This month marks the 50th anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s debut album, Song to a Seagull – a modest, then-overlooked release which subtly sounded the arrival of one of the most singular, influential voices in the history of popular music.
A voice we’ve sadly, but almost certainly, heard the last word from. The 74-year-old has released just one LP of new material in the past two decades, and the likelihood of suspending retirement slimmed further after suffering a life-threatening brain aneurysm in 2015.
Indeed, Mitchell appeared to voluntarily bring the career curtain down at the close of last year, with the release of her first and only authorised biography. In David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, its subject emerged an oddly aloof malcontent. This portrait was painted in hard-edges and tragicomic hues – among the juiciest passages are broadsides served at celebrity exes including James Taylor (“incapable of affection”), Graham Nash (“it got ugly”), Jackson Browne (“leering narcissist”), David Crosby (“paranoid and grumpy”) and Leonard Cohen (whose greatest crime, according to Mitchell, is plagiarising Camus).
This resilient self-belief was there from the very beginning. By the time of her debut’s release, the 24-year-old Joni had already quit her native Canada for California, given her first child up for adoption (later recalled in Little Green) and divorced her first husband – the “always insulting” folksinger Chuck Mitchell, an experience mourned in the album’s stark opener, I Had a King.
A precedent was instantly set: Naked diary scraps wracked with romantic regret, self-blame and parting take-downs would define the analysts’ couch confessionalism of Mitchell’s songwriting – establishing an instant, this-could-be-me intimacy with fans, yet striking a polarising open chord in the machoism-fuelled world of 1970s rock. Arriving an unfashionable half-decade after the folkie boom, Song to a Seagull sold poorly, but served an apt bookend introducing an incredible run of ten landmark LPs over the next 11 years, each braver and more musically developed than its predecessor.
Next, in May 1969, came Clouds, the purest distillation of this early, coffeehouse folk-influenced period. Smartly, Mitchell’s quivering soprano reclaimed two earlier hits penned for Judy Collins – Chelsea Morning and Both Sides, Now – as essential cornerstones of her own oeuvre. And what a remarkably realised voice Mitchell possessed at this time: Her poetic, in-the-moment and off-the-cuff lyrical flourish was matched by a remarkably original approach to the acoustic guitar, employing an array of self-invented tunings and shimmering suspended chords – in part the result of a left-hand injured from suffering polio in childhood – which still baffle accomplished players today in their application and invention.
Mitchell’s growing compositional prowess was showcased in Ladies of the Canyon, with layered harmonies and an expanded musical palate of piano, strings and woodwind. In its closing triptych, the 1970 classic served up three songs for which Mitchell would forever become remembered: the coy eco-folk throwaway Big Yellow Taxi – covered by everyone to Counting Crows and sampled by Janet Jackson – the coming-of-age The Circle Game, penned in response to Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain and already made famous by Tom Rush, and Woodstock – later rendered by CSNY as the essential hippie-era anthem, written by the eponymous festival’s most conspicuous no-show.
Most personally precedent though might be For Free –in which Mitchell compares her life of limousines and curtain calls to that of a busker she passes, surely of the saddest portraits of celebrity – or Rainy Night House, Mitchell’s bittersweet farewell to a fling with the then-more-famous Leonard Cohen (also touted as the subject of Clouds’s That Song About the Midway and The Gallery).
Mitchell’s own stardom was assured in 1971 with the release of Blue, the tear-stained soundtrack to a million dorm-room heartbreaks which will, for better or worse, forever define her legacy – last year named by the United States’ NPR as the greatest album ever by a female artist. The urgent intimacy of Blue’s seamless song cycle was coloured by liberal use of the Appalachian dulcimer, which produces a brittle, fragile, minimalist framework befitting of these starkly naked memoirs of romantic loss.
My Old Man and River follow her split, after two happy-ish years, from Nash (who earlier penned the pop throwaway Our House about their shared Laurel Canyon home), while a fresher, fleetingly raw romance with Taylor was the subject of emotional powerhouse Blue and opener All I Want. Cohen was again invoked, pretentiously quoting Shakespeare, in the conversational recall A Case of You. But fame wasn’t a necessary prescription to become a muse of Mitchell – two of Blue’s greatest moments, California and Carey, were inspired by a “redneck” bum the songwriter shared an escapist, Grecian cave with in 1969.
