FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Six: Joni Mitchell




Female Icons

PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images  

Part Six: Joni Mitchell


ONE can hardly do a feature about female icons…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell in New York in November 1968/PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Robinson/Getty Images

and ignore the wondrous Joni Mitchell. To be honest, there are going to be gaps because, limited for time as I am, I am not able to span her entire career right now! Instead, I want to share my experiences of Mitchell; bring in a couple of interviews/features about her and, to end, present a (what I feel is a…) definitive playlist. To my mind, there is nobody finer than Joni Mitchell when it comes to penning ageless and unique lyrics. She articulates thoughts about politics and love more fervently and raw than anyone else. She can perfectly explain the twists and trials of relationships and the impact that has. Many might argue there are plenty of songwriters who can do that just as well but, for me, Mitchell is supreme. I have been listening a lot to Matthews’ Southern Comfort and their version of Woodstock – from Mitchell’s 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon. That version of the classic song is sublime and they manage to take Mitchell’s words to new plains. The more I think about it, the more the lyrics stand out. Maybe Mitchell’s voice is her most divisive quality but the reason her songs are covered and stand the test of time is the linguistic power. Consider a song like Woodstock and its visions of an army of half a million-strong; bombers in the sky tuning into butterflies and this blend of the political, passionate and communitive. It is a staggering song that Mitchell wrote whilst watching Woodstock unfold on T.V. – in a way, the fact she was not in the thick of it meant she could detach and employ some imagination and license.

I love that song and the fact I have started with this is because Ladies of the Canyon is one of her underrated gems. It was only a year after the release of this masterwork that she released Blue – considered to be her finest hour. Mitchell’s work pre-1970 is wonderful and I do really love 1969’s Clouds. It is not one of her best-loved works but songs like Chelsea Morning and Both Sides, Now are instant classics. Again, it is the language and the way her voice wraps around the words that brings these visions to life. Look at Ladies of the Canyon and what was happening on that album. I think this is the moment her writing truly stretched itself and gave us a view of what was to come. Her range expanded and the themes explored – including celebrity and the complexities of love – were told in a very new and exciting way. I think, because Mitchell was becoming more successful, themes of isolation were particularly bold and present. The fact that her life was changing and relationships were, perhaps, a bit more challenging did feed into her work. Although a lot of the songs (on the album) are quite sparse, Mitchell’s association and friendship with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young did influence her own work. Listen to the dense harmonies and arrangements on tracks like Woodstock – its chorus is one of the most potent in Mitchell’s chest.

I love how Ladies of the Canyon mixes the ups and downs of love; the romance of tender scenes and the urgency of departing conversation with something heavier: the Woodstock generation having to face ecological degradation, warfare (the album was released when the Vietnam War was occurring) and tension. Out of all the turmoil and confusion around Mitchell, she was able to summon this beautiful music that was as evocative and thought-provoking as it was sensuous and graceful. It was 1971’s Blue that took these promising seeds from the canyon and turned them into something biblical and evergreen. Perhaps Blue contains less of the spritz and lightness of Ladies of the Canyon (in terms of the fact there are some positive moments); the songs are heavier and one gets the feeling this is the album where Mitchell is at her rawest and most open. I can’t remember where she said it and when but there is a quote from Mitchell where she compared herself to the wrapping you get on packets of cigarettes. In a way, that image provokes isolation, vulnerability and, in a sense, the thin layer that protects something toxic and dangerous – Mitchell feeling exposed and less comfortable in her skin. Blue sounds like a bleak record on the surface but it is not. It has harsh and emotional moments but there is so much tenderness and affection running through the record.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I mentioned how few songwriters can write about love as strongly and interestingly as Joni Mitchell and, during the writing of Blue, Mitchell was inspired by relationships. From 1968-1970 she dated Graham Nash. Songs such as River are influenced by that time and, just as Blue was taking shape, their bond was frail and not long for the world. Her relationship with James Taylor (it pretty much followed on from her relationship with Nash) clearly had a big impact. This Flight Tonight and All I Want directly reference Mitchell’s bond with Taylor and it is clear the love they had for one another was intense and pure. The relationship did break and end but, when they were together, Mitchell had someone she could confide in and trust. The rush of new-found love and the ghosts of lovers past coarse through Blue and there are so many reasons why it is considered a classic. So many people can relate to what Mitchell was experiencing: the capriciousness of love and how, when you have it, there is nothing as elevating and spiritual. Also, Blue was very different to a lot of the male-driven Folk at the time. This was a distinctly female expression of love and pain; a different beast to what was coming out in 1971. Mitchell had hit her stride by this time and there were few that could deny her brilliance. I also think Blue is an album that can produce and summon as much release as it does introspection.

