Nobody does Joni Mitchell songs like Joni Mitchell - except for maybe John Kelly. The two-time Obie Award and Bessie Award winner has taken on the personas of many artistic figures - Egon Schiele, Caravaggio, Antonin Artaud - in a career that's spanned three decades. Originally trained as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre - and also trained as a visual artist at Parsons School of Design - Kelly's solo performance career began in New York's East Village clubs in the early 1980s. Since then, his genre-busting performances around the world have come to embody the kind of transmedia art leading the charge of today's creative scene.
Still, his 1997 show 'Paved Paradise' about the superstar folk singer has become his best-known piece. Kelly will bring his reincarnation of 'Paved Paradise'- 'Paved Paradise Redux,' a collection of 16 of Mitchell's songs and words crafted into a music concert done in drag - to Austin as part of the Fusebox Festival.
Recently, Kelly spoke about his return to his favorite dulcimer-strumming, blond-haired folkie.
Austin American-Statesman: Many of your works explicitly engage with artists - Viennese painter Egon Schiele, theater director Antonin Artaud, and, most famously Joni Mitchell. What draws you to explore artists' biographies as well as their artwork?
John Kelly: You discover an artist's work, and you fall in love with their work. I want to take it to the next step and inhabit their psyche - both understand what they do more and, in the process, also express myself.
As part of reimagining this show, you've added some of Mitchell's more recent recordings. What's an example of a song you've added, and why did you add it?
Her later work in particular is about observing the world. 'Shine' (from the 2007 album of the same name) is really a litany of observations and maybe complaints as well. It's not hopeless. It's not bitter. But it is alarming. It's about being a witness to something that's alarming.
Besides recognizing Mitchell's ongoing career, why did you want to return to 'Paved Paradise?'
This piece has remained a blessing and a bit of an albatross for me. It's the only piece that I've made that really intersects with popular culture. It also becomes all about the drag, instead of the acting. I know there's a whole history to drag performance that I completely respect, but I come at it from role playing and wanting to make a character.
How has the increasing presence of male-to-female drag performance in mainstream popular culture changed how people receive you as Joni Mitchell?
There's a cackle factor when I do the show. If people cackle too much - if they think it's another clownish drag performance, then I play it by ear and really try to thwart their laughter. I'll walk offstage, or I'll stare at the floor for 40 seconds. The silence takes it back into the character and includes an amount of menace.
If the Mitchell piece and drag performance has become something of a box you get put in sometimes, why did you want to return to drag?
Drag can be and is often performance art, but people get stuck on the gender thing and that can be a hurdle, but it's also interesting. The impulse to blur genders or inhabit the other gender is interesting. … What better way to deal with that than to put on a pair of high heels … and be the baddest boy you can be?
Your onstage combinations of visual art, music, dance and theatre make a festival like Fusebox, with its interest in blurring genres, a perfect fit for your work. Why are you drawn to combining so many artistic disciplines?
I think of myself as a multimedia artist. I call myself the 'aesthetic octopus.' It comes from a famous picture of (surrealist artist Jean) Cocteau with 12 arms coming out of his body - one with a paintbrush, another with a pen, etc. I'm not content to be one thing.
'Paved Paradise Redux'
When: 9 p.m. April 30-May 1, 2 p.m. May 2
Where: Rollins Studio Theatre, Long Center, 701. W. Riverside Drive
Fusebox Festival 2010
When: Wednesday through May 2
Where: Various locations
Cost: $129 all-access pass (guarantees admission to all events). Individual events $10-$22. Many events are free.