Julia Deans takes on the songs of Joni Mitchell in a season of cabaret shows hitting town next week. She talks to Lydia Jenkin

How did the show come about?

After performing in Brel [Silo Theatre's musical exploration of Jacques Brel's songbook, with Jon Toogood, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Tama Waipara], I was talking to [director] Shane Bosher, and he said he'd really like to do another show with me at some stage. We initially talked about Edith Piaf, but god, that would be terrifying. Anyway, then Shane was asked if he would put together a couple of shows for this cabaret festival, so he went off and had a think about what to do, and then he rang me and asked if I would like to do a Joni Mitchell songbook-type show. So it's all Shane's fault.

How does Joni Mitchell fit with a cabaret festival? They're not common bedfellows.

I think it's loosely defined cabaret [laughs]. It's not feather boas and spangly costumes and swooning and what have you. I don't even really know what cabaret means. Let's look it up. Here we go ... "Entertainment held in a night club or restaurant while the audience eats or drinks at tables". So it's not what everyone thinks, I guess. Somehow it has this slightly camp image attached to it, I'm not sure why, but it's not at all.


Tell us about the show -- is it you becoming Joni Mitchell, or is it taking her songs and doing your own thing?

More than anything else, it's an exploration of her songbook. I'm not becoming Joni Mitchell for the evening or anything, it's not a tribute act, I'm just singing her songs, in my own way, with a band. We're trying to honour the beautiful arrangements she wrote, and the power of her songs but bring our own slant to it as well. I'm working with Paul McLaney and Sean Donnelly [SJD] and Tom Broome as my band, and they're sounding amazing.

Have you always been a Joni Mitchell fan?

To be honest, she's a bit of a new discovery for me. For some reason she never really entered my radar before. Occasionally, people have made references and said I remind them of Joni Mitchell, which I took as a lovely compliment, but I didn't really know anything about her -- I knew a few of her songs, and thought they were very clever and beautiful, but it's only been delving into this that the lights have really come on, and it's "Oh right, now I get why everybody loves her".

How did you work out which songs to play?

Shane and I actually made rather similar Facebook posts, asking everyone to tell us their favourite Joni Mitchell song, and people came back with heaps of suggestions. I spent an evening listening to all the songs. It was a really cool way to get an overview of her life of work. And then I went and listened to other songs from her albums and found my own favourites, too.

That seems like a great way to delve into the work of a woman with 20 albums to her name.

Yes, she has been writing for 50 years, and she was hugely prolific. And not just prolific in number of songs, but also each song is also quite verbally prolific. There are a lot of lyrics, and there's not a lot of repetition that goes on. It's very much almost a form of poetry rather than your standard verse, chorus, verse, chorus, repeat the chorus type thing. And they're stories too, which I'm really enjoying.


Her voice changed quite a lot over the course of her career, has that posed any challenges?

It's amazing, if you watch any interviews with her, she just chain smokes the entire time, so it's hardly surprising her voice has changed so much. But I think your voice does change as you get older, it gets richer, and maybe you lose some of the highs of your range, but you get new lows. It's quite beautiful to listen to the two versions of Both Sides, Now, which she recorded first in her [early] 20s, and then again in her 60s -- it's not just the difference in her voice, but the depth of knowledge in it, the weight behind the more recent version. I guess I'm halfway between those points in my life, so it's about exploring how my voice delivers it, and what it can mean from my perspective at this age.

Apparently her repertoire includes more than 50 different guitar tunings -- does that make it difficult to jump through her song book?

Yeah, there are going to be quite a lot of guitars on stage. More guitars than band members. But more of a challenge has been that she has a really idiosyncratic style of playing and writing. She does really interesting things with timing -- chopping beats and adding bars, and her phrasing, the way she sings, is really unique and distinctive, so it's been interesting because some of it felt quite unnatural to me initially. I guess that always happens with songs written by someone else, but I've enjoyed working out how she does it, and then figuring out my take on it.

How would you compare this to Brel?

It's a completely different show, really. Brel was very theatrical, and his stories and lyrics and songs were so emotionally big, and I think Joni's are a lot more subtle. She's very wry and can be quite cutting in an underhand way sometimes, but then there's also a beautiful naivety to her earlier songs, and a joy to her music, and then it becomes a lot darker as she goes through life. She comments a lot on the music industry, and she can be quietly scathing about some things, but there's always quite a lot of compassion there, too.

Who: Julia Deans

What: Both Sides Now: Julia Deans Sings Joni Mitchell as part of the Auckland International Cabaret Season.

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber on Wednesday June 4 and Sunday June 8.

See: aucklandlive.co.nz/cabaretseason for more info.

- TimeOut