Songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and frontman for the band Late Romantics John Willis celebrates his birthday with “John Plays Joni,” a tribute to Joni Mitchell, his favorite songwriter and someone whose music he’s been studying for 20 years. We asked John a few questions about his muse ahead of the show, which takes place Wednesday, Dec. 7 at South on Main, 8:30 p.m., $10. (And of which, full disclosure, the author of this article is a part.)
From a piano player and guitarist’s perspective, what do you think it is about Joni’s music that makes it so decidedly hers? Offbeat tunings? Jazz chords?
Joni Mitchell created an entirely new vocabulary for me musically and emotionally. I’ve read in interviews where she’s called the chord structures that predominate in her music “Chords of Inquiry,” chords that kind of leave a question open or keep an emotion in a suspended state of resolution for “days and days” as she said once. I like that. Technically, she’s using a lot of open tunings early on and moving into more complex ones as her songwriting becomes more “jazz” influenced. Brad Birge and I (the bassist for the show) got a good laugh attempting to transpose “Help Me” into a different key by ear the other night. The chords were all major 7 chords and upwards, and by the end our heads were swimming!
So that’s some of the technical bits, but having listened and played and studied and read Joni Mitchell for 20 years now, I really feel like she had to move into jazz and then later somewhat into world and symphonic music because of her inner drive to understand and give voice to a life of deep inquiry – into the human heart, romantic love, why we as humans act the ways we do, what it means to be an artist, to be a success, where our world is headed. There is only so much that can be expressed with words, even with a very expanded vocabulary. She created the music as a vehicle for getting across what she’s trying to communicate, knowing all the while that she’s still leaving that question mark of the unresolved chord out there: revelation is never sealed, I guess.
I’m not sure how early on in the year you planned to play Joni – and I certainly don’t ask this to stoke the fires of divisiveness – but I imagine some of her songs speak differently to people in light of the election. Are there any you’ve worked up in rehearsal whose message feels heightened to you now? Any you hadn’t planned to do, but want to do now?
First, it was very difficult to begin selecting the songs for this show because I am such a life-long fan. I knew that I wanted to work thematically, as she has with the various anthologies she has released. I of course want to play the songs that people will recognize, but I also want to exhibit the material that has had a big impact on me that may be a little less in the mass consciousness. To me, Joni Mitchell has always been an activist, though she did not to my knowledge cultivate that as a part of her image as have others of her time, like Joan Baez, for instance. Joni is a poet, and she has always written about the times in which she lives. And she’s always looking deeply.
So, for specifics, “Big Yellow Taxi” is perhaps her most-covered, best loved hit. I mean, Amy Grant did it, so little gay Southern boys like me knew it! But it’s also a song about the negative impact our human selfishness is having on the planet and on each other, a cautionary message that just gets stronger with “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her 1991 reworking of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” and reaches a crescendo with “Bad Dreams” and “Shine,” from her last album of original material in 2007. “Shine” is the show’s closer, not just because it is of her latest work but because it gives us something we can do. We’ve fought some and we’ve cried some and we’ve raged some, and while we’re entering the holiday season of this crazy year and messages of Hope and Joy and Peace are being scattered, they often feel like empty ideas. So instead of some ideal to cling to mentally, she gives us an action: SHINE. Pull up the light that’s within each one of us and let it shine, on all of it.
How long do you expect you’ve been playing Joni’s songs, and how might you describe your connection to her music?
I came to Joni Mitchell’s music indirectly, through Tori Amos, like a lot of boys like me in the 90s. I was 16 and kind of lost musically. I’d played piano in church all my life at that point, and hearing Tori’s piano front-and-center in those early albums was a huge awakening for me: I wanted to do that too! But I was a church boy, and frankly, Tori scared me. I read somewhere that Joni Mitchell was one of her main influences, so I started digging around online and stumbled on Ladies of the Canyon. The opening piano chords and ringing right-hand octaves of “The Arrangement” drew me in. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard anyone talk about that track, but I was obsessed with it. “You could’ve been more than a name on the door on the 33rd floor in the air.” I had just been kicked out of an entire scene of people because someone spread a rumor about me, and I changed schools junior year to Parkview Arts Magnet. My whole world opened up, but I was experiencing the beginnings of that disillusionment that comes from seeing the vicious side of people’s character. So hearing Joni pronounce that the friend or former lover “Could’ve been more” was something I was feeling. And I’ve always wanted and expected more from people, including myself. I think that’s another thing that connects me to her. She’s a hopeless romantic and a consummate realist all in one, and she won’t put up with meanness or phoniness in people.
As far as actually playing her music, it was she who taught me how to play guitar. I learned guitar so I could figure out her songs and her “weird chords.” Somehow, through the magical community of jonimitchell.com, I came across a list of many of her tunings and chord charts, and as I learned the shapes of her chords, new song pathways were formed between my fingers and my brain. To this day, the songs I write on guitar have a different feel, maybe a different muse, than my piano songs, although I’ve “branded” myself more as a piano guy. I don’t really write in her tunings anymore – because I can’t afford the multiple guitars or guitar techs to tune to all of them when I perform!
But the awareness and the place that working with that vocabulary created within me is one that is very native to me now, like a second home. She’s also usually where I go when I’m moving through a place that’s difficult emotionally. When I want to express verbally what I’m traveling through, it’s usually mythical or biblical allegory, but when I’m not sure yet how I feel, I go to Joni. She’s a prophet and a poet and a mystic in the true sense, so that’s completely natural. I hope that John Plays Joni conveys that – how important her music and her life are to me.