Clive Davis Shares Joni Mitchell’s First Public Interview in Six Years, Chats With DaBaby, Oprah Winfrey, H.E.R. and More

·23-min read

Clive Davis has a gig as music’s own new Barbara Walters, if he wants it. For the second half of his two-part virtual “Grammy gala” this year, the music mogul doubled down in Saturday night’s invitation-only webcast on interviews with the stars, including Elton John, DaBaby, Paul Simon, H.E.R., Dave Grohl, Dionne Warwick and Chris Stapleton. When awards season returns in a presumably post-pandemic 2022, Davis will probably return to the usual performance-based Beverly Hills parties to which guests have become accustomed, but at least a few will miss his 2021 talk-show format.

Even Walters might have been jealous of Davis’ big “get” of Saturday’s marathon six-hour session, Joni Mitchell, who had not given any interviews in a public or even semi-public setting since suffering an aneurysm in 2015. (See three video excerpts, below.) Mitchell has been known to be a loquacious party host and guest in the last few years, and gave Cameron Crowe a print interview for a boxed set’s liner notes that was excerpted in the Guardian last fall. But for any of Davis’ hundreds of guests who hadn’t heard that Mitchell was in perfectly chatty shape, her 14 minutes with Davis (edited down from an approximately 40-minute conversation they pre-recorded) may have come as a happy revelation, and even those who’ve had the chance to speak with her in private recently welcomed the opportunity to hear her reminisce about her early influences and revolutionary career.

More from Variety

Also on the docket was Oprah Winfrey, who was ostensibly on hand to pay tribute to Tina Turner — following Davis playing a vintage performance clip of the newly named Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member singing “Simply the Best” — but who also shared a memorable story about Davis’ beloved Whitney Houston and how she got a TV taping audience to keep a possibly shameful Houston secret.

Appearing early on in a webcast seen by a couple of thousand viewers on Zoom and Moment House platforms (many of whom had ponied up donations for the event’s beneficiaries, the Recording Academy’s MusiCares and Grammy Museum), Mitchell seemed at ease as Davis asked her about everything from the origin of “Both Sides Now” to the parties she’s recently been famous for throwing in the Santa Barbara area, which outdo Davis’ soirees for inducing jealousy among the outside world.

As Davis asked Mitchell more than once how it feels to be so popularly admired and cited as an influence — mentioning that, every time she’s been a guest at one of his pre-Grammy galas, she got more sustained applause than any of the contemporary performers — Mitchell drifted back more toward the resistance she says she encountered, from her first days in a coffeehouse through mixed reviews her albums got in the 1980s.

“Well, you know, when I first started writing less from fantasy,” Mitchell said, “when I started scraping my own soul more and getting more humanity in it, it scared the singer-songwriters around me. The men seemed be nervous about it, almost like Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?'” she laughed. “But over time, I think it did make an influence. I think it encouraged people to write more from their own experience. I mean, literature is very personal. People write from experience and that’s what makes it rich. But people used to say to me, ‘Nobody’s ever going to cover your songs. They’re too personal.’ And yet that’s not true. They’re getting a lot of covers. So that’s really encouraging to me, because I thought, ‘I don’t see why these men are so upset about it… It’s just humanness that I’m trying to describe.’”

Mitchell claimed to have not been overly conscious of the extent of her influence until recent years — distracted more, she suggested, by brickbats that came her way at certain points in her career. “It was only recently that people have come forward and told me,” she said. “I was unaware, because all I was aware of was bad reviews, which I thought were unjust and stupid. Especially ‘Dog Eat Dog’ (in 1985) got terrible reviews. Except in the Black magazines. I thought, why is it that people are so hard on this stuff? Well, I guess it’s because it’s different. It didn’t fit into a genre of folk music or jazz” but was “somewhere in between… I always that folk music wasn’t a good title for me, except it was a girl with a guitar, and therefore a folk singer, right? The only people that could play my music were jazz musicians, because it was so strange. And they could write it out and look at the strangeness and get in on it.”

