Joni Mitchell: Happiness is a piece of toast
There are some people who live a life of black and white. They see right’s or wrong’s, do’s or don’ts, happiness or sadness. They see life or death, fast or slow, sunshine or rain, chocolate or vanilla, sound or silence. But then there are those who choose to see the color in life. They see the rain drops sparkle as the sun breaks through the clouds and the lavender wheat color of the countryside. They taste the green-brown color of old-fashioned licorice. They notice the single cup of coffee in a busy café and the mirrored ball spinning in the club, they dance because they have the urge. They focus on the small things, life’s little, lasting moments that make it magical. Joni Mitchell is one of these people.
Joni Mitchell has never been an outrageous character. Known for her artistic, poetic song lyrics and soft, soothing voice, Joni’s entire life is reflective of the one thing most important to her: art. Since she was a child, Joni has always been the quieter, more contemplative type. She wrote poetry and painted. Music was never an ambition of hers. “I always wanted to play music and dabbled with it, but I never thought of putting them [poetry and painting] all together,” Mitchell said. “It never occurred to me. It wasn’t until [Bob] Dylan began to write poetic songs that it occurred to me you could actually sing those poems.” After realizing this, Joni had a newly awakened interest in making music more of a priority in her life. But even then, she had no idea of the success she would later have in her career.
(Photo credit: popculturemadness.com)
Her earliest memories of singing for people took place when she was diagnosed with polio during the Canadian epidemic. At the age of nine, Mitchell was put in a polio ward over Christmas. Doctors told her she might never walk again, and she would certainly not be able to spend Christmas at home. “I wouldn’t go for it,” Mitchell said. “So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room I would sing louder. The boy in the bed next to me you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham. That was the first time I started to sing for people.” But even still, Mitchell was not aware of the gift she possessed.
Planning to go to art school her entire life, Mitchell graduated high school a year late because she was a self-proclaimed “bad student.” She was what many teachers would call a “free thinker.” “The way I saw the education system from an early age was that it taught you what to think, not how to think. There was no liberty, really, for freethinking. You were being trained to fit into a society where freethinking was a nuisance,” said Mitchell. Her teachers knew Mitchell was not a “dummy.” During math she would line the walls with ink drawings and portraits of the mathematicians she was learning about. “I did a tree of life for my biology teacher. I was always staying late at school, down on my knees painting something,” said Mitchell. Art, passion and inspiration seemed to be seeping from her veins.
Mitchell never really fit in with the other kids. She found her identity in the fact that she was a good dancer and an artist, which didn’t exactly make her popular with the cheerleaders and jocks. “Also, I was very well dressed. I made a lot of my own clothes. I worked in ladies’ wear and I modeled. I had access to sample clothes that were too fashionable for our community, and I could buy them cheaply,” says Mitchell. She would go into town immaculately dressed from head to toe. “I hung out downtown with the Ukrainians and the Indians; they were more emotionally honest and they were better dancers.” She was never worried about fitting in with the normal people. Mitchell knew what she wanted and who she liked and that was what she chased after.
One of the things that has made Mitchell’s music so popular and timeless is the un-tampered-with sound that it has. She attributes this to David Crosby who initially discovered Mitchell’s talent in a club in Coconut Grove, Florida. “Crosby, in producing that first album, did me an incredible service, which I will never forget. He used his success and name to make sure my songs weren’t tampered with to suit the folk-rock trend,” says Mitchell. Crosby wanted Mitchell to have a freshness and an honesty that was not exactly popular at the time. “[…] I wore a lot of makeup [at that time]. I think I even had on false eyelashes at the time. […] one of his [Crosby’s] first projects in our relationship was to encourage me to let go of all of this elaborate war paint [laughs]. It was a great liberation, to get up in the morning and wash your face…and not have to do anything else.” This honesty and freshness is something Mitchell has carried with her throughout her entire life.
Mitchell strongly believes that in many ways, she’s never grown up. “Sometimes I feel seven years old,” she says. “I’ll be standing in the kitchen and all of a sudden my body wants to jump around. For no reason at all. You’ve seen kids that suddenly just get a burst of energy? That part of my child is still alive. I don’t repress those urges, except in certain company.”
Her outlook on life is rather childlike as well. Not childlike in the way that she’s uninformed and innocent. But childlike in the way that, in her words, she feels like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. Mitchell sees her life as worth living because she is truly happy. “It’s a funny thing about happiness,” she says. “You can strive and strive and strive to be happy, but happiness will sneak up on you in the most peculiar ways. I feel happy suddenly, I don’t know why. Some days, the way the light strikes things. or for some beautifully immature reason like finding myself toast. Happiness comes to me even on a bad day. In very, very strange ways.” This is what makes Joni Mitchell a unique gem in the world. This is what makes her music raw, honest and hauntingly soothing. She lives her life as a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes and finds happiness in a slice of toast.