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Joni Mitchell in person Add to ...

Joni Mitchell takes a long, languid haul from her cigarette, closes her eyes and exhales contentedly.

Does the iconic singer-songwriter, one of the most influential recording artists of her generation, ever feel guilty about her lifelong habit?

"Not at all," she says, taking another puff and staring intently at the burning embers. The expression on her face is so serene, her body so relaxed, you might mistake this ritual for meditation.

In her mind, it is.

"To me, tobacco is a grounding herb," she explains, as smoke swirls like a ghostly halo around blond wisps of hair twisted on the top of her head.

It's late afternoon, and we are sitting in her Calgary hotel room, talking about climate change and the "dying planet." These are the heavy themes - along with religious zealotry and "accelerated war" - that have inspired her newly recorded album and recent artwork. They are also the themes of The Fiddle and the Drum, her latest artistic collaboration, with Alberta Ballet, which opened to international fanfare in Calgary last week. The 45-minute dance, set to Mitchell's music, photo triptychs and video, is being performed in Edmonton this weekend.

Mitchell scoffs when it is suggested that the body is a microcosm of the planet, that smoking is as foolhardy and dangerous as China's addiction to coal.

"I see bodies as individual things," she says, sitting up at attention. "People who drive RVs treat me like a leper because I'm making this tiny emission that isn't going to bother them at all," says Mitchell, whose cigarette brand of choice, American Spirit, is allegedly additive-free. "Then they get in their car and drive off and leave 10,000 cartons worth of crap in the air. ... And people are quitting smoking en masse, yet cancer is still rising. Let's be realistic.

"I am a smoker. Period," she adds, jabbing the air with her cigarette.

Truth is, Mitchell doesn't know what it would be like not to smoke. When she was 7 and growing up in Saskatoon, the only child of a grocery-store manager and teacher, she was stricken with polio. The doctors didn't think she would walk again.

"I started smoking right after that," says Mitchell, now 63. "I didn't smoke to show off. I smoked alone," she says, referring to how she'd grab her bicycle and ride off into the country, finding solace in nature and a couple of butts.

"Honestly, I couldn't have gotten through life without it."

On the surface, much of Mitchell's life since then looks like that of a troubled diva. Her former manager, Elliot Roberts, has said she cancelled more concerts than she played. In the seventies, when she was riding high on the commercial popularity of such melodious hit albums as Blue and Court and Spark, she would often berate her audiences if they weren't paying close enough attention.

Later, when Mitchell felt the need to grow as an artist, she turned her back on her fans, and almost abandoned melody altogether with experimental forays into avant-garde, world and jazz music. Her progressive chord tunings and innovative harmonies are now regarded as revolutionary. But at the time, her early fans couldn't keep up.

Then, in the mid-nineties, Mitchell had a startling comeback with Turbulent Indigo, which won a Grammy Award for best pop album. She was showered with honours and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still, she categorized most of the awards as "dubious" and complained that she was still "undervalued."

Mitchell stopped writing music after 1998's Taming the Tiger was knocked by many critics for being excessively negative. She put out two more albums of rerecorded songs and jazz standards to fulfill contractual obligations. Then she retreated into her Beverly Hills home and continued painting, but rarely granted interviews. Last month, when she was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, she arrived late for the reception, said a few brief words onstage, and stayed far away from reporters.

For this story, I was told she would do two interviews on Thursday or Friday, but the exact date couldn't be confirmed. It would depend on how she felt that day. There was no telling how long she might talk. And, of course, the interview wouldn't take place until after 2 p.m.; that's when the night owl typically wakes up.

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