Joni Mitchell: the sophistication of her music sets her apart from her peers – even Dylan

As a book of interviews and box set of songs from Joni Mitchell’s career are released, long-time fan Sean O’Hagan argues that her run of five classic albums, from Blue in 1971 to Hejira in 1976, surpass the work of her more celebrated male contemporaries

“But even on the scuffle, the cleaner’s press was in my jeans/ And any eye for detail caught a little lace along the seams,” sang Joni Mitchell on a song called The Boho Dance from her 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. If the couplet was an acknowledgment of her Canadian well-bredness, it was also the perfect metaphor for the increasing sophistication of her music at that time, the “lace along the seams” of her songs.

“For a long time, I’ve been playing in straight rhythms,” Mitchell told her friend, Malka Marom, in 1973, in the first of the three extended interviews that are included in Both Sides Now, a new book published next month. “But now, in order to sophisticate my music to my own taste, I push it into odd places that feel a little unusual to me, so that I feel I’m stretching out.”

Sophistication – melodic, lyrical, compositional – is an undervalued currency in popular music, though it illuminates the finest songs written by artists as diverse as Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman, Ray Davies, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield as well as the songwriters for hire of an earlier era – Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin. It also defines the best songs that Joni Mitchell wrote at her creative peak, which, for me, stretched from the release of Blue (1971), through For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974) and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), to the pared and broodingly atmospheric Hejira (1976).

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?

Her legacy, though, is long and enduringly influential, particularly on several ensuing generations of female singer-songwriters. If I had to choose her two masterpieces, I would opt for Blue and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which between them illustrate the range and depth of her compositional skill. Playing Hissing... again now, its utter completeness strikes me even more strongly, in this age of endless MP3 playlists. I seldom listen to a single track in isolation. (The exception is the iconoclastic and still arresting song The Jungle Line, which jumps out at you with its juxtaposition of Mitchell’s voice and the thunderous rhythms and whoops of the Drummers of Burundi.)

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.

Joni Mitchell at the Rotunda Gallery in Broad Street London, 1990.
Joni Mitchell at the Rotunda Gallery in Broad Street London, 1990. Photograph: Mike Floyd/Associated Newspapers/Rex

When her manager, Elliot Roberts, first contacted her at the prompting of her early champion David Crosby, Mitchell was setting out on a tour she had organised herself, carrying a small suitcase and an acoustic guitar. She told him she didn’t need a manager, but he persisted. He later said she had already written as many great songs as most songwriters created in a lifetime. It wasn’t until Mitchell settled in Laurel Canyon in the late 60s, sharing a house with the British songwriter Graham Nash, that she found a community of like-minded souls – Nash, Crosby, Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne, Mama Cass – to which she could belong at last, for a while at least. Her romantic liaisons were the stuff of legend – Crosby, Nash, Browne, James Taylor. Rolling Stone once published a diagram of her various romances under the disparaging heading: “Old lady of the year”.

It was there, though, that her music deepened and shed its folkie affectations. She later acknowledged that her songwriter style also drew on what she called “the beautiful melodies which belong to the crooner era”. But it was Dylan – who else? – who taught her the power of another kind of narrative, free-form and allusive, as well as the often deadly deployment of the first person singular.

“There wasn’t much room for poetic description in those older melodic songs,” she noted in a 2003 Canadian documentary, Woman of Heart and Mind. “That’s why I liked the more storytelling quality of Dylan’s work and the idea of the personal narrative. He would speak as if to one person in a song… That was the key that opened all the doors.”

In absorbing Dylan’s personal point of view, which hit her with the full force of an epiphany the first time she heard the gleefully splenetic Positively 4th Street, and melding it to the geometry of the old-fashioned well-wrought song, Mitchell began an extraordinary artistic voyage in the early 1970s. It began with the starkly powerful Blue, on which she single-handedly redefined the notion of the singer-songwriter. Intimate and confessional, her new songs of love and heartbreak shocked some of her male counterparts with their emotional intensity. On first hearing them, her friend Kris Kristofferson exclaimed: “Oh Joni – save something of yourself!”

