Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell on Old Friends and New Beginnings
It’s early evening in Laurel Canyon when Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell join each other on Zoom while our managing editor listens in. It’s a familiar setting for two music legends who met in person in this very place over 40 years ago, just after Chaka moved to L.A. to kick-start her career as a solo artist. At the time, the Queen of Funk was gearing up to release her debut album after leaving her band, Rufus. Joni, already a star, was fascinated by her new neighbor, and invited her to sing on a record. The rest, as they tell it, is history.
THURSDAY 7:06 PM APR. 13, 2023 LA
JONI MITCHELL: Chaka?
CHAKA KHAN: I’m here, girl.
MITCHELL: Oh good.
KHAN: What are you doing?
MITCHELL: Just hanging out, doing my usual mountain climbing and ping-pong.
KHAN: [Laughs] You play ping-pong?
MITCHELL: Yeah, it’s part of my therapy.
KHAN: That’s cool. I love ping-pong.
MITCHELL: First we climb the hill, up and down, and then if time permits, we play four games.
KHAN: Alright, girl. You’re doing better than I’m doing. [Laughs] I’m sorry I missed you last weekend.
MITCHELL: It was a pretty good jam.
KHAN: Who came down? Anybody from out of town?
MITCHELL: No, but Bette Midler came and really enjoyed herself.
KHAN: Bette! I haven’t seen her in so many frigging years.
MITCHELL: Yeah. We sang “The Rose” and some of her songs. We had a lot of fun.
KHAN: Shit! I’m so pissed I missed that. When’s the next jam session?
MITCHELL: There’s going to be one or two more before we play at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington State. I’ve played there twice before, once with Bob Dylan.
KHAN: I planned not to work at all this year, but people were like, “This is going too crazy.” So, I said, “Okay, I’ll do a few gigs a month.” But starting in June. Otherwise we’ve been out property hunting and found some great property in Georgia. It’s freaking gorgeous.
KHAN: It’s 70 acres. I’ve got two houses on it, my own lake.
MITCHELL: Oh my god.
KHAN: I’m going to build a year round greenhouse and do all my own farming for plants.
MITCHELL: Oh, that’s good.
KHAN: Yeah. I need that. So, you have to come visit me in Georgia.
MITCHELL: You’ve got to come visit me in Canada. I’ve got a country place there that’s my solace when the city gets too much. Here where my house is, it’s really quiet.
KHAN: I love it up there. You’re off the beaten path. I’m thinking of purchasing something here, but I’m going to focus on getting my shit together and my head straight. I’m going to get my mother out there with me, and my sister and her kids. It’s going to be great.
MITCHELL: Those seem like beautiful plans.
ALEXANDRA WEISS: How and when did you guys meet, and how long have you been jamming together?
KHAN: We haven’t been jamming together for a very long time.
MITCHELL: No. That’s part of my therapy. It’s a new thing for me.
KHAN: Right. But we met—it’s been a long time. How many years?
MITCHELL: We lived close to each other in Laurel Canyon.
KHAN: Yes. That was around the time when I first moved to L.A., so that had to be at least 40 years ago.
MITCHELL: We met and then I had Chaka come and sing on a record, and she told me I took all her shit away from her.
MITCHELL: I asked her to sing like an African, kind of flatted.
KHAN: With some drums. Yeah. I was like, “Oh, man.” I thought we were going to go and sing some songs together. Maybe I’d do background or something. Who knows, that day could still come. [Laughs]
MITCHELL: But she did a beautiful job on it. I think if you heard it now, you’d like what you did, Chaka. At the time, you were mad at me, though.
KHAN: [Laughs] I was a little disappointed. But we’ve had a lot of fun together.
MITCHELL: Yep. We had fun in Toronto.
MITCHELL: In New York.
KHAN: Yes. And we’ve had some fun in L.A., too.
KHAN: We tore up three or four towns.
KHAN: Everybody has tones that are good for their bodies, their health, their minds, their spirit. And you sing those tones for me. Especially on the Hejira album. There’s some specific songs throughout the years that have touched me in a deep, deep way. Like, [sings] “Tomorrow is Sunday.” That’s my all-time favorite song from you—“Two Grey Rooms.” And I just discovered that song maybe three years ago.
