By Ellen Burgin – Senior Writer, Theatre Matters
In her love letter from one artistic, melancholy mother, to another, Queenie van de Zandt celebrates the 50th anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s landmark album BLUE. For years, the renowned cabaret artist had wanted to write a show based on Mitchell’s music but couldn’t work out how to do it without it just being a tribute show – until she gave birth to her daughter in 2017. We spoke to van de Zandt about the inspiration, motivations, and joys of the critically acclaimed show.
“I remembered a story about Joni Mitchell giving up her daughter when she was three months old”, van de Zandt said.
“I had my daughter on my lap, and I was breastfeeding her when she was three months old, and I was feeling a bit blue myself. I was playing Joni Mitchell’s BLUE album, which I often do when I want to have a little pity party. I heard this song, ‘Little Green’, which she wrote about giving up her daughter for adoption when she was three months. And I thought, “Oh my God, how did that happen? How could she have done that”? She must have been absolutely devastated. I started crying the idea of giving up my daughter and after I put Billy to bed for a nap, I got on the laptop and started investigating this story about how she gave her child up for adoption, how it’s a big secret and how she met her later in life”, she said.
The show began in this exploration of artistry, of grief and grieving, the melancholy way of Mitchell expressing her feelings through the iconic album, and feelings of giving up your creativity and the balancing act working mothers in the arts face.
“I think becoming a mother and having and understanding that kind of dynamic and the relationship and that love that you have for your child. That’s kind of what really changed with her, with her material for me, and knowing that when Joni Mitchell talks about how when she gave up her daughter, she created basically in herself a melancholy that she carried with her for the rest of her life”, van de Zandt said on her relationship to Mitchell’s songs and work.
“So much of her, her songs, so much of what she wrote, came out of that melancholy, you know, that she could never escape. And I suppose I’ve always been quite a melancholy person myself. I think from that connection, that’s where I kind of found my connection and how it changed a bit once I became a mum”.
On stage, van de Zandt and her live band will explore her love of all of the things that make Mitchell such a unique and timeless artist – Mitchell created a soundtrack for those of the Woodstock generation, but has become known to a younger audience from her music being used in films like Love Actually.
“It’s just one of the most beautiful albums ever written. And it’s a beautiful show for winter because it’s very warm. It’s set sort of in an artist studio, it’s got hundreds of LED candles. It feels like a beautiful show for winter because it’s like a little warm hug. It’s a very gentle, beautiful night of music and melancholy, people come out of just saying, ‘Oh, it was just so lovely. Just to sit there with a glass of wine. Listen to that music, listen to those stories. Listen to this, you know, you know, the sort of beautiful insight that Joni has about life and the universe’. It’s just a very warm show, I think it’s a great show for winter”.
This is a Helpmann Award nominated show, from one of the country’s best musical theatre and cabaret performers, celebrated for her artful storytelling and soulful vocals (not unlike Mitchell), but van de Zandt promises that there’s something in the show for everyone, even if you’ve seen it before in its sell out houses and rave review shows since it began in 2017.
“You don’t have to be a Joni Mitchell fan to love the show. If you are a fan of music theatre, you’ll love this show just as much as if you’re a fan of folky kind of music because she’s a beautiful, beautiful storyteller. And that’s what the show is all about. It’s all about the stories behind her songs and stories about my relationship to her music – her lyrics are such beautiful storytelling, evocative songs, they’re just so gorgeous”.
Performing her own story, as well as her relationship with Mitchell’s work and telling the story of Queenie, is her favourite thing to do.
“I just love it. I think I like it even better than performing in a character, because I love that connection with the audience. The thing I love about anything that I do, whether it’s teaching, hosting, writing, performing, doing comedy, it’s the connecting with and touching another person’s soul, and being able to affect them in a way that’s really positive. Whether that be they’re laughing at something that you’re doing, you’re giving them some great entertainment and they’re having a great night out. Whether you’ve been able to open something in their heart, or help them to see something about the universal the world or life differently, or their experiences of life differently. Whether you’ve been able to see help them see themselves differently when you teach them, or help them access a part of themselves that they hadn’t thought they had. That to me is just the most beautiful, beautiful experience to have, as another human like to experience that with someone”, van de Zandt said.
Revealing the intimate stories behind the famous and haunting songs, as well as some of Mitchell’s biggest hits, she also relates to the difficulties of balancing her career, her creativity, and being a mum.
“It is really so difficult for women nowadays, to balance it all. It feels like ever since I became a mum, I’m always letting someone down, I’m either letting my partner down, or my daughter, or my colleagues down. You always go, ‘Oh, well, I have to choose. And today I’m going to choose this person or this thing’. I think you have to make your peace a little bit with it, it’s not going to be 100%, I can’t be the perfect mom, I can’t be the perfect wife, or the perfect partner, or I can’t be the perfect performer, I can’t be the perfect colleague, this will have to do, this is what I can do today. And that’s going to have to do and then kind of forgiving yourself for all that, trying to let go of all the guilt that you constantly feel. I think as an artist, I think as an artist, you need that space to create, you need a lot of alone time and a lot of time to ponder, like a witch putting everything in a cauldron, swishing it all around to come out with some magic. You just don’t get that when you’re a mother, it’s very hard to get any time on your own”.
Don’t worry, her daughter gets it and has now seen her mum performer the show, coming on tour with her recently.
“It’s lovely because she’s mentioned in the show. She couldn’t sit still for all of it, she’s only five. But she liked it, she said ‘I like the Big Yellow Taxi song”. She does say ‘Mum’s a very good singer’ and ‘Mum, you’re a very good singer, it’s very cute”, van de Zandt laughed.
A beguiling night of melancholic songs, poetic storytelling and haunting vocals in an intimate setting, BLUE: The Songs of Joni Mitchell plays at Geelong Arts Centre on September 3rd.
More information on the show – https://goodingproductions.com/productions.php?Queenie-van-de-Zandt-in-BLUE-The-Songs-Of-Joni-Mitchell-36
Photo credit: Scott Belzner