LOS ANGELES -- "I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate," Joni Mitchell says, summarizing just about everything she feels is wrong with the pop world these days.
"I thought, that's interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist -- not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music. That's why I spend my time now painting."
Mitchell is standing in the painting room of the Mediterranean-styled place in Los Angeles that has been her home for 30 years. Her face is aglow and her manner chatty as she points to the scores of paintings on the floor and walls. There are works, from portraits of Gauguin and van Gogh to landscapes, to fit every mood -- some tranquil, some tumultuous -- and she seems as proud of them as the intimate, insightful songs from the '70s that made her a patron saint of romance for young women (and men) everywhere.
In such albums as "Blue," "Court and Spark," "For the Roses" and "Hejira," she wrote about matters of the heart with grace and unflinching detail, helping launch the confessional school of pop music. It was music fueled by pain -- the pain of a young girl spending months in isolation because of polio and the pain of a young woman forced to give away her only child.
"I lost my daughter at 21. I had to give her up because I was broke, no place to take her, no money to take her," she says. "That was very traumatic. So my gift for music was born out of tragedy, really, and loss."
Yet despite the anguish beneath the songs, the music was never morbid. In fact, it was often jaunty, worldly, witty and, above all, honest. In a time of rising feminism, she never made romance into dogma. She's still trim and you can see in her eyes and cheekbones the features that caused her photo to be on thousands of dorm walls. The glow leaves her face, however, when asked if she plans to display or sell the paintings. She might show them in a museum at some point, but that's it.
"I don't want to get into merchandising them," she says sharply. "I want nothing to do with galleries, even in terms of exhibitions. When money meets up with art, there is a lot of pain, and it's the pain of ignorance, and I don't want to meet up with that ignorance again. My work is personal, too vulnerable. That's why I quit making records."
Although invariably labeled folk ("because I was a girl with blond hair and a guitar," she snaps), Mitchell traces her own influences to the classical music she adored as a youth and, later, jazz.
On this afternoon, she talks about how she developed her style, but the most essential quality of a songwriter, she suggests, may be mental toughness. Like Bob Dylan, and fellow Canadian Neil Young, Mitchell has fallen in and out of favor over the years. She has been revered, imitated -- and ridiculed for being esoteric and out of touch.
Ultimately, she was not tough enough. "Everything in my later career, with few exceptions, has been compared unfavorably to my early work," she says matter-of-factly. "I've done 16 records hearing people say, 'You're not as good as you used to be.' Finally, I said, 'Okay, I agree with you.' "
Mitchell announced she was leaving the music business in 2002 and hasn't looked back. "My goal as a writer is more to comfort than to disturb," she says, explaining her decision. "Most of the art created in this particular culture is shallow and shocking, and I can't create music for this social climate."
She pauses. In conversation, she is outspoken, funny, self-deprecating and stimulating. But she doesn't find anything funny about the topic at hand. "There's not much room for subtleties today. It's the shallow, flashy heart that grabs the attention; chase scenes, atrocities."
At 60, Joni Mitchell is a fascinating jumble of confidence, crankiness and vulnerability. She claims that the grossness of the business led to her retirement, but, hours later, you realize the real explanation is more complicated.
Mitchell is hard to corral on the subject of songwriting. She didn't start out to be a writer (painting was her first love) and never saw much mystery in it. She'd rather talk about psychology, Eastern culture, nature, politics, her grandchildren and painting. Nowadays, she gets so absorbed in her painting that she often spends all night in the studio, her Jack Russell dog or three cats her only companions.
Her two arts, painting and songwriting, happen in almost opposite ways for her. "In painting, your brain empties out and there's not a word in it; it's like a deep meditation, like a trance," she says. "I could step on a tack and probably wouldn't know it when I'm painting. In writing, it's kind of the opposite. That's why some people take stimulants.
"You stir up chaotic thoughts, then you pluck from this overactive mind. It's part of my process as a writer, being emotionally disturbed by something exterior someone said or something that is happening in society. It's on your mind, and it won't go away until you deal with it."
Pain and toughness came to Roberta Joan Anderson at an early age. The Fort MacLeod, Alberta, native, whose father was a grocery chain manager and mother a teacher, was struck by polio so severe during grade school that there were fears she wouldn't walk again. She believes that some of that isolation stimulated her imagination. Being so confined, she would imagine all kinds of stories and pictures and scenes.
