with Rolling Stone, Mitchell discussed the effect her artistic endeavours had on her relevance in the mainstream. She admitted: “I paid a big price for doing what I’ve done”. 

All too aware of her situation, she explained: “I started working in a genre that was neither this nor that. People didn’t know where I fit in anymore, so they didn’t play me at all. And so I disappeared. I lost my ability to broadcast, my public access. It was worth it. I would do it all over again in a minute for the musical education. But, of course, it hurt. Your records are like your kids. And you want to say, ‘Don’t bloody my baby’s nose when I send him to school, because he’s a nice kid. You just don’t understand him. He’s a little different, but if you try, you’ll like him.’”

However, Mitchell knew that her detractors would actually never be happy, as these are the types of hard taskmasters that will be critical of anything she does. Asked by the interviewer about the people who specifically resist her artistic experimentation, who just want her to recreate Court and Spark or Blue over and over again, Mitchell said: “This is what I think about those people: They want, they want and they want. However, if I actually gave them what they wanted, then they’d just get sick of it”.

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Ironically, it’s this kind of self-awareness that has kept Mitchell relevant all these years. Without her espousing such intelligence, she may well have faded into obscurity like so many other artists, but her character is something that will not die, and this courses through her music. 

Hitting the nail on the head in terms of audiences being difficult, the songstress explained with the sage wisdom of her years: “The only way it affected me as an artist was that it made me recognize the inevitable – that the time comes for every artist when they fall out of favour. People get sick of your name. People get sick of your face. It doesn’t matter what you do.”

Adding: “Recognising those times, I would go even further out. I figured they’re going to get me anyway, so I may as well stretch out. I often thought if somehow I could have had a new name and a new face, people would have flipped for every one of those albums”.

Joni Mitchell‘s dedication to her art, defying detractors, is something that every artist can learn from. She’s in it for the right reasons, and it makes us question the reasons why many other huge artists get into the field, and we’re sure that it’s not for creative fulfilment. 

Listen to Mingus below.