Joni Mitchell gave a rare interview on Saturday evening at Clive Davis’ virtual Grammy party, where she spoke to the industry mogul about her early career, songwriting, and her legacy.
Davis’ annual pre-Grammy party was split into two virtual parts this year, with the first event taking place on January 30th. The second party was initially slated for March, but was postponed to May following Davis’ diagnosis with Bell’s Palsy. Proceeds from the January event went to MusiCares, while Saturday’s benefitted the Grammy Museum.
Mitchell has made a few public appearances following her 2015 brain aneurysm, from the premiere of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous musical in 2019 to her 75th birthday tribute concert in 2018. She also spoke to Crowe for the liner notes to her recent archival box set, but the Grammy party marked her first public interview.
With a star-studded Zoom that had everyone from Elton John to Carly Simon to Dionne Warwick in attendance, Mitchell was seen in her Los Angeles home, sitting in a black-and-white gown. A glass of white wine sat beside her, while her new cat Bootsy made a few cameos.
Davis introduced Mitchell by showing a 2000 performance of her classic Both Sides Now, which she re-recorded that year backed by an orchestra. “When I first wrote that, I was very young and I took a lot of teasing,” she told Davis. “’What do you know about life from both sides now?’ So I finally grew into it. The British performance — the one that’s on the record — was very exciting, because the orchestra was weeping. When you see Englishmen weeping while you’re performing, you know, it’s very moving. So there’s a lot of emotional charge to that performance.”
She told Davis about writing the track, which appeared on 1969’s Cloud‘s after it was first recorded by Judy Collins. “I was up in a plane,” she recalled. “I was reading Henderson the Rain King, and in the book he was up on a plane flying to Africa and he looked down on clouds and he mused that he looked up at clouds, but he’d never looked down on them before. So that was where the germ of the idea for the song came from.”
When Davis asked her when she first began writing songs, she told him about crafting the instrumental “Robin Walk” when she was seven years old. She recalled playing it for her piano teacher: “She hit me across the knuckles with a ruler and said, ‘Why would you want to play by ear when you could have the Masters and your fingers?’” she said. “She just treated me like a bad child and I quit piano lessons. From then on, I was self-taught.”
She also touched on the influence of her music and how she views her legacy. “My early work is kind of fantasy, which is why I sort of rejected it,” she said. “I started scraping my own soul more and more and got more humanity in it. It scared the singer-songwriters around me; the men seemed to be nervous about it, almost like Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?’ But over time, I think it did make an influence. It encouraged people to write more from their own experience.
“People used to say to me, ‘Nobody’s ever going to cover your songs. They’re too personal,’” she continued. “And yet, that’s not true, they’re getting a lot of covers. It’s just humanness that I’m trying to describe. This generation is ready for what I had to say, I guess, and is not so nervous about it.”
Next month, Mitchell will release The Reprise Albums (1968-1971), the next installment of her Archives series that doubles as a 50th anniversary celebration of Blue. The liner notes were written by Brandi Carlile, who covered “A Case of You” following Mitchell’s interview with Davis.