What kept you going, culturally speaking, when you were a child growing up in the tiny town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and battling polio?
I loved Debussy, Stravinsky, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, anything with romantic melodies, especially the nocturnes. Nietzsche was a hero, especially with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He gets a bad rap; he’s very misunderstood. He’s a maker of individuals, and he was a teacher of teachers.
In the seventh grade, I had a teacher who declared that the curriculum was useless. So he read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to us every morning until the book was completed. That was very influential for me. My favorite line in all of literature is Rudyard Kipling’s monkey: “My people are the wisest people in the jungle, my people have always said so.”
What sort of art and music affected you when you arrived in New York in the late sixties?
Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and Barnett Newman were big at the time, but I was not a fan. I wanted to paint in a folk-artist-y way. My heroes were Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Rembrandt. I think Picasso is about as a modern as I got. But I incorporated things that they rejected as well as movements that happened later.
What about your songwriting, which is really so densely literate? Who influenced you there? Great poets?Or something else?
I didn’t like poetry. When I read the Shakespearean sonnets, I feel like some of them are mercenary. How many poems can you write where you say, “You’re so beautiful that you should reproduce yourself and I’m the guy to do it”? [Laughs.] They can’t all be inspired. It’s like somebody came to him and said, “Give me a poem like you did for Joe and I’ll give you 50 bucks.” I find a lot of poetry to be narcissistic. I agree with Nietzsche on the poets. He said something like: “The poet is the vainest of the vain, the peacock of the peacocks … he muddles his waters so that they might appear deep.” I know I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a lot of ways. I guess there are a few poets I like, though, like E. J. Pratt and Carl Sandburg.
Were you similarly skeptical about the folk scene in New York in the late sixties?
No. I briefly liked Leonard Cohen, though once I read Camus and Lorca I started to realize that he had taken a lot of lines from those books, which was disappointing to me. Dylan was an influence even though initially I was a detractor. I thought he was a Woody Guthrie copycat. It’s in my stars to invent; I was born on Madame Curie’s birthday. I have this need for originals, for innovation. That’s why I like Charlie Parker.
I’m curious if you were affected by the great American cinema of the seventies, especially as you performed with the Band in Scorsese’s Last Waltz.
I really didn’t see Martin. I was the only woman there; they added a couple of women after the fact. So that was strange—it was like being a girl on a football team. But I think Scorsese and [Scorsese’s longtime editor] Thelma Schoonmaker technically are magnificent. She’s the best editor in the world. In terms of editing and constructing a film, they’re at the zenith. I love Fellini. I like the Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky. I like some of the French New Wave, though sometimes the movies were boring and I just watched the clothes; they had these great fashions by Coco Chanel. My style of songwriting is influenced by cinema. I’m a frustrated filmmaker. A fan once said to me, “Girl, you make me see pictures in my head!” and I took that as a great compliment. That’s exactly my intention.
Apropos of Charlie Parker, did you also take a dim view of avant-jazz? How did your collaboration with Mingus shape your impressions of the genre?
I wasn’t a fan—he chose me for the project. But I came to be very fond of him in a short space of time. Like me, he had a wide emotional spectrum, from timid—well, I guess I’m not so timid anymore [Laughs.]—to a raging bull. But I did like his most melodic songs, like “Reincarnation of a Love Bird.” I didn’t appreciate the bombastic quality of Mingus’s music until I sat in amongst the horns with them puffing all around me. That’s the best way to appreciate Mingus, to be sitting right in the horn section. That was a thrill.
So you’re more of a standards person, then.
Yes. I like Duke. And I love Miles Davis’s bands—especially the one with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. That incarnation of Miles’s work I just loved. And I had the honor of playing with those people.
You must have always wanted to make the standards record you released in 2000, Both Sides Now.
No. I had to fulfill a contract—I wasn’t writing. The business had just worn me down to where I couldn’t write and didn’t want to write. There was no public recognition for my work and none at my record company. It was the same frustration that Van Gogh and Gauguin felt when I read back on them. But, yes, standards are part of my roots, whether it’s visible or not. I think people were surprised that I’d absorbed standards. People just assumed that I didn’t understand that. I don’t think I proved myself to guys like Herbie Hancock until I did standards.
But even when you were somewhat obscure, so many musicians were citing you as an influence or even name-checking you in songs. Of all the musicians and rappers who have cited you as an influence, whose work do you appreciate most?
Prince. Prince attended one of my concerts in Minnesota. I remember seeing him sitting in the front row when he was very young. He must have been about 15. He was in an aisle seat and he had unusually big eyes. He watched the whole show with his collar up, looking side to side. You couldn’t miss him—he was a little Prince-ling. [Laughs.] Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U’s and hearts that way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it! [Laughs.]
What are you reading now?
I’m not reading—I’m writing my memoirs. I have someone sit with me and we speak into a tape recorder. I’m getting it down in the oral tradition.
Are there any memoirs that you’ve liked?
My publisher gave me Carl Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. I thought it was a good choice. The things that interest him are the things that interest me—particularly synchronistic events. I kind of pick up where he left off. In terms of fiction, I’d rather go out and have a good time than read a book about someone having a good or bad time.
What about philosophers or political leaders? Is anyone inspiring you right now?
No. The world is full of madmen and shortsighted money-mongers. Mandela, Tutu, the Dalai Lama—other than them, the world is totally lacking in great men.
Songs of a Prairie Girl