Joni Mitchell has not talked with the media since suffering an aneurysm in 2015, but she has spoken with a part-time member of the press — Cameron Crowe, the rock journalist turned writer-director turned very occasional rock journalist again — for a Q&A that has been published in England’s Guardian. In the interview, Mitchell talks for the first time about the difficulty of her recovering from the debilitating physical setback of five years ago, on top of reminiscing about the earliest days of her music career in the ’60s.
The article appears days prior to the Friday release of “Joni Mitchell Archives Vol 1: The Early Years (1963-1967),” a boxed set covering live and studio material from the period leading up to the release of her debut album, which she was once happy to keep in the vault but now has a more sanguine attitude about releasing.
Mitchell, who has been known to be a lively party host in her coastal California home in the last couple of years, but has refrained from speaking at her occasional public appearances, concedes that the road to recovery has been rough along the way.
Asked by Crowe if “the muse” is visiting her, Mitchell says, “I haven’t been writing recently. I haven’t been playing my guitar or the piano or anything. No, I’m just concentrating on getting my health back. You know what? I came back from polio, so here I am again, and struggling back. … I’m showing slow improvement but moving forward.”
As Mitchell recounts it, “I couldn’t walk. I had to learn how again. I couldn’t talk. Polio didn’t grab me like that, but the aneurysm took away a lot more, really. Took away my speech and my ability to walk. And, you know, I got my speech back quickly, but the walking I’m still struggling with. But I mean, I’m a fighter. I’ve got Irish blood!” Crowe characterizes her as laughing long at the thought of that genetic advantage. “So you know, I knew, ‘Here I go again, another battle.'”
Mitchell admits that it took many decades — until recently, really — to embrace the music heard in the forthcoming Rhino collection, because it was quintessentially part of an acoustic musical tradition that she considered a stereotype and not how she thought of herself as an artist.
“The early stuff – I shouldn’t be such a snob against it,” Mitchell says. “A lot of these songs, I just lost them. They fell away. They only exist in these recordings. For so long I rebelled against the term: ‘I was never a folk singer.’ I would get pissed off if they put that label on me. I didn’t think it was a good description of what I was. And then I listened, and – it was beautiful. It made me forgive my beginnings. And I had this realization… Oh God! I was a folk singer!”
Still, Mitchell remains much prouder of her later work. She compares her career to visiting a Van Gogh exhibition, where “they had all his paintings arranged chronologically, and you’d watch the growth as you walk along. That was so inspiring… If [hearing the early material] serves that purpose [to younger artists], that would be great.”
Crowe also wrote liner notes for this Friday’s “Early Years” release. Read the entire Guardian conversation between Mitchell and Crowe here.