Mitchell is not performing anymore, but Brandi Carlile filmed a stunning solo piano rendition of “A Case of You” for Davis’ webcast. She’d taken it upon herself to perform “Blue” in its entirety in a Mitchell-attended Walt Disney Hall show two years ago that was arguably the most coveted concert ticket that existed in Los Angeles for 2019. “I love you, Clive. I love you, Joni,” she said, looking into the camera at the end of her surprise performance.

Two other original performances filmed exclusively for the evening were shown amid vintage clips, beside’s Carlile’s. Jazmine Sullivan sang “The Way We Were” in tribute to Barbra Streisand, and later, recent Grammy and Oscar winner H.E.R. was joined by her band and a string section for a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

“I think it’s one of my favorite Prince songs ever,” said H.E.R., who told Davis she’d first been motivated to pick up the guitar by watching the late performer. “The message is so powerful, and we lost a lot of people in 2020. I think we’ve learned just to love the people we love, even to hold them tighter, hold them closer, because as you can see, life is so short, and things happen and sometimes we can’t reach them. And I think 2020 really taught us that. So I thought that this would be a powerful message — and I wanted to give you a killer guitar solo,” she added with a laugh.

H.E.R. said she has plenty in the docket. “I have my album coming out; it’s supposed to be my debut album, but I think we’re past a debut at this point,” she laughed, referring to her many EPs and singles. “And I’m also working on a reggae EP, which I’m super-excited about. And I plan on bringing back my Lights On Fest that I had locally in the Bay area where I’m from, and just letting R&B shine (with) some new artists and current artists. And then I’m bringing back my series that I did on Instagram, ‘Girls with Guitars.’ … I just did a Netflix film with Jennifer Garner called ‘Yes Day,’ and I have a lot more acting things coming up. And yeah, more glasses to release,” she added, referring to a line of signature specs. “I’m going to have to get you a pair,” she told Davis, “because you got some fly glasses on right now.”

DaBaby’s appearance with Davis got highly emotional as he discussed the recent deaths of two of his closest family members. “Every year since I’ve been a mainstream artist, I’ve gone through like personal tragedies,” he said. “Just recently, my brother committed suicide, maybe six months ago. This is when I’m coming off of having the No. 1 song in the country during the pandemic.” When it happened, “I was doing a voting campaign and I was going around to different voting polls in my city of Charlotte, North Carolina, doing my part, what I could do to get more people involved in what we got going on out here in the world. And then I got the phone call… I’m no stranger to going through things. But I gotta give credit to my parents… especially my mother is super-duper strong. I was just always taught to not look for sympathy from anybody… and just keep it pushing.”

DaBaby acknowledged that losing out on live appearances and promotional appearances as his latest music conquered the charts in 2020 was a blessing. “Really, I wasn’t even done mourning the loss of my father (who died in 2019). I wasn’t done doing a lot of things. I didn’t give myself a chance to grieve… I numbed myself with my work and my hustle, you know? So it gave me a much-needed year” to reflect, he said.

DaBaby brightened at being asked by Davis to name his three biggest influences. “Lil Wayne. Eminem. So many people, though. Three is not enough,” he said. “I was definitely a big fan of Kanye, especially early on, so I would … give 50 Cent and Kanye West a tie… I was blessed enough to be able to see a lot of different people have their era, like even like a Nelly, and Lucacris, T.I. … so many people that just had their waves… When I was like 8 years old, Mystikal was my favorite rapper. And that makes sense energy-wise, if you think about like my visuals… Three is not enough. I need 300, Clive, I need 300 next time, (so) I can really sit down with a sheet of paper and write down 300 artists.”

Dionne Warwick has her own favorite rapper now, as a result of her very unusual 2020. One of Davis’ big success stories as a reclamation project after she came to his Arista label after a downturn in her career, Warwick has been experiencing yet another career resurgence as a result of her unlikely stardom as a Twitterer. That’s led to at least one one-off project with one of the figures she joked about on social media, Chance the Rapper.

“He responded, and we subsequently started talking on the phone and decided we should do something together,” she recounted. “I said, ‘What if we come up with a song that means something to both of us?’ And he loved the idea. He’s done the track; he’s putting his part on it now, creating what he feels it should be, and then is going to send that to me (and) I’ll put my vocal on… Hopefully some time this summer, people will be able to hear the collaboration between Chance the Rapper and Dionne the Singer.”