You listen to the songs and can relate but you also feel paternal towards Mitchell; protective and worried about her. Because of that, there are nuances and layers that unfurl through time. It would be unfair to focus too much time on Blue but, as career highs go, it is pretty stupendous! Pitchfork, when writing about Mitchell’s catalogue for an article, seemed to sum up Blue perfectly:

“…About that follow-up: 1971's Blue is possibly the most gutting break-up album ever made. After Mitchell's relationship with Nash dissolved, she headed to Europe to lose the tether of her fame, eventually taking exile in a cave on the Greek island Crete. The trip would inspire the how-Joni-got-her-groove-back ditties "Carey" and "California". The album is suffused with melancholy for all that is missing: her daughter ("Little Green"), innocence ("The Last Time I Saw Richard"), and connection ("All I Want"). Mitchell bleeds diffidence and highlights it with spare notes plucked out on her Appalachian dulcimer. While her pals Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Laura Nyro were also pushing the singer-songwriter genre forward, none of them managed to stride the distance that Mitchell did here in a single album.

"Will you take me as I am/ Strung out on another man?" Mitchell pleads on "California". She was (in)famously strung out on other talents that were as mercurial as hers, fueling constant speculation as to whether this song was about Leonard Cohen, or that one about James Taylor or Nash or that puerile heartbreaker Jackson Browne.

The year Mitchell issued Blue, an album that would be a landmark in any artist's career, Rolling Stone named her "Old Lady of the Year," a dismissal effectively saying her import was as a girlfriend or muse to the men around her more than as an artist in her own right. Worse still, they called her "Queen of El Lay," and offered a diagram of her supposed affairs and conquests. She'd made the best album of her career and in exchange she got slut-shamed in the biggest music magazine in America”.

Mitchell’s albums post-Blue took a different tone but she continued this incredible run of releases. Between 1969 and 1976, she produced some of the finest albums around and barely put a foot wrong! For the Roses is not as lively as Blue but, like that album, there were relationship burdens and troubles. 1972’s For the Roses is one of her most underrated albums and, the fact it came right after Blue might mean people are reluctant to move on or compare the two. 1974’s Court and Spark contains some of Mitchell’s most imaginative and spellbinding songs. Help Me and Free Man in Paris are so rich with imagery and expressions. I cannot even put into words what those songs do to me – as you can see! – but you listen to them and are transported. The sheer beauty and intelligence of the lyrics, combined with effectively bold compositions and stunning vocals create this heady brew and strange magic.

1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, again, is an underrated classic but does contain some truly incredible moments. I want to single this album out for special consideration because, as this retrospective review from AllMusic shows, Mitchell was on a truly hot streak:

Joni Mitchell evolved from the smooth jazz-pop of Court and Spark to the radical Hissing of Summer Lawns, an adventurous work that remains among her most difficult records. After opening with the graceful "In France They Kiss on Main Street," the album veers sharply into "The Jungle Line," an odd, Moog-driven piece backed by the rhythms of the warrior drums of Burundi -- a move into multiculturalism that beat the likes of Paul SimonPeter Gabriel, and Sting to the punch by a decade. While not as prescient, songs like "Edith and the Kingpin" and "Harry's House -- Centerpiece" are no less complex or idiosyncratic, employing minor-key melodies and richly detailed lyrics to arrive at a strange and beautiful fusion of jazz and shimmering avant pop”.

