by Krista Stevens: Poet, painter, composer, musician, and so much more…
When Rolling Stone “introduced” Joni Mitchell in 1969, the magazine derided her as a composer, singer, and musician, saying that she was “Not bad for a girl who had no voice training, hated to read in school, and learned guitar from a Pete Seeger instruction record.” They go on — dismissing her songs as “contrived” — to suggest that listeners are smitten despite their better judgment. “She can charm the applause out of audience [sic],” the editors wrote, “by breaking a guitar string, then apologizing by singing her next number a capella, wounded guitar at a limp parade rest. And when she talks, words stumble out of her mouth to form candid little quasi – anecdotes that are completely antithetical to her carefully constructed, contrived songs. But they knock the audience out almost every time.”
If Rolling Stone didn’t get it at first, her musical contemporaries did. David Crosby (The Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) knew immediately that Mitchell was something special. In the two-part 2020 documentary Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, Crosby recounts inviting Eric Clapton over for the afternoon. Clapton sat, mesmerized by Mitchell’s playing and her altered guitar tunings. (Some of that mesmerization was probably due to all the weed, but let’s not allow that to take away from Mitchell and her guitar skills.) Crosby and Clapton weren’t the only ones who saw the genius in Joni.
To hear him talk about his then lady-love in Laurel Canyon, you get the strong impression that Graham Nash (The Hollies, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young) still isn’t over her, 40 years later. “I was in love from the moment that I ever spent any time with her,” says Nash, who wrote the song “Our House” about his relationship with Mitchell. Do you ever really get over the woman who took up with James Taylor after she wrote most of her highly acclaimed album, Blue, in your communal living room?
Staring at the fire
For hours and hours while I listen to you
Play your love songs all night long for me
Only for me
—”Our House” by Graham Nash, recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Canadian painter, poet, composer, musician, singer-songwriter, guitarist, alternate-tuning queen, alto, and overall doyenne Joni Mitchell turns 78 on November 7th. Join as we celebrate Mitchell with five longreads about a brilliant artist whose career has spanned 60 years.
1) Still Travelling (Ellen Willis, The New Yorker, February 1973)
Ellen Willis gets it, or at least she’s trying to. Sort of. Maybe. In this short commentary on Blue, which was released in 1971, Willis says that “‘Blue’ established Joni Mitchell as a better singer-songwriter than Crosby, Stills, Nash & [James] Taylor combined,” but let’s not confuse compositional skill with easy likability. “Joni’s melodies and lyrics and rhythms are so rich and complicated and un-pop-songlike, her voice such a subtle instrument, her artistic pretensions so overt that if the record were any less brilliant it would be a disaster.”
2) Face to Face (Maclean’s, June 1974)
In this piece, Mitchell has a wide-ranging conversation with Malka Marom, the Iraeli singer credited with discovering her. Mitchell is at the ripe old age of 30 here and we get to learn a little bit about her in her own words. Three whole years after the album’s release, I love her personal assessment of Blue: “[It], for the most part, holds up. But there are some early songs where there is too much naïvité in some of the lyrics for me to be able now to project convincingly.”
3) Harness Joni Mitchell’s Acoustic Imagination with this Primer on Dulcimers, Altered Tunings and Cluster Chords (George Howlett, Guitar World, August 2020)
For music students, this short primer on Mitchell’s many altered tunings is fascinating not only for how she approached the guitar. It also features behind-the-scenes recording anecdotes and detail on the people and genres that influenced her music.
4) In Joni Mitchell’s Self-Portraits, She Finally Makes Her Own Image (Janique Vigier, Garage, January 2019)
At the time of this writing, Vigier notes that Mitchell had painted album covers for 12 or her studio albums, many of which were self-portraits. Those paintings allowed Mitchell to reject and transcend the milk-complected, doe-eyed image many people had of her. “But her self-portraits have endless scripts, moving between genres and styles, copying from where they can,” Vigier writes. “If she can, as she does, construct her own self-image and legacy, then it will be less stable than what’s put forward, more instinctual, intentional, veering.”
5) Chords of Inquiry (Bookforum, Carl Wilson, October 2017)
This piece opens with a fantastic anecdote involving Prince and Mitchell and just gets better from there. In this review of Reckless Daughter, David Yaffe’s Mitchell biography, Carl Wilson gives Mitchell her due as a guitarist and an artist. “Mitchell excelled at channeling the subconscious of her time, especially as it was negotiated between men and women, but she was also always trying to get outside that orbit. She didn’t want to be a case of anything, except herself. The very chords she played were unique, belonging to no tradition except the one she generated with her own tuning system. She’s called them her ‘chords of inquiry—they have a question mark in them.’ It wasn’t until she began working with jazz musicians that she found a band that could follow her (the rock dudes were hopeless).”