Elton John discussed his love for hip-hop, which may be even more developed than Dionne Warwick’s.

“I devour it, because it’s very important,” he told Davis. “It’s shifted music in a completely new direction. And some of the production on these records, like Travis Scott, Kanye’s records, the records of Kanye’s that are just masterpieces, Eminem’s record…. and now you’ve got records by Lil Nas X, and (his) videos which are just extraordinary… I love Megan Thee Stallion. I love Nicki (Minaj). I love Cardi B… It goes back to when we were looking at Missy Elliott … and then Timbaland came along and I made a record on Timbaland’s album. So I try and keep up with these people. Tech N9ne is one of my favorite rappers. I interviewed him on my show. He’s from Kansas (City). There’s so much good music coming out by these people. Like, where do they all get their ideas from?… It’s the equivalent of modern jazz, really… it’s coming from years and years of hardship, years and years of racism. These people are the people that have to speak about it, because in the last few years in America, they have had a lot to deal with.”

Davis told a story about arranging a meeting with John in the 1970s, “and I decided to arrive meeting you bearing a gift of seven albums that were each being released that very day,” he recalled. “You greeted me, and I put the package right in your hands. You opened it and gently told me that you had bought all seven of them that morning at Sam Goodies. I was blown away. I had never seen anyone before have that intense hunger for new music. When did that kind of hunger begin, Elton?”

“Well, I still had the wonderment that I had as a kid when I cycled to my local record shop to get ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and (was) holding the sleeve in one hand and guiding my bicycle on the other hand and looking at a gatefold sleeve, which was so rare,” John said. “When I was a kid, music just got me through so many tough times. It was my friend… We love records. You and I are cut from the same cloth… That’s for me the greatest gift I’ve ever been given in my life. And it continues to this day because I do a radio show every week; I find new artists, I ring them up, I play them, I interview them, I become friends with them… It’s the young that rejuvenate me. And you’ve always championed the young and always championed different sorts of music. So talking to you and and being in your company from so many years (ago) is really, really special to me,” John told Davis, “because we both love music so much.”

The mogul-host asked if it would be difficult for John to resume his farewell tour after the enforced extended lull of the pandemic.

“We got stopped in the middle of a steam roller,” the singer answered. “I mean, we were just like an express train. We were the top tour for two years in a row. I was having such a ball, but the pandemic created chaos for everyone… I had so much fun doing the tour. And I don’t think we’ll be finishing now in ‘22. I think we’ll be finishing probably in ‘23. I have no control over the pandemic. I have to just be patient and sit there. And when it’s time, I’ll be going out there and doing it. I will always be involved in music; I will be creating music, promoting music — being involved in music is something I have to do. But I don’t want to schlep, Clive. I don’t want to schlep anymore.”

Talking with Winfrey at the outset of Saturday’s web gala, Davis talked about how the real talk-show host among the two of them had inducted Tina Turner at the 2005 Kennedy Center Honors, “and you summed up your tribute that night by saying, quote, ‘You make me so proud to spell my name W-O-M-A-N.’ Could you elaborate on that?”

“Well, that is a line from a Maya Angelou poem that I (thought I) might as well use her line,” Winfrey said. “The reason why she makes me so proud is because she was enslaved. There’s no other word for it, in my mind. She was enslaved psychologically, emotionally, and actually physically being beaten by whatever Ike could get his hands on to control her. And it wasn’t just physical control, it was also mind control. And what it takes, when you have endured that kind of trauma, to be able to find the worth within yourself — just enough of self left after everyone’s tried to snuff it out — to say, ‘I am better than this,’ and to not only escape and survive it, but then to create a life that allows you to thrive… I just don’t know of a better example of somebody who has taken the worst of their pain and turned it into a powerful phenomenon that affected the rest of the world through her art.”

There was a story with a less happy ending when it came to Whitney Houston, although Winfrey and Davis shared a protective moment with her when Houston came on to Oprah’s show in 2009 for what was hoped to be the beginning of a comeback. The spin they put on this first-told tale was a reflection of the trust that can exist between a beloved performer who is struggling and her audience (with, undoubtedly, a serious sprinkling of the persuasiveness of Oprah).