MITCHELL: I was playing that at a festival at UCLA. And out of the corner of my eye, I see a young guy running towards the stage. He looked bewildered. When it was over, I went down and said, “I saw you come running. What were you looking for?” And he said, “I thought it was a whole band.”
KHAN: And it was just you and the piano, right?
MITCHELL: No, me and the guitar.
KHAN: Oh, wow. I would love to hear that version. It’s those chords. They’re so open and wide that it sounds like it could be an orchestra.
MITCHELL: Yeah. And nobody uses those chords. At Berklee College of Music—Wayne Shorter told me this, he said, “We were taught never to stay on a sus chord too long and to never go from a sus chord to a sus chord.”
KHAN: Those are my favorite chords. If I’m in my bedroom watching TV, my sister down the hall will be playing that song, and I have to drop everything and just go to it.
MITCHELL: Me too. Because, you’ve got major chords, which are positive and sunny and everything’s all right, and you’ve got minor chords, which are tragic, and the sus chords are in between. They’re neither sad nor happy. They’re just in a quandary. And when you go from one of those chords to a major, the sun opens up and shines on you.
KHAN: I saw a film of you onstage singing—
MITCHELL: Did you see the [George] Gershwin [Prize] show?
KHAN: Yes. It was wonderful.
MITCHELL: Yeah, Annie Lennox and Cyndi Lauper and James [Taylor] and Graham [Nash] and—oh, we had a lot of great people.
KHAN: You did beautifully, baby. I was so happy to see you back onstage like that.
MITCHELL: Thank you.
KHAN: How did it feel for you?
MITCHELL: It was a beautiful show. It was some of the Joni Jam band, which I used at Newport. And my favorite band came in, it was Brian Blade on drums, my ex-husband Larry Klein on bass, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, and Mark Isham on trumpet. The two bands melded together really very well.
KHAN: They really, really did. The older guys, they know what they’re doing.
MITCHELL: Yeah. And the Joni Jam band are the young hot people. They were all thrilled to be playing with my band, which has some great senior talent.
KHAN: Yes. Bringing the younger guys and the older guys together, that’s a good thing.
MITCHELL: That’s what the jams do.
KHAN: I love that. You’re sharing your legacy. And I’m going in the same direction. That’s our little job.
MITCHELL: Paul McCartney came to one of the jams, and he was so pleased to be mingling with young musicians.
KHAN: Yeah. A lot of things are happening in my little life. But I still want to get my album out with your stuff.
MITCHELL: Oh, yeah?
KHAN: Yes. I just want to do it with as much of you as possible.
KHAN: Since this is your legacy that I am celebrating, my lovely sister friend, I want you to be a part of that. You can tell me what musicians we should use. Because I want to Chaka-size some of the songs a little bit, but I don’t want to lose the earth that you planted. You dig?
MITCHELL: You wouldn’t. I’m sure it’ll be wonderful.
KHAN: Thank you. But I really want you involved if you want to be.
MITCHELL: I would love to.
KHAN: We’ve got some real interest going here, so I’ll keep you posted.
MITCHELL: Okay, sweetheart.
KHAN: And whatever we can do, I’ll be happy. I love you so much. You know that, don’t you?
MITCHELL: I do. I love you, too. I’ve enjoyed our friendship.
KHAN: Yes, me too. I just don’t want to be a bother, but I should call more. I’m usually working like a crazy person, and this is the first year in 50 years that I took time off. I said, “I’m not going to work this whole freaking track year.” I’m 70 years old, I’m tired, and I want to do some other things in life. I started getting into other things I used to do: drawing, artwork, and spending time with my family. It’s been beautiful to be at home and not have to rush out and get on a plane.
MITCHELL: I’m glad to see you’re drawing again. I’m back to my painting as well.
KHAN: Yes, my Jimi Hendrix painting is right in the middle of my
room on the dominant wall. I’ve got one for you as well.
MITCHELL: Did you ever know Jimi?
