Before he became the mouthpiece for the Far-Right sad boys of the world, Morrissey was just a plain old melancholy artist capable of captivating an audience with the dip of a wrist and a flick of his pen. Likewise, Joni Mitchell has been making us beautifully miserable with her sumptuous songs for decades. In 1997, these two purveyors of perpetual poetry met for a special interview.
Rolling Stone graciously offered Morrissey, the enigmatic lead singer of The Smiths to interview one of his icons, the unstoppable artistic powerhouse of Joni Mitchell. The pair share many likenesses. Both are uncompromising on their art and ethics and both are often misrepresented as one-trick ponies. But in this interview, Morrissey and Mitchell share some common ground and some clear divisions.
Morrissey starts off in a provocative manner, as you might expect, by asking what Mitchell thought of Rolling Stone (their hosts) naming Joni’s album The Hissing Summer Lawns as their worst album of the year “I carried it in my mind that it was Worst Album, but when we researched, it was the Worst Album Title [laughs]. I think they were pretty hard on the project in general” Joni responds.
Not pleased with the affable answer, possibly hoping to upset the RS apple cart, he asks if Mitchell ever saw RS’ printing of her ‘family tree’ of sexual conquests. “Yeah. I never saw it. I think I was called Old Lady of the Year – some facetious thing that was hurtful.” When Moz presses if Mitchell cared she solemnly replies, “Yeah, oh, I did, unfortunately.”
Morrissey then quite rightly picks up on the ludicrous notion of calling songwriters “female songwriters” going on to say “To use the term “female songwriter” implies that the word “songwriter” belongs to men. Mitchell agrees, “They tend to lump me always with groups of women. I always thought, “They don’t put Dylan with the Men of Rock; why do they do that to me with women?”
His next line of questioning must have had a root in his own musical upbringing as he asks “because your music is confessional, you have to explain yourself repeatedly in much more depth than anyone who makes nonsense, throwaway, useless music?”
Joni again offering a perfect insight into her authentic art replied, “I don’t think of myself as confessional. That’s a name that was put on me. The confessional poets like [Sylvia] Plath, whom I read later when they started calling me confessional, most of their stuff seemed contrived to me and not as greatly honest as it was touted to be.“
“The point is not to confess. I’ve always used the songwriting process as a self-analysis of sorts. Like the Blue album – people were kind of shocked at the intimacy. It was peculiar in the pop arena at that time, because you were supposed to portray yourself as bigger than life. I remember thinking, ‘Well, if they’re going to worship me, they should know who they’re worshipping’.”
Morrissey continues the theme of taking from his own experiences and asks whether Mitchell was too intellectual for some interview questions? “I don’t think of myself as an intellectual,” she replies but is then pushed by Moz who proclaims that she is “Not really. It’s a nice place to visit; I wouldn’t want to live there. I spend as little time there as possible.”
We then have yet another myth dispelled, although we’re not sure on Joni’s credentials in answering it. Morrissey asks whether there was any truth to the rumour that Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock was fired from the band for listening to her. After laughing it off, Mitchell then provides an anecdote on Johnny Rotten. “When I met Johnny Rotten, I liked him immediately. He was younger than I was, but he was a lot like I was in high school: fashion conscious . . . kind of pale and pimply and avoiding the sun. But I’m a punk. I’ve never really been in the mainstream.”
The interview continues at a rapid pace as Morrissey politely chastises Joni for smoking and eating meat, obviously. But he also asks for her favourite lyricist and there’s only one name she conjures up without a nudge. “Dylan – there are things that he can do that I can’t.”
She also offered a reason as to why there hadn’t been many great writers of music, “Back before the singer-songwriter, a very competent musician did the music, and a very competent lyricist did the words. But everybody does both now, so you’ve got a lot of mediocrity.”
Then the pair, who have made great careers out of extrapolating the emotion of melancholy, speak about the idea of “sadness”. Morrissey asks for the saddest song Mitchell has ever heard (“Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”) but the more interesting point comes from his question, “… do you think your audience will feel better if they get the sense that you walk offstage and take the sadness with you?”
It’s clearly an issue that Mitchell has faced before as she confirmed, “I was at a cafe, smoking somewhere, and a girl came up to me and said, “I’m a manic depressive. I love your music, but I hate pictures of you. Every time I see you, you’re smiling, and it makes me mad.” So there’s a person who thinks I’m suffering, she’s suffering. If they see evidence otherwise, they feel I’m inauthentic. Whereas I feel more ambidextrous: I suffer, I enjoy; I suffer, I enjoy.”
As the interview comes to an end there’s just one more golden moment left. Morrissey thanks Mitchell for her time and patience and she replies “Thank you. I think it should be a good piece, with some real meat on the bone.”
Morrissey (we imagine) deadpan, says, “Well, I prefer a different analogy.”
Read the full interview here via Rolling Stone