“So many things I would have done,” goes a line from “Both Sides Now,” “but clouds got in my way.” This song, perhaps their most famous, was performed in Fort Macleod in the Canadian province of Alberta in 1943 Joni Mitchell, born and raised in Saskatchewan, was in the repertoire as early as 1966 – even before her star appeared on the horizon of the planet pop a year later. It sounded melancholic, but at the same time hopeful. The riddle of life – it will soon reveal itself to her.
Polio led to “Joni’s crazy chords”
One of the “clouds” in the way was polio at the age of nine, which meant she had to adapt her guitar playing to her weakened left hand. This later gave rise to open Mitchell tuning, what she called “Joni’s crazy chords.” A characteristic in addition to the deeply personal texts and – at her young age – the angelic mezzo-soprano.
Joni Mitchell turns 80 today. She has created 19 studio albums, a heaven full of songs. As a folkie, she moved from Saskatoon to Toronto, Detroit and New York and ended up in Laurel Canyon, the Californian folk and rock ‘n’ roll retreat of those years. Where the doors were open, where the artists stopped by to see what fantastic musical inventions the others had to offer.
Hey, farmer, cut out the DDT, give me apples with spots.
Joni Mitchell in the song “Big Yellow Taxi”
Her first hit was “Big Yellow Taxi” from her third album “Ladies of The Canyon” in 1970, in which the daughter of a grocer with Norwegian roots and an Irish-born mother expressed the simple wisdom that you only know what you had when you’ve lost it is linked to an ecological warning: “Hey, farmer, leave out the DDT / give me apples with spots / but please leave me the birds and bees.”
She really wanted to have the Woodstock Festival in the line-up, but Mitchell was already booked for the Dick Cavett show. Not being there for the rock event of the decade really sparked the whirlwind of images in her head – love, mud and rock ‘n’ roll. And so she wrote the song “Woodstock”, the political-poetic statement about the Love and Peace era, which she wasted on the B-side of the “Taxi” single, but for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young , the volume of her then partner Graham Nash, was a success in 1971: “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden …”
On the mega album “Blue,” Mitchell hinted at a transformation
In 1971, on her iconic album “Blue”, you could already sense the singer’s restlessness in the limitations of the folk corsage. The album’s final song, “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” about a pained, depressed romantic who settles into a deadening marriage, heralds the transformation. “Just a dark cocoon before I gain my overwhelming wings and fly away,” sings Mitchell.
With the song “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” on the album “For the Roses” (1972) she briefly responded sarcastically to the commercial desires of her record company and then turned to new ones with “Court and Spark” (1974). sounds too. She was celebrated by critics and fans for her departure into jazz. Only Bob Dylan fell asleep while listening.
The singer wanted songs “that would make light bulbs light up in your head.”
“I demanded a deeper and greater honesty from myself,” Mitchell described her songwriting in a 2003 documentary. No bluff. No blah blah. She wanted to write songs for her listeners that would “light up the light bulbs in their head and make them feel everything.” In order for this to succeed, she knew, “you have to hit the nerve of your own life.”
What she did in songs like “Little Green” about how she – then still penniless – gave up her daughter, born in 1965, for adoption. Without making excuses or seeking sympathy, she shares what she felt: “You are sad and you are sorry, but you are not ashamed.”
What appealed to me was this extraordinary lyrical aspect, this poetic aspect of visual painting – but in tone and words.
“I am a painter. “Always have been,” Mitchell said in a 2013 interview with Canadian television host Jian Ghomeshi. The former student at the Alberta College of Art and Design has been at the easel since the 1960s and twelve of her 19 album covers are her own work. While the influences on the early pictures ranged from Rousseau to Picasso, the later, more mature works are reminiscent of van Gogh .
She was not successful as a painter, but both arts related to each other. Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox explained why encountering Mitchell’s music was “life-changing” for her as a poor music student: “What spoke to me was this extraordinary lyrical aspect, this poetic aspect of visual painting – but in sound and words. That’s how it all kind of came together.” Mitchell – a painter of songs.
Joni Mitchell – adored by Madonna, Nazareth and Brandi Carlile
Their influence on countless musicians was and is hard to measure. Even the Scottish hard rockers Nazareth listened to “Blue” over and over in the tour van and achieved number one in Germany in 1973 with their pumping rock ‘n’ roll shuffle of Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight”. Mitchell made a breakthrough for women in pop music. For Madonna, Mitchell was the first and most important guiding star of her career because of the openness of her lyrics.
And among those who referred to her in their younger years are the sisters Haim, Corinne Bailey Rae, Taylor Swift and Brandi Carlile, who became first a fan, then a friend and who Joni Mitchell rejoins in 2022 after the darkest cloud in the path of her life brought the stage back.
In 2015, a brain aneurysm seemed to end her career
That cloud had been a brain aneurysm that seemed to end her career in 2015. Mitchell fought back, learned to walk, sing and play the guitar again. And then on July 24, 2022, she sat on the stage of the traditional Newport Folk Festival on a gold-painted throne, a royal blue beret on her white-blonde hair. The queen of songwriters held court and sang her songs – 53 years after her last appearance here, 22 years after her last concert.
And she was celebrated and seemed happy, played her instrumental “Just Like This Train” on the electric guitar and then, shortly before the end, sang “Both Sides Now” again. A “Joni Jam” that was majestic and at the same time intimate, like the performances in the small clubs of their early days.
The Stream Team
Mitchell’s voice had become darker; the alto, which had previously alternated so strikingly with bright heights, now dominated, singing from the clouds, of love and life. And concluded with the words that had pointed to the future in 1971 and that now sounded wise in 2022 at the age of almost 79 – a look at what has been achieved, including reconciliation with her daughter, and at the unattainable.
“It’s the illusions of life that I can conjure up,” she sang, “but I don’t know life itself at all.” There was no regret in it. Oh yes, she also played “Woodstock” at the Newport. And the old stardust sparkled there again, golden, on the way to the garden…