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Music

Joni Mitchell on how success affects creativity

@SamWKemp

At 21, Joan Anderson was an unknown folk singer living in a Toronto boarding house. She had no money, fewer prospects, and a baby on the way. The child’s father, a Calgary artist called Brad MacMath, had fled the west coast, having heard, as Mitchell would later recall, that everything was warmer in California.

Haunted by the thought of being a penniless single mother, Mitchell entered a marriage of convenience with fellow singer-songwriter Chuck Mitchell, but it quickly fell apart, leaving her with nothing but a new surname. Six years later, Mitchell would sing of giving up that child for adoption in ‘Little Green’, from her 1971 album Blue, by which time she was one of the most revered folk singers of her day, mixing with the likes of Leonard Cohen and James Taylor. But with this newfound success, came a sense that she had left a part of herself behind. That somewhere back in Saskatchewan, her soul was freezing in the winter snow.

In a conversation with Malka Marom, Mitchell opened up about her complex relationship with her own success: “I had difficulty at one point accepting my affluence, and my success and even the expression of it seemed to me distasteful at one time, like to suddenly be driving a fancy car,” she began. “I had a lot of soul-searching to do as I felt somehow or other that living in elegance and luxury cancelled creativity.”

Mitchell wasn’t the first to hit on this contradiction. Our modern understanding of the artist – one undoubtedly informed by the concept of Bohemia – is that their work emanates from a place of struggle. How, then, does an artist retain a sense of integrity once they’ve dragged themselves out of the gutter and is living comfortably?

For Mitchell, it was as though she was no longer able to relate to her fanbase; people who, more often than not, were still living in that gutter. “I still had that stereotyped idea that success would deter creativity, would stop the gift, luxury would make you too comfortable and complacent and that the gift would suffer from it,” she continued. “But I found 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 and I am too. 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, and not to deny. Leonard Cohen has a line that says, ‘do not dress in those rags for me, I know you are not poor,’ and when I heard that line I thought to myself that I had been denying, which was sort of a hypocritical thing.”

One way in which Mitchell enjoyed her newfound wealth was by using it to support a variety of political causes. The Beatles understood this benefit of success – using theirs to start a cultural revolution based on peace and love. At the height of her fame, people were constantly asking Mitchell to donate money. She had to pick her allegiance carefully, choosing to donate to organisations from which she felt she would be able to see “some sort of immediate return.” However, it was the pursuit of art that captured attention above all else. “I know that money can be put to positive use, even if it’s just to support people struggling in the arts,” she said. “I believe in art, I believe that it’s very important that people be encouraged in their self-expression and that their self-expression Ping-Pongs someone else’s self-expression. That’s what I believe in the most.”

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