Talking with Joni Mitchell in 1994

joni-mitchell
Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell's health crisis  - the Canadian songwriter was found unconscious in her Los Angeles home last week and rushed to the hospital - put a scare into legions of fans who couldn't get that "you don't know what you got till it's gone" line from "Big Yellow Taxi" out of their heads. 

Mitchell hasn't released a new album since 2007's Shine, and even ardent followers who scooped up last year's high-concept self-curated box set Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced or celebrated a victory against ageism when the 71 year old was featured in an ad campaign by French fashion house Saint Laurent would admit that her greatest work is decades behind her.

But then as now, you don't have to go very far in the singer-songwriter universe to encounter the presence of Mitchell, who "continues to improve" and "is resting comfortably" in a Los Angeles hospital, according to her website. (No details about the nature of her illness have been released, and it's unclear if her hospitalization has anything to do with Morgellons disease, the mysterious ailment she has often spoken of suffering from, and which media reports have fixated on.) 

In the last couple of months, listeners to the final run of retiring Philadelphia deejay Gene Shay's Folk Show on WXPN have been treated to replays of mid-1960s interviews Mitchell did with Shay when she played extended mid-'60s runs at clubs like Center City's The Second Fret and the Main Point in Bryn Mawr.

When I interviewed Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee a few weeks back, the 26 year old Philadelphia songwriter whose new album Ivy Tripp comes out Tuesday talked about Mitchell in relation to a tendency for a certain color to come up in her song and album titles.

There's a tune called "Blue" on Ivy Tripp, and if you go back to her 2013 album Cerulean Salt, you'll find an equally pretty melancholy song named "Blue, Pt. II." In fact, when Crutchfield, who plays Union Transfer on Wednesday, was recording that album, she considered titling it Blue, forgetting for a second that that, of course, is the name of Mitchell's 1971 masterpiece.

"That record really means a lot ot me," Crutchfield said, "It's one of my favorite records of all time." When she told her bandmates he was kicking Blue around as an album title, "Kyle [Gilbride] and Keith [Spencer] looked at me like 'You can't do that.' I wasn't thnking at the time." Instead, she went for Cerulean, a shade of blue.

With Mitchell on my mind, I went digging back into the Inquirer archives for an interview I did with her in 1994, when she was promoting an album called Turbulent Indigo. (There's that color again.) It's not one of her best, but she had a lot to say, about her predilection for sad songs, who her true peers are and the first music that ever slayed her.

"I just like beautiful music, and most beautiful music is sad," Mitchell said, while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.  "I remember the first piece that really made me swoon. I heard it in a Kirk Douglas movie called The Story of Three Loves. It was Rachmaninoff, Variations on a Theme of Paganini. I was just a baby" - 10 years old, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan - "and I didn't have any money. So I would go downtown to the record store where you could go into a glass booth, take the 78s out of their brown paper, and listen to see if you liked them. And I would listen to that over and over again. To this day, it's the saddest and most beautiful piece of music I've ever heard."

"Every piece of music, as melancholy as it may sound, I play for fun," she said. "It's like petting a cat. I sit up late at night and twist songs into new tunings. . . . It's a very joyous experience. And for the most part, my love of melody tends toward those kinds of complex, emotional chords. You can't put jolly little words to that kind of thing."

Mitchell, who was born in Fort McLeod, Alberta, talked about how she made the transition from ukulele to guitar with the help of a Pete Seeger instructional record, and opened how Bob Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street" changed her as a songwriter. 

"I thought a song was a song and a poem was a poem. But that particular song was a song about anger that was very well-put. And I thought, 'We can write about anything now. The door is ajar.' "

Mitchell, of course, has had an enormous impact on confessional female singers, and at the time of the interview, those popular in her debt included Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin and Julia Fordham. She wanted it made clear, however, that "I've never considered myself a feminist. It's too 'them' and 'us.' It's too apartheid. I'm more interested in unification. So to be lumped in with all the other women is not my proper place. I think of my group as Leonard (Cohen), Neil (Young), Dylan and myself. And I wouldn't expect these younger artists to strive for the standards that I have as a writer. It's too demanding.

"I've never concerned myself with what was hip or in vogue," she went on. "Hip is never interesting to me, because it's like a conspiracy. It's a herd agreement. If you're going to be a discoverer, you have to abandon what is hip."

Previously:Getting away from it all at Willie Nelson's ranch Follow In The Mix on Twitter