On the eve of the 72nd birthday of the folk rock legend, we look back on some of her most influential moments.
A few months ago it seemed likely that the world was going to lose one of its most iconic and influential musicians when Joni Mitchell was admitted to hospital after suffering from an aneurism. A thousand obituaries were probably hurriedly written ready to be sent live in a moment, full of heartfelt remembrances of Mitchell’s talent, power, and impact on artists throughout the last forty years. Critics, fans and musicians alike held their breath. Thankfully the crisis passed, and though news about her recovery is sparse and somewhat confusing, it seems she’s on the mend. Now approaching her 72nd birthday, let’s not wait until the worst happens to start talking about how much the music world owes to Mitchell’s unique brand of quavering vocals and introspective brand of folk rock. Let’s start now.
Blue, released in 1971, is arguably Joni’s most well known album. Delicate and deeply confessional, it lays past relationships out on the autopsy table and picks them slowly and tenderly apart. Show me a better post-break up song than ‘A Case Of You’ – honestly, I’d be intrigued. There’s a bitter, painful honestly in every word, especially with lyrics like ‘I remember that time that you told me, you said / Love is touching souls / Surely you touched mine ‘cause / part of you pours out of me / in these lines from time to time’. The stark intimacy reflected in those lyrics is magical to hear. Perhaps instead you’d point to another song on the album, ‘Blue’ itself. Joni’s opening note carries so much emotion, slicing through the simple piano chords with clarity and feeling. There’s fondness, regret, nostalgia and vulnerability, just in that one word alone. “I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes,” she told Rolling Stone when asked about how she felt making the album. It’s a perfect metaphor. Blue is both cathartic and destructive, fragile and transparent – everything a beautiful album should be.
But focusing on Blue would deny the host of other albums Mitchell released. At the height of her popularity and creativity, Joni was endlessly re-creating her sound and herself. 1974’s Court & Spark was labelled as her most accessible album, a little more upbeat than its predecessors, full of simple catchy melodies and gauzy harmonies, with a touch of jazz-rock. 1976’s Hejira dabbled even further in the jazz style, crossing the line to almost art-pop, whilst 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was more experimental in sound, with its ample use of reverb and fretless base. Bjork cites this album as one of her major influences, which explains a lot of her own personal style.
In fact, maybe we should reflect more on Mitchell’s dramatic musical influence. Prince has dedicated many of his performances to her, referenced her in his songs, and cited her 1974 album The Hissing Of Summer Lawns as a major influence. It touched Morrissey too, prompting him to call it “the first album that completely captivated me.” In general though, Mitchell’s deeply personal poetical lyrics, simple melodies and the quiet sincerity with which she delivered her songs have cast a long shadow over contemporary artists. Shades of Mitchell can be found in the soft acoustic tones of many, including major names like Laura Marling, Lucy Rose and Marika Hackman. Even James Blake’s soulful vocals are inspired in part by listening to Blue on repeat, and he faithfully covered ‘A Case Of You’ back in 2011, which is definitely worth a listen.
Back in the day, Joni Mitchell was the Taylor Swift of her time. Linked to various artists, including David Crosby and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne and James Taylor, the musical company she kept (and inspired through real and rumoured romantic trysts) is the stuff of a vintage music fan’s dreams. Her confessional lyrics draw from these experiences, lyrical references to her relationships dotted through her discography. And the favour was returned; Crosby, Stills & Nash were deeply inspired by Joni, and covered Mitchell’s song ‘Woodstock’ themselves, learning the arrangement from Joni personally and slightly changing the lyrics.
Even keeping the company of artists like Bob Dylan and Crosby, Joni Mitchell managed to hold her own in a period where being a female musician was an uphill struggle at times, she’s mentioned several times her ‘battle with male egos’. Written off as a flimsy female hippie songstress during her first few albums, Joni redrew her own boundaries tirelessly, pushing the pop song and all that she could do with it into new genres, stretching it to its limit. Along with her contemporaries like Carly Simon and Janis Joplin, she was at the forefront of female artists pushing back. She sang about sex and relationships, society and environmental issues fearlessly and in equal proportions to her male counterparts.
As Joni hopefully recovers, now is as good a time as any to dust off her records and truly appreciate both her undeniable skill and all that she has done for music and the artists that followed her.