Said Davis, “I remember when she sang ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’ to your audience, and I saw that audience reaction. I was so personally hopeful after her epic interview with you that she would return committed to be the Whitney that I loved and cherished from the time I signed her in 1983. After her interview, were you hopeful for her as I was?”

“I was hoping, just as I think you and all of the fans who loved her so much were, that that was going to be the moment that turned (her) around,” agreed Winfrey. “But, you know, Clive, I’ve never shared this before. Something happened during that show that to me indicated how much people were rooting for her. There was a moment where she slipped — I don’t know if you remember this, or were you backstage?”

“I was there, and I remember… go ahead and say it.”

“She slipped, and she fell off the stage, and it was a horrible moment,” said Winfrey. “And when she went back to the green room to regroup — it took her a long time to regroup, because she was so shaken by it… This is the first time I’ve said this publicly… I said to the audience, ‘Audience, you know what this moment means to her. You know what this moment means to her career. You know that she is doing her best to try to come back and start a new life for herself. So I am begging you: Please, do not post, do not tell anybody, do not share the fact of what you just saw of her falling off the stage.’ And do you know, to this day, not one person did?

“I marvel at that,” agreed Davis. “I heard word for word what you said. And let me make it unmistakably clear. Whitney was clearly not high. This was a pure accident. And you did, with incredible insight, say that to the audience. And I’ve remarked personally to a few of my close friends the respect that you have, because nobody until today has ever told that story. Including you.”

Davis’ conversations with Winfrey and DaBaby may have been emotional high points of the six hours, in pure content, given the struggles both interviewees touched on, for themselves or others. But the host’s chat with Mitchell undoubtedly packed as much of a wallop for most viewers, even if he avoided asking her about her health struggles (at least in the portion edited for the webcast), with her mere presence being a welcome surprise after the star has stayed out of the limelight during and since her recovery.

Davis played a clip of Mitchell performing “Both Sides Now” with an orchestra in 2000, filmed to promote an album of that name she released with all-new symphonic rearrangements of her classic songs. Mitchell said it was a song that better suited her later in life than when she first wrote it in the ’60s.

“I had to grow into it, you know,” she said. “When I first wrote it, I was very young and I took a lot of teasing: ‘What do you know about life, from both sides?’ And I always felt that it was not an ingenue role, that song… The British performance, the one that’s on the record, was very exciting because the orchestra was weeping. When you see Englishman weeping while you’re performing, it’s very moving. And so there’s a lot of emotional charge to that performance… I feel like I finally grew into that song.”

Of the song’s writing, Mitchell told Davis, “I was up in a plane. I was reading a book (by Saul Bellow) called ‘Henderson the Rain King,’ and in the book, he was up on a plane flying to Africa, and he mused that he’d looked up at clouds, but he’d never looked down on them before. So that was where the germ of the idea for the song came from.”

When Davis asked about influences, Mitchell said, “I think you you’re made up of everything you ever admired, you know, You may not see it in my work…” Pressed for specifics, she answered: “Edith Piaf. and there was a sideshow when the fair came to my hometown called Harlem in Havana, and we were all forbidden by our parents as kids to be seen even standing there watching, because it was Black burlesque… and they played a really sexy version of ‘Night Train’ (the blues song re-popularized in the early ’60s by James Brown), and that piece of music really affected my writing. It took a while for it to come out, but I think everything you ever admire sooner or later appears.”

Davis asked when Mitchell first begin writing songs. “When I was 7, I wrote… it wasn’t a song, but it was an instrumental, called ‘Robin Walk,’ and I played it for my piano teacher,” she answered. “And she hit me across the knuckles with a ruler and said, ‘Why would you want to play by ear when you could have the masters under your fingers?’ So I said to her, ‘Look, the masters had to play by ear to come up with that stuff.’ And she just treated me like a bad child, and I quit piano lessons then. From then on, I was self-taught. So my piano style is pretty unorthodox because unlike most piano players, I am un-influenced by the masters. I never had them under my fingers, so my fingers had to go in their own original way.”