By 1976’s Hejira, things had changed in Mitchell’s world. She relying a lot on cocaine and she embarked on several trips across the U.S. The third involved her embarking on a trek with friends from Los Angeles to Maine; she then went to California alone and would travel without a driving license. She would drive during the daylight and don a wig and sunglasses during these trips, as not to be recognised.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

This disguise did not always work but, reading these words, Mitchell seemed like a fugitive. Whether she was escaping her own life or needed the danger, that time did inspire some of her best songs. It is amazing to think that with such change and turbulence in her life, she was able to create such cohesive and original work – few artists would manage to do so! By the time Don Juan's Reckless Daughter arrived in 1977, Mitchell was experimenting more with the Jazz fusions she had introduced in Hejira. The music was more expansive and not quite as tight as her previous work. She was evolving and moving forward but it meant that, naturally, critical acclaim was not readily by her side. Many were wondering whether Mitchell had lost her touch and whether things were getting too much. Perhaps she had left her golden period and was embarking on a new phase that, whilst not as stunning as her best albums, was still ripe with innovation and imagination. The Canadian’s last album, 2007’s Shine, was well-received and was a decided return to form. Mitchell left the music business in 2002 and few were expecting her to make another album. The seventy-five-year-old icon might not make another album because she has suffered some severe health setbacks. In 2015, Mitchell had a brain aneurysm. It was a devastating thing to happen and she required physical therapy and dedication. Although she did return to the public eye by 2016, her appearances since then have been quite sparse.

I do wonder whether we will see any music from Mitchell again because, as she still suffers from poor health, maybe she has had enough. Many can forgive this. She has given so much to music and enjoyed a successful career; inspired countless other artists and transformed the Folk scene. There are many growing up today that might not be aware of Joni Mitchell or fully appreciate her music. I will finish with a few snippets of an interview she gave but, back in 2014, The Guardian revisited a golden period in her career where, between 1971’s Blue and 1976’s Hejira, she released five classic albums. The writer Sean O’Hagan investigated further:

The sophistication of her songwriting and, in particular, her musical arrangements is the essential element that sets Joni Mitchell apart from her contemporaries and her peers, whether the troubadours of the early 70s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene or lyrical heavyweights such as Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and even Bob Dylan. And yet in the music industry, Mitchell has never really been afforded the kind of respect heaped on her male counterparts. Rolling Stone magazine once listed her at No 62 in its 100 greatest artists of all time, just below Metallica. She was belatedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, but did not attend the ceremony. At 70, she remains a defiant outsider and recluse, who has often expressed her disgust at the music business. And who can blame her?

IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell in 2015/PHOTO CREDIT: Norma Jean Ray 

Mitchell came up though the American trad-folk circuit of the mid-60s and was for her first two albums marketed as a fey, fragile hippy folk singer. She had already survived several setbacks. Her childhood in small-town Saskatchewan was fractured when she contacted polio, aged eight, in 1951. In 1964, she had fallen pregnant and, struggling financially, gave her newborn daughter up for adoption the following year. (The song, Little Green, from Blue, is an ode to her lost daughter and, on Chinese Cafe, a song released in 1982, she sang: “My child’s a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her.” She was reunited with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, in 1997.) A brief, unhappy marriage to her fleeting musical partner Chuck Mitchell followed, before she set out on her own to be a folk singer.

After the richness of Hissing, the mood poems of Hejira seemed to me for a long time to be a muted coda to Mitchell’s golden period. Over time, though, the best of these often slow and brooding songs – Hejira, Amelia, Blue Motel Room – have kept calling me back despite my slight aversion to Jaco Pastorius’s relentlessly virtuoso bass playing. If Blue Motel Room is a study in longing and languorous sensuality – Prince has been known to cover it live – Amelia, an ode to the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, sees Mitchell in reflective mood, her confessional honesty now even more nakedly self-searing than before. “Maybe I’ve never really loved, I guess that is the truth”, she sings in the penultimate verse, “I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes…”.

