On her song California (first song, side two, 1971’s Blue), Joni Mitchell sang about a homecoming. “Will you take me as I am?” she asked. As if we had a choice.
Mitchell, who still lives in California, just turned 75. The iconic Canadian singer-songwriter (also a painter who once dreamed of being a dancer) gets half of the attention in UnCovered: Joni Mitchell & Carole King, the latest in a series of music-theatre hybrid concerts mounted by Toronto’s Musical Stage Company. Female actors will channel Mitchell and King by reciting quotes culled from past interviews, while singers including Jully Black, Jackie Richardson and Miss Saigon’s Ma-Anne Dionisio will present songs familiar to multiple generations.
What connects Mitchell and King? Among other things, stage fright, James Taylor and one particular piano. In early 1971, Mitchell and King – female troubadours, a new thing at the time – recorded their landmark albums Blue and Tapestry side by side at A&M Studios in Hollywood. Mitchell occupied Studio C; King was next door in Studio B.
In Studio C was a reddish-wood Steinway upon which King had her eye. She wanted to move it into her own studio, but was not allowed to do so. So, one night, according to King, she sneaked into Studio C with her team and rush-recorded I Feel the Earth Move in three takes.
King’s hit You’ve Got a Friend is also included on Tapestry, but it was not dedicated in any way to Mitchell. In a story related in UnCovered, King once approached Mitchell and said, “You don’t like yourself. I can tell.” Then she walked away.
I’m not sure about feeling the earth move, but you probably could have heard a pin drop. According to Mitchell, she didn’t reply to King, but did think to herself, “What a brat.” Maybe a brat, but was King right – did Mitchell self-loathe?
“Joni’s self-awareness is too complex to reduce it to the idea of her liking or not liking herself,” says Maev Beaty, the Dora-winning actor who dons the Mitchellian beret for UnCovered. “Her lyrics about her own self-doubts and flaws were a hugely generous offer to her listeners.”
Speaking to David Yaffe, author of the Joni biography Reckless Daughter, Mitchell elaborated on the vulnerability and emotional intimacy of her famous Blue period. “I dreamed I was a plastic bag sitting on an auditorium chair watching a big fat women’s tuba band. Women with big horns and rolled-down nylons in house dresses playing tuba and big horn music, and I was a plastic bag with all my organs exposed, sobbing on an auditorium chair at that time. That’s how I felt. Like my guts were on the outside.”
No guts, no glory. The poet Sylvia Plath said she wrote “only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.” The raw confessions of Plath, Mitchell and others like them serve as life-lines to fans as blue as the artists: “I wanna make you feel better,” Mitchell sang on All I Want. "I wanna make you feel free.”
The UnCovered concerts give context to the lyrics of Mitchell (and King). There’s a market for this kind of thing, if Bruce Springsteen’s hit one-man show Springsteen on Broadway is any indication. Mitchell, who suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, won’t be on stage anytime soon (if ever again). However, a new book (Joni on Joni: Interviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell, edited by Creem magazine’s Susan Whitall and published by Chicago Review Press) anthologizes the Help Me singer’s interviews from 1966 to 2014.
On Nov. 6 and 7, a pair of concerts at the Music Center in Los Angeles saw such top-flight talents and friends as Graham Nash, Norah Jones, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Rufus Wainwright pay tribute to Mitchell. On Nov. 4, a four-hour special edition of The Strombo Show on CBC Radio celebrated the singer-songwriter with a star-studded array of exclusive covers and joyful recollections.
Before she takes to the stage as Mitchell in UnCovered, the veteran thespian Beaty has been starring (to Nov. 11) in Secret Life of a Mother, a collaboration at Toronto’s Theatre Centre with director Ann-Marie Kerr and playwright Hannah Moscovitch. Asked who would compare to Mitchell, Beaty mentions the indomitable Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, the poet Plath and, a surprise choice, the indie-playwright wunderkind Moscovitch.
“These are all women who use or used their philosophy, their life experience, their suffering and their questions to express art and fictionalize themselves,” says Beaty, who worked with Moscovitch on 2016’s Bunny, a hit drama about an outsider who discovers the power of her own allure. “Joni obeyed her instinct in pursuit of something honest, and because she was so rigorous about it, I think there’s probably some frustration, or some amusement, when it comes to deciding what she was doing.”
Frustration, sure. Amusement, could be. How about jealousy?
UnCovered: Joni Mitchell & Carole King runs in Toronto Nov. 13-15 at Koerner Hall; Nov. 16 at Living Arts Centre, Mississauga; Nov. 21 at George Weston Recital Hall.