Mitchell recalled how she first came to write original material. “I worked as a waitress in a coffee house, and there were folksingers coming and going. One night, one of them called in sick, or didn’t show, anyway. So they said, ‘Look, we’ve got a blank evening. Joni. you’re playing the ukulele, will you go on?’ So I went on, but I was scared to death.” Later, in a cab while attending art school, “I passed a place called the Depression. And so I had the cab stop and I went in and I asked if I could perform there. They had already hired a folk singer in residence, but he said, yes, they’d be able to hire me from time to time. And so that’s when I really started performing — but I was still doing folk songs. And the other performers would say, ‘You can’t play that song and that song, because those songs are my territory.’ I found out the folk community was extremely territorial like that… and I thought the only way around this dilemma is to begin to write your own songs.”

Before long, “when I was in Detroit, I was in a duo with Chuck Mitchell, and we were regulars at this club called the Checkmate, which was folk music till midnight and jazz after hours. The jazz musicians that played, I think, were part of the Motown orchestra. I had to have somebody who could read and write to do my lead sheets for copywriting, and they did them and they liked the melodies, and they started incorporating some of them into their set. And then my audience changed, and the jazzers would come a little early and catch our last set, before the after-hours jazz.”

Mitchell still believes the jazzers get her most, and mentioned that Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are still good friends who attend the parties she throws up the coast, where “we just hang out, and spontaneously people began to play something,” with Carlile, Chaka Khan and other singers also joining in the fun.

Asked by Davis what she thinks her legacy will be, Mitchell said, “It is what it is. It’s just the residue of my work, you know. It seems to be another generation has grasped (it).. I mean, I drove to West L.A. and young boys, pre-teeners, were waving at me from the curb. I thought, Oh my God, that’s amazing. … The man who put on my art show here in L.A. is Russian. He said, ‘Why is that all the young people over there know your music and the people our age don’t?’ … I mean, it’s just the way my career has gone. You know, it’s like this generation is ready for what I had to say, I guess, and is not so nervous about it.”

Davis’ other interview subjects Saturday included Simon, Grohl, John Mellencamp, Donovan, Barry Manilow, Slash, Berry Gordy, the combination of Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas, and two members of Earth Wind & Fire.

Simon thanked Davis for his foresight, when he was the head of Columbia Records 50 years ago, in pegging “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” as the first single from the final Simon and Garfunkel studio album of that name, rather than “Cecelia,” which Simon was sure would be the hit. (Davis said “Bridge” and “The Boxer” are his two favorite songs of all time.) Mellencamp and the mogul remembered a less fruitful encounter, when Davis took a pass on signing the rocker in the 1970s because he already had Bruce Springsteen on his roster and felt they were too close, something he’s still “regretful” about — but Mellencamp gave him a pass, saying he really wasn’t ready yet.

This show followed the first of the two-parter in February, when Davis talked with, among others, Springsteen, Alicia Keys, Barry Gibb, Carole King, Rod Stewart, Sean Combs, John Legend and Chance the Rapper.

Among the many bold-face invited guests seen in the Zoom room looking on Saturday: John Fogerty, Josh Groban, Don Lemon, Gayle King, Jody Gerson, Monte Lipman, Weird Al Yankovic, Martina Navratilova, George Schlatter, Sherry Lansing, Aaron Neville, Carly Simon, Dan + Shay’s Dan Smyers, Scott Borchetta, Brenda Vaccaro, Dean Pitchford, Tom Freston, Candace Bushnell, Matt Sorum, Pia Toscano, Sam Moore, Yolanda Adams, Kat Denning, Melba Moore, Valerie Simpson, Carole Bayer Sager, Lorna Luft, Peter Asher, Nile Rodgers, Suzanne Somers, Mike Dungan, Tommy Hilfiger, Randy Jackson, Dick Cavett, Rickey Minor, Krist Novoselic, Desmond Child, Suzanne de Passe, Deborah Cox, Dallas Austin, Julie Swidler, Daniel Glass, Neil Portnow, Richard Weitz, Richard Palmese, Michele Anthony and Coran Capshaw.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.