That was not an option for Mitchell, whose songwriting had now approached a level of rapt intensity. Graham Nash, the Manchester-born, Los Angeles-based songwriter, remembers her “channelling” her songs so intensely at the piano of the house they shared in leafy Laurel Canyon that she would be utterly immune to his presence in the room.

When I interviewed Mitchell in 1988, she said: “My work has always contained the question of how far the pop song could go. What themes it could hold without collapsing.” The trio of austerely beautiful and forlorn songs – River, A Case of You and The Last Time I Saw Richard – that close Blue are the real beginning of that creative tightrope walk. On the final repeated line of the beautifully forlorn River – “I wish I had a river I could skate away on” – she lingers on “skate”, making it sound like the resigned cry of someone falling slowly, wilfully though the ice.

“During the making of Blue, I was so thin-skinned and delicate that if anyone looked at me, I’d burst into tears,” she admitted years later, referring to the messy fracturing of her relationship with Nash and the tentative beginnings of a short, but intense, relationship with James Taylor, then in the throes of heroin addiction.

The success of Blue made Mitchell a star, the most powerfully personal voice of an emerging generation of west coast-based confessional singer-songwriters that included Taylor, Jackson Browne and Carole King. “My individual psychological descent coincided with my ascent into the public eye,” she later said. “They were putting me on a pedestal and I was wobbling.”

Blue, though, also signalled in more subtle ways the more dramatic musical shift that was to follow. Listen to the way she enunciates the very first notes of the title song, settling on the word “blue”, stretching and bending it across an octave or two in the manner of a seasoned jazz singer. Then there’s the joyous lilt and sway of Carey, one of several songs of wanderlust that, across the years, testify to a relentlessly restless spirit. The term folk singer no longer contained her, nor increasingly did singer-songwriter which, by then, was becoming synonymous with a certain kind of plaintive Californian narcissism.

If Blue was a dramatic refinement of her songwriting approach, the next album, For the Roses, seemed like a step sideways. Revealingly, though, the usual coterie of LA session players was augmented by jazz musicians Wilton Felder and Tom Scott. The effortlessly commercial You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio – written to assuage David Geffen, the boss of her new record label, who had been pressuring her to write a hit single – and the snaky thrust of Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire both pulse with the more musically loose-limbed presence of Felder (bass) and Scott (woodwind and reeds). Joni was branching out and moving on once again.

Despite all these scattered clues, though, Court and Spark came as a surprise. Gone was the fragile, confessional songstress in a flowing dress; instead, here was a confident, full-throated singer in designer threads with a slick electric band in tow. Gone, too, were the acoustic songs sung with just a guitar, piano or dulcimer backing, replaced by an electric, jazz-inflected, intricately arranged sound, courtesy of Tom Scott’s LA Express, that weaved around lyrics that were acutely observational or dazzlingly impressionistic, rather than soul-baringly confessional. When her friend, Malka Marom, author of Both Sides Now, asked her if the band’s presence meant that she might risk the vulnerable singer-songwriter image she had cultivated, Mitchell replied defiantly: “Well, I don’t want to be vulnerable any more.”

Not for the first or last time, Joni Mitchell had moved on and, in doing so, had remade herself in the manner of a true artist.

Underpinning Mitchell’s new songs, the band sound muscular and sinuous, but, as some live footage from this period shows, it is Joni who is most liberated by the pairing, her voice now a thing of raw and sensual power as well as a vehicle for the articulation of sorrow and sadness. As her friend, the songwriter Eric Andersen, put it: “This fragile Nordic goddess became a red-hot mama, flesh and blood.”