KHAN: I just missed him. I could have met you and Jimi the same year. I was going to run away to Woodstock; I was just a couple of years too young. I was like 15, 16 when that happened. My mother found out my plans and dashed the whole thing.
MITCHELL: So, you and I both missed Woodstock. [Laughs] He was the most remarkable person at that event.
KHAN: I absolutely agree.
MITCHELL: And Sly and the Family Stone.
KHAN: Yeah. I just did a talk with some people. They’re doing Sly’s life story right now. He and I used to be really tight for a minute.
WEISS: Are there other musicians or songs you guys like to listen to or play together when you’re jamming?
MITCHELL: Oh, yeah. We sing a lot of old stuff—’50s things. Poison Ivy. Oh, what was that? I think it was a coyote going down the road.
KHAN: They won’t bother you. They’re good.
MITCHELL: Yeah. There’s a little wildcat that’s been coming around that my cat is obsessed with.
KHAN: Oh, really?
MITCHELL: We were feeding her but she hasn’t been around for about a week. And there’s coyotes in the neighborhood so I hope she’s okay.
KHAN: The good thing about cats is they can climb trees and coyotes can’t. How old is she?
MITCHELL: It’s hard to tell because she’s little. She’s feral. She may be undernourished.
KHAN: I wouldn’t ever want pets in the house all the time. I want a horse. I’m dying to ride.
MITCHELL: But cats—I just watched a show on cats, all different breeds. Their main instruction was, don’t let your cats go outside.
KHAN: That’s right. Because you can’t train cats. They’re wild. They did not succumb to man like the dog did. And that’s one thing I like about cats.
MITCHELL: That’s what I like about them, too.
KHAN: I had a girlfriend that had her cat trained to go to the toilet on the toilet stool.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Charles Mingus trained his cat to do that, too. He took a cardboard box and filled it full of kitty litter and put it on the toilet bowl. He cut a small hole in the middle of it, and then over time made it bigger and bigger until finally the cat was straddling the seat. And then he showed him how to press the lever down.
KHAN: Get out. That is too much for me.
WEISS: When was the first time you guys heard each other’s music and what were your reactions?
MITCHELL: When I first heard Chaka, I thought it was Stevie Wonder.
KHAN: Most people thought I was a man.
MITCHELL: When she was living down the street from me, Chaka used to call me up and say, “Joni, I’m going out with my drums. I’m going to go and sit in with people around the town. You’ve got good rhythm. Come with me.”
MITCHELL: Should I tell them the dine-and-dash story?
KHAN: Oh, boy. [Laughs] That’s a funny one.
MITCHELL: Okay. So, Chaka and I are in this Italian restaurant on Melrose, in the basement. It was early in the evening, like five o’clock or something like that. Chaka was drinking. I was drinking. I ordered some food, and Chaka was talking German to the waiter. So, they were conversing away in German. And suddenly, she says to me, “Joni, get up.” I said, “What for?” “Get up,” she says. So, I get up and she’s running for the door. So, I’m following her. There were no customers but us, really. So we run to the door, run across the street, and the waiter that spoke German comes out on the street and he’s waving at us, like we’ve run out on the bill.
KHAN: It was a big bill, because we drank a lot of wine. [Laughs]
MITCHELL: We drank a lot of wine. So, I said, “Chaka, I’m going to go back and pay the bill.”
KHAN: Gosh. So terrible. Well, it just showed our clash of—clash of what? Of how we grew up. Of where we grew up.
MITCHELL: Yeah. My background was very restrained and proper. But we did a lot of partying together.
KHAN: Yeah, but we don’t want to go too deep into that. [Laughs]
MITCHELL: No. [Laughs]
KHAN: We want to hold those memories dear to our hearts.
MITCHELL: I love you, Chaka.
KHAN: I love you too, girl.
Wardrobe: Linda Stokes
Hair/Makeup/Nails: Tinaya Weems using Nars Cosmetics and Après Nail
Set Design: Jason Jenson
Photo Assistant: Tommy Blanco, Winston Kingstro, and Allison Lopez
Digitech: George Evan
Production: Johnny Pascucci at Photobomb Production
Shot at ISSUE Photo Studio