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Joni Mitchell receives Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Since the late 1960s, Joni Mitchell has been one of the most influential singer songwriters in popular music. Her songs include "The Circle Game," "Both Sides, Now," "Carey," "Help Me," "Free Man In Paris" and "Big Yellow Taxi," to name just a few. Last month, she received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and was honored and performed at a concert televised on PBS last week.

We're going to listen to an excerpt of Terry's interview with her from 2004. At the time, Mitchell had put together two compilations of her work, "Dreamland" and the "Beginning Of Survival." They began with her song "The Magdalene Laundries." These are the laundries run by strict nuns to which young Irish women were sent, where they became virtual prisoners. They were sent because they were unwed and pregnant, had been raped or were considered too flirtatious. Terry asked Joni Mitchell how she wrote that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JONI MITCHELL: The thing that sparked the song was my - I have a property in Canada by the ocean, and I have a caretaker there who is a Dane (ph). And he said to me one day, you know, Joni - he said, you're a basically cheerful person, but you write these melancholy songs. I think it's because you stay up late at night. You should write something during the day. So I went out on the point, and I came up with that music for "The Magdalene Laundries," which sounds very much like the spot that it was created in - and water and birds and so on.

Then I went in to get some groceries, and I bought a newspaper. I came back, and on the front page of the newspaper, there was an article about the sisters in a Magdalene Laundries in Dublin selling off an acreage to realtors. And while they were grading to build something on it, they unearthed over a hundred unmarked graves, women's graves, marked Magdalene of the tears, Magdalene of the sorrows. So they had gone - Catholic girls, too, and consecrated into the ground without even their names on them. So then I - well, I wrote the song with a lot of empathy, and, to a degree, imagination from just a little bit that was mentioned about them in this newspaper article.

TERRY GROSS: Well, let's hear this song, "The Magdalene Laundries," written by - written and performed by Joni Mitchell and featured on her new compilation, "The Beginning Of Survival."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES")

MITCHELL: (Singing) I was an unmarried girl. I'd just turned 27 when they sent me to the sisters for the way men looked at me. Branded as a Jezebel, I knew I was not bound for heaven. I'd be cast in shame into the Magdalene laundries. Most girls come here pregnant, some by their own fathers. Bridget got that belly by her parish priest. We're trying to get things white as snow, all of us woe-begotten daughters, in the streaming stains of the Magdalene laundries.

GROSS: That's Joni Mitchell recorded in 1994, and that song is featured on her new compilation, "The Beginning Of Survival." Now, my understanding is that you're not writing or performing now that you're on a...

MITCHELL: No.

GROSS: ...Hiatus from writing and performing. Do you miss it? I mean, like, are you singing at home even though you're not performing on stage?

MITCHELL: No, I can think of nothing to raise my voice in song to at this particular time. I don't want to write social criticism. I don't want to write angry songs. I'm waiting for something to happen, I guess, within me. I've said, and I think there's an element of truth or maybe it's very true, that I wrote songs from the time that I lost my daughter until the time she came back. And since my family has returned to me, I don't write anymore. It seemed like I mothered the world until I got my own family to, you know, mother or befriend.

GROSS: Can we explain what you mean by that? When - in 1964, you were pregnant out of wedlock, and you - I guess this would have been a big scandal at the time, yes?

MITCHELL: It was in 1965. I gave birth to a girl. The traditional way of dealing with it in those days was the child would be taken away, and you didn't see her, and that made it - and placed up for adoption. But in 1965, in the city of Toronto, girls came from just about every city in Canada to give birth to these children in the anonymity of the city. The - you know, it was the year before the pill was available, but the movies had gotten very sexy. So there was a moral shift, you know, that was taking place. And Toronto - there were more babies than there were adoptive parents available at that time.

GROSS: Right. I'd like to talk a little bit about how you think your voice has changed in the years that you've performed. You used to sing a lot in a high kind of falsetto voice, and then your voice really deepened. Part of that was age, probably part of that was cigarettes. You know, one of the songs on the new CD "Dreamland" is a fairly recent version - I think it's from 2000 - of "Both Sides Now." So I thought it would be interesting to hear that orchestral version from 2000 - you have a full orchestra behind you - back to back with the original version and hear not only how your voice changed, but also how you interpret the song differently. It's - I think it's a darker song. It's a slower song...

MITCHELL: But here's the other thing...

GROSS: ...And - when you sing it later, and you've also changed some of the melody around, you're kind of almost, like, improvising within the melody in the 2000 version.

MITCHELL: But here's the other thing. It's like I have - you know, Wayne Shorter comes in and plays with me. He's got a tenor, and he's got an alto horn. And depending on the piece of music, he uses the tenor, or he uses the alto horn. So I mean, a lot of the very high end is gone. It's just gone. That happens with opera singers that don't smoke over 50. Opera singers sometimes retire. But I do have this rich alto voice, which is unharmed. You know, I'll never be able to trade guitar licks, you know, to mimic a guitar again, that's - way up in the stratosphere like that. But still, you know, I mean, a lot of people didn't like that little squeaky girl on helium anyway. I mean, it does sound very - it's very suitable for ingenue roles. But I think that the alto horn, if I may use that terminology, you know, brings a different perspective to some of these songs that I frankly like better and so do many other people.

GROSS: Why don't we hear these two versions of "Both Sides Now" back to back just because I think it's really interesting to compare what you do with the song both times? So why don't we give that a listen?

MITCHELL: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTH SIDES, NOW")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air and feather canyons everywhere - I've looked at clouds that way. But now they only block the sun. They rain and snow on everyone. So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way. I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down. And still somehow, it's cloud illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTH SIDES NOW (ORCHESTRAL VERSION 2000)")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air and feather canyons everywhere - I've looked at clouds that way. But now they only block the sun. They rain and they snow on everyone. So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way. I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down. And still somehow, it's cloud illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all.

GROSS: That's Joni Mitchell. We heard the original version of "Both Sides Now" and the 2000 version, which is included on her new anthology, "Dreamland." It always struck me that "Both Sides Now" was the kind of song about, you know, growing older and wiser and therefore seeing things a little differently. And, of course, you wrote the song when you were really pretty darn young (laughter). And the 2000 version of it is when you really are older and wiser. And you're looking - and you're singing that song that you wrote, you know, years ago when you were so much younger. And I was wondering if the song meant something different to you when you recorded it in 2000 than when you first recorded it.

MITCHELL: Well, I wrote the song when I was 21. And I didn't feel that it was a successful version. I was - the interesting thing was that the astrological influence, the main thrust on my daughter was that she has to come to grips with fantasy and reality. It just has to do with the time that she was born. And the early work that I did right after her birth was almost like I was raising her because the meditations that I was doing at 21 were on fantasy in reality, which is my daughter's thing to learn here in this life. That whole song was a meditation on fantasy and reality. It begins with - each verse has a very naive beginning verse, and then the second half of the verse is coming to grips with reality. So - but it took a long time. Theatrically speaking, it was, you know, it was just odd, I think, to be singing that song when I was so young. And the meditation was so big. It seemed like I hardly scratched the surface of it, so I never felt it was really successful.

BIANCULLI: Joni Mitchell speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. Last month, she received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. She was honored in a concert special televised last week on PBS. In June, Joni Mitchell will perform at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington State with Brandi Carlile. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Air," the new movie about the campaign by Nike to sign Michael Jordan. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO AND JOHN CALE SONG, "SPINNING AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.