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How Marvin Gaye influenced Joni Mitchell


Music and heartache are never far apart, but when it comes to folk music, in particular, solemnity and songs form a harmonious match made in matrimony hell. Nowhere have those ill-fated wedding bells sounded more heavenly than in some of Joni Mitchell’s finest moments, of which there are many.

While on the surface, Marvin Gaye might seem like he is playing a different ball game to the folk troubadours, in truth, he is not a million miles away from espousing the same sort of art as Mitchell. Although he might have done it to a more colourful backbeat, his work still contains the same probing questions and offers up bliss-bleached attempts at an answer. While Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On might have taken a maximal approach to this propagation which Joni Mitchell’s Blue was released later that same year, she simply took a softer attack of the same puzzle. 

Perhaps this philosophical view of the world is what endeared her to his work which she celebrated on a rather obscure album release. The record was comprised of songs that she had chosen to cover, songs that mattered to her and made her connect with either the singer or her memory in some way. Putting herself as the fan of music instead of the creator, we get a keen insight into Mitchell’s life as a listener and music lover. Released in 2005 with the help of Starbucks, it offers a fairly good indication of Mitchell’s favourite songs of all time.

The CD release, Joni Mitchell Artists Choice, which was exclusive to the coffee house, saw Mitchell not only pick her favourite songs, a comprehensive list of which you can find below as a singular playlist, but also tell us why she picked them. Looking back today, it’s hard not to get lost in Mitchell’s measured words.

One choice that she spoke particularly glowingly about was the Marvin Gaye classic track ‘Trouble Man’. Mitchell heaped the following praise on the song: “I had this song on an album and I kept the needle on this track—playing it over and over,” she explained. “It was so influential to my music and my singing. It excites me from the downbeat—the way the drums roll in – the suspense – the approaching storm of it.”

This gathering instrumentation can certainly be heard on albums like Hejira where the jazzy depth allows her to play around with the compositions in such a way that proves reflective of her ‘Trouble Man’ obsession. The bluesy track is darker in tone than a lot of Gaye’s work and found itself peaking at number seven in the charts in 1973, three years before the release of Hejira.

Mitchell’s cover of the song that helped to inspire her and formed the backbone to a pivotal development in her career is very much in the same vein as Hejira itself. Featuring horns and a loose melody, she enters a world that, by rights, she shouldn’t be at home in, but somehow, she finds herself rapping lyrics and verbal jiving like the best of them. You can check out her unique live performance of the piece below; it’s certainly a force to behold, befittingly performed with the same bravura that Gaye used to give it in his trailblazing days.