Among the canvases: Behind the scenes at Joni Mitchell’s home
(Leslie Stojsic was part of a CBC team that visited Joni Mitchell at her home in California to record an interview that airs today. This is Stojsic's behind-the-scenes look at the interview and Mitchell's home, from the koi-filled fountain to her stirring artwork. Follow Leslie on Twitter at @LeslieCBC.)
I heard it as we first entered Joni Mitchell’s Bel Air property, approaching the courtyard of her Spanish-style villa. The wafting scent of American Spirit cigarettes, hearing that voice in real life – more alto now than her early years, but still unmistakably Joni – well, at least we were in the right place.
I arrived with CBC camera guys Doug Husby and Jonathan Castell, (Jian Ghomeshi and his producer at Q, Richard Goddard, joined us shortly after.) Joni's friend Mark Gaillard greeted our crew and took us to see her.
- The National: Highlights of Joni Mitchell's CBC interview
- Watch: Jian Ghomeshi talks about his interview with Joni Mitchell
Long flaxen hair clipped up, minimal makeup, she was dressed in a Missoni striped knit sweater, denim-printed silk sheath pants and long blouse. Joni welcomed us and showed us through the home where she’s lived in since 1974. It was built in the 1920s, and Joni tells us she’s only the fourth owner.
It is a beautiful home. A huge fig tree perches above a koi-filled fountain in her courtyard.
"I’ve been here so long, that fig tree wasn’t even here when I moved in." A seed blown in by the wind or in the droppings of some bird, Joni muses.
She lets us explore the home and set up, as she goes out for a bite.
We weren’t allowed a site survey in advance, and had no idea what we were getting into. Would there be handlers? Staff? Minders? Luckily, there was only Mark, and he is really cool. He’s only known Joni a short time but they are close, having bonded through music.
Mark is a musician with jazz in his blood – his father Slim Gaillard recorded with such giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. His half-sister was married to Marvin Gaye.
Mark allows us to explore. In her living room, there’s a baby grand piano. Throughout the home are mementoes, photos, and guitars. Sculptures of small angels hang from beams everywhere.
The walls are covered in canvasses – all but one of them Joni's own work.
Joni said painting is her mother tongue, and it’s a language she articulates beautifully. Her art is exquisite. And its impressive range of subjects, styles and genres makes it hard to believe that one person was responsible for all of it.
Landscapes of Saskatchewan, California, and her home on B.C.’s sunshine coast are reminiscent of Tom Thomson or Lawren Harris. Still-lifes rich in colour. Paintings of her family, pets. There are chiaroscuro paintings, some with a traditional Rembrandt feel, others that could be modern illustrative work.
And then there are the portraits.
It takes a certain eye, and hand, to capture the contours of an individual. Joni’s portraits – again, ranging from post-impressionistic to abstract to illustrative – are masterpieces, both technically and creatively.
You’ve likely seen Joni’s self-portraits on her albums. The most iconic ones were on Clouds, Turbulent Indigo and Both Sides Now.
These and other portraits adorn every room — Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso, Charles Mingus, Friedrich Nietzsche. One is of her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, who Joni gave up for adoption after having her at 19. All in different styles. All people who had a significant impact on Joni. All stunningly captured.
We are allowed to take a peek at the place where Joni sets up to paint these days. It’s a beautiful sunny room with two famous self-portraits. Brushes perched, and blank canvas ready for the next piece.
As we’re getting set up, Mark asks if we want to take a listen to something. The crew gathers around her kitchen table as Mark pops in a CD.
It’s a live recording of Joni, from a concert in the 1980s, singing I Heard It Through The Grapevine. We’re crowded around that table, heads bowed as we focused on the music, occasionally casting wide-eyed looks at each other to say, "are we really here, in Joni’s kitchen, listening to this?"
For the taping, Joni changes into a kelly green tunic. The interview gets underway around 7 p.m. and goes for nearly two and a half hours. It covers the gamut from her paintings, the creative process, celebrity, the evolution of her work – with many departures in the conversation.
Joni recites The Fishbowl, a poem she wrote at 16 (long before she was in the music business) about the misery of fame. She tells us about her struggles with various illnesses. She talks about the Woodstock generation and the politics of the 1980s.
Joni is a challenge because she is fierce on semantics. But she’s a delight because she is descriptive, feisty and funny. And most of all, unfiltered. It’s rare and refreshing.
After the interview is over, I ask her to show us which paintings she referred to during the conversation so we can film them individually.
That evolves into a conversation about painting and portraiture. I tell Joni that her Picasso captures his intense, and asymmetrical, eyes perfectly. "Oh, eyes are never perfectly symmetrical!" she says excitedly. "That’s the toughest thing to get. Eyes, and the angle of the teeth."
She takes me to a corridor where a portrait hangs. It’s of Vincent Van Gogh, done in the style of his Self Portrait With Straw Hat (1887). It’s absolutely breathtaking. The colour, the brushwork, the likeness are incredible.
Joni shows me her self-portrait that is the cover of her 2002 album Travelogue. She says it emerged from an interest in the chiaroscuro masters. It’s an amazing work of the interplay of light, shadow and colour, and the ever-present billowing of smoke. It’s not a huge canvas – maybe 12 inches by 18 – but it’s piercing.
Then into her bedroom, where her self-portrait as the earless Vincent Van Gogh hangs. It’s the one that is the cover of her critically acclaimed Turbulent Indigo. It’s magnificent, from both up close and far away.
We talk about the trance one enters when painting. She calls it a meditative state, where the mind can focus on other things while it goes into a kind of autopilot.
She talks about being skilled at art and drawing from a very young age, and the challenge to keep pushing those talents.
I said it sounds like Picasso, who once said "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." She said she understood – and she’s still today digging in and around that source of childhood creativity in her art.
While the crew is wrapping up, I take the various mugs of water our crew used to her kitchen to clean them. As Joni and I stand over her sink, the conversation turns to the ballet she’s working on, and her work on its Third Act ("it’s the signal to the men in the audience that it’s time to wake up.") And then to Love, Actually, a film where her 2000 version of Both Sides Now was featured prominently.
She said she heard it was to be a chick flick, but once she saw it she really enjoyed it. "If only they made all chick flicks like that!"
In the days following the interview, I had questions about using photos I took for our TV piece, and for this behind-the-scenes article. I called Mark and asked him if he could find out if it would be OK to use them.
Friday morning back in Toronto I’m heading to work, listening to River on my iPod, when my phone buzzes. Unknown number. Pause the iPod. Hello?
It was that voice, again.
"Hi, Leslie? It’s Joni Mitchell. You had some questions?"
I darted into an office building so I could hear her. "I just wanted to call you before I went to bed," she says.
I check the time. "Joni, it’s almost 8 a.m. in California!"
Not surprisingly, this artist is a night owl. We talk about my questions, and then the interview, and then onto celebrity culture, painting, the evolution of the music industry, her preference for "earthy hicks" over intellectual snobs.
The conversation meanders, as it does with someone whose brain doesn’t just go to sleep.
She wonders why people always ask her this question about being reclusive, and about other labels people have tied to her.
"Not that I have an aversion to labels. I have an aversion to being mislabeled. Here’s a label I’d accept: I’m an individual. I’m someone who can’t follow, and doesn’t want to lead."
(Joni Mitchell will be honoured by the Luminato Festival in Toronto with a tribute called Joni: A Portrait in Song, on Tuesday, June 18 and Wednesday, June 19. For details about the shows, visit luminatofestival.com.)