Her early musical appreciation was tied more to the beauty and structure of classical music. The first singer who excited her was Edith Piaf, whose voice "thrilled my soul." She also speaks excitedly about hearing Rachmaninoff for the first time. At college she studied commercial art, not music. But she sang folk music in clubs for fun and pocket money. Everything changed when she got pregnant.
"Immediately my life was in shock," she says. Having a baby when unwed was the "worst thing you could do" at that time. So she told her mother she was quitting art college to become a musician.
She and the father, a fellow student, soon parted and Mitchell struggled to make a living singing in folk clubs in Canada. Hoping to provide a home for her baby, she says, she married American folk singer Chuck Mitchell, but the marriage was short-lived and she put the baby up for adoption. The move left her with a sadness and guilt that colored her songwriting.
It was the heart of the folk explosion, and Mitchell kept running into other singers as she moved to New York and eventually Los Angeles. She found they were drawing from the same material, so she began writing. She had always been good at poetry and had been able to make up melodies on the piano as a child.
Mitchell's debut album attracted some critical attention in 1968 -- she won a Grammy in 1969 for best folk performance -- but it was 1970's "Ladies of the Canyon" that confirmed her artistry and "Blue" in 1971 that certified her greatness.
She felt there was a danger in letting the public pick your persona for you -- a trap that she felt both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin fell into, contributing to their self-destructiveness.
"Jimi was a very genuine person, but doing all this theatrical stuff was humiliating to him," she says. "I didn't want a huge gulf between who I was offstage and who I was onstage. I didn't want to be a phony. Basically, what I thought at the time was: 'You are worshiping me. Let's see if you can worship me if you know who I really am.' "
The result was some of the most captivating music in American pop, songs with a diary-like intimacy and poetic grandeur, songs such as "A Case of You," which is blessed with a melody as bright and elastic as Mitchell's soprano voice. In today's world of pop exclamations, the album's gentle, almost understated feel seems all the more convincing and honest.
About the lack of accusation and retribution in the songs, she says, now warming to the subject: "I think men write very dishonestly about breakups. I wanted to be capable of being responsible for my own errors. If there was friction between me and another person, I wanted to be able to see my participation in it so I could see what could be changed and what could not.
"That is part of the pursuit of happiness. You have to pull the weeds in your soul when you are young, when they are sprouting, otherwise they will choke you."
Her next two albums, "For the Roses" in 1972 and "Court and Spark" in 1974, were equally embraced by critics and her fans. Mitchell, however, was far from satisfied. She yearned for more ambitious musical statements, ignoring complaints from old fans who sometimes found themselves alienated by the new works.
The move began raising eyebrows in the 1975 album "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" with its more challenging chord progressions and jazzier, free-form arrangements.
It was during the '70s transition period that Mitchell recorded "Hejira," another masterpiece. It's a demanding album whose restless alienation was captured brilliantly in "Amelia," which added a rich layer of symphonic color to her storytelling.
"Hejira" was written while driving cross-country alone, Mitchell finding a parallel in her solitary mood with the doomed aviator Amelia Earhart. She considers it one of her most inspired works.
Her search for new musical textures reached a flashpoint in 1979's "Mingus," a collaboration with celebrated jazz bassist Charles Mingus that many fans point to as when they lost interest in her music.
Mitchell enjoyed a critical and commercial resurgence in recent years. Her "Night Ride Home" album in 1991 was hailed by many as a return of the accessibility and warmth of her early albums. "Turbulent Indigo" won a Grammy for best pop album in 1995 and 2000's "Both Sides Now" won a Grammy for best traditional pop vocal album. Mitchell was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
There was obviously something more going on. Maybe it was just that she had finally moved beyond the old anguish, which had been her creative spark. Crucially, she was reunited with her daughter, Kilauren, in 1997 and found joy in the simple pleasures of being a grandmother of a boy, 11, and a girl, 5. Now, the family spends time with her in Los Angeles, and she spends time near them in Canada. And no, the restless chronicler of romance, whose 12-year marriage to bassist Larry Klein ended in 1994, isn't in a relationship.
"I'm so happy," she says. "Such good friends. So much in love with life, but romantic love is over for me. I'm very happy about this leg of my life."
Yes, she confides, she still strums the guitar and noodles with new melodies, but no more lyrics for her. In the end, her personal contentment and her silence seem to be interlocked.
"In some ways, my gift for music and writing was born out of tragedy, really, and loss," she says softly. "When my daughter returned to me, the gift kind of went with it. The songwriting was almost like something I did while I was waiting for my daughter to come back."