At the end of March, Joni Mitchell was discovered unconscious in her home in Los Angeles and rushed to intensive care. Since then, the sheer range of musicians who have paid tribute to her and her music has revealed the depth of her infl uence on several musical generations. With vocal admirers as diverse as Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus, Bjork and Sonic Youth, Mitchell’s output and influence are fragmented across genre and style, era and demographic to the extent that it can feel difficult to reassemble those fragments into one cohesive and coherent Joni Mitchell.
The enigma of Joni Mitchell is in her contradictions. She’s the trailblazing pioneer who declared, “All my battles were with male egos, ”an attitude which has always shone through in songs like 1975’s ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’, with its wry line, “He says, ‘We walked on the moon, you be polite.’” Yet she has publicly distanced herself from feminism as far back as the 1970s. She was the ethereal hippie the 1970s. She was the ethereal hippie goddess who wrote ‘Woodstock’, yet she dismissed the counter-culture of the 1960s as “a ruse”.
She has fought bitterly against the label of ‘confessional songwriter’ yet she seems unwilling to empathise with female artists who have been similarly misunderstood. In a 2013 interview with Jian Ghomeshi, she complained, ‘They lump me in with Plath and Sexton. To me, Plath is morbid and Sexton is a liar… they’re not as honest as I am.”
Raised in Saskatchewan, Mitchell began playing folk music in cafés and bars around Alberta to support herself after leaving art school. In 1965, she gave birth to a daughter who she gave up for adoption. This part of Mitchell’s personal history, commemorated in several of her songs, is well known to any fan of ‘Little Green’ from her 1971 album Blue. The track recalls the stigma and silence that surrounded unmarried mothers in the mid ‘60s. She would later place the beginning of her career as a songwriter in this experience.
Mitchell’s first recordings appeared as the American Folk Revival was petering out, and early reviews, though generally positive, had an edge of condescension. As far as Rolling Stone was concerned she was just another wide-eyed folk guitarist, a ‘wispy blonde’ with little to differentiate her from the saccharine songs of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was not until Blue in 1971, with its mixture of knotty alternate tuning and twisting, ambitious vocal melodies that the depth of Mitchell’s musical talent revealed itself. It is difficult in hindsight to understand how something as wistful and melancholy as Blue could be considered provocative, but in 1971 Mitchell was raw, new, and quickly gaining an audience.
Over the albums that followed, For the Roses, Court and Spark, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell’s popularity increased, yet she preserved the persona of an outsider. She has spoken of herself as an artist without contemporaries and without predecessors, totally unique and alone on the musical landscape.
Her lyrics, particularly in 1976’s ‘Hejira’ – perhaps her artistic peak – fixate on the isolation and displacement of the traveller. ‘Song for Sharon’ drifts over childhood memories to explore the sacrifi ces and triumphs of a solitary artistic life. Mitchell’s role as an outsider only intensified as her interest in jazz developed. As her music became more experimental, the reaction from critics and fans increasingly became one of puzzlement and disappointment. It was diffi cult to reconcile the Mitchell who chirped ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ to the erratic rhythms and spoken word of 1979’s ‘Mingus’. As Mitchell’s creative vision diverged with the public’s expectations, and as her ever-precarious health deteriorated further, she retreated from the public eye. She has gained a reputation as a thorny and slightly bitter interviewee, dwelling on questions of honesty and authenticity.
In Mitchell’s vision of her musical history, she is an original who has been continually misunderstood. She may be right – there is much about her that is difficult to understand and difficult to reconcile. In spite of this, the emotional power of her music has allowed millions of listeners to forge a personal bond with her on their own terms. Anyone who has spent time listening to her music has their own personal Joni Mitchell. It doesn’t really matter how close we get to the real thing.