Friday, October 20, 2017
Who isn't enamored of Joni Mitchell? David Yaffe talks about his brilliant new bio, RECKLESS DAUGHTER, one of the best bios I've ever read
"Dazzling . . . A shimmering portrait of one artist's life, illusions and all." ―Booklist (starred review)
"The essential biography of Joni Mitchell." ―Now Toronto
I love Joni Mitchell. I can't hear one of her songs without being catapulted back to a specific time in my life. And I absolutely devoured David Yaffe's brilliant new bio about her, which not only delves into her relationships with people, but also explores her bonds with the music, in a new and fascinating way.
Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University and a 2012 winner of the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, Slate, New York, The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, and Bookforum. He is the author of Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown and Fascinating Rhythm.
I was thrilled to read this bio, and I'm even more thrilled to have David here. Thank you so much, David!
I always want to know what was the “why now” moment when you decided to write a book on Joni? Did the book turn out the way you expected?
My agent asked me, “What are your feelings about Joni Mitchell?” The book is, in a way, my complicated answer to that question. Everything I had learned up to that point—about jazz, about poetry, about the craft of songwriting, about Nietzsche, the Great American Songbook, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Debussy, Dylan, Cohen, and so on, they all led to this. As did everything I learned and would learn about brilliant, complex women, and everything I had learned and would learn about the life cycles of romantic relationships.
What I particularly loved about your book was about how deeply you got into her music—and her music influences. I was wondering if you knew why she seems to be having a resurgence of interest now?
I hope she is! I hope my book plays a role in that. I loved how Lena Dunham used “Free Man In Paris” in its entirety on the final season of Girls. And I see it with musicians in their 20s who have been downloading and streaming music of various genres and seeing them come together so beautifully in Joni’s oeuvre.
I was really interested in her veering into jazz, how she was warned that she would lose her audience, how Mingus wanted to work with her—and yet, he hated what she did. Do you think this was simply resentment that a young blonde popular singer/composer was venturing into jazz (or, as Rickie Lee Jones says in your book, “Joni didn’t live the jazz side of life”)? Or, was it something more?
Mingus was specific in his instructions of using his musicians and using acoustic instruments. Joni tried working with some of those musicians and was unhappy, so she worked with Herbie Hancock on Fender Rhodes and Jaco Pastorius on electric fretless bass. He hated those sounds and those were not his musicians, so he did not approve.
I’ve heard that Joni Mitchell often says one thing and means another, that she distorts things to suit her purpose. And what I loved in your book was that although you clearly and deeply admire her, (as I do) you get at the whole story, and the truth. In your book, David Crosby cheerful says that, “Joni hates everyone.” But there is a difference between deliberately distorting truth and believing a truth because it makes you feel you understand what happened to you in your life. Can you talk about this please?
She was sincere in getting across what she wanted. Is that evasive? She has her accounts and other people have theirs, but she remembered better than they did.
What surprised you the most in working on this book?
I was surprised that Joni had such little interest in poetry, yet wrote such beautiful lyrics. Most people learn by imitation, or what Aristotle called mimesis. But with Joni, as Leonard Cohen put it, it just emerged from the god’s head. She produced such incredible, genius level work without any models.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Other music? St. Vincent, Radiohead, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Brad Mehldau, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann Recent writing? I am loving Jeffrey Eugenides’s Fresh Complaint
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?How could I have worked so hard on this masterpiece while remaining so strikingly handsome?