A look back at Morrissey’s mammoth 1997 interview of the legendary Joni Mitchell
Before he became the mouthpiece for the right-wing sad boys of the world, Morrissey was just a plain old melancholy artist. He was a singer so theatrical and cultured that he was capable of becoming an idol, captivating his 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, aimed entirely at the darker side of life, for decades. In 1997, these two purveyors of perpetual poe-faceness met for a special interview and it’s a more than interesting read.
Rolling Stone, spotting the opportunity to connect the two stars, graciously offered Morrissey, the enigmatic former lead singer of The Smiths, to interview one of his own icons, the unstoppable artistic powerhouse of folk legend Joni Mitchell. The pair share many likenesses, both are uncompromising on their artistic pursuit and ethics, also both are often misrepresented as one-trick ponies. But in this interview, Morrissey and Mitchell share some common ground and some clear divisions, that make it one of the more fascinating reads we’ve come across in a long time.
Morrissey starts off in a provocative manner, as we have all now come to 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],” she said before delivering her actual answer, “I think they were pretty hard on the project in general”. When one considers that the LP is now considered one of her best, it was a smart question to ask.
Not pleased with the affable answer, possibly hoping to upset the RS apple cart he was currently sitting in, Moz asks if Mitchell ever saw Rolling Stone’s printing of her ‘family tree’ of sexual conquests, which is somewhat unthinkable in today’s morals. “Yeah. I never saw it. I think I was called Old Lady of the Year—some facetious thing that was hurtful.” It’s clear that this tree truly upset Mitchell, when Morrissey presses if the Blue singer cared she solemnly replies, “Yeah, oh, I did, unfortunately.” Mitchell’s career may have been crafted from her romances (Joni often used her songs to express her innermost feelings about her love life) but the focus on her personal life clearly upset her.
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.” It’s something that Mitchell, having found herself in the middle of an unruly boys club for most of her career, agrees with, “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 in Manchester 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 responds by offering a perfect insight into her authentic art by replying, “I don’t think of myself as confessional. That’s a name that was put on me.” While Mitchell has always been considered a transparent writer, she feels her work is different from what she would define as ‘confessional’. “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,” continued Mitchell with her insight, “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 Morrissey who proclaims that she is clearly very bright and mentally gifted. But Mitchell once again refutes the proposition of genius or perhaps even the question itself, proving her intelligence, “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.” It’s hard to argue with, even when touring in 1965 with a travelling folk ensemble, Mitchell was always the breakaway star and, by the accounts of the established musicians of the time, a bit of a tearaway too.
The interview continues at a rapid pace as Morrissey politely chastises Joni for smoking cigarettes 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 since the influx of songwriters in the 1960s “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 within herself 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.