“I was there when they were rehearsing the Court and Spark songs for the live tour,” says Malka Marom. “Joni had a close connection with drummer John Guerin. He was the first person to put her music on paper; he mapped it out for the band. But he was also the one who inspired the courting and the sparking.” You can hear that romantic static loud and clear on the raucously sensual Raised On Robbery, in which Mitchell inhabits the role of a good-time girl on the pick-up, relishing the lines, “I’m a pretty good cook, I’m sitting on my groceries/ Come up to my kitchen, I’ll show you my best recipe.” It was a long way from Laurel Canyon, lunar miles from the folksy piety of Clouds.

Joni Mitchell with the LA Express: Raised on Robbery, live in London, 1974.

On Free Man in Paris – reputedly about Geffen – and the observational People’s Parties, Mitchell turned her gaze on the newly ascendant Los Angeles rock music aristocracy with their “passport smiles” and cocaine cool. As Court and Spark became her bestselling album, she was still the conflicted outsider, unable to fit comfortably into this new elite – “I feel like I’m sleeping, can you wake me?” she sings on People’s Parties, sounding resigned, almost numb, “...I’m just living on nerves and feelings with a weak and a lazy mind/ And coming to people’s parties, fumbling, deaf, dumb and blind.”

The follow-up, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, sparked a critical backlash that, now, is hard to fathom. Rolling Stone noted Mitchell’s increasing sophistication as a songwriter while lambasting her “increasingly eccentric” melodies and “uninspired jazz-rock style”. One suspects that the rock blokes wanted folk-rock authenticity, but her hybrid sound and the shifts in style that now marked her writing had taken her way beyond that.

Among those who did get The Hissing of Summer Lawns, though, were Morrissey – who called it “the first album that completely captivated me” – and Prince. “Hissing got thrashed,” a defiant but still bruised Mitchell recalls in Both Sides Now. “But meanwhile out there was Prince. That was his first Joni record, and it was his Joni record of all time. So, though it got thrashed by the press, the young artists coming up could see there was something going on there.”

What was going on was another refinement of style, another burnishing of lyrical and musical sophistication. Both the title track and Edith and the Kingpin dissect the compromises made by women bound by marriage to powerful men. The former has poetry aplenty, her observational skill honed to near perfection as she elaborates the consequences of a hollowed-out life behind the high walls of a mansion in the Hollywood hills: “He gave her his darkness to regret, and good reason to quit him/ He gave her a roomful of Chippendale that nobody sits in”.

This is Mitchell exploring in song a similar terrain to Joan Didion, evoking the soul-deadening mixture of ennui and privilege that Didion would also dissect in her essays about Los Angeles in the 1970s.

In The Boho Dance, Mitchell’s writing deploys an almost cinematic point of view – “a camera pans the cocktail hour” – and a similar approach is used to more impressionistic effect for the fleeting images that flicker through Harry’s House (“Yellow checkers for the kitchen/ Climbing ivy for the bath/ She is lost in House and Gardens/ He is caught up in Chief of Staff”) before the song takes a sudden turn into poignant personal recollection (“He drifts off into the memory/ Of the way she looked in school/ With her body oiled and shining/ At the public swimming pool”). This is songwriting of the highest order, brimming with telling detail, yet pared to the bone, refined and yet teeming with suggestion.

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…”

Once again, she is articulating the essential duality that has underpinned her life, the search for love pitted against the austerity of the lone artistic life, but this time we are left in no doubt as to which has won out. It is an acknowledgment that Joni Mitchell created her best music at some personal cost, which is part of the reason it carries such emotional resonance across the years. She once said that her audience connected with the honesty of a great song because “it strikes against the very nerves of their life”. She then added: “To do that, you have to first strike against your own.” For me, she is indisputably the most sophisticated voice of hope and heartbreak, joy and sorrow, in popular music. I hope against hope that she may yet return to the stage to reinterpret her songs in the spirit of risk and adventure that once defined her singular musical journey. If anyone can do that, Joni Mitchell can.

Both Sides Now is published by Omnibus (£19.95). Click here to buy it for £16.96. Four-disc box set Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced, featuring 53 remastered songs from Mitchell’s career, is out 17 November on Rhino


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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