In 1943, Alberta, Canada released a musical wood sprite into the world who came to be known as Joni Mitchell. A polio survivor whose damaged fingers made her get creative in learning the guitar, Mitchell started life as a determined original; at age 75, she can still be described that way.
She scraped by, working at a coffee shop and singing in hootenannies in Toronto until her songwriting took her to the U.S. There she made some big song sales, including the Judy Collins hit “Both Sides, Now.”
Although she’d been performing paid gigs since 1962, she had to wait until 1968 to launch her solo recording career with the album Song to a Seagull on Reprise Records. The producer assigned to this project was none other than David Crosby. He did an infamously lousy job, capturing too much ambient noise and hiss; when it was removed post-production, it also took some high frequencies off everything. After that experience, it’s easy to understand why Mitchell took control of her own studio production thereafter.
The first album contains almost entirely her own playing – guitar and piano – on every song, with the exception of Stephen Stills contributing bass on the jaunty “Night in the City.” That number is a great way to kick off this retrospective of Mitchell’s songs and singing. American folk historians like to point out that she sang lower starting in the mid-seventies, but this track proves she had the high-powered contralto end of her range at the ready from the start.
Critics started to take notice with the second album, the following year. Clouds gets its title from Mitchell’s own recording of “Both Sides, Now,” which ends Side 2. One forgotten song that deserves attention is “That Song about the Midway,” a wonderful example of Mitchell’s unusual approach to crafting melodies, using large leaps from head voice to chest voice. And then there’s the wonderful, unique imagery of her lyrics: “You stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear.”
Much as I’d love to stop by every one of the 17 studio albums, it just isn’t practical. But I want to be sure to spend a little time on For the Roses, which tends to get lost between the two bigger commercial successes, Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974). For the Roses is largely inspired by Mitchell’s brief, tempestuous relationship with James Taylor, which had just ended.
She shows a different side of her songwriting, singing, guitar playing, and sound production choices in the song “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire.” The vocals are acoustically diffused over layers of percussive acoustic guitar. James Burton wanders through eventually with a high lonesome line on electric guitar. One of the many interesting aspects of this song is its meter: lyric and melodic ideas keep starting up where you don’t expect them rhythmically.
While Court and Spark marks a decision on Mitchell’s part to become more serious about jazz, the following album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), finds her doubling down on that goal by focusing her singing range to what might be described as her “natural” and more powerful contralto.
“Jungle Line” is an intriguing work with some world-music cred before folks like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon made it cool. The song is built on a track of “warrior drums” taped in field recordings in Burundi. Mitchell, who came very close to a career as a painter (her art has appeared on more than one of her album covers), writes an analysis of “primitivist” painter Henri Rousseau in terms of working-class life in the modern city.
The ʼ70s continued with Hejira (1976), Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977), and Mingus (1979); the last was a memorial to her jazz hero and close friend Charles Mingus. Five of the 11 tracks are “raps,” as she calls them: the great man himself, singing little ditties, with Mitchell joining him an octave above. It’s quite a touching way of memorializing their musical friendship.
The albums kept on coming every two or three years. I have a soft spot for Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988), if for no other reason than its roster of collaborations. There are guest appearances by Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, and Willie Nelson. On “Dancin’ Clown,” the vocal cameos are by Tom Petty and Billy Idol, with Thomas Dolby of all people on marimba! The song is a sort of a takedown of bouncy, sugary ʼ80s pop.
Mitchell never let up on the quality of her songwriting and studio creativity. She won a Grammy for Best Pop Album for her 1994 record Turbulent Indigo. One important contributor to its success is soprano sax player Wayne Shorter, another jazz great whom Mitchell had befriended back in the ʼ70s when she was trying to stretch and strengthen her chops in that genre. Here’s Shorter helping out on the title track, “Turbulent Indigo,” which snidely offers guidance on how to mass-produce copycat artists who’ve never had to suffer.
Even after announcing her retirement from music in 2002 (her album from that year, Travelogue, contains new orchestrations of old songs), Mitchell couldn’t keep her muse quiet. The Iraq War was her impetus to write the Shine album in 2007, her first collection of new songs in a decade. It also includes a new version of her 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Perspective changes as one ages, and so this album – maybe her last – ends with the stoical Victorian advice that Rudyard Kipling gave his son in the 1895 poem “IF,” which might have seemed a bit prudish and careful to her younger self. Mitchell uses excerpts equaling about half of Kipling’s text, slightly rewritten here and there to make the language less formal.
The tone is soft jazz, and Mitchell’s voice is roughened, her vibrato widened, giving her the status of hard-won veteran of the music wars, like an old jazz singer. She’s persevered through it all and has earned our respect for sure.