Such biographical insights invariably read like tawdry gossip – and defining a brilliant woman by the less-talented men that inspired her smacks of macho prejudice. Yet it must have stung when Rolling Stone famously published a derisive diagram of Mitchell’s exes on the eve of Blue’s release (a more enlightening perspective might be to list the men Mitchell notoriously turned down, which include Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Miles Davis).
Mitchell’s response was to turn both inwards and outwards – suffering from depression, she built a cottage by the sea back in Canada. But the songs she wrote during that year-long retreat would gaze outwards, rather than in: 1972’s stately and refined For the Roses would tackle subjects including fame, privilege and the tragedy of Beethoven. It also contained both a nude photo of Mitchell on its inner sleeve, and You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio, which managed to both mock her manager David Geffen’s implorations to write a hit – and give him just that.
Tuning the same observational charms into a dispatch from the front-lines of LA celeb society, the slicker Court and Spark (1974) – backed by jazz session pros who could comp Mitchell’s stacked extended chords – was readymade for radio, and would prove Mitchell’s biggest seller. Buried alongside her only US top ten single, Help Me, were classical aspirations – the title track’s harmonic structure recalls Debussy’s Clair de Lune – yet there was little indication of the utterly inspired, audience-confounding run of releases to come.
It seems precedent that renowned musical magpie Prince was such an unabashed fan of 1975’s dramatic about-face The Hissing of Summer Lawns, a masterful, muscle-stretching taster-platter which takes in foot-clicking jazz-pop (In France They Kiss on Main Street), African percussion dirge (The Jungle Line), orchestral balladry (Shades of Scarlett Conquering) and densely overdubbed vocal chorus (Shadows and Light). Throughout, Mitchell’s voice takes on a richer, wiser, wryly ironic bent.
Mitchell would again turn inwards for Hejira (1976) – named for the Arabic word “hijra”, or “journey” – an introspective, cohesive collection inspired by three road trips, driving without a licence and in disguise, following the breakdown of a lengthy relationship with her drummer John Guerin (who would still perform on the record). Mitchell’s guitar-playing, now switched to electric, feels groovier, jazzier and otherworldly. The music’s primal rhythmic pulse mirrors travel – especially on the chugging opening spasm of Coyote, inspired by a brief flirtation with playwright Sam Shepard –other road-worn faces encountered in this late-night, open-skied ride include pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart (Amelia) and washed-up bluesman Furry Lewis (Furry Sings the Blues).
Hejira officially announced Mitchell’s “jazz period”, an artistic highwater-mark coloured by the songwriter’s musical relationship with Jaco Pastorius – while a corresponding romantic relationship briefly sparked, the virtuoso fusionist (of Weather Report fame) was to leave a far greater legacy on her music than her lyrics. Renowned for his revelatory use of the electric bass guitar, stripped of its frets, Pastorius’s playing dramatically defines Hejira’s shifting, spacey, uneasy sense of tension and release. But his inimitable approach would help drive Mitchell’s sonic searches further out on two subsequent releases.
The double-disc Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) pursued wild, divergent extremes – most notably with the 16-minute semi-improvised orchestral showpiece Paprika Plains, and Latin percussion excursion The Tenth Word – before the decade closed with the most challenging statement of Mitchell’s career. Iconic jazz bassist Charles Mingus’s dying days were devoted to composing a musical suite for Mitchell to add lyrics to, sadly passing before the completion of this brave, immersive – and commercially disastrous – statement. Utterly immersed in the jazz aesthetic, but taking a distinctly liberal approach to swing, legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock would join Pastorius at the sessions, released simply titled Mingus in 1979.
Mitchell would never be so commanding, or pertinent, again – she dismisses the 1980s as “lost years”. In 2002, she revisited some of her greatest compositions on Travelogue, a beguiling bittersweet orchestral tribute to her own oeuvre, which unveils fresh pathos in her work, now sung in a voice harshly ravaged by cigarettes, and regret. It was to be Mitchell’s final statement, until she was coaxed out of retirement by a prominent coffee chain for 2007’s Shine, a respectful swansong which would earn its author’s highest chart placing in four decades.