In true Joni Mitchell spirit, she can never be beaten and she will never truly retire. The woman has been active in music since the 1960s and her legacy will last forever. I urge people who are unfamiliar with her work to go back and investigate. If you want to narrow down your purchases then I would suggest going for the golden period that was just alluded to – from 1971’s Blue onward. I think all of her albums hold merit but, for me, Ladies of the Canyon is hard to top! Mitchell’s storytelling, poetry and performances are so captivating and personal that you fall in love with her and are helpless to resist. I think John Lennon remarked at one time that some of her work was the result of over-education. Maybe that was a class difference but I think one can misconstrue over-education with a poetic intellect. Mitchell was an is involved in art and literature but her finest words have always come from her heart and soul; which is as a result of love and the experiences we all share. The true beauty in Mitchell’s work concerns how she can sound elevated and grand but, in reality, everyone can understand her work and feel listened to. She never alienated the listener or shoved her intelligence in their faces. I want to end by bringing in an interview from 2014, where Mitchell was asked about the new generation and the music industry:

Q: You’ve voiced concern over what you call the “push-button generation of today.” What is impairing us the most?

A: Everything is about channel changing. It has ruined attention spans. I spaced out in school but I didn’t develop attention-deficit issues because I placed attention on my imagination and ignored the curriculum. I didn’t have a million newsfeeds to contend with. It is just like when I have people over to my house to watch a film—it’s like living in a Robert Altman movie! They are always talking over each other. We are all losing the plot. It’s an addiction to phones and too much information.

PHOTO CREDIT: Norma Jean Ray  

Q: What repercussions do you think future generations will feel now that everyone is on their phone during concerts, etc.?

A: Here’s an example. My grandson and I were sailing on a boat and he said, “It’s boring.” I asked, “How can you say it’s boring? The sun is shining, we’re going across the water so fast . . . ” And he said, “Not fast enough.” Technology has given him this appetite.

Q: You’ve stated in your liner notes that the Grammys look like a porn convention. Many people consider Beyoncé to be subversive.

A: I once found the whole pimp-ho underbelly very interesting too. I’m not afraid or critical of that scene—I find it very colourful. But when it rises to the top and you find a five-year-old saying, “Plant it here, bitch,” we’ve got a problem. America loves to glorify its criminals. It’s not good for children.

Q: Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus pleading she not allow the music industry to make a prostitute out of her.

A: Right on. That’s what it’s become: “show us your tits!” I also got buried at Geffen Records because of it. Girls were being harassed and [executives] told me, “Your music doesn’t make me feel young and happy.” Whitesnake was their lead act and when the company got sold for the fourth time, I called the owner and said, “My name is Joni Mitchell, I am an artist on your label, did you know that?” He said, “No.” I said, “Of course you didn’t because you haven’t made a dime so the people buying from you don’t know either, so give me back my masters.” Well, he wouldn’t”.

Joni Mitchell is a true icon and someone who has inspired so many other artists. I think lyrical genius and Joni Mitchell are synonymous and her brilliance will never fade. I hear her songs on the radio now and they never get old and too familiar. One always picks up something new from her and discovers fresh revelation. I am so glad she her health is improving and that nothing will ever stop her. Even though we might not see another album from Mitchell, I do hope that everything is okay with her. She has given music so much. In a way, I wish we could preserve and protect Mitchell forever and have her around all of the time. That is impossible but, so long as we have her music, she will never die. I will leave things there but, once more, make sure you listen to as much Joni Mitchell as you can. It is impossible to define her work and I feel too many people use reductive terms of try to suggest that only a few of her albums are worth studying – where, in actual fact, there are scores of her albums that are absolutely wonderful. She is this rainbow and army of butterflies; she is green and blue and a rebel; she is a poet and tender lover; a sensitive soul and warrior that has embarked on strange trips, giddy relationships and horrible lows. Whether putting this into her music or keeping it private, Mitchell has lived quite a life! It is not a life that should be kept secret, and so, with her peerless music out there, we can all share Joni Mitchell’s experiences. A true icon and innovator of music; the adoring public will cherish her work…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Norma Jean Ray 

